The last year has made it clear that we still have much work to do in the United States (and the world in general) to make sure that women are treated with respect and dignity–that the world is a safe place for them to live in.
In the last year, we elected a president whose treatment of women, both before and during the campaign, was notoriously demeaning. (You can read more about this here.) In addition, in recent months, the news has carried several stories of powerful men like Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. who have finally been called out for years of harassing and abusing women or for wielding their power inappropriately to engage in sexual aggression.
Dehumanizing treatment of women like this has many causes, but one thing I want to focus on are certain patriarchal narratives in our culture that suggest that women are for the sake of men, that men are more important than women, and the women’s opinions and ways of looking at the world are deficient and of much less worth than men’s.
Unfortunately, these narratives have been predominant and widespread narratives throughout history. One of the ways we see this in the past is that women were often barred from education and from most jobs. We still see the legacy of these problems today in a significant underrepresentation of women in many fields (especially those fields deemed more masculine) and in continuing pay disparities between men and women. We also see the lingering effects of these harmful narratives in common media stereotypes in which portrayals of women are highly sexualized and women are treated primarily as objects for the male gaze.
These cultural narratives and media stereotypes are changing slowly, I believe, but they are still all too common. The result of this is that women often consciously or subconsciously come to believe that men are the ones who matter and that women’s voices and opinions do not count. Women also often come to believe that the most important thing about them is their bodies and their looks and that the main important thing in life is that these aspects of themselves be pleasing to men. All of these messages are radically dehumanizing and disempowering to women.
The negative way in which these cultural values affect women is something I have become especially aware of because I am an academic philosopher, a field which is male- dominated. Of all the doctorates in philosophy awarded, only 27.1% go to women. What is even more troubling is that only 16.6% of all full-time college/university positions are women. This is definitely not because women are bad at philosophy.
There has been a lot of work to determine why it is that so few women get graduate degrees in philosophy and why even fewer get tenure track jobs. One of the very likely reasons is that philosophy has long been a discipline that emphasizes activities typically equated with maleness: namely argumentation, rationality, and aggressive debate. Historically, the stereotype has been that men are more rational than women and that men have naturally superior skills in argumentation and debate.
These stereotypes can cause men in philosophy to treat women as though they do not belong or that they are not as good as their male counterparts, something which can put a great deal of pressure on female philosophy graduate students. This pressure can be exacerbated by the fact that almost all philosophy professors are male, and almost all authors in the philosophical canon are male.
This can greatly magnify a female graduate student’s feelings that she cannot do philosophy, and this can make an already stressful graduate program even more stressful. It can also make it difficult for women to finish advanced philosophy studies or to feel confident about seeking tenured jobs afterwards.
And this doesn’t even take into account the fact that philosophy, as a discipline, has notoriously had a problem with sexual harassment. In the last decade, several tenured, high profile philosophy professors have been caught up in sexual harassment scandals, and this is just the tip of the iceberg, as Jennifer M. Saul addresses in this article.
It should not surprise us that in a discipline that has historically idealized male power and aggression (in the form of aggressive rationality and to the exclusion of women) that women are often treated inhospitably. (Note: I am extremely grateful for the way my graduate program conscientiously worked to create a safe space for women in philosophy.)
I have taken a little time to write about some of the difficulties women face in philosophy because I think this problem in philosophy is a very vivid example of the kinds of pressures women have historically faced and still continue to face daily in the world. This must change.
Anytime we make it harder for women to share their voices, their confidence, their ideas, and to reach their full human potential, the world becomes a darker and less magical place because of it. Any time we teach women to play small, to dim their light, and to curtail their unique individuality so they conform to stereotypes and are less threatening to males, this impoverishes the lives of both men and women.
We need both men and women working together to change the world with love. When we empower women, we kindle a powerful force that brings more hope and healing to the world.
Here are four things men can do to every day empower women:
One: Value the accomplishments of women and resist objectification.
One of the constant messages women receive is that they are only valuable if their appearance and bodies are pleasing to men. This communicates to women they are objects or play-toys and that their existence is not for themselves but for the sake of men. It also communicates to them that if they do not match cultural standards of beauty or attractiveness, they are worthless.
It is not an exaggeration to say that these messages are everywhere and that women receive these messages from the time they are very young and all throughout their lives. This is why girls as young as first grade are going on diets and worrying about their appearance. This is why a shocking percentage of women hate their bodies. This is one of the reasons why depression rate of women is twice that of men.
We need to communicate to women that every single woman is unique and special and that the most beautiful thing they can do is to be themselves fully. This entails them loving and accepting their bodies completely and unconditionally, no matter what size or shape they are. We need to communicate to women that they do not have to punish and starve themselves to be loved.
We need to communicate to women that a great percentage of media images of women are unrealistic and oppressive and that everyone should reject these standards. Most of all, we need to communicate to women that their worth lies in their own uniqueness and individuality (the special light they bring into the world), and it has nothing to do with men’s opinions of their bodies and their looks.
One of the most important ways men can empower women is to critique unrealistic body standards and the objectification of women in the media by openly expressing admiration for the accomplishments, worth, and the beauty of women of a variety of sizes and shapes. It is a very common experience for women to be around men who only speak positively about women in reference to their looks and their bodies and who only speak this way about certain women who match very narrow cultural stereotypes about how women should look.
Our appearance and our bodies are integrally tied to who we are (and so of course they are important), but they are also just one aspect of who we are. It is not complimenting women on their appearance that is harmful per se. What is harmful is the suggestion that women are only valuable because of their appearance or that only certain kinds of bodies and appearances are valuable.
So when men regularly praise a wide array of female accomplishments (talent, intelligence, leadership, and beauty) of women of a wide array of body types and appearances, they communicate not only that women are valuable for more than their appearance but that all women (no matter their size and shape) have worth and make important contributions to the world.
For example, my good friend Jack is a personal trainer, and he empowers women by encouraging them to work out to build strength and capability rather than to meet unrealistic body standards. Jack has written about these issues here.
I also have male friends who regularly praise the accomplishments of a wide variety of female writers, philosophers, musicians, and artists. Occasionally they will mention the beauty of the artist, but their admiration for the woman is about her whole person, not just her appearance.
When men act as an ally to women in this way, they strengthen women to resist the messages that tell women that they are only worth something if they meet the beauty requirements of men. Women desperately need this, but men do, too. No one is benefited in the end by women playing small. What the world needs is both men and women fully showing up in their lives together.
Two: Be a feminist and be vocal about it.
One of the most empowering things in my life has been my male family members and male friends who are outspoken feminists. My husband was a feminist long before I was, and it was his continual insistence on various feminist issues and concerns that helped me become aware, finally, of cultural pressures that had caused me anxiety and shame my whole life but that I couldn’t see because that is how patriarchy works. I have several male friends and family members who are also outspoken feminists who have also had a strong, positive influence on me in this way.
It takes all of us working together to empower women. When men, who have historically held most of the power in society, begin speaking out against and critiquing this power, it gives the women around them courage. It makes them feel less alone in and more aware of the pain they suffer because of patriarchy. It can also awaken other men to an awareness of these issues.
One of the ways men can become more aware of feminist issues and become allies to women is to read feminist literature. Lists like this one are a great place to start. I also want to recommend to men the book Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher and the documentary Miss Representation for gaining insight into debilitating social forces that affect women from the time they are very young.
Recently, I was having a discussion about feminism on Facebook with some of my male friends. They began detailing the feminist literature they had read and discussed together. This was an incredibly empowering moment for me. In doing this, my male friends communicated, “We recognize the pain women suffer, and we take responsibility to stand with them and work to change this.” This is one of the many times my male friends have helped me to feel safe in the world.
I also especially want to recommend to men bell hooks’ book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. (My friend James teaches this book in his feminist philosophy class and recommended it to me.) In this work, hooks describes how the patriarchal forces that dehumanize women also dehumanize men. These forces teach men to repress their emotions and to relate to women and the world primarily through dominance and aggression.
This deeply impoverishes men’s lives. It is important for men to be feminists for the sake of women, but it is also important for men to be feminists for the sake of men. When men and women are feminists together, they liberate each other to create a more loving, peaceful world hospitable to both of them.
Three: Value women for themselves and listen to them.
One of the most painful experiences women have is feeling invisible or of feeling like they are only seen as valuable when they are a possible romantic or sexual conquest.
When men communicate to women that their opinions and dreams are unimportant or uninteresting or that women are only interesting if they are available as a potential romantic or sexual partner, this reinforces women’s feelings that they are unimportant, invisible, and that they only exist for the purpose of pleasing men.
Men radically empower women when they listen to and support women, not for what they might gain from listening, but just because women are human beings who deserve respect and honor.
Four: Stand up for women when people are promoting rape culture or dehumanizing them in any way.
One of the ways men most empower women is by publicly resisting or calling out behavior that promotes rape culture or dehumanizes women in any way. These actions give women hope and courage.
I was recently at a philosophy conference when some of my male friends called out the dehumanization of women, and it was so encouraging. The very last night of the conference, a bunch of us were at a restaurant celebrating. It just so happened that this restaurant had karaoke, and all of us were enjoying listening to the karaoke performers and singing and dancing along with them.
Partway into this evening, a guy (not from our group) got up to sing a song that I had never heard before. As is the case with karaoke, the words were up on the screen, and as he proceeded through the song, it became very clear that it glorified sexual harassment and rape. As soon as I realized it, I looked at my male friends, and I saw that they realized it, too. They turned away from the singer and one of them said, “This is bad”. They refused to participate in the song in any way, and we changed the conversation to another topic.
This was an incredibly empowering moment for me. In the past, I have been in other groups where things like this happened, and then men in the group laughed about it and even joked about the degrading subject matter. The fact that my male friends refused to participate in the violent culture being promoted in the song made me feel safe and valued.
It is a tragedy that women still consistently face the problems of patriarchy. When men publicly call out this behavior, they give all of the women present the courage that they are not alone and that they can resist this dehumanization, too.
There are definitely a lot of men in the world who wield their masculinity like a weapon to belittle and dehumanize women. But there are so many men in the world who recognize the oppression women have faced throughout history and still continue to face today. These men regularly practice empowering behaviors like the ones I have mentioned above, and it makes a significant difference in women’s lives.
To All of the Men Who Work Constantly to Empower Women: Thank you for your love and support and for helping to make the world a more safe and hospitable place for us.
To All of the Women in the World: You do not exist for the sake of men. You are incredibly valuable and important in yourself, and the world needs your light. There are so many men in the world who want to honor you and your light. This is your birthright.
 One of the things that is especially troubling about this is that women are strongly represented in introductory philosophy classes (i.e. just as many women take introductory philosophy as men do), and they do just as well or better in these classes as men do. But as philosophy classes become more advanced, there is a precipitous decline in women’s presence in these classes.
This suggests that there is something about the way philosophy is typically taught that is inhospitable to women. The reasons I have mentioned above are some of the likely factors. Women have extremely valuable contributions to make to the field of philosophy and every other field, and when the are indirectly or directly discouraged from these fields, this world misses out.
 Colin McGinn and John Searle are two of the most famous examples of this.