If there are any silver linings to these ghastly times, one could be a renewed sense of community among women. Not since high school have I felt such closeness with my girlfriends. My sister calls to discuss our favorite #resistance podcasts, and my feeds are full of incisive feminist commentary from internet allies. My mom narrated the Kavanaugh hearings with emojis over text messages from three states away.
So women are talking—really talking, about big, important stuff—and that’s an incredibly powerful thing. But I’ve also noticed that one thing we talk about a lot is this: the relative silence of cis, straight men. How do we get them to engage?
For the first time in history, young women are participating in political activity at a higher rate than their peers. Days after Trump’s inauguration in 2016—and the first Women’s March—a Washington Post poll showed that 40 percent of Democratic women intended to become more politically active than they had been in the past, compared to 27 percent of Democratic men; this year, election results have appeared to bear out those intentions.
In 2018, a record 476 of women have run for public office. Countless others have supported behind the scenes. As the saying goes: Grab’em by the midterms.
“…there are people who wonder if the absence of men has to do with women—hold your laughter—excluding them from the mix.”
Still, there are people who wonder if the absence of men has to do with women—hold your laughter—excluding them from the mix. Ridiculous as that sounds—a recent slew of emails, from well-intentioned women’s empowerment organizations, have recently suggested that women need to do a better job of bringing men into the fold. In reality, I don’t know a woman who hasn’t tried to get the men in her life to open up about Kavanaugh, Me Too, reproductive rights or any of the other scary shit happening right now.
I also don’t know a woman—myself included—who hasn’t walked away from that conversation feeling shut down. But I don’t think the problem is that women aren’t trying so much as the fact that this stuff is hard to talk about. Particularly, it’s hard for men to have the kinds of nuanced, challenging, supportive conversations that women have with one another all the time because… a lot of them just haven’t had them before.
But the answer isn’t to let men off the hook or give up. It’s to live in reality. And reality is that it’s going to take work to get a lot of men up to speed on how to talk.
“I don’t know a woman who hasn’t tried to get the men in her life to open up about Kavanaugh, #metoo, reproductive rights or any of the other scary shit happening right now.”
“Men are defensive right now,” Toni Coleman, a Virginia-based psychotherapist, mediator, and couples therapist told me by phone this week. In her own life, she’s seeing men digging back through their pasts and reassessing behavior. Her point: Men are feeling acutely uncomfortable—and while you might be thinking “good, they should be,” that discomfort also might be making it hard for them to open up.
To that end, Coleman suggests kicking off any conversation with guys in your life by really asking yourself: What are my objectives here? “Do I want to have this conversation to see how he feels, or to get a better sense of where men are coming from? Do I want to talk about it with my partner because I’m really tense right now about all the stuff that’s going on?”
Or are you just looking to vent—in which case, you might be more satisfied by calling up a friend who will get it. Understanding the goals of why you want to talk will help guide the conversation—and hopefully help to keep defensiveness out of the picture.
“Leading by example can, admittedly, be exhausting. “
One tactic, shares Coleman: Start with open-ended questions. Maybe you watched the Kavanaugh coverage with a male friend or partner on the couch; you were silently freaking out, and they somehow seemed unmoved. That non-reaction is understandably infuriating. Chances are though, there’s plenty going on beneath the surface.
Coleman suggests questions like: “How is this making you feel?” and “Have you ever had a female friend go through something like this?” as a good place to begin. “Try not to be judgmental in your language, and to stay non-defensive,” Coleman added. “This is how you keep the lines of communication open.” And if you find yourself thinking, “Why should I be the one who has to work so hard at this?” know that you aren’t alone.
But you really want to have this conversation, accept the fact that you might have to help the men in your life out. “Men don’t grow up having these kinds of conversations with one another—so sometimes, we have to lead people by example.”
Leading by example can, admittedly, be exhausting. Women I spoke to on this subject over the past week have expressed fury at having to educate progressive men, many of whom identify as feminists, about what’s happening in the news, and even in their own lives.
“Start by asking open-ended questions.”
I get that. A couple years ago, when my partner declined to join me at the Women’s March, I gnashed my teeth for days. The result was that my burgeoning activism became a sensitive subject between us: Instead of being able to talk about why I thought it was so important, for a while we just didn’t discuss it at all. It was somehow easier to just avoid it entirely.
One friend I spoke with shared the way she and a new beau learned to approach the subject of fallen #metoo men. When they first started dating, she felt like their conversations about sexual abusers always seemed to bend toward finding a path forward. At the time, she didn’t want to talk about progress; she was still angry. For a while, it was a bulwark in their relationship.
The way they wound up dealing with it was forming a kind of mini-book club, where they would read the same articles and then discuss them over dinner—which gave them a framework for conversation that was easier than starting with their feelings.
Another woman, via Twitter, told me that what worked with her partner asking him to be a role model for other men. After a lot of talking, she wrote, “He knows what emotional labor is, and how he can play a role in decreasing that not only for me as a partner, but as an ally.”
In the nearly two years since the first Women’s March, and since then my partner and I have gotten more comfortable with the way we talked about what’s going on. I won’t pretend that it’s not the women in my life who I have the most satisfying conversations with—they’re the ones who understand, and want to talk, more than ever. But I’ve also realized that keeping the lines of communication open isn’t something I can take for granted: It requires work.
It also requires both men and women to be willing to participate, and both men and women to be willing not just to talk, but to listen.