In the 19th century, European empires expanded far and wide in search of natural resources, cheap labor and new markets, conquering most of the world in the process. And every time they took over a new area with a large population, they always faced the same question: how do you prevent rebellions? The answer turned out to be more or less the same everywhere, from British India to the Belgian Congo: divide and rule. Divide the local population into groups, based on ethnicity, religion or whatever else, and make some groups more oppressed and others more privileged. Encourage the more privileged to see themselves as superior. Then watch as mutual distrust and hatred grows, preventing unity, allowing for you to get away with plundering their country for its wealth and resources.
This is a formula widely used by ruling classes everywhere, in all situations, not just in long-extinct colonial empires. Slave owners in the American south used it, it was used until recently by Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the capitalist ruling class – the “1 percent” – in the United States is using it right now.
The situation in the U.S. is perhaps best summed up by a scene in the movie “Matewan,” in which the main character, a union organizer, urges disparate groups of workers to unite: “They got you fightin’ white against black, native against foreign … when you know there ain’t but two sides in the world – them that work and them that don’t. You work. They don’t. That’s all you got to know about the enemy.”
Yet he forgot a very important division: male against female. Or, to be more exact, that aspect of our society known as patriarchy, which makes men and women treat each other as superiors and inferiors instead of equals.
Those people who are opposed to patriarchy are known as feminists, and that includes both men and women. Of course, women are the ones who suffer from patriarchy directly, and they should always lead the movement against it. Women get paid only 77 percent of men’s income on average, they do the vast majority of work in the home (even when they also hold full-time jobs), they are held to much higher standards of public behavior than men, and they are disproportionately affected by rape culture.
But men also have reasons to be outraged about sexism and patriarchy. Women’s low wages make their entire households poorer, including the men. And the existence of a lower-paid segment of the workforce drives down wages for everyone. Instead of placing the burden of housework on women, that burden could be picked up by socialized facilities (public cleaners, for example), which would improve the lives of both women and men.
Sexist attitudes towards women’s health and reproduction don’t hurt women alone. When Rush Limbaugh went on a vicious rant against a woman who dared to speak up in favor of health insurance coverage for contraceptives, he was in fact attacking married women and their husbands. Married women are more likely to use contraceptives than single women are, by a wide margin (79 percent versus only 39 percent). Contraception is family planning, and that’s important for everyone in the family.
The capitalist lie that an individual’s problems should be the concern of that individual alone is the reason why so many social and economic issues are called “women’s issues.” There are no such things as women’s issues. Women are 50.7 percent of the population, and when you add their male partners and children, you get the vast majority of people in society. “Women’s issues” are people’s issues. Whether we like it or not, all working people are in this together. When female workers are paid less than their male counterparts for the same work, this makes their whole families poorer. When predominantly female teachers’ unions are under attack, all children’s access to education is under attack. When women don’t have access to affordable health care, or when they have to deal with sexual objectification, harassment or even assault, that makes everyone live in fear. Fear of what the next medical bill might be, fear of what the boss might ask for, fear of what might happen tomorrow night.
All ruling classes know that fear is the best way to control people, because collective fear makes the oppressed keep each other in check, so that they do the oppressors’ work for them. When European colonial empires conquered indigenous populations in the Americas, they often resorted to random acts of murder and rape. Why? So that the conquered people would say to one another “be careful, don’t provoke them, watch your tongue, we can’t afford to make them angry at us.” That is exactly the kind of attitude that sexism and rape culture promotes in our society. Men and women alike – husbands, sisters, friends – tell the women in their lives, “be careful, watch where you go, what you wear and what you say, don’t provoke someone to assault you.” The threat of harassment, violence and public name-calling encourages half the population to police their own behavior, to remain silent when they wish to say something that might offend someone, to restrain themselves from challenging authority. That makes us all weaker in the face of injustice.
In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Injustice done against any of us, whether they are women, African-Americans, immigrants, LGBT people, or any other group, is a threat to all of us. Inequality and oppression should never be the sole concern of the people directly suffering from them. They should concern us all. All of us who work for a living have a material interest and a moral obligation to fight against injustice.
Feminist men need to stand up and let sexists know that whatever they do to our sisters, mothers and daughters, they do to us.
Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian contributor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.