Male privilege is so ingrained in American society that many believe it doesn’t exist. Author Maisha Johnson has identified 160 ways male privilege impacts women every day. She says, “By naming the problem, we’re not just saying ‘this is wrong, so let’s fix it.’ Instead, we’re inviting you [male readers] to consider the impact of gender inequality on your life, and we’re encouraging you to make a change for your own sake and for the sake of your community.
“Our current cultural expectations, legislative system, and social programming work to sustain a hierarchy that places men constantly at the top. Consequently, men consistently achieve, succeed, and benefit at the expense of every other gender. That’s called male privilege.”
Women’s Liberation Wasn’t
People who think of themselves as progressives often like to believe gender equality was achieved back in the ’60s and ’70s. The women’s liberation movement spearheaded by Gloria Steinem came about and that was that — it’s no longer an issue.
In fact, the gains made then were largely symbolic and often illusory.
Women are still paid less than their male counterparts for the same work. Family leave policies are opposed by male-dominated employers. Any attempt to allow women more control over their bodies through birth control or abortion is bitterly opposed by a male-dominated political structure. For decades, Rush Limbaugh has been demeaning outspoken women as “femi-nazis.”
“Once you understand that these often invisible perks aren’t available to everyone, you can see why addressing privilege means recognizing that people of all genders deserve equal access to basic respect for our humanity,” Johnson writes. “But here’s the thing about male privilege: it hurts everyone, including you.”
The Climate Change Crisis
Unless you are a member of the Trump maladministration or one of its enablers, you understand that humanity is in a desperate race against the clock to find solutions to climate change. Rising global average temperatures are leading to rising ocean levels, which will threaten the existence of most major cities.
Hotter temperatures have an impact on agriculture. If you think that doesn’t affect you, think again. One of the causes of the civil war ravaging Syria is lower crops yields brought about by more arid conditions resulting from climate change. The strife in Syria has made refugees out of millions, destabilized Europe, and led directly to the xenophobia that propelled Donald Trump into the White House (not that other factors weren’t also at play). All of that because of a little less rain in the Middle East.
Warmer, more acidic oceans are causing sharp declines in the fish populations that are critical sources of nourishment for billions of people. New diseases are emerging that medical science has no antidotes for. Clean water is in critically short supply in many parts of the world.
The Systematic Exclusion Of Women
Yet despite all the challenges facing humanity, our institutions routinely exclude women from participating in the search for solutions. In technology, female engineers are vastly outnumbered by male colleagues. From Uber to Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, sexual harassment seems to be a regular component of life in the tech world. Fewer women are pursuing educational opportunities in scientific research, exacerbating the problem.
Now ask yourself a question. Assume you are a man and are given a difficult challenge, one that could decide whether or not you survive. Then you are told one half of your brain will be disabled for the duration of the process. That would be insane, right?
In order to meet the challenge of climate change, won’t humanity require the best thinking from as many brains as possible? If so, why does society have a tendency to automatically exclude one half of all people from the conversation? Put simply, male privilege is putting all of humanity at risk of extinction. Think about that for a minute.
A Woman Dares To Speak
Something happened at the World Science Festival last week that illustrates the problem perfectly. 5 men and 1 woman were on a panel making a presentation that involved abstruse concepts like inflationary cosmology, string theory, and physics-based philosophy. The moderator was Jim Holt, a science writer and journalist for The New Yorker.
During the first hour, Veronika Hubeny, the only woman on the panel, was ignored by the moderator. Near the end of the 90 minute session, Holt asked Hubeny a question and then proceeded to answer for her.
Suddenly, a woman in the audience stood up and said loudly, “Let her speak. Please!” The auditorium went quiet, then exploded with cheers and applause. Holt sat back and sulked, saying he was being heckled. But he shut up and Hubeny proceeded to give a brilliant synopsis of her work. Afterwards, many people came up to the woman, whose name is Marilee Talkington, and thanked her. They said they wanted to do the same thing but were too afraid to speak up.
Talkington wrote a post on Facebook in which she says, “Please God, let this be an opening for those that were here today and the tens of thousands that watched the live-streaming of the panel yesterday and the hundreds of thousands that will watch the video this year, to speak up when we see this happening. And please let me not be afraid to do this again … and again … and again. Because it was scary. Please keep giving me courage.”
Shushing Women Is The Norm
Men talking over women happens every day in every walk of life. Also last week, Senator John McCain and Senator Richard Burr attempted to curtail questions from a female colleague during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. The committee was asking new deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein about a memo he wrote recently. Donald Trump has alleged that memo is the reason he fired FBI director James Comey.
Fellow Senator Kamala Harris was questioning Rosenstein when Chairman Burr interrupted to complain that her line of questioning was too harsh. Her colleague, Senator Ron Wyden, later tweeted that Harris “was getting facts onto the record. I was not interrupted by Senator Burr when I asked tough questions. She was.”
It was only a few months ago that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell attempted to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren during the nomination hearings for attorney general Jeff Sessions. McConnell described his shushing of Warren with these words: “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
To meet the challenge of climate change will take the creative powers of all humanity. If ever there was a time to disrupt male privilege and stop it from excluding women from that process, it is now. Persistence, not patronizing, is what we will all need to survive this most elemental of challenges.
The Empowerment Of Women
Many years ago, after 9/11 and THE PATRIOT ACT, I attended a symposium at the JFK Library near Boston. The panelists included journalist Bob Schieffer and actor-turned-activist Harry Belafonte. The tenor of the evening was somber, as speaker after speaker detailed the curtailment of civil rights that was then underway in America and the apparent know-nothing mindset of president George W. Bush.
At the end of the evening, I was able to ask a question of the panel. I asked Mr. Belafonte if he saw any hope for a world that seemed to be careening out of control in its headlong rush toward authoritarianism. He paused for a moment, then said, “The empowerment of women.”
There hasn’t been much empowerment of women in the intervening years. In fact, some would argue that male privilege, buttressed by the rise of violent computer games and a “tough guy” culture based upon the norms of prison culture (America has more people under lock and key than any other nation in history), is stronger now than ever.
But the words of Harry Belafonte are no less true today than they were then. The empowerment of women is the key to the survival of humanity. We ignore his advice at our peril.
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