SSA Conference 2011 Point of Interest 1: Male Feminists

Three weekends ago, (I’ve been in the midst of writing this for a while) I went to the National Secular Student Alliance for the first time, and boy was it a blast. Doing recaps of multi-day events tends to either be tedious or incoherent, and while that was enjoyable (for me, and I hope for you) the first time, I won’t be doing it again. There are a million other recaps out there if you just want to know what happened and how great it was, but I’d actually like to discuss some things that surprised me and made me think.
First thing: Male feminists. Everywhere. I’m sure I’m getting insanely obnoxious gushing about how awesome this was, because I’ve literally never experienced anything like it. There’s the feeling of finally being around people like yourself, which is comforting and exhilarating all at once, and that comes from going to the University of Chicago, or Comic-con or atheist/secular conferences, and that’s wonderful, especially for people who have always felt left out, different or misunderstood. But there’s an entirely different level of satisfaction that comes from watching certain battles go on without the need for your input. These battles which are important to you, which you’ve thought a lot about, studied in depth and know like the back of your hand, which you think are worth engaging in even for the millionth time, but then not having to engage in them because other people have your back. These other people who traditionally oppose and dismiss you (that is, men) are standing in support of you and your deeply held principles, fighting the good fight on your behalf and also because they believe it’s right. It’s awesome. And oh so gratifying, because you have all of the confidence that the arguments are being made, that the positions are being defended, without the emotional investment or arguing yourself, or the energy investment that it takes to debate and discuss, especially when it’s something you’ve done a million times before.
Not the guy at the conference
And I was totally not expecting it. By now, everyone knows that atheism has a gender problem, though it’s disagreed in what ways and to what extent. I knew that everyone was still reacting to elevatorgate, generally with disdain and humor, and I knew that conferences are often places where women are bombarded with sexual interest and men are sometimes too socially awkward to know when and how to stop. I also know that rationalist communities (though very much not the same as atheist and secular communities) are often very skeptical of feminism. All of this adds up to not a great deal of hope for positive affirmation of a political stance for women and gender equality. But that’s exactly what I found, with several men identifying themselves as feminists without prompting, in the middle of relevant conversations about politics or gender in atheism, with one guy wearing a This Is What a Feminist Looks Like T-shirt, totally respectful and boundary-respecting flirting, and me having a grin plastered on my face at all of it. They spoke up in conversations, argued vigorously but reasonably in favor of feminist ideas and principles and had a clear commitment to defending feminism, talking about it, convincing others, clearing up misconceptions, and listening, acknowledging when they were wrong. Male atheist feminists might just be the best people, according to my limited experience.
Also not the guy at the conference
Even better was the response of men who were not feminists to the discussions. I’ve seen a variety of attitudes to feminists from non-feminists, in particular male feminists, ranging from approving to outright hostile, but at the SSA conference, I mostly just saw interested, and a good bit of nodding. I hope very much that that’s not a result of the fact that a man was speaking, defending feminism, but it was exciting to see nonetheless. In fact, it wouldn’t be so bad if men responded better to men defending feminism, because it’s not always clear who the models for how to be a male feminist are, and men might very much benefit from having them. Especially if their initial impression of feminism involved any hint of man-hating, it might be helpful to see first-hand how untrue that is. And from the brief experience I had at the conference, it seems to work fairly well.
So maybe atheism has a gender problem, maybe it has a misogyny problem, maybe the top is overwhelmingly male. But if the students I saw at the 2011 SSA Conference are the future of atheism, I think we’re on a great track to fix those problems, and I’m so glad to be able to say that after all of the feminist disappointments regarding atheism and atheist conferences of late.
Finally, this is hilarious.