Okay, so the title is pungently truthful, but it must be so. As strong of a statement as this is, I hesitate to call myself a feminist, only because I feel that I haven’t done enough research nor in-depth thinking to truly reach the moral standing of ‘feminist’. Moreover, I would probably refer to myself as a ‘feminist in training’. Perhaps this post can show you why.
Following is a picture of me at a global health conference earlier this year, taken in stealth by a woman who as a part of the (stellar, as I came to find out) organisation, Women in Global Health.
As a disclaimer, I’m trying to be really careful with the language I use (as always, I guess) in this post, but I guarantee you that, as a privileged, white male, I will undoubtedly make some sort of mistake in language or concepts — please comment to correct me if I err.
This specific panel was an all-women panel, occupied by leaders in their respective fields within global health, who also happened to be women. As someone who wants to end up in the field of global health, I thought this panel would be really useful in order to understand (or at least be introduced to) women’s role in global health now, and what is needed for women to excel unhindered by the patriarchy (by which many fields are unjustly ruled, not excluding global health). The amount of men in the room was astounding, mainly because I could probably count them on both hands without running out of fingers. (Here’s where a moral dilemma comes into play – as of now, I’m just trying to set the scene.) As this was a panel discussion, they gave space for questions to be asked — those who had questions merely had to queue up behind a microphone and wait their turn. I had a question, so I got up in the queue, and happened to be the first male to ask a question. One of the panelists noted, “Ah, you’re the first male to ask a question!” And the audience applauded. My question was, basically, “What is my role as a young male in the field of global health?”
The moral dilemma comes as such. Being honest, I loved getting this recognition as the ‘first male to ask a question’, the applause that came with it, and a twitter post from a women’s NGO in global health. One can see this situation as me being a champion for women’s rights, but I feel like the recognition that I received at this conference might have been a little ironic. In short, women do not need the approval of men to do well in global health.
This reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend (hey there, Saffy!) about Malcom X and what he wrote about the day Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his speech on Capitol Hill. The U.S. administration was terrified for that day, because the streets were going to be filled with ‘negroes’ and they had no way of sufficiently controlling this crowd of people throughout the march and the speech. However, it turned out that a fair amount of white people were in support of Dr. King, and were planning to come out to the march as well. This then calmed down the administration, which led to them coming around to accepting the speech and congregation of Dr. King’s listeners and advocates. Malcom X argues that this sort of assembly was only okay to the current administration because it had de facto ‘white’ approval. Had numerous white supporters not come out that day to listen to Dr. King, the assembly would not have seemed as okay to the administration. Malcom X tells us that this is a dire problem of (at least the U.S.) society.
I can’t help but draw a parallel to what I experienced this past spring at the global health conference. Yes, one could say that I’m doing my best as a white male to be a champion for women’s rights, and that may be required for all men in this day and age, but I might also add that it’s incredibly important to be keenly aware of what kind of moral consequences one’s actions may hold. One must also be aware of the history to which their actions and beliefs are tied. I, as a white male, must be aware that we (meaning, generally, white males throughout history), have taken control of women, their bodies, and their lives. Following this idea, I would think that ‘being a champion’ for women follows exactly that same mould of the control of women by being the voice that gives approval to women’s rights in society.
So going forward from here — what is my role as a white male in society (not just in global health)? I, too, wish to succeed in global health, but I don’t want to unfairly take opportunities of women in this endeavour. One solution that comes to mind is to be aware of the societal privilege that I am (unjustly) awarded as a white male, and to not ever think of utilising that privilege for a work opportunity or a forward move in my career.
Without trying to offer more solutions, the simple answer is that I will never fully know what is required for women to succeed in global health because, quite simply, I identify as a man, which equally means that I am not a woman. I do not know what a woman needs because I am not a woman. Hence, solutions and answers should not be coming from white men, but from women. Embedded in the preceding sentence is an equal moral imperative to listen to all women’s input, not just the white, middle-class, feminist woman from your local university (which is still an important view, but not the only important view).
I think the duty that I have as a male in society is a negative moral duty, which is to make sure that I am not hindering the autonomy or ability of any woman in my life to make her own decisions and lead the life she wants to live. Outside of this, I will do my best to train to be feminist, to be an advocate of women’s rights, to create a more equal world for all — but the knowledge I gain to back up these actions best not come from men, but women — as they, of course, know what the best is for themselves, and they do not need a man to explain that for them.
In writing this post, I’ve left out a lot of ideas and topics, not limited to race, heteronormativity, gender, and class. Granted, these topics are incredibly important, but you would most likely be reading a text the length of a chapter, or even a book, if I was left to leave all of my (perhaps too many) thoughts on the matter here.
My request for those reading this post is to do some research about one influential woman in their own society or another, and perhaps comment below to share the (undoubtedly amazing) stories of certain women with your fellow readers.