Last weekend, I joined tens of thousands of other San Franciscans to walk down Market Street as part of this year’s Women’s March. The weather was great, and the mood was largely upbeat.
It’s always encouraging to walk with others who share similar views and concerns about what’s happening in the world. In particular, it was empowering to march as a challenge against the current administration’s attempts to reverse the progress on women’s rights made in past decades.
I enjoyed seeing the hand-held signs: “Grabbed Em By the Polling Place” “We rise up by lifting others” “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance” “I don’t want to be a princess, I want to be President” “I’m a girl. What’s your superpower?”
Then there are the chants that seemed to rise randomly, and the periodic roars of the crowd that swept like a wave over the marchers. It was fun to see the tourists, standing on the sidewalk near the Powell Street cable car turnaround, shouting their support, cellphones out, recording everything.
I especially loved seeing the young girls marching with their parents. The clear message to these girls is that women need not be constrained by traditional views of femininity. Women belong in boardrooms and laboratories, playing sports and getting equal pay for equal work. If a woman chooses to have a family, she should do so. If she’s qualified for a job, she should have the same opportunity to be hired as a man.
I also saw a lot of men and boys walking in the Women’s March. Strong, independent women pose no threat to these men. Many carried signs challenging the traditional idea that to be a man you have to be aggressive and competitive, and never show weakness or emotion.
A recent television ad from Gillette also challenged behaviors that result from a more toxic, traditional version of masculinity. The minute-and-a-half-long ad encouraged men to step in to stop bad behaviors such as sexual harassment and bullying when they see them.
“We believe in the best in men,” the ad says, ending with the tag line: “It’s only by challenging ourselves to do more that we can get closer to our best.”
The ad generated controversy, as some men felt lectured to by a corporation or attacked for their gender. Yet the ad is clearly not saying men are bad. Rather the focus is that harassing women, catcalling, and bullying are bad, and, as actor and former pro football player Terry Crews said when he testified before Congress (about sexual assault), “Men need to hold other men accountable.” Who can disagree with that?
As much as we’ve expanded the definition of what it means to be a woman in recent years, I think we also need to expand the idea of what it means to be a man. We need to recognize that the traditional, one-size-fits-all view of masculinity has caused as much harm to boys as traditional, one-size-fits-all views of femininity have hurt girls.
Boys don’t stop having emotions as they grow up, but they’re taught to suppress them. Therefore, many boys never learn how to cope with their feelings, and that can make it harder for them to form deep, lasting relationships. Boys and men who don’t act in traditional ways are teased, shamed, ridiculed, and bullied. And, sometimes, when their lives don’t match their expectations, disaffected men lash out at women, each other, and society as a whole.
Men are not innately bad or innately violent. But adhering to the traditional, restrictive version of masculinity makes some of them behave that way.
Perhaps we should stop thinking about personality traits as belonging to one gender or another. Girls should embrace traditionally masculine characteristics like assertiveness and confidence. Boys can benefit from being emotionally open and caring. Competitiveness helps athletes of both sexes, and everyone needs to be stoic during a crisis. Maybe we should, instead, think of these traits as simply “human,”and focus on what each of us can do to be better.
As I marched down Market Street last weekend, I found myself thinking about how far we’ve come as women and men, and how far we still have to go.
Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area. She is a guest columnist.