On female privilege

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(Cross-posted at Concurring Opinions)

You mention male privilege in a blog post, and it’s inevitable: Someone else (usually male) will start asking about female privilege. If men have privilege, don’t women have privilege too? And does that undercut the idea of male privilege as a type of gender subordination which is built into society? (Because, the implication goes, we all have privilege — and so feminists should stop complaining about male privilege.)

And, so, predictably, some critics of feminism, “men’s rights” blogs, and the like have assembled lengthy lists of female privilege. (Women get their dates paid for — it isn’t fair!) And it’s true that there are areas where, taken on a stand-alone basis, male and female treatment appears to favor women. As we’ll see, I don’t think these areas really provide an analogue to male privilege.

We’ll start with the obvious, descriptive matter: Some areas exist in which women have some advantages. For one obvious example, some bars offer free drinks to women on some evenings. (Ladies night.) Looked at in isolation, these could be viewed as areas of female privilege. However, in context, it seems evident that this apparent female privilege fills one of two roles.

First, in many cases, the alleged privilege is actually a thinly disguised direct benefit to men. Why do women get free drinks on Thursday nights? Because many men see women as sexual objects. And so the apparent female privilege there is actually a smoke screen, to conceal the fact that women are being objectified and held out as bait to attract men to the bar, a script which is built on assumptions about male earning power, and norms of sexual interaction which cast men as subjects and women as objects. Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon notes how this plays out:

The women of New York get to continue to enjoy “Ladies Night” specials, thanks to a judge who earlier this week struck down a lawsuit alleging that attempts to attract chicks with discounted drinks are unconstitutional. It’s a decision plenty will no doubt be toasting tonight — but I fail to see this as a victory for femalekind.

In the past, judges have ruled in similar cases across the country that “Ladies Nights” are A-OK. The legal argument is one thing — and a very complicated thing at that — but just how okay is it politically and philosophically?

Clubs promote drink discounts to attract more women — because that means more men will show up. I believe the technical term for this is: Sex sells.

Commenter allgoodtees makes a similar point in an excellent comment:

Just about anything that can be put forth as so-called female privilege has roots in misogyny.

Commonly Cited Female Privilege: When custody arrangements are made during a divorce, rarely does a woman have to fight for the right to be with her children.

Misogynist Roots: Women have always been considered the primary caretakers of children, and are pressured from every side to do so to the point where men who are observed publicly tending to their own children are often asked if they’re “babysitting” them until their wife gets home. If men and women were equally considered to be caretakers, custody arrangements would more than likely be equally considered.

***

Commonly Cited Female Privilege: Women can be around large groups of young children and not be suspected of being a sexual predator.

Misogynist Roots: See above; if men and women were equally assumed to be caretakers of children, a man wanting to be involved with childrens’ activities (as anything other than “coach”) more than likely wouldn’t be viewed with suspicion.

***

This hurts men too, in very detrimental ways.

Commonly Cited Male Issue: Men are far more likely to commit suicide than women.

Misogynist Roots: “Big boys don’t cry”, “Man up” – Expressing emotions is something routinely coded as female (less than), so men are more likely to bottle them up and less likely to seek therapeutic help if bottling them up fails to work. If being emotional were a human thing instead of a woman thing, I’m willing to be those statistics would level out in time.

***

Commonly Cited Male Issue: Men are sexually assaulted, but there is far less attention paid because they are even less likely to report it than women.

Misogynist Roots: Because sexual assault is overwhelmingly a crime that happens to women at the hands of men, men who are raped have been “made the woman” (less than). Because of this, not only are they less likely to report it, but because of this attitude, they are less likely to be taken seriously by the police.

If men were truly concerned with raising awareness of this issue, the best way to do it would be to form their own organizations and fight for the recognition of this crime. They would seek out funding to form shelters for men who have been victims of sexual assault or domestic violence instead of routinely coming into discussions of the victimization of women and, politely or otherwise, ask that they be given equal consideration.

***

I think that covers a few of the bases.

It’s a point that has been made before on feminist blogs, and I agree entirely. It’s often the case that alleged female privilege merely repackages male privilege; the alleged benefits to women are extremely limited and subject to caveats, and don’t really help women very much.

I’ll go further, though, because I don’t think that all instances of female privilege are so directly linked to patriarchy. I think it’s possible that some instances of female privilege actually do award some benefits to women, without a direct and immediate tie to male privilege. That is, I think that in some cases, we could say that female privilege is “real.” But, as I’ll explain, I think those cases are probably even more pernicious.

Let’s take an asserted case of female privilege — for instance, draft immunity — and assume arguendo that it is a real instance of privilege. (I realize there are arguments that this is not a real privilege, but let’s assume it is for the moment.) Why would a real female privilege exist in society, and what might it mean?

First, an instance of female privilege would have significant potential masking effects on male privilege. There are hundreds of examples of minor societal norms — men paying for the date, men taking the combat roles in the military — which potentially give a small tangible benefit to women. These little trifles may create a perception that privilege is available to everyone: “Men get some privileges, and women get others. Hey, I guess it’s all just a wash!”

So the first negative consequence of a “real” female privilege would be to muddy or blunt arguments about male privilege. (And we’ve seen it happen, on the recent male privilege post.) This would be an incredibly misleading perception, because male privilege is the real prize, and any female privilege (such as it is) is a ragtag collection of shitty consolation prizes. Women don’t get to be CEO or President or Senator or general — but hey, they get their dinner paid for on that date. Go, female privilege! And yet the existence of any potential privilege can be a distraction from the reality that every important real privilege is reserved for men.

So in fact, a “real” female privilege could be even more pernicious than an obvious false female privilege (like Ladies Night), because it could have this masking effect.

It doesn’t stop there, though. I think there’s an even worse effect, which is the real dark side of female privilege: Female privilege (or the perception of it) is the primary reason used to convince women to buy in to and support the patriarchal system.

If women as a group truly felt like they got nothing from the patriarchy, there would be revolution in the streets. Women would not stand for a system that was stacked 100 to 0. But when it’s stacked 90 to 10, suddenly there’s the possibility that women will start to feel _ownership_ of their small plot of land. (Commenter PrometheeFeu compared it to a caste system, and that’s a great comparison. If society can convince the subordinated group that they’re lucky and blessed to have the special caste privileges of the lower caste, they’re much less likely to fight the system.)

Does it work? Frighteningly well. Because it turns out that many women don’t support feminism or gender equality. In fact, they’re often the most active voices against equality. Who opposed the ERA? Phyllis Schlafly, that’s who — a woman, and tens of thousands of other women who she mobilized. Fast forward thirty years, and the same struggle plays out, as a surprisingly large number of women today decide that they would rather not be feminists.

Why do women fight against gender equality? There are a variety of reasons; but if you spend any time reading Phyllis Schlafly or Helen Andelin or their blog successors today, it seems clear that many women believe that feminism or gender equality will undermine their special role as women. That is, they are attached to the benefits that their patriarchy-provided role provides — a type of cultural validation for some women who accept existing gender norms — and they don’t want feminists to take that away.

This desperate attempt to retain the perceived benefits of female privilege drives much of the (shockingly common) anti-feminist women’s writing. (And given the overall power structure, it’s easy to understand the desperation that drives that kind of writing. Members of subordinated groups may be understandably desperate to hang on to the few benefits that they do have — the things that they see as privilege.)

I have to think it would be different if we were selecting rights from behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance. Door number one is membership in a group with a 90%+ chance of being on the Supreme Court, a 100% chance of being President, a 90% chance of being CEO or major business leader, an overwhelming majority in generals and scientists and the wealthy and powerful. Door number two is membership in a group that gets free drinks on Thursday, draft immunity, occasional compliments about being pretty, and affirmation and validation about the importance of the feminine role. No one in their right mind would choose Door Number Two.

But that’s not how it goes. Instead, women are given a bundle of disadvantage at birth, with a few shiny trinkets thrown in, and then patriarchal institutions tell those women, “your feminine role as women is so special.” And many women — especially women who don’t work or go to school, and so may lack some other common avenues of validation — buy into that idea. And like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, they will then fight to the death against their own liberation.

Female privilege, if it exists, is a ragtag combination of consolation prizes to keep the women quiet and content in a system which subordinates them. Real power remains in the patriarchal power structure. The existence of possible female privilege in areas like the draft doesn’t disprove this; the pitifulness of female privilege simply reinforces the original point.

Meanwhile, female “privilege” is employed as a tool to keep women from challenging their own subordination. And it’s frighteningly effective.

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5 Responses to On female privilege

  1. Pingback: “On Female Privilege” | London Feminist

  2. Darque says:

    Cool. Sounds like in the course of my life I’m probably going to end up being a supreme court judge, a general AND the president at some point. That’s a lot of prestige to look forward to…

    All sarcasm aside. I think there are some valuable points that you make in your article. The first is that pervasive institutions like gender tend to have support beyond just 50% of the population – namely men. It’s an institution that has broadbase support from the vast majority of society, and the majority of women as well.

    But I disagree with your notion that female privilege doesn’t exist, or isn’t meaningful. For the man who just wants to have a happy family life – who doesn’t want to be a general, or a soldier, or the president, some of those “consolation” prizes would look rather tempting. For the vast majority of men, the role of “Father” will be a role that holds much more importance than that of “President” – and to be assumed automatically incompetent or inept because of your gender – well, that sucks (As i’m sure you’d know.)

    That doesn’t mean that we have to all throw our hands up and say “it’s all a wash” – it just means that we have to be more permissive and tolerant of people who don’t want to follow the rigid gender scripts we’ve been passed down. This tolerance should be extended to both men as well as women – so I think it is worth examining the ways in which gender roles are restrictive, damaging, and painful for people of both genders.

  3. DaveHW says:

    “I have to think it would be different if we were selecting rights from behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance. Door number one is membership in a group with a 90%+ chance of being on the Supreme Court, a 100% chance of being President, a 90% chance of being CEO or major business leader, an overwhelming majority in generals and scientists and the wealthy and powerful.”

    This isn’t a very accurate portrayal of the male “Door #1″ under Rawlsian terms. If anything, this is a demonstration of the things that most men WON’T be. It’s citing the 1% as if it was the 99%. A man is much more likely to be a father, a mid-level worker, and things of that like. They’re also more likely to end up in prison than in politics.

    Shiny trinkets aren’t great, especially in the absence of true equality, but it’s important to note that the promise of being able to be president/general/CEO, no matter how much that isn’t true, is in and of itself the same kind of shiny trinket, but for men. It’s a veritable lottery ticket in exchange for putting up with things like social expectations about everything from economic skill to emotional non-existence.

  4. JPG says:

    @Darque-

    I agree with your points about all gender roles being detrimental to members of both sex…

    But here’s the thing. The ‘consolation prizes’ that have been reserved for women may look pretty shiny to you- and I agree that you should have them.

    But…. let’s use a more substantial metaphor. To me, female privilege is like a small pile of useful items that aren’t necessary to survival- like a nice comb for your hair, while male privilege seems a lot like to me like food, water, and shelter. It’s easy to covet female privilege when you have the things that are endemic to thriving… but a woman can’t eat her comb. It’s useful, but it won’t help her be self-sufficient. She has to keep begging men for food, or water, or the ability to stay dry and not freeze.

    I know it’s not a perfect analogy. But it feels more real to me than “shiny objects” does.

    And here’s the thing about my comb, which you want more than anything.

    It’s a nice comb! I think you should have one. But a long time ago, the patriarchy decided that women weren’t smart enough, or capable enough, or thick-skinned enough, to do things like serve in combat or be the President, or anything ‘important,’ really. They decided that domesticity and child-rearing were the only things ‘easy’ enough for women to handle.

    Patriarchy decided that women couldn’t be trusted with the food, the water, the shelter. They would ruin them somehow. But here, women, here’s a comb, you couldn’t possibly screw that up.

    The comb is a more frivolous item than I mean, really, but I can’t think of another right now. But back when Patriarchy decided homemaking was for women, they did kind of consider it as unimportant, so maybe a comb is apt.

    But once Patriarchy decided women couldn’t handle anything but domesticity, Patriarchy decided it was women’s work. And once that was decided, domesticity was demeaning for men specifically because it’s women’s work. Why does women’s work demean men? Because women are inferior to men.

    So yes, women who want to be homemakers benefit from this decision, and you suffer scorn for it. But please remember where that came from. It came from the idea that women are inferior to men. It came from Patriarchy.

    Most instances of “female privilege” have similarly problematic origins.

    Most of the feminists I know would also like to eradicate this tendency to scorn men who are homemakers. Patriarchy hurts men and women. This is not a “men win, women lose” situation. This is a “men lose a comb, women lose food, water, and shelter” situation. It’s an ‘everybody loses, but women lose a lot more’ situation. But when you have all the food, water, and shelter, it’s easy to forget that not everybody does, and just focus on the fact that you don’t also have a comb.

    I’d like everybody to have a comb. But first I’d really like to make sure everybody has food, water, and shelter.

    (I’m not trying to diminish the worth of homemakers here by using comb as an analogy. I just couldn’t think of an item that’s more important and precious than a comb but less important than food water and shelter right now. It’s Friday, and it’s been a long week. Maybe replace comb with ‘delicious but mostly lacking in nutrition dessert’ vs male privilege being the whole rest of the food pyramid? No, still understates homemakers. I don’t know, I’m just not that creative.)

  5. DaveHW says:

    @JPG

    “while male privilege seems a lot like to me like food, water, and shelter”

    But it’s really not that. Male privilege involves respect and the assumption of confidence, which can help you get food, water, and shelter. However, if one fails to do so then that presumption backfires. “A man provides”, and when a man fails to do so their masculinity, and the subsequent respect, evaporates.

    Male privilege is terrific IF you can get into the job market and find success. However, that same enabling system backfires if you can’t. Men are disproportionately likely to be homeless, to be in jail, to be on the fringes of society.

    You can’t eat the presumption of competence. You can’t deposit it in a bank. It won’t keep the rain off of your head.

    Male privilege makes it more likely for some men to become self-sufficient, but there is a flip-side to that coin: men who fail within that system are presumed to be inferior and beyond redemption in a way that women are not. They are considered more disposable.

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