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My Turn: ‘You don’t get it, Dad’

For the Monitor
Published: 9/5/2021 9:00:08 AM

Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, daily anxiety about the plight of women has been a main topic of conversation in the American news media. Are Afghan women to be more limited in freedom of movement, education and access to political and professional occupations? Are they treated as objects to benefit men?

When Americans ask these questions about Afghan women, it suggests a self-righteous belief that our treatment of American women is beyond reproach. Of course, it is insensitive and unjust to ever imply that the experience of American women is even close to the male power abuse inflicted on Afghan women.

However, the way American women are treated still requires asking the same questions in the context of American social, economic and political life. The keyword is “treatment.” For men, defining the proper treatment of women is felt like a rational well-intended abstraction. But women feel this same power dynamic as a threat to their dignity, equity, safety and sense of competence. They feel a deeply personal affront and daily danger to their well-being.

Before continuing, I must confess I’m over my head in deep water. I’m a white male attempting to write about women’s feelings. My only defense is I write for myself, searching for a clearer understanding of the feelings of my daughters. I blundered into this writing exercise at the invitation of two of my daughters and their male spouses. If I miss the mark, it’s my failure. It is my life-long process to understand, empathize and seek justice under the guidance of conversations with the adult women in my life.

My re-education about the reality of American culture’s treatment of women began at the dinner table one recent evening with my wife, two of our three daughters and their spouses. They’re college graduates, proficient in their professions. Our family has always understood our dinner table to be a safe space for open discussion of any subject, personal or abstract. It’s not infrequent that politics becomes a topic.

This evening, the subject came up of a political leader’s advocacy to end racism and to support rights for women. When I expressed support for this leader’s position, my liberal daughters immediately pushed back. They asserted a serious distrust in this person. They declared his words of support for women were not to be trusted because he frequently openly touched women without their consent. They said he was abusing his power and demonstrated an insensitivity toward the feelings of those women.

My response was that his friendly touches on the arm or shoulder were a part of his outgoing personality. It was his way to be in touch with his constituents and communicate that he connected with their concerns. I was not prepared for their burst of frustration, anger and despair —“You don’t get it, Dad!”

Thus, began my education. What I “did not get” was the reality of their experiences and the depth of their uneasy feelings as they negotiate their daily lives. I was blinded by my male privilege that has supported me throughout the eight decades of my life. For example, in my blindness, I explained to my daughters I’ve lived out my support for affirmative action. Once, my application for a position was rejected because they had to choose a woman for the position. I accepted the necessity for that decision. However, my daughters pointed out that my magnanimous white male attitude did not demonstrate an understanding of the woman’s situation or sensitivity to her feelings. The woman’s dignity and confidence in her qualifications had been put at risk. Also, in her new position, relationships with her male colleagues would be strained. In my self-centered pride, I had not gotten it.

So I listened to my daughters’ stories. They have to constantly defend their professional competency to male colleagues and to males on boards of directors. They’ve been verbally attacked and threatened. Or perhaps worse, sometimes their contributions to a project or a situation are ignored by their male counterparts.

They’ve experienced men’s physical invasion of their personal space, a frightening experience with no one present to intercede. Every day brings with it the need to be cautiously aware of the men in their surroundings. Some people respond to these stories as evidence of paranoia or as anecdotal exceptions to the real world. However, their stories are common experiences. The truth in their stories is revealed in their emotions and in the support of their spouses.

Facing that truth leads to the question, “What more could we have done to prepare our daughters for the real world?” Our daughters explained that we had done well teaching them a sense of competency, self-respect, trust and justice for all people. They had learned the importance of standing up for the weak, advocating for the rights of people of color, and being open and affirming to LGBTQ+ people.

However, they were not prepared to experience sexism and power abuse from their male counterparts. They were not prepared to cope with the bias and feelings of self-doubt faced daily by women. They told us these things not to criticize us but only to explain their struggles in the real world.

But I remained stunned by the intensity of their anger, frustration and grief reverberating across the dinner table. What was I supposed to do with the trust expressed in the open honest sharing of their experiences? They answered, “you write essays for the newspaper. Write about this.”

And so, I’m writing with the reminder that it is not about a women’s issue, it’s about exposing and ending a male-dominated, socio-economic-political system. It’s about men giving up a systemic bias toward male privilege. It’s about seeking to establish equity among all people.

The Taliban are showing us how insidious a patriarchal system can become. American men, it is time for us to shine a light into the shadows of our own patriarchal proclivities. We are responsible for them. We can end the system that supports them. Then perhaps one day our daughters will say, “Dad, you do get it!”

(John Buttrick can be reached at johndbuttrick@gmail.com. He lives in Concord.)




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