I have been writing about social justice issues for over four years now. When I began, I was a mother of a five-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter, a wife and stay-at-home mother, a former technical writer and current part-time professor making a fraction of what I used to make. I was also a former girl and young woman with plenty of personal experience with sexism, but none with racism or classism. I hadn’t thought much about being white, aside from the fact that my whiteness made me feel guilty and uncomfortable and I didn’t want to think about it much—and I took being middle-class absolutely for granted. I identified myself as female and heterosexual, and I knew I wanted to be a writer, but mostly I thought of myself as a mother. The identity of mother had been so all-consuming and overwhelming that I’d lost self to it, and I wanted the self back. I’d lived in four states in ten years, had health issues in the last three years, had written five drafts of a novel over a period of six years, and was exhausted. It felt like a time to end—which meant, of course, that it was time to begin.
Sometimes, in debates about sexism or other forms of discrimination—particularly online—people will use a tactic called gaslighting. The term comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight, in which an abusive husband repeatedly dims and brightens the gaslights in their home while telling his wife he has no idea what’s happening, causing her to question her sanity. In an argument or debate, a person using gaslighting will try to make his opponent think her perceptions are skewed or wrong. Gaslighting is not always conscious—it can be used unconsciously as a defensive reaction. However, it can also be used consciously, as a manipulative tactic.
Each week, our nation presents us with opportunities to examine the manifestations of sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination around us. Journalists write articles, actors and sports figures give interviews, hashtags trend—we share information and debate issues, sometimes with a feminist lens but often without one. Most of the time, our media examines the issues of patriarchy as if they are isolated, as if they arise only from the particular dysfunction of a specific person or small group of people. Rarely do we make connections between a particular issue and patriarchy, or the societal framework that supports and reinforces male domination and female submission.
American culture has traditionally divided people into two sexual camps: “gay” and “straight.” This division is largely the result of patriarchal masculinity, which relies on homophobia, as well as sexism, to establish the foundation of “real” manhood—a real man is not gay, and he isn’t a woman. Men are expected to prove their manliness by repeatedly proving their heterosexuality. Being “straight” is also portrayed as the norm for women—Betty Friedan’s famous reference to the “lavender menace” summed up homophobia within the women’s movement, and the population at large. Despite patriarchy’s insistence on the clear divisions of a binary sexuality, however, people have always been people—and, as Alfred Kinsey first demonstrated in 1948, sexuality is a continuum.
Today’s post is brought to you by my husband, Dr. David Magill, who teaches literature and gender studies at Longwood University:
A week ago, I delivered an address on Longwood’s campus at the request of the Inter-Fraternity Council and a group of their men who were promoting the “It’s On Us” campaign at Longwood. However, turnout was lower than anticipated by the organizers, and many of my friends wrote me to say that had not heard about the event in time to attend. So I wanted to post the comments here. I have edited my remarks to better fit this space, removing particular phrases that sound better when speaking than writing. But the substance is the same, and I hope sharing it here can help get these ideas to a wider audience.