Why Feminism Came First

February 16th, 2009 by Pelle Billing

Feminism is a well-established movement around the world, and particularly strong in the most developed parts. In many European and North American countries, feminism is present in the media, in politics, in schools and in legislation. So not only did feminism manage to arise back in the 18th century, but it’s also been hugely successful at spreading its message and implementing change.

However, the masculist movement is conspicuously absent, as is a gender liberation movement that cares about both sexes. Why is this? Why did feminism come first?

The mainstream explanation is of course that women were oppressed while men were not, and therefore the need for feminism was pressing and the need for masculism was non-existent. I believe that explanation to be both simplistic and incorrect, since it is obvious that men too had a constricted gender role and very little real freedom.

I can see five important reasons as to why feminism arose first, and why men’s voices have been more or less completely absent from the gender debate:

1. The Female Value Sphere

Due to the very different gender roles of men and women throughout history, men’s and women’s value spheres have evolved very differently. I won’t describe the male and female value sphere in any detail, but what’s interesting for our purposes is that the female value sphere includes focusing on rights, care, nurturing – and dare I say it: complaining. Women have always been responsible for making sure that enough resources are available to raise a baby, and to do that you need to focus on your rights and complain when your needs are not being met.

This means that while women may not have had any official positions in the public sphere at the time that feminism arose, they were used to complaining when they weren’t happy about their situation. And to start a movement that protests against a perceived injustice, you need to be ready to complain.

2. Having Time To Analyze

In the 18th century, when feminism arose, upper and middle class women were the only group in society that had time to analyze their own situation, especially the ones with grown-up children or or no children at all. So the wealth created by men in the public sphere allowed women to start thinking beyond survival, while men were still preoccupied with performing and bringing in resources.

Similarly, in the 1960s, when feminism exploded into mainstream consciousness, the driving force was a large group of middle class women who had been well educated and also had a lot of free time to think about their own situation.

Having the time to think about one’s own situation, is obviously a prerequisite for becoming dissatisfied and wanting to implement change.

3. The Male Value Sphere

The male value sphere arose from men’s roles and responsibilities in the public sphere, and is thus very different from the female value sphere. The male value sphere focuses on getting things done and not complaining, preferably while being silent. These characteristics were essential to be efficient in the public sphere, especially when many men had to work together.

However, this means that men simply don’t have the instinct to complain, or to speak up about a perceived injustice. Men tend to know their place in the male hierarchy, and if they’re not happy about their personal circumstances, the solution has always been to work harder or work smarter, while complaining is generally seen as “unmanly” and as something that will expose one’s weakness.

4. In-Depth Analysis

The limitations of the male gender role are more subtle and covert than the limitations of the female gender role – and are thus harder to spot, unless our analysis is both wide and deep. Men have traditionally had access to money, which is something very tangible, as opposed to the more intangible social connections and social capital that women have access to. Men’s power in the public sphere has been visible, while women’s power in the private sphere has been invisible.

The feminist way of framing things has also made it harder to spot the constrictions of the male gender role, by turning the spotlight away from the plight of men. We all know about men’s dominance of the public sphere, but not men’s expendability in the public and private sphere. Men working long days away from home is considered a privilege, and not a sad story that prevents you from spending time with your children and getting to know them.

Not only did feminism come first, but once the feminist rhetoric was it place, it became very hard to even think the thought that men may be struggling within an impossible gender role.

5. Male Change Is Scary

We are so used to men building civilization and building wealth, that the very thought of changing the male gender role scares a lot of people, or perhaps it scares culture as a whole. I believe this is why the male gender role is even more narrow than the female gender role (which research indicates), and why we have so many ways of keeping men “manly” and keeping men in their performing role.

Who will take care of us if men aren’t there to risk their lives to save us from a fire, or if men aren’t ready to devote their lives to their careers for the benefit of society? We all depend on men to feel safe, and to have the wheels of civilization keep on turning.

In popular culture women are often portrayed as being dissappointed that men take them for granted. However, as a culture we probably take male sacrifice and male expendability more for granted than anything else.

What Now?

The image that emerges is one of men that are focused on performing and working, while not being used to complaining or thinking about the role they have. Women however, have no trouble complaining, and once history gave them the time to think about their own situation there were obvious examples available of how they were being shortchanged.

Furthermore, changing the male gender role is plain scary, because male expendability and male sacrifice make people feel safe. All in all this made feminism come first, before any masculism or neutral gender liberation movement.

Most men still have to pause and reflect upon their own situation, in part due to the male value sphere, but especially as feminism and the media tell them that they have all the advantages. I dearly hope that this is changing now, and that men are waking up and starting to find their authentic voices. Not only will this be good for men, but I suspect women are longing to connect to men who have this kind of self-awareness, and who can stand up for their own rights.

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27 Responses to “Why Feminism Came First”

  1. unomi Says:

    Re. 1, 2 and 3: This seems to disregard the international labour movement.

  2. Pelle Billing Says:

    Good point unomi.

    However, for every movement that arises, or does not arise, I believe you need to look at all the major factors. In the case of the international labor movement, the unfair wages were quite obvious without any in-depth analysis, and there was no rocking of the boat vis-a-vis the male gender role (i.e. points 4+5 weren’t present).

    In fact, the international labor movement if anything reinforced the traditional male gender role, by saying that “we need to get a fairer compensation so that we can support our families better”. So from a gender perspective that movement was anything but controversial.

    In the case of workers a couple hundred of years back, you also had a huge power imbalance going on. The rich owners of factories had power and influence that the workers simply did not have. So in this case you really can speak about a form of oppression going on, whereas when talking about women vs men you get a situation where each group has a different kind of power.

    Additionally, regarding the complaining (points 1+3), the female value sphere is one where you specifically have had to be able to complain to men (to be able to get adequate resources to raise children), and the male value sphere is one where you specifically did not complain to women (for fear of looking unmanly, or being an inadequate provider).

    Finally, my post is not about why feminism arose, or why masculism didn’t arise. My post is about why feminism came first, and why masculism or a neutral gender liberation movement took much longer to establish itself. So my post is inherently about the different factors that each gender faced/faces when trying to establish a gender liberation movement for their respective gender.

  3. Mark Davenport Says:

    About the international labor movement…
    In the late sixties I won a “scholarship” (really a kind of “cultural exchange”) and found myself in Milan where I met my first flesh and blood communists. one of whom has become my best friend. During that period divorce became legal in Italy and there was much discussion of changing sexual mores. I smugly felt that the U.S. was ahead of Italy (and it was) in regard to women’s rights. I recall holding forth on such simple basics as “equal opportunity” and “equal pay for equal work” and my friend spouting what I felt was a party line response to the effect that, since men had families to provide for and women (obviously single or they wouldn’t be seriously working) did not, it was clearly better to favor higher wages and preferential hiring of men.

    Though we were both saying what was in the air in 1967/68, it nonetheless supports anecdotally that the international labor movement was attempting to strengthen traditional roles or at least that it was operating within an unexamined traditional structure.

    Much has changed in forty years and both my friend and I are glad of it

    MarkD

  4. hampus Says:

    ‘ …and dare I say it: complaining. Women have always been responsible for making sure that enough resources are available to raise a baby, and to do that you need to focus on your rights and complain when your needs are not being met.’

    ‘… the very thought of changing the male gender role scares a lot of people…’

    Dead-on, PB!

    I would like to add a thought:

    Men, not allowed to complain, need to accept a great deal of self critisicm when analyzing their situation and possibilities to overcome difficulties. Women need only to complain are not made responsible for their claims, as they are expected to complain.

    This has lead to men accepting even the most outrageuous claims by nfeminism in silence and to a public debate today, where males are silenced even with wellfounded critic, while females get away with any kind of behavior or sloppy analysis.

    hampus

  5. Pelle Billing Says:

    Mark,

    Thank you for your comment; it spans two continents and several decades, and nicely illustrates what I was trying to say to unomi.

    I see the international labor movement as a force that did not try to change gender roles, but only tried to implement change within the existing gender roles. As such, it was much more acceptable for men to stand up and fight, because they were not fighting only for themselves, but for their wives and children too.

    Pelle

  6. Pelle Billing Says:

    hampus,

    I agree that men tend to stay silent much longer, until they (we) truly have something coherent to say about a certain subject.

    I think one of the reasons that many men have accepted feminism is because of the male gender role. Feminism paints women as fragile victims, and that image is an immediate trigger for most men to help women or even be chivalric. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly OK to help women, it’s just that the end result becomes very weird when the assumptions and premises of feminism are inaccurate.

    Pelle

    Pelle

  7. Danny Says:

    PB:
    Feminism paints women as fragile victims, and that image is an immediate trigger for most men to help women or even be chivalric. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly OK to help women, it’s just that the end result becomes very weird when the assumptions and premises of feminism are inaccurate.
    Not just inaccurate but downright contradictory in regards to painting women as fragile victims. Feminism states that women as a class need help while at the same time not wanting to appear to need help because they are women. And I can tell you how to test this.

    You see a woman carrying a large object approaching a door. Do you offer her assistance? If you do there is a chance that she will accept it, politely decline, or say/think you are a pig for thinking because she is a woman she needs help. If you do not there is a chance that she will ask for it, be glad you didn’t assume she needed help because she’s a woman, or think you are “not a real man” for not offering assistance. I’ll bet money there isn’t a guy reading this that has not had at least three of those possible six outcomes happen to him during his life.

  8. Pelle Billing Says:

    Danny,

    Your description is interesting, because it describes the uncertainty that arises when we move from a traditional society to a modern/postmodern society. In a traditional society the gender roles are fixed, and men and women know how to relate to each other, but in a postmodern society those rules and roles can no longer be trusted.

    You seem to be frustrated about the woman being the one who decides what is appropriate in a certain situation. I can understand your frustration, since in a postfeminist world many young women take it for granted that they decide what is appropriate, and never the man. Additionally, you have two competeting societal rules now: one says that you hold the door open for a woman, and the other says that women are strong and independent and it’s sexist to hold the door open for them.

    Besides exposing these double binds that face men, like we are doing right here, what do you think you could do on a personal level to feel comfortable about opening or not opening doors?

    I also think it’s fair to point out that many women are probably confused too, not knowing whether it’s OK to accept help from a man, or whether they should be “fiercely independent” in order to be progressive women

    Pelle

  9. Andrew Says:

    it’s not possible to know what’s in the mind of a woman if we perform a simple chivalric act like opening a door when she’s carrying something heavy. It’s not possible to know what’s in a woman’s mind.

    Or a man’s! So I say, do what’s right on top without thinking about it, that you feel or sense, or just do, and live with the consequences with humor. People will have their responses. And we can use that situation to learn, teach, grow, and have fun.

    When it becomes much more personal, like our partners, there especially we can’t ever always read them or make them happy. So (my strategy is) keep showing them the love, starting with owning what we do.
    Andrew

  10. Bj0rnborg Says:

    Andrew:
    Yes, that is a good recipie for living.

    But it dosent illustrate the principles behind feministic rhetorics very well.

  11. hampus Says:

    Bj0rnborg:

    On the contrary, it does illustrate it extremely well. Andrew is silenced, encouraged to this strategy only in his need to satisfy his women.

    Andrew:

    Wouldn’t you like to pose demands on your behalf as well in the relationships you engage yourself in? I mean, aren’t there things you’d wish to be different? What would you like have your woman do for you?

    best regards

    hampus

  12. Andrew Says:

    I do ask my woman to do things for me, but (especially with her history with an extremely demanding husband) I am careful to ASK. Subtle demands are met with subtle refusals. I’m new to really clean and clear asking, or at least I’ve got better recently.

    I needed to work on receiving. I’ve had many lovers and done very little genuine receiving. I’m receiving now and when I ask she very sweetly gives in her own time and way.

    I’m a lucky man!

  13. hampus Says:

    ‘I also think it’s fair to point out that many women are probably confused too, not knowing whether it’s OK to accept help from a man, or whether they should be “fiercely independent” in order to be progressive women’

    I do not think it is fair to point out this. Having the power to decide in her hands is not an acceptable scource for another ‘victimiztion’.

    hampus

  14. Pelle Billing Says:

    Hampus,

    I think it’s important that we try to see every situation from two sides, and not only take the perspective of either men or women.

    Each gender has been conditioned by its gender role, so let’s not make the same mistake that feminism does, and only care about the wellbeing of one gender.

    Pelle

  15. Pelle Billing Says:

    Andrew,

    Thank you for your vulnerable sharing. You demonstrate that the often mentioned belief that men are “takers” and not “givers” in relationships is far from true.

    Pelle

  16. Andrew Says:

    Thank you Pelle. it’s funny you describe me as acting like a giver, when I was only speaking of receiving.

    But it makes sense: receiving is a gift and a way of giving too, really taking what another offers. Receiving is as important and as demanding as giving. Today I was thinking that the whole world can be seen as a big gift to each of us. Usually I’m not open to receiving it, having my many conditions!

  17. Kristian Says:

    You make an excellent point with complaining! For women it’s necessary to complain, while for men it’s a sign of weakness. Complaining means you don’t play the (man’s) game well enough. Man’s game is about getting resources and results! Not trying – getting! Achieving!

    Questioning the rules of the game, or the game itselt, means that you are loosing. Or if emotions gets in the way. Play harder, play better!

    Kristian

  18. Pelle Billing Says:

    Well put Kristian, this is exactly what I’m talking about.

  19. Danny Says:

    You seem to be frustrated about the woman being the one who decides what is appropriate in a certain situation. I can understand your frustration, since in a postfeminist world many young women take it for granted that they decide what is appropriate, and never the man. Additionally, you have two competting societal rules now: one says that you hold the door open for a woman, and the other says that women are strong and independent and it’s sexist to hold the door open for them.
    I don’t have a problem with it being beyond my control. My frustration is the extremes of the possible outcomes and knowing full well there is no right way to rectify it. And actually to some people it may be the societal rules of helping a women vs. assuming a woman can’t do something by herself but to a lot of people its more simple than that. Its the basic good samaritan thing to do to help people (man or woman) vs. making the prejudice assumption that assuming a person cannot do something on their own.

    As far as what to do about it I started practicing what Andrew says:
    So I say, do what’s right on top without thinking about it, that you feel or sense, or just do, and live with the consequences with humor. People will have their responses. And we can use that situation to learn, teach, grow, and have fun.

    As for me personally I just don’t do anything til asked for help and if she has enough of a problem to question why I didn’t just offer assistance I’ll plain and simple tell her, “Because I’m tired of offering assistance and getting grilled for assuming a woman can’t open a door while carrying a heavy object. So I figure it’ll save me a lot of headache if I just do nothing. If its going to be “Damned if I do and damned if I don’t” I’ll take “Damned if you don’t” because there’s less wasted effort.”

  20. Bj0rnborg Says:

    “If its going to be “Damned if I do and damned if I don’t” I’ll take “Damned if you don’t” because there’s less wasted effort.”

    Another nice quote.

  21. Pelle Billing Says:

    Danny, while I can understand your stance regarding opening doors, I feel that if we all adopt that kind of strategy we are kind of letting extreme feminism “win”.

    I open doors for men and women alike, and I expect them to say thank you. If a woman suddenly were to get angry because I’m doing her a favor, then I would probably get angry back at her, or at the very least let her know that her reaction is unacceptable to me. She doesn’t have the prerogative to get angry in that situation, as I see it.

  22. Danny Says:

    Thanks for the complement Bj0rnborg but let me clean it up a bit.

    “If my choices are “Damned if you and damned if you don’t.”, I’ll take “Damned if you don’t.” because there is less wasted effort.

  23. Bj0rnborg Says:

    “Women have always been responsible for making sure that enough resources are available to raise a baby, and to do that you need to focus on your rights and complain when your needs are not being met.”

    This is indeed an interesting thought. Isnt that an indication of status aswell? Complaining as a method of requiring resources can only be attempted sucessfully by those in high regard or with high statuses, higher value. Those answering to those complaints may be concidered of lower status, lower regard, lower value. This might be yet another hint that the femenistic description of the history of genders might just be a bit skewed. Keyword; subordination.

  24. Pelle Billing Says:

    I agree that the feminist description of the traditional male and female gender roles is skewed, but let’s not make the same mistake :)

    I believe men and women were valued equally back then, but for different reasons. Women were valued simply for having female bodies, since that was a major contribution to have offspring. Men were valued for their performance, since that provided the necessary resources to raise a child.

    Feminism has worked hard to address the female asset (her body) in various ways, for example by passing laws concerning abortion and sexual harassment – and by claiming that women shouldn’t be judged on their looks, etc

    Men have yet to address the performance loop that men are stuck in…

  25. Bj0rnborg Says:

    No, was thinking more along these lines;

    The system of genderrollsociety is just a system. The balance of power within the system is reliant on the individual characteristics of those involved. Are they equally strong of will, or is one more meek than the other? That is a weakness of the genderoll dynamics.

    Ideally both are equally strong, this is when it turns into a teamwork, both taking and giving in a respectful manner. I do actually believe that this was the most common relation, even though this seems hidden today.

    Feminism is describing a situation where the woman is always meek and the man always the strongwilled, putting it forth as a norm with few exceptions, yet the otherway around was probably as common. Swedish popular culture have alot of references to these kinds of relationsships, Lilla Fridolf, Kronblom, Åsa-Nisse etc.

    Who is the slave, who is the master? Its not dependent on the specific roll, but on wether you do it of your own will our under the demanding influence of your partner.

    We have come to learn that women where the “slaves” since they where stuck at home, raising children and taking care of homework, becoming isolated and disconnected from the public sphere.

    On the other hand, the man could just aswell be described as the “slave”, forced to be the breadwinner, beeing the beast of burden for the family and the queen bee waiting at home with her demands.

    Its all dependent on character, not society. And since I believe men and women are essentially alike, I believe a dominant character versus a meek one where more or less equally common in both sexes.

    The subordination theory is just a spin of a halftruth.

  26. Pelle Billing Says:

    Ok, now I get your point. For a moment I thought you were trying to say that men have been subordinated, but you’re simply saying that it’s incorrect to describe women’s traditional gender role as a subordinated one. I agree with that.

  27. Deva Ariza Says:

    You are really uncomfortable admitting that female gender roles were and are seen as less important than male gender roles and that this is part of the dynamic which made women feel bad enough to make change. My guess, and I might be wrong, but my guess is that you are uncomfortable dealing honestly with this because it upsets your need to assuage your guilt and shame by denying that women were ever treated badly as a class, which admitting that the female gender role was/is valued less than the male gender role would certainly prove.

    In this post you begin by saying that feminism came first because women are complainers (by nature mind you) and for men complaining is “seen as “unmanly” and as something that will expose one’s weakness.”

    So to follow your logic, if women are (by nature) complainers complaining is unmanly ( a synonym for weak), then women are weak (by nature) complainers therefore they never had anything to complain about and you aren’t guilty. You aren’t guilty. You are innocent!

    Is this basically the thrust of your argument (without the sarcasm)? I am alternatively impressed/depressed by your thinking/writing.

    How about admitting that women were oppressed and starting from there. You’re not going to get anywhere with this line of logic because it does not square with historical facts and it only inflames the need for people to prove the obvious to you. Denying that women have been shit on for roughly 10,000 years does nothing to contribute to gender reconciliation. It might make you feel better, in which case, more power to you, but it’s out of touch with reality, intellectually dishonest, and accomplishes nothing.

    When you’re ready to admit that patriarchy was wrong, that it limited women to one life option, that the option was less valued than all the multiple options available to men, that it was legal to beat and murder your wife, that she was your PROPERTY like your bike is your PROPERTY, that millions of women were murdered for worshiping goddesses, that fat ankles are bad for female politicians but not males, that women are not seen as suitable to represent the all male God, than last names continue to be passed down through fathers, that millions of little girls are sex slaves right now, that women are bad and dirty for all kinds of things for which men are glorious and studly, that … that… that… then maybe you can get somewhere.

    Most of your work has merit. This, however, is simply dishonest intellectual contortion in order to make yourself feel better when you look in the mirror. There is another way you could go and it would start by making a simple admission: Men have and do oppress women.


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