I have a problem talking to my family about gender issues, sexism and feminism. I find there is a lot of latent and underlying sexism in how members of my family conduct their lives. That isn’t to say they aren’t good people – they are. They don’t believe women should be unequal, yet they are unwilling or unable to see that, in so many ways, we are.
I am 22 and have finished university, and my experiences have educated me about feminism and sexism. I have been treated badly by previous boyfriends and have had various difficult problems relating to consent and sex. I have come to realise just how important feminism is in everyday life and how easy it is for people to live their lives and not realise they are being disrespectful or sexist. I’ve realised how many subtle acts (calling a woman a slut, believing you have ownership over a woman in a club, leering and nodding approvingly at a woman on the street) can affect someone’s mental health or self-perception.
I tried to tell my 21-year-old brother that calling women “birds” was unacceptable and he talked over me, telling me it was just a joke, to change the subject, that he wasn’t interested, to stop going on like “that”. Whatever “that” is, I don’t think he sees it in a positive light.
My mother believes I preach too much, and people are allowed their own opinions. I don’t see sexism as an opinion and don’t believe that anyone is entitled to their sexist beliefs. I can’t help feeling that I must change these beliefs in my family but don’t know how to go about it as they are so unreceptive and close-minded. They see me as a hysterical woman preaching on a soap box to them about something they don’t want to acknowledge or see as a priority. Is it too late – are sexism and patriarchy too ingrained? Is there any way I can bring up these subjects in a certain manner so they are better received? After being so badly treated by men viewing me as an object this is an issue close to my heart, my family being so unreceptive is extremely hurtful.
Very few people will respond to having their views challenged with: “Thanks for that, you’ve completely changed my mind.”
The first thing to try to remember is that new/contradictory information presented in a gentler manner is more likely to “go in”. It’s really difficult, though, when the subject matter is so important and you feel so passionately about something. But if you want to change the way someone thinks, you just can’t go in all guns blazing, because it won’t alter anything – if you shout or preach (and I’m not saying you are) all people tend to notice is the method of delivery, not the information being imparted.
I contacted Hera Cook, a historian of feminism, women and sexuality, for her advice on how you could move things along in your family.
“Basically,” she says, “you can’t ask your family members to change how they live. You can only share ideas, and there are few easy ways to share ideas that challenge people’s everyday behaviour.”
I think it’s that everyday behaviour that can be the most pernicious.
“Think of it,” continues Cook, “as a long-term project and focus on your own life. It’s hard enough to change our own behaviour [let alone that of others].”
Cook suggests “sticking to concrete events – your mother probably works and may well get paid less than men for doing work of equivalent value. You can bring up issues like this when they arise.
“You can also change your own behaviour,” says Cook. “For example, you might refuse to do more housework tasks than your brother, or ask him to share work when you do it. This will arouse conflict but it will be understood in a way that theoretical arguments won’t be.”
The other thing I would suggest is reflective listening. When we think we are right about something, the tendency is to try to tell people in a passionate way. We are so keen to get our own point of view across, we rarely listen to the other. But I think this may be a powerful tool for you. Let your family explain their thinking and ask them questions about it: this is a great way to get people to think about their behaviour without telling them to change it.
So for example, ask your brother how women might feel when he calls them “birds”. Are there any words that men are called that leave him feeling uncomfortable? He might not admit it to you, but this will hopefully set him off thinking. When your mum says you preach, ask her: “What do you feel passionately about, Mum? How do you get yourself heard in this family?” Ask them what they feel about issues that are important to you and then discuss them.
Cook also wonders if your family talks about the news and current affairs? “If so, you can put your perspective in those discussions without directly demanding that your family change. If they don’t, could you start buying a newspaper (if you don’t already)? It means you will have a physical item that you can ask your family whether they saw or liked, and perhaps draw some of them into it.”
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 20 August 2016.