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Voices / Viewpoint

You don’t have to be female to be a feminist

Men can stand with women in fight against oppression

The Women’s Freedom Center works to end domestic and sexual violence and serves both Windham and southern Windsor counties. Women in danger can reach an advocate 24 hours a day on the crisis line at 802-254-6954. Because of the sensitive and often dangerous nature of their work, we offer the Freedom Center advocates very rare anonymity in these pages.

Brattleboro

We were certainly inspired last month by the global #yesallwomen campaign to end all forms of violence against women. More than two million tweets told of growing outrage as well as activism worldwide.

But just as you don’t have to be female to be a feminist, it’s not just women who are fed up and speaking out about sexism.

Case in point: when a West Virginia restaurant owner got a recent online review of his business which suggested that female servers “show more skin,” he decided to reply with satire on a massive scale.

Indeed, his story and instincts provide a stellar example of a “teachable moment” and show that this cause itself is not gendered: an ally is an ally, and is always welcome.

Daniel McCawley, owner of Atomic Grill in Morgantown, W.Va., had no idea his brilliant impulse would soon draw national attention and praise.

The suggestion “was brutish,” McCawley said.

“I was upset. I’m a husband and a father of a 12-year-old girl. I have five sisters, and it was just offensive."

Some employers might have caved — perhaps tweaked the dress code to please this kind of customer, or else just ignored the lecherous note, and no one would’ve been the wiser.

But instead, he quickly created a promotion for several weeks that did actually offer more skin: potato skin, that is.

Customers could buy an order of potato skins for $7. And, here’s the poetry to his justice: he then gave 100 percent of the money to the state’s resource organization for rape survivors.

It’s hard to think up a more elegant scheme to combat sexism: this savvy ally recognized the ultimate link between sexist entitlement and sexist aggression, meaning rape culture itself.

“The way that women are treated is pretty personal, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

And his solidarity highlights what history has always shown: conscience doesn’t have a gender. Plus, liberating women from gendered stereotypes helps liberate men from them too. One social norm he’s helping to change: that of men who don’t take other men’s sexism seriously.

* * *

Closer to home, the Women’s Freedom Center has long been supported not just by male donors and participants at our events, but also by our own group of vocal male allies.

These allies not only challenge sexism in their respective fields and workplaces, but they also seek us out to co-host events, share fundraising ideas, and commiserate on challenges in the work to end violent masculinity.

For a current example of such efforts, tune in to WTSA. Since April, we’ve been running a 13-month radio ad campaign of Vermont Men Speaking Out Against Sexual Violence.

One of our goals, especially this 40th year, is to expand the impact of Sexual Violence Awareness Month into a year-long campaign. Called “A Myth a Month: Let’s Debunk Them,” the series first addressed the myth that rape is primarily a women’s issue.

And so we have a full year of messages by male allies and community leaders to keep a public spotlight on how rape culture harms us all, and to encourage more men to promote positive masculinity.

And just south of us, western Massachusetts has long fostered activist, pro-feminist allies, including the 30-year-strong Men’s Resource Center for Change, now an international resource teaching gender justice.

The center’s mission is “to support men in developing healthy self-awareness and meaningful personal relationships with women, children, and other men that move beyond the limits […] that have divided men historically.”

Our culture must grapple with the ways patriarchy damages boys — and men, too. As advocates, we’ve been moved by stories of our male allies and their own journeys: beyond guilt or defensiveness about gender inequality, to an honest look at what they missed out on — as full human beings — when they just inhabited male privilege unconsciously.

* * *

Each time we as a community think together about these issues, we build a little more capacity to create positive change.

You’re welcome to weigh in on these conversations, too. Once a month, we join WKVT’s Green Mountain Morning (formerly Live & Local) to talk about these issues.

You can also stay tuned to the River Garden’s brown-bag lunch calendar, where advocates will host a monthly community dialogue and speak about the work we do in Windham and southern Windsor counties.

It’s clear that opposing male privilege and sexism is not about gender, or even genetic — it’s about justice. About standing with victims and against oppression, all oppression, since this culture of blatant (and subtle) sexism affects us all every day.

So thank you, Daniel McCawley, and to the others who stay alert to toxic B.S. and oppose the war on women with inspired activism. We salute you, conscientious objectors.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #262 (Wednesday, July 9, 2014). This story appeared on page C3.

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