Antifeminist backlash at my faculty

This is the uncensored version of the article that was meant to be published in my faculty's journal.
It is the product of a collaborative effort, with contributions from several colleagues including Erin Moores (you can find her personal blog here). Many thanks to all of them.  

Do you know about Lewis’s law? It states that “comments on any article about feminism justify feminism”. Although I make huge efforts to never read any comment on feminist articles, I can testify that this law perfectly describes what happened last Wednesday in one of the Facebook groups of the students of my faculty. A friend even described the comments they made by stating that we couldn’t have made a better parody if we tried.

A group of feminist students has been discussing the question of sexism in teaching at our faculty. Taking as a starting point my personal experience as a female student, as well as testimonies from colleagues, I decided to put together a “Guide for  sexism-free teaching” (Guide pour un enseignement non sexiste), with 10 pieces of advice that teachers can easily apply to work towards a non-sexist/feminist law faculty. Some of us are planning some actions to have the teachers and/or the faculty adopt and apply it. But even before we started anything, the antifeminist outcry started.

It all started with a simple call for allies on a Facebook post. I basically informed the students of the initiative I described above, gave a few examples of recommendations of the Guide so that people would know what we are talking about, and asked if people were interested in participating, suggesting that they join the corresponding Facebook group.

What I expected: a few comments, mainly from women, asking practical questions such as “what is the time commitment for people who get involved?” or “how can I help?” Maybe even something like “nice initiative!”

What actually happened: a lot of extremely negative comments - mainly from men - from mansplaining, to  whining, to pure denial of any sexism in teaching: all wrapped up in a perfect example of male solidarity in oppression. It ended up being mainly women talking from experience about sexism versus “objective” men denying it. I had neither the courage nor the time to answer all of them (would they even have considered my opinion? I mean, it’s just another woman complaining, right?), so I’ll do this here [comments are paraphrased and summarised]:

[Man] ‘I fail to see how teaching at the faculty is sexist’
Well, you know, the thing about privilege is that people who benefit from it don’t notice it. Obviously you don’t see sexism, as it doesn’t oppress you. Surely you haven’t noticed that we barely read any female authors. Surely you haven’t felt excluded when your teacher last talked about ‘les avocats’. To be honest, how you perceive sexism is irrelevant.

[Mister Cliché] ‘Readings should be chosen according to relevance and value, not arbitrarily based on gender. Current selection of readings does not convey sexual bias.’
Not sure if it is a joke of if you are being serious… But 18 (18!!!!) people liked this comment! I am without words.

Ok I found my words: this comment implies two awful things: first, that women’s publications are not relevant or have less value than men’s, and second, that discrimination based on sex/gender does not exist. When you talk about relevance (the same way antifeminists talk about ‘competence’ when they discuss parity measures), you are saying that teachers could not find readings coming from women that would be as relevant or important as men’s articles. If you say there is no gender bias and that this is how texts are chosen, it means that women ‘deserve’ not to be read, since their texts are not as good as men’s. The truth is sexism exists, so there IS obviously a bias in the selection of readings. Syllabi that have not changed a lot over the years are biased in favour of men. Syllabi that are based on what the teacher read when s/he studied law are, too. There are not as many female authors as men because men historically and conveniently excluded women from academia and law school. There are, however, certainly enough to fill half a coursepack. Having almost no women is a CHOICE, the choice to perpetuate the discrimination that led to women being excluded in the first place. It is a vicious circle: don’t promote women’s work because it is notfamous à women’s work doesn’t get famous à repeat.

[Man] You are not self-critical! Don't forget that your understanding of sexism is not the same as other women's.
You are quick to tell me that I am not critical of my work. Why? Because I didn’t think much of a man telling me that sexism is in my head? Do you even know how many discussions I had with other members of the Feminist Collective before posting this? What do you even know about the criticisms I received and accepted? And yes, not all women have the same vision of sexism. But let me suggest that what you mean is that YOUR vision of sexism doesn’t coincide with mine/women’s.

[Man]  I agree with the others [mentioned twice]. I find the readings to be well balanced. I don’t see the sexism in the value-free and highly objective teaching we receive. Anyways there are plenty of feminist readings available for those who want to read them. [Explanations on how proper criticism must be done]
Thanks for this great move of solidarity with the other male students. It is important that men stick together and present a united front before the angry, dangerous feminists. Of course teaching is objective and value-free!! It is not like law has until very recently been written, commented and applied exclusively by me! I am so grateful that a man (i.e. objective person) clarified that there is no sexism in teaching, it must be all in my head then! And once again: thank you for knowing nothing about the way this project developed, but still mansplaining how we, subjective women, should conduct it.

[Women who have my eternal gratitude because they explained gently what I wanted to scream, and noted that the discussion itself was sexist]

[Woman (#womenagainstfeminism?)] Sometimes female scholars are just not the leading experts. Do we read them just to achieve equality? Are we going to avoid fields in which there are no women at all? I don’t want to compromise my education to satisfy a quota. When women’s articles are relevant, they are already assigned as readings. [Gives one example] To balance the readings, you would have to exclude texts written by men – this is equally sexist. I also don’t see sexism at the faculty.
I.e.: women are just not competent. And there are a lot of fields in which there is not a single woman (which ones?).
Apocalypse now: feminism will destroy education. Reading women will compromise your future. [Dramatic music]
Also, we can be sure that teachers incorporate all relevant women’s work. Because, of course, you checked that, you are yourself an expert in legal doctrine in every field.
Now, let me say something about ‘sexism against men’: IT DOESN’T EXIST. Sexism is a systemic oppression that devalues genders other than male. Even if it did: prohibiting women from studying law for years, then marginalizing already marginalized voices is kind of worse than not assigning an article written by a man who already has all the chances to succeed in a patriarchal field.

[Man] Having a 50/50 ratio would counter the objective of impartiality in legal education.
I.e.: feminism = apocalypse.
Also, see above: nothing is “impartial” about legal education, a field, like many others, that was created, shaped, and implemented exclusively by men up until less than 100 years ago. Suggest Googling “Objectivity is male subjectivity.”

[Man] The faculty offers a ‘Discrimination and the law’ course, therefore there is no sexism. Things are getting better. Women are taking more space in the law world. Pictures of women are coming to the faculty. [Bunch of proverbs] Just be patient. You can’t deny things are changing. This discussion is divisive. And when you tell me to check my privilege, I feel insulted.
Where to start? Just be patient, just wait, says the man who is NOT the one being oppressed. We all know that women’s rights were obtained by gently waiting for the men to ‘give’ them to us.
This discussion is divisive – says the man who basically restated things all other men said. Please remember that women as an oppressed group are expected to love their oppressors. If they dare stand up together and claim something, they are divisive. And they are to blame, not the men who so ardently protect their privileges.
Now: I feel insulted when you tell me to check my privilege is the perfect example of male discomfort with confronting the ways that sexism benefits them.

[Man] Re: this is divisive, adversarial. We should collaborate and value each other’s point of view. [Bunch of proverbs] [Relativism]
Let’s collaborate, said the man that wasn’t oppressed, the man who wasn’t banging his head against the wall. Also, by talking about the two groups at the same time, you imply symmetry. There is no symmetry in this discussion.

Matt Lubchansky (listen-tome.com)

Basically, men rapidly appropriated the post, took over the space that was supposed to be devoted to finding allies and used it to make us ‘prove’ the sexism that most of us women experience on a day-to-day basis. It made me think of this quote from an article about privileged people who play the devil’sadvocate, speaking about the burden on people knowledgeable about or experiencing oppression:

It is physically and emotionally draining to be called upon to prove that these systems of power exist. For many of us, just struggling against them is enough — now you want us to break them down for you? Imagine having weights tied to your feet and a gag around your mouth, and then being asked to explain why you think you are at an unfair disadvantage.”
Men were also quick to share their enlightened experience about an oppression that they never lived (as the oppressed) and to mansplain the ‘right way’ for us to practice our feminist activism. Considering that the minimal requirement of allyship is trusting oppressed peoples’ experience, I am very disappointed. I am disappointed, but I am also scared. I fear that there will be a hateful backlash to this publication. I hope my colleages will prove me wrong. 

I sincerely hope that teachers are more critical and respectful than students. But if male teachers are half as bad as male students, we are in big trouble.

I will not remain quiet. We will not remain quiet. We will work in solidarity with each other. You will hear about our project, and it will continue to live even if – especially if – so many of us students are confident enough to deny the existence of the sexism we suffer from.


Did you like this article? Have a look at 'So you think you can be a woman?'. Also see Erin Moores' blog.
You can also 'like' my blog's page here and follow me on Twitter @SuzanneZaccour.