I wrote a note a long while ago about a conversation I had over a dinner. I wrote the note to explain how the conversation was actually sexist and dismissive of women despite looking like a conversation that was praising some of the women we knew. I got a lot of flack for that note. Most of the harshest comments came directly to my inbox or came up in conversations between me and other outspoken men. I also got some push back from women. Interestingly, in all of these conversations, I often found myself being critiqued as a standard, privileged white male. As someone who isn’t in a position to take a strong line like I did in that note.
The most common push back I got was skepticism about my intentions. Everything from a gentle, “Mate, really?” followed by a sideways look suggesting there must be a girl I’m trying to impress or some other selfish goal I’m serving. Or, the less direct but more dismissive, “I can’t stand it when guys try to be white knights about stuff like this.” In most cases, the thing that was in question was what gives me the right and reason to even have an opinion here. It’s apparently highly suspect that an overtly privileged white guy would spend his time pushing back on sexism that he reaps the benefits of. For that matter, highly suspect that a guy like me would even use the word ’sexism’ or ‘misogyny’ or other words that can be easily dismissed as the vocabulary of someone with a ‘feminist agenda.’
Well, the truth is I’m not just some Standard Privileged White Guy™. I know from the outside, it’s easy to make that assessment. I work among lots of very privileged people. I’m white. I’m a guy. I have found myself in a lifestyle of greater privilege than anything I could have fathomed. Can’t deny those things.
So, if not a SPWG, what do I think am I? Here are some details. My family used to live in a really poor town in Oklahoma called Shawnee. A redneck town by every measure. Some of my most vivid early memories are just glimpses from dark times in that place. Like the time my mom rushed me and my brother to our bedroom when our neighbour, a woman my mom had known for years and a woman who was regular company in our home, knocked at the door. She was covered in blood and bruises. Her face was swollen and shiny from the blood, tears, and snot that intermingled when her husband, a guy called Gary, beat the hell out of her. I was a little kid at the time but the impression was strong. I can still see her standing shaking in the living room, trying to explain what happened as if it wasn’t already brutally legible. Gary was a shadowy presence in the neighborhood. My brother and I weren’t allowed to talk to him. His wife was a constant victim of his abuse and that was just how things worked.
We moved from Oklahoma to Booneville Kentucky. Booneville is the county seat of Owsley county, a county that boasts the second highest child poverty rate in the entire United States. Something like 41% of families fall below the poverty line. By relative measure, we had an amazing life there. We had a house, not a shack or a trailer. We had food to eat every day. We lived near enough to the school that we could walk there while other kids had to take buses through tiny, winding Appalachian roads. We didn’t have to leave school before the end of the semester to go help our family harvest tobacco.
I had an aunt who lived there most of her life. She was a spunky, rebellious lady who had paid the price on occasion for that kind of impertinence. For instance, one day she ran off and got married without permission. Though I never met the guy, the adjectives that I’ve heard used to describe him are ‘mean’ and ‘cruel’ and spoken by people who know what those things really are. Despite living in a situation that was pretty terrible, she was looked down on. She had run off and defied the natural order of things. The fun factoid about her elicit wedding is that she was something like 40 years old at the time.
Another time in Booneville, I was sitting around the dinner table with another aunt, my mom, a few other family members, and the woman who had taken care of my grandmother in her last years. She was a woman with strong arms despite being in her seventies. She would hug you like her next breath were her last and she needed to give all of the remaining love she had lest it be wasted. She spoke caring words in thick Appalachian speech. On this day, she was telling us the story of how she jumped out of a police car and landed on the road. The cop who was driving her tried to get her up. She attacked him, hoping that he would kill her. He didn’t.
Prior to all of this, her sister and she had married into the same neighbouring family. There aren’t a lot of families to marry into in Booneville. Her sister’s husband reached some impasse in their life together that he couldn’t deal with. So, he killed her sister by beating her to death. In the normal world, killing someone requires legal process and consequences (unless the person killed is black for instance or perhaps poor or a woman, like in this case). Anyway, there was a quick and tidy cover up with some help from the sheriff and a prominent preacher in town. Everyone just turned a blind eye because there was nothing more to be done. Almost everyone. Of course, the sister of someone brutally killed might object to the whole thing being ignored by everyone including your husband who is the brother of the murder. My grandmother’s caretaker objected.
So what happened? Well, she was kicked out of both families: her married family, for betraying them, and her own family, for being a dishonourable wife. As a result, she had a nervous break down. Her normal mode of caring for the elderly and being as tender and loving as any mother was replaced by what I can imagine to be the darkest and most destructive thoughts possible. At least dark enough that she would try to force a cop to kill her in the street.
Then of course there’s my own grandmother. No physically brutal life befell her, thankfully. She was brilliant. Graduated college at 17. She was a voracious reader and tack sharp her entire life until the very end. Her brother grew up to be a research scientist despite growing up in rural Kentucky. She grew up to become a wife and a school teacher. Do I think the apex of her abilities was in teaching children? Not by miles. Do I think the world she lived in held even the tiniest sliver of an open door for anything else? Doubtful. She was a respectable lady. She would never be so hasty as to go off and pursue her own career goals. She wouldn’t even have her own career goals. She was an obedient and supportive wife all her years. She asked for permission to go places. She had her husband escort her around. A grand woman, for sure. But also a woman who was capable of so, so much more than her world permitted.
So that’s all far away and long ago. I just moved flats in London. I live in a nice place in an insanely nice part of town. It costs more in a month than the family home I grew up in cost for a year. SPWG existence is pretty good. I was unpacking boxes two nights ago in my living room. I heard shouting outside. My ears perked up and I wandered toward the sound. It was a woman’s voice apologising for the actions of her kid (or at least of someone who wasn’t screaming). There was also a man’s voice. He was calling her a pig and stupid and stringing together reasons the current situation was unacceptable. He was shouting about what a stupid thing it was that the kitchen window wouldn’t close properly. She would try to close it, but couldn’t get the mechanism to disengage to let it down. Then he would try. Mostly he slammed it and shouted insults at her. This couple lives in my building in my privileged Zone 1 London world. Before someone managed to get the window closed, I could hear her begging for him to please just stop shouting. Not out of respect for her. Not because she expected reasonable treatment. Just for him not to draw attention. Not to expose how selfishly he was behaving and to keep quiet how brutal and mean he is being and how shameful the whole thing was. I walked around our manicured court yard to see if I could identify what flat it was. No idea what help I could really be, but you can be certain that I won’t just turn away from it. As I heard this exchange, I thought of the moments where I heard, ‘Mate, really?’ and all its variants.
So these are some stories. Some flashbulbs and some broad impressions. This is far from an exhaustive list of the moments in my life where women were on the receiving end of a culture that gives them little good and lots of bad while expecting everything of them. Believe me when I say these are not the most personal or intense stories I could be telling. These are the only ones I have the stomach and the right to tell.
So, why does this SPWG stand up for women and push against a sexist and patriarchal society? What’s my real goal? Who am I really trying to impress? I guess being super honest, I’m trying to impress my mom. And my grandmother. And my aunt. And my next door neighbour. And my sister-in-law. And my niece. And a lot of women. Impress upon them that things don’t have to suck and that there are men who care about making it better. I’m trying to impress the interview candidate I talked to last month who felt so relieved when she realized that, “I’m not that kind of guy,” but in fact one that she can have a frank and fair conversation with about gender in the work place. I’m also trying to impress the Gary-types of the world. Impress upon them that the years where abuse is tolerated and ignored are over, at least if I or other people like me are nearby. I’m trying to impress the other SPWGs out there. Impress upon them that it’s not some ethereal problem that doesn’t have a concrete form. That it’s not something that ‘people like us’ don’t really have to deal with.
So, sure, there is at least one girl I’m trying to impress. I’m also trying to look this far-from-civilized aspect of civilized life in the face and not be yet another person who sees but does nothing because that’s the way things are.