Recently, I had a conversation with a woman I didn’t know very well. She asked me a question. My answer offended her because I said, Yes Ma’am.” She replied, “Why would you assume I’m a Ma’am? That’s really offensive.”
But lifelong habits drilled into me during childhood are tough to change. “Sir” and “Ma’am” were mandatory throughout my life. I didn’t ever give it a second thought back then.
When I was a kid, my father taught me that we as men owe women our respect by opening doors for them, standing when a woman enters or leaves the room and putting down the toilet seat. I was even taught (think late fifties) how to properly light a woman’s cigarette without the flame making actual contact with the tobacco. And my grandpa gave me a small pocket knife and said I should always have it with me in case a woman needed an errant thread cut from her dress. No kidding.
There wasn’t any thought of right or wrong. That’s just how it was because that’s how it’s always been. (Possibly the worst excuse ever). I grew up thinking that being chivalrous toward women was a virtue. I didn’t have the knowledge to see that we may be making that extra effort to please women, not out of respect, but out of subconscious, generational guilt. And I never once thought, “Why don’t we treat everyone with the same respect?” At that point, I had no idea what “othering” was.
I once said to my wife, “Black women are actually not the most marginalized people in the country,” and before she could turn her look into words I said, “An Older Black woman. An Older, Queer, Deaf, Muslim, Immigrant etc… Black Woman.
It turns out, there are plenty of options to “other” people, and it all began with women. Oppression as we know it began with the subjugation of women.
There would be no White Supremacy without its precursor, Patriarchy. Thousands of years ago, men created a hierarchy over “others” by teaching themselves how to dominate women.
Then, while conquering nearby groups, they enslaved the women captives which eventually led to the institution of slavery. And this was prior to the formation of private property and the beginning of capitalism. I can only surmise that they did it because they could. Men can be stupid that way.
So I looked deeper into the history.
It turns out that the first challenge is history itself. Especially when you look at women’s relationship with history. Gerder Lerner, in her seminal, “The Creation of Patriarchy,” explains that history, “Must distinguish between the unrecorded past - all the events of the past as recollected by human beings - and History - the recorded and interpreted past.”
And although women made and shaped societies, helped preserve the collective memory of generations and equally shared the work of the world with men, they were excluded from History-making. That was a man’s job 5000 years ago. It didn’t matter that women represented half or more of humankind.
The writing down of history in ancient Mesopotamia was the domain of priests, royal servants, clerks, clerics and eventually trained intellectuals, who were all men. Men who recorded what men have done, experienced and found significant. And I don’t know how those men decided what was significant. I only believe that today’s more "advanced" men would probably begin with the NFL. I digress.
Until recently, all that women have accomplished, experienced and found consequential remains unrecorded and completely ignored in the interpretation of what we call Historical Scholarship. Is it any wonder that women have been marginalized and determined unessential when it comes to “having historical significance?” Sidebar: Reminds me that the first complete History of the United States (1832), by Noah Webster, the Dictionary guy, never mentioned African Americans. Not once.
What has historically informed us since the beginning of recorded history, until very recently, is a partial record of what really happened. When you omit the viewpoints, knowledge and experiences of half of humankind, you’re left with a story from the male half of humanity.
Yes, some men will argue that some men (and women) have been excluded from contributing to history and discriminated against because of their class… but no man has been excluded from the historical record because of his gender. All women were.
When doing White Work and educating people how to recognize and respond when witnessing overt and covert micro-aggressions, I’m often working with people who have little or no experience around people of color. So it’s understandable that they don’t know what they’ve never been taught.
But men have mothers, sisters, daughters, friends - women in their lives - shining examples. Yet a lot of us continue to either act, intentionally or not, as if micro-aggressions toward women are acceptable.
We ask women to prove their qualifications when in the same situations we don’t ask men, in a time where women are earning more college degrees than men. A lot of men assume women aren’t as smart as men. Like when a woman raises her hand in a meeting and no one listens to her. But when a man says the same exact thing, he actually gets credit for what she previously said. And then there’s the wage gap.
And, Sexist Language and Harassment, Slut Shaming, Victim Blaming, Language and Tone Policing, Mansplaining, Body Size-ism, Mom Shaming, Period Shaming, Objectification, Gaslighting and more… including implicit bias.
So what do we do about it? We call it out. We teach our kids to doubt the history they are taught in school. We teach our young parents not to refer to boys as cleaver and girls as pretty. We don’t tell boys to “Man-up” or that their behavior is okay because, “Boys will be boys.” We don’t tell young girls to “Act like a lady,” or “You’re going to have to fight off those boys with a stick.” We don’t use differentiated language for any gender. And in classrooms, we use the name the student uses to refer to him/herself/theirself, not their legal name.
Yes, this remedy is incomplete and a drop in the bucket, but it’s a start. Like everything else, it’s a learning curve - it’s about becoming aware, which begins with having the desire to do so... another thing we need to instill in our children, grandchildren... hell, everyone.
I do White Work and DEIB work because it’s my responsibility as a white person to dismantle Systemic Oppression. Even if I only reach one person at a time.
And it’s Man’s responsibility to recognize, call out and dismantle Patriarchy. And that’s what “Man-up” should mean.
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