The Difficult Work of Compassionate Feminism

I can’t possibly be the first person to coin the term “compassionate feminism.” I’ve found a few articles out there in the blogosphere about it, most of them having to do with including women with traditional views and values in our conversations about feminism. What I haven’t seen is much discourse about compassionate feminism as it pertains to how we, as feminists, relate to men.

My concept of compassionate feminism is exactly that—a focus on how we, as women who have been harmed by patriarchy and misogyny, can invite and even welcome men into our cause. There is no question that patriarchy harms everyone, including men. Although the harms done to men are quite different from those done to women under the oppression of patriarchy, the harms men experience are equally profound.

Traditional gender norms dictated by patriarchy can impose rigid expectations on men, pressuring them to conform to stereotypical ideals of masculinity. This pressure may limit their emotional expression, discouraging men from openly sharing their feelings or seeking help during challenging times. Moreover, patriarchal structures may contribute to unequal family and workplace dynamics, placing burdens on men as sole providers and perpetuating the notion that vulnerability is a sign of weakness. Men are labeled as betas and low-value men if they dare to embrace softness, kindness, or anything that is not stereotypically considered “macho.” There is no doubt that all of these pressures have a significant impact on men’s mental health, as well as their relationships with both men and women.

So, we must include them in our fight against patriarchy. It’s my firm belief that there are men who would love to join us in this movement, but they aren’t confident that they will be well-received. After all, most of us women leading the conversations about feminism have our own wounds we are healing from—wounds that continue to be re-opened by misogynistic men who can’t refrain from the need to “put a woman in her place.”

And this is where I really struggle. I do want to invite men into our cause. Yet, I often worry that I am alienating them.

I do my advocacy for feminism mostly on social media. I am a writer, after all, and my social media platforms are where I get the most reach. My content centers primarily on women, but also discusses how patriarchy harms men and how we can work together to mitigate (and eventually abolish) the harms done to us all. Everything I write is measured, deliberate, and respectful. I try my best not to alienate men in my writing, even when I am confronting serious issues about the harms done by men under the system of patriarchy.

But sometimes, the men in my comments trigger me. There are, of course, always wonderful men in the comments who just want to learn and understand. We have lovely conversations together, which often conclude with us finding common ground. I love conversations with those men! However, there are usually far more angry, petulant, and misogynistic men in the comment sections who seem determined to not just refute my arguments but to destroy me as a person. They attack my credibility as a Doctor of Psychology, they insult my appearance, call me stupid, entitled, “a cat lady who will die alone.” Occasionally, they threaten physical and sexual violence against me.

I think even the most zen person on earth would have a hard time handling the daily barrage of this kind of hate with grace, and I am far from zen. I’m healed in many ways, but I have my share of triggers and traumas. Men who attack me this way push me into a fight or flight response that often results in me getting down in the mud with them. I lose my measured professionalism and get scrappy instead.

What feels good at the moment—this act of putting misogynists in their place—feels terrible later as I scroll through my comment section. I see all my replies to these men and realize that I have, little by little, undone all the compassion that was woven into my original post. While the content itself is welcoming toward men who would like to become more involved in feminist work, my comment replies create an image of anger and hostility—something very far from what I intend to convey in my writing.

Now, hear me, please.

I don’t believe I should have to tone police myself in the face of threats and abuse from misogynistic men.

I don’t believe that my aggressive responses to misogynists erase the intent and impact of my original writing

I do believe that men who want to join the feminist movement need to understand that my shift in tone and delivery are the direct result of being pushed too far by men who hate women. My angry responses should not alienate good men from the feminist cause, as they should be capable of understanding where my anger comes from.

So, what I’m about to say isn’t from the perspective of “practicing temperance in my speech so that I don’t scare off the good men.” It comes from an internal need, an inner desire to maintain my beliefs about compassionate feminism even when men are being cruel to me.

If I believe that patriarchy harms all men, then a compassionate response to men’s misogyny and cruelty to me would be to understand that even this behavior is learned. It was taught and handed down to them from their misogynistic relatives who were indoctrinated into patriarchy just like they were. A compassionate response would be to try to gentle-parent them, the way I gentle-parent my children when they are having big and disruptive emotions. I would be able to recognize the way these men are lashing out at me as a symptom of an inner pain that was forced upon them by a culture that says to be a man is to be angry. I would not take their words personally. Instead, I would remain calm and connected. I would try to talk to them humanely, even when they weren’t giving me the same respect. Maybe I would even be more effective at getting through to them if I could do that.

But the truth is, I’m just not there yet. At least not fully. It’s something I’m working on, and I believe I’ve made a lot of progress since I began this work two years ago. That said, I don’t know when (if ever) I’ll be able to fully embrace compassionate feminism—the kind that looks past the anger and cruelty of misogynists and extends a hand of healing instead.

Ultimately, it is men’s job to fix misogyny, not women’s. Men who hate women will not listen to us when it comes to the feminist agenda if they don’t respect us in the first place. Misogynists respect men—they yearn for acceptance and validation from other men. So, what is needed is for the good and decent men to do the work of correcting the misogynistic men they know so that women don’t have to. But I do sincerely want to be a part of that work, too.

I want to do it with compassion. I would like to believe so deeply in the shared goal of dismantling patriarchy that I can address even cruel men with kindness; and if not with kindness, then at least with a formality that doesn’t meet them in the mud where they are. It will take a lot more work and healing to get there. But with time, I think I’ll see it through.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

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