Making Feminist Spaces Between Misogynistic Places

Cover photo courtesy of SVG SILH

Mary McLoughlin
Opinion Editor

This article was written before the suspension of in-person classes and closure of housing for most students due to the coronavirus

I got to experience flying to Nashville and presenting at a conference run by the International Journal of Feminist Politics.

On the flight to the conference, the man in the seat next to me took a break from reading the Fox News articles he printed out and peered over to check my laptop screen to see what I was working on.

A slide titled “Feminist Responses to Border Militarization” got his attention, and he asked me about my research. 

I hesitated before I answered him, and went into my automatic process of calculating how angry the person I’m talking with might be about my research and what that anger might mean for my response.

Given the polarizing discourse around immigration, people often respond to the work I do with quite a bit of rage.

Baby boomers who print out sexist stories about Elizabeth Warren to read on planes is not a demographic that I resonate particularly favorably with, so I had a feeling he was more interested in telling me what my research got wrong than learning from what my research got right.

I had the window seat, so I was stuck next to him. But since the flight was in a public space, I figured that he was in a position to make me uncomfortable, but probably not unsafe.

There’s a sliding scale of how offended men tend to be by the ways I describe my research.

The most neutral way to frame what I study is by vaguely saying “political science research about borders” because that can be taken any way.

Framing my research as human rights raises the stakes a little bit because language that suggests all people are people is often interpreted as radical social justice warrioring.

But mentioning gender introduces a whole new spectrum of responses. 

The least controversial way to frame my research in terms of gender is to say that I’m studying women’s activism.

While not everyone thinks women should be a focus of study, they can’t deny that women activists exist.

Framing my research in terms of “feminism” becomes a little more dangerous because that implies that I’m not just studying women, but I’m studying women who are after systemic justice and rights.

The only thing worse than saying I’m studying feminism is saying that I’m studying patriarchy or misogyny.

While often people asking about my research are annoyed by women who have realized the ways they’re oppressed by gender, they often turn straight-up volatile when women recognize how men’s violence and complicity plays into that oppression.

Usually, when I’m trapped in close quarters with a man who I think is going to respond poorly, I go for a less controversial framing, but since he already saw the F-word on my slide, I knew that my options were limited. So I told him, “I’m presenting research on feminist organizing and approaches to security at the US-Mexico border.” 

He responded by asking, “Aren’t you too young to be working on something so big and important?” I smiled. The safest way to be a woman (or, according to him, a little girl) challenging a man is to do so as a woman who’s smiling. 

I told him, “I may have a baby face, but there’s enough nerve underneath to pull it off.” I laughed because it felt like the least combative way of letting him know I didn’t take his assessment of me seriously. 

He responded with the question, “Does your research consider how dangerous it is for girls like you when we let immigrants into this country? Do you know what could happen?” 

I told him that immigrants were actually less likely to commit crimes than citizens. I also told him that if he’s worried about women, he might be interested to know that my research found that militarizing the border increased domestic violence because it made immigrant women less likely to feel safe enough to report violence to the police.

Then, as women are expected to do when they bring up violence or abuse, I smiled again to let him know that he didn’t have to react. I wasn’t accusing him of anything.

See also- Women’s Rights: History and Future

But we both knew that it didn’t really matter what I said because our conversation was never about my research findings.

Instead, the misogyny underlining his patronizing language made it clear he wasn’t just angry about what we disagreed on; he was more upset by my decision to do political science research at all.

His response suggests that he believed that my gender and age meant I should not be entitled to opinions which challenge his worldview. 

In her book Down Girl, feminist philosopher Kate Manne describes misogyny, not as a hatred of women in general, but as the policing of women who stray from submissive roles.

Like many other men who hear me talk about feminism, he saw my politics as a challenge to his power.

He didn’t just want me to know I was wrong—he wanted me to feel small. When that didn’t work, he brought up the implied threat of sexual violence to remind me all the ways that my gender makes me vulnerable. 

When I arrived at the conference, I found myself surrounded by the kind of feminist theory and scholarship that has helped me to use gender and power as a way of contextualizing personal moments like the one on the plane and broader issues such as immigration.

Feminist theory has been such a powerful conceptual tool for me because it’s more than just the study of women—it’s an attention to gender as a force which constructs and places men and women into relational and hiearchal roles of power.

In understanding how gender works I’ve been able to understand the microlevel aspects of why moments like the one on the plane made me uncomfortable and the bigger picture ways gender constructs certain securities and insecurities at the border.

Throughout the conference, I got to learn from women all over the world united by scholarship and activism working to reorient oppressive and patriarchal systems of power toward peace and justice.

We talked both about what we were learning from studying gender and what we were learning about what it means to study gender.

At the center of those conversations were the ideas of exhaustion and collectivity. 

Everyone agreed that feminist scholarship is hard.

Almost all women working on issues of gender deal with misogyny when they are dismissed as doing unimportant and biased work, but this misogyny becomes increasingly more dangerous for feminist scholars who recieve enough attention that they are met with death threats and public harrassment.  

Despite how tiring the work of feminist research can be, everyone agreed how important spaces like the conference are.

Studying gender is lonely.

When most of your energy goes into explaining why we should study gender to people who don’t take you seriously, there’s very little room left to get excited about what we are able to uncover about the world when we make space for and support gender scholarship.

Over and over again, different scholars emphasized the ways sharing feminist work makes the constant struggle of academia and activism possible. 

At times, I found myself surprised by how emotional being in that space made me.

This conference was the first time I got to meet the scholars whose methodologies gave me the tools I needed to answer the questions that mattered to me.

Their work to make room for feminist scholarship in a discipline resistant to gender-analysis has created space for the kind of scholarship that has transformed the ways I see the world.

Being able to engage with them, not just on the pages of textbooks, but in the spaces they animate with their joy and wit helped me realize the point of research is to contribute to a movement of people and not just a gap in the literature. 

After the conference, I slept-walked out of the Dayton airport while the sun was still rising, and made my way to my Uber with eyes partially pulled shut with sleep.

While I struggled to open the trunk, I noticed a series of bumper stickers: first, “Make America Great Again”; second, “Shoot all Feminists”; third, “Guns, Glory, God, and Second Amendment Rights.”

Leaving a feminist conference in a car threatening to kill feminists made me uncomfortable, but I got in the car because I figured that the stickers were probably making a larger statement about the driver’s ideologies than reflecting his actual stance or intent, but I got in the backseat instead of the front seat because Uber’s most recent crime report disclosed 9 murders and 3,045 instances of sexual assualt in the US over the past year.

I picked the middle seat because I figured if he kept his gun for shooting feminists in his car, it’d probably be in the glove box and the middle seat provided a view that allowed me to see if his hands reached for the glove box.

I thought about what to talk to him about, and I did the usual risk calculation that comes with being a feminist. Unlike the plane, this was a private space that he was in control of so this situation came with more risks than the plane. 

I decided that if he asked where I was coming from, the safest thing to say was that I was visiting my boyfriend. If he suspected I was gay (which I wasn’t too concerned about since I wore the neutral clothes I reserve for traveling to places I’ve never been), he might also make the connection that I’m a feminist.

I made sure to make eye contact with him in the rearview mirror and smiled with my dimple, so he could see that I was the right kind of girl—friendly and unthreatening.

When I talked to him, I exaggerated my stutter because misogynistic men tend to be comforted by women they perceive to be vulnerable. 

When I made it home, I let him open the door for me and get my suitcase from the trunk. I laughed when he said he’s keeping chivalry alive. 

I’m not writing about these two moments because they’re particularly remarkable. Moments like these happen frequently enough that I barely register them as dangerous or out of the ordinary.

In fact, I didn’t even consider writing this piece until I got to the Flyer News office and filled my friend in on my weekend and realized he was surprised by two events that didn’t seem that out of the ordinary.

His surprise about the base-level of insecurity that women often expect as they move through public spaces reminded me how patriarchy functions to normalize the insecurity of women and the comfort of men.

Brooke Ackerly, one of the conference organizers and a feminist scholar whose work I deeply admire, ended the conference with the observation that “You don’t get to make the world a feminist place, but you get to be a feminist in it.” 

For me, being a feminist in a world structured around patriarchy has felt a lot like the experience of this weekend, of finding moments of community and liberation bookended by persistent patriarchy.

In committing to addressing gendered-violence and misogyny in the world, feminists are more likely to experience misogynistic backlash.

Often, I’ve found myself pulled back and forth between the way knowledge allows us to understand both how urgent it is for us to address misogyny and the risks that come with fighting those battles. 

Patriarchy succeeds when women take the processes of scanning spaces and calculating risk as an inevitable and normal experience of gender.

But feminist theory allows us to understand that vulnerability isn’t a natural experience of womanhood. Rather, women learn they are vulnerable through the actions of men who naturalize their own positions of power and dominance through tacit and explicit threats of violence.

In the conference’s opening remarks, Marysia Zalewski explained that the job of gender is to make the subject fit within hierarchical systems of power.

Often, studying theory can be debilitating because once you understand how those systems of power work, it’s impossible not to see them everywhere.

But learning from the feminists in my life has allowed me to see the community and friendships that are possible when people work to wiggle their ways out of their gendered locations and find new and subversive ways of being in community together.

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