Privilege

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Even though as a feminist I write for the benefit of all women, not all women will listen to me. I am especially suspect as a Second Wave feminist because I belong to the cohort that seemed to run things during the era of the women’s liberation movement:. The problem is that, according to some, I’m a woman of privilege: I’m white, straight, middle-class and able-bodied. Women of color, lesbians, the poor and the disabled felt that they need not apply.

Actually, this has been a criticism of the feminist movement as far back as the First Wave, when feminists were more concerned about getting women the vote than in eradicating slavery.

And I’m not sure that things have changed that much today. Where once feminists were represented by the Susan B. Anthonys and the Gloria Steinems, now we have the Jessica Valentis; all white, straight, middle class and able-bodied.

Some women have even refused to join, or have left, the feminist movement, because they feel that women of privilege monopolize it. They feel that they’re not being listened to. They resent not being able to influence the course of the feminist movement (although I would argue that this isn’t entirely true).

And isn’t that what we’re talking about anyway? Being shut out of the party? It’s like  in high school when the “in” crowd seems to run everything. That’s what being privileged is really all about. Being the one who’s picked first, who gets most of the recognition and is given more opportunities to get ahead. Being given more because you had more to begin with. Having advantages that start you out ahead of everyone else.

It’s natural to resent that kind of privilege. We want those who are “on top” to pay in some way for their privilege. We want them to feel guilty, to apologize, maybe even to give up what they’ve been given. But is that really fair?

Let’s take this a step further: what about male privilege? Feminists talk about the advantages men have just by virtue of their being born male. But what do we expect them to do about it? They can’t very well stop being men. (Well, they could, but that’s a rather drastic solution.)

Feminists do often seem to want men to feel guilty and to apologize for their privilege.  But what feminists really want is for men to acknowledge that privilege.  And to be willing to stop hogging the resources that are bestowed upon them.

That’s all that anyone wants of those who have privilege. We want them to say, “Yes, we realize that we have things easier than you do. And that we didn’t do anything to earn what we’ve been given. So from now on, we’re going to accord you the same privileges we have. ”

But even this is a touchy solution. It smacks of the lords giving rights to the peasants. What we really need is to change society’s attitudes toward privilege. We need to stop rewarding those who have it and penalizing those who don’t.

In fact, what if we got rid of the concept of privilege altogether? What if it was no longer seen as an advantage to be male, white, straight, rich and able-bodied? What if all conditions and characteristics were seen as valuable? What if we stopped dividing people into the haves and have-nots?

Yes, I know I’m being idealistic. I know that we’ll probably never see a society where people are willing to give up the power that being seen as privileged brings them. But if we would stop attaching so much power to certain qualities, we would find this world a much better place for all of us.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

2 thoughts on “Privilege”

  1. The salient point about feminism, no matter if we look at it in immediately sociological terms or if we prefer the grown-up hindsight of history, is that it’s a feature of ‘the patriarchy’. Whether it’s a patriarchal failure or an achievement is open to debate. Feminists necessarily present the women’s movement as their peculiar invention, raised in violent opposition to an always-oppressive male polity. This is a persuasive view of things only if you happen to be a woman, and especially a woman activist. For the less obsessed among us, a less tendentious and more historical view might see feminism as one more expression of that form of patriarchy we call, undogmatically, western liberal pluralism.

    1. You’ve obviously thought a lot about this! There is merit in much of what you wrote, but I reject the assertion that feminism is an attack on the family, to cite one example. Some feminists have attacked the institution of marriage and even motherhood, but that doesn’t mean that all feminists feel that way, or that it is the “official” party line (as if there is such a thing in feminism). I myself am married and have children and grandchildren. I never wanted it any other way and I have been fortunate–for the most part–in that my experiences have been positive. That doesn’t mean that I think everything is hunky-dory for women in this society. Or for men, for that matter. I believe in pointing out areas that need improvement for both sexes. Men should not have to shoulder the entire burden of providing for the family, for instance. And women shouldn’t have to shoulder the entire burden of housework and child care. If that’s what individuals choose to do, that’s their right. But I don’t think it should be assumed that those gender roles are set in stone.

      Just my two cents’ worth.

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