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Op-Ed Fri Aug 15 2014
By Michael Fornello
I hadn't given my philosophy towards women much thought recently; my immediate aim was to finish my graduate classes, grab my Master's, and find a job. My wife and I were also busy filling out reams of paperwork in the hopes that we may be able to adopt a baby soon. We're buried in questions about both: should we stay in the city, or move to the suburbs? When I get a job, should we buy a car? What about good day care on the North Side? Under these circumstances, I hadn't given my feminist beliefs much thought.
Then came the terrible shooting in California and the response of the #YesAllWomen hashtag. My wife, frustrated with the male side of humanity like so many other women, posted her own tweets, and we discussed them. She expressed her fears, her frustrations, and who need, like so many other women, for men to simply shut up and listen. I did so, I read other tweets, and in the process I mentally traced my own feminist beliefs. What I ended up with were some unpleasant realizations about myself, particularly about my undergraduate years two decades ago. Yes, I was a feminist then, but I was also an incredible asshole, and my attitudes towards women were just as corrosive as my more misogynistic peers.
I couldn't tell you when I first became a feminist, but it began early in childhood. My mother was the only constant in my childhood. Her long-time boyfriend got her pregnant during her senior year in high school, but she graduated. She married her boyfriend, but the marriage didn't stick, and in short order she divorced, moved back in with her parents with me in tow, and went to college. Young as I was, I felt my mother was the strongest person in my life. Meanwhile, the males in my life were anything but positive role models. My male classmates bullied me mercilessly, my father was absent, and my stepfather was a violent alcoholic who viciously beat both me and my mother. I didn't know what feminism was as a young child, but the basic idea that women were at the very least equal to men was an easy sell to me.
My evolution as an asshole is less clear. Like my feminist beliefs, my assholism began in childhood. I was considered intelligent for my age, and given my lack of physical skills, I was easily sold on the idea that I was specially gifted and that I could use that gift in anything I wanted. That message stuck in my head; I may have been a nonentity in school and pushed around, but I was better than my classmates. I was special. I was enlightened. The hell with these schmucks, I thought as I excitedly waited to escape high school and fly off to college.
In college, I flew my enlightened feminist male flag high. I was a member of the school's Feminist Alliance. When someone on my dorm floor posted a flyer for a party that read "No fat chicks," I protested to the residence hall director. I took women's studies courses. I read Susan Faludi's recently published Backlash and passed the book to my female friends. When feminists came to my college, even more radical ones like Mary Daly, I attended their lectures. And I fervently believed in all of it.
There was just one flaw: I expected something in return.
There are those who, in taking in a certain philosophy, be it social, religious, artistic or political, do so in order to profit from it somehow. The desired rewards can vary: money, sexual attractiveness, popularity. The motives likewise differ: it could be a cynical attempt to manipulate the philosophy in their favor, it could be to earn money, or it could answer an emotional need. Whatever the combination, the adherent is there for the ride, sticking it out until they discover another philosophy that better meets their needs. Then there are the true believers, for whom the philosophy itself is its own reward. For good or ill, they find themselves improving as human beings with each exposure to the ideology, each piece of new acquired knowledge. They are reliable representatives of their chosen mindset. And I fit both profiles.
I was a true feminist. I fervently believed that women had equal rights to men. I believed in their right to choose, to control their own bodies. I believed in equal pay for equal work. But I wanted something in return from my female friends and acquaintances. I wanted their compliments. I wanted their recognition as one of the "enlightened." And I wanted them in bed.
And why not? After all, the guys many of them dated instead of me were not as feminist as me. Some were actual believers in the patriarchy. Some treated their girlfriends like dirt, emotionally manipulating them like the bratty little boys they were. I would never do that! After all, I was a feminist.
But if given the chance, I probably would have done just the same. I considered myself so far above my non-feminist male classmates, any woman who deigned to date or sleep with them had demeaned herself in my eyes. Without realizing it at the time, I placed a ludicrously unfair — and pathetic — standard on women: if they hooked up with men whom I held in low esteem (which was just about all of them), they were somehow tainted. If they didn't hook up with me, they were missing out on a true enlightened experience. Why would they refuse me, someone who had their best interests at heart? The unspoken thought inside my brain was: There must be something wrong with them.
This unholy arrogance peaked late in college. One February night, I was walking home alone. About a hundred feet in front of me was a young woman, also alone. At one point, she turned back and looked at me, then sped up her steps. I was so offended that this woman would think of me as someone dangerous, I decided, I'd show her.
I was wearing shoes with hard soles, walking through a quiet area of campus where sounds softly echoed off nearly buildings. Hearing this, I altered my walk to maximize the clop, clop noise coming from my shoes and quickened my steps while maintaining the same distance. The woman in front of me began to look back more often, but I stared straight ahead, not acknowledging her. When she turned a corner, I would follow. I varied my steps — slowing, speeding, slowing, speeding — but always maintaining my distance. This continued for a half-dozen blocks until she turned one more corner, looking over at me, wondering what was going on, wondering what was going to happen. At that point, I quickened my pace, my clops echoing faster, coming closer to the woman, until I reached the corner, upon which I turned in the exact opposite direction and made my way home.
At the time I thought of this mindfuck as a fitting punishment — She's scared of me, Mr. Feminist? I'll give her something to be scared of! But although I didn't know it at the time, the spell I held over myself was broken. The act was so mean, so pathetic, so outrageously stupid, even I couldn't deny it. As the incident weighed on me, I was forced to make a decision: reevaluate my relationship with women, or abandon my fervent feminism as a badge of my hypocrisy and forget the incident ever happened. I took the latter route.
About twenty years have gone by. I married, divorced, remarried, grew older, grew balder and grayer. The feminism of my youth evolved into with a genuine desire for fairness and justice for everyone, of which feminism is but a part. I never mentioned the incident with that girl, and whenever I thought of it I dismissed it as one of many dumbass acts I committed in my youth. Then the Isla Vista shooting happened.
The crazed misogyny of Eliot Rodger brought up the subject of what women endure any given day to the forefront of society in a way nothing had before. I read several articles about the killer, his fury at being a virgin and rejected by women, and how that fury fermented into arrogance, bitterness and hatred towards them and any man who didn't share his difficulties with the opposite sex. I read pieces of his so-called manifesto and came to an appalling conclusion: when I was his age, I had similar feelings. I came about it from a different route, my level of frustration was much lower, and I obviously took a different tack, but I recognized in the seeds of his madness similar DNA. I took rejection by women hard; I responded to said rejection by blaming them; I was jealous of "lesser" men who seemed to easily score with women. I outgrew these feelings and emerged from them a better person, but I could no longer deny they once existed. And the memory of that woman I followed returned and would not go away.
I began to read some of the #YesAllWomen tweets. And I read my wife's tweets, one of which was "Because every single woman you've ever met, known or been related to has had to keep self-defense plans in her head. #YesAllWomen" Including, presumably, that woman I attempted to intimidate all those years ago. We discussed her tweets and others, and I mostly sat and listened. When I did speak, I confessed what I did that winter night long ago. To her credit, she listened quietly, and when I finished, forgave me — on the condition I make a donation to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), which I have done.
A few weeks ago, I was working as a substitute at a high school computer lab. The staff is normally all-female, but I was covering for one of the employees. A girl approached the staff station, looked at me, and said, "I'm so used to seeing all ladies here! And there's this man here! It's so weird!"
I smiled. "I'm a feminist. Does that count?"
"I don't know what a feminist is," she admitted.
So I gave her a quick summary of what a feminist was - equality to males as a student, a voter, an employee, a parent. Equal pay. Equal access to medical care, the courts. An equal right to dignity.
"I like that. I can go with it," she responded. I nodded and went back to work.