It is unfortunate, if perhaps unsurprising, that the conversation surrounding Adria Richards’s now infamous PyCon Tweet and blog post has taken the direction that it has. Any opportunity to calmly discuss workplace conduct is long gone, dwarfed by the alarmingly virulent internet backlash against Richards. Threats of rape and murder are, it is safe to say, a wildly disproportionate response to an action that was at worst nothing more than unprofessional.
With such flagrantly sexist and racist language in the mix, however, it is easy to overlook one of the more insidiously misogynistic responses to the controversy. Men’s rights activists on Reddit have established a “Feminist Victims Fund” to collect donations for the man fired over his “dongles” joke, claiming that “feminists have been so successful at stifling dissent that it is now a dangerous proposition to speak against them.”
Setting aside for the moment the dubious proposition that the ability to make crude jokes in a professional setting is an inalienable right — and one that, moreover, this manifesto seems to regard as central to “masculinity” — it is not hard to poke holes in this argument.
To anyone remotely acquainted with the realities of living as a woman in the United States, such statements are patently absurd. The notion that feminism has a stranglehold over public debate is hard enough to square with the slew of threats Richards has received, let alone with the often appalling verbal abuse of victims of actual sexual violence, as in the recent Steubenville rape case. This is to say nothing, of course, of the myriad forms of discrimination and oppression women face outside the realm of discourse, which it would be effectively impossible to address in a single article.
And yet it would be a mistake to dismiss the Reddit thread as a fluke unworthy of attention, as some responses to this Huffington Post article have. The problem with many men’s rights groups is that their more extreme rhetoric is often buried beneath either depressingly common ideas or, more rarely, truly legitimate concerns.
As an example of the latter, consider this claim made on the so-called “Female Privilege Checklist”: “Maternity leave is much more common and has more benefits than paternity leave.” This is true, although with the exception of a few states, America does not mandate paid maternity leave either. Regardless, many mothers in heterosexual partnerships would no doubt appreciate the father’s help with their newborns, and many feminists would blame the particular reluctance to institute paternity leave on the persistence of gender norms that hurt both men and women.
Pointing out that feminist concerns are really human concerns is, however, impossible when one considers that men’s rights activists also make lists entitled “42 Things Wrong with American Women” bemoaning the fact that women “are proud to date multiple men at the same time, as if they were men,” “rarely wear high heels,” and “have the intellectual curiosity of a dung beetle.”
Admittedly, this blog is an extreme example of the kinds of sexism that the men’s rights movement either tolerates or outright encourages. But given the stigma attached to the word "feminism," is it really unreasonable to wonder whether such hate speech has a ready-made audience?
A sizable number of people, in my experience, would agree with at least one of the claims made “Feminist Victim Fund” statement, namely that “feminists are out for men’s rights.” It would behoove all of us to question why this particular stereotype about feminism has such a hold over the popular imagination.