The Guardian’s Jessica Valenti—author of several books including Sex Object and Full Frontal Feminism—recently tweeted her latest complaint:
My favorite, though, is when men will only direct questions & conversation at my husband (this happens w/’progressive’ guys too)
— Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) March 17, 2017
It’s nice that she notes that it’s not only knuckle-dragging conservative males whom we should assume consistently ignore women, but also enlightened liberals. Yet a survey of some of my (mostly conservative) female friends rejected the entire premise of this tweet. None of them felt that it was at all common to be ignored by a man speaking to your husband or that, as women, we are less likely to be pulled into conversations while in social settings.
In fact, my girlfriends felt the opposite was often the case: among the people we know, women often tend to be more talkative and more socially gregarious than their husbands, and, if anything, it was the guys who were more likely to be left out of conversations.
Are we really hanging around with more egalitarian, women-friendly men than feminists like Jessica Valenti? That’s certainly possible. But I suspect what’s really going on is that my friends and I aren’t looking for offense—for any slight that we could possibly attribute to gender bias—and Valenti is.
Feminists and women’s studies types might counter that this is just evidence that my friends and I are so beaten down by the patriarchy that we are blinded to how mistreated we are. But I disagree. The men I know and come into contact with, almost without exception, see the women around them as their peers. These men are interested in our work and opinions, regardless of whether we are working for pay or full-time mothers.
There’s a reason for this. I was born in the early 1970s, and by and large, my generation was raised in an era of women’s equality. The boys I grew up with knew that the girls in their class were just as smart and capable as they were. In fact, the honors programs in my elementary and high school heavily skewed female. We cheered for each other’s sports teams, competed for college slots, and then worked side-by-side in those grueling, administrative-heavy, starter jobs. And eventually we all started marrying each other. At no point did these men morph into misogynists who saw women as not worth their time.
Certainly, men and women in my generation—like any other—can treat each other poorly at times; there are plenty of messy relationships, inappropriate jokes, and unhelpful stereotypes. Domestic violence and sexual assault remain real problems. But the contemporary professional-class cocktail circuit is hardly a hotbed of Mad Men-style sexism or even a place rife with milder forms of sexist snubbing.
Working toward more perfect gender relations is a worthy, ongoing goal. Yet we shouldn’t miss the bigger picture of how far we’ve come and ignore the basic decency of most men. Moreover, while it’s certainly important to push for progress in your own country—the existence of people suffering from true deprivation elsewhere in the world doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want to help those struggling to get by in America—it’s important to recognize where the real battle for women’s rights needs to be waged. And that’s in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East where women are still denied basic human rights. We need to speak out on their behalf and raise awareness by pushing foreign leaders to make progress in terms of their treatment of women in their countries.
Valenti could do a great deal of good on that end by pushing back on the leader of the recent Women’s March, Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian Muslim American who appears to overlook this reality. Sarsour minimizes the harm these women are suffering, and even advocates for Sharia law. For example, in 2014, Sarsour tweeted:
10 weeks of PAID maternity leave in Saudi Arabia. Yes PAID. And ur worrying about women driving. Puts us to shame. http://t.co/xZAwgg6HXL
— Linda Sarsour (@lsarsour) November 16, 2014
We can disagree about whether extensive government paid leave is good public policy, but surely feminists of all political leanings agree that freedom of movement—the right to decide where to go and with whom—is far more precious than any amount of money you could get from the government.
Valenti and other feminist leaders should make clear that they reject any system that would deny women the right to vote, deny their decision on whom to marry, punish women who engage in extra-marital sex, or curtail their right to work for pay. Advocating for Sharia law—or any legal system that truly treats women as lesser citizens—ought to be out of bounds for any woman’s advocate.
American women are among the world’s most fortunate. We enjoy such effective legal protections and live in such a positive, pro-woman society that people like Jessica Valenti get to worry about whether they are being slighted at a cocktail party. I’d encourage women not to bother being offended by a man who first addresses the male standing next to him, and not to assume misogyny is at the heart of every awkward conversation. Instead, let’s save our anger and direct our criticism to where it is truly deserved.