By Adrienne Carmack
At the last Planned Parenthood rally I attended (living in DC this summer, there are all too many to take part in), I felt the increasingly familiar sensation of energized solidarity as I cheered in a sea of pink T-shirts when Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren took the stage.
The crowd was anxiety-ridden yet invigorating, two days before the GOP failed to get their votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. I took the time to look around and reflect on the hundreds of people who had showed up after another hot work day. While I was empowered by my fellow protesters’ strength, one question ―the same that has run through my mind since the 2016 campaign ― nagged at me: Where are the men?
This fall, I sat in my dorm room, enraged by the recently leaked tapes of Trump and Billy Bush bragging about ― let’s be blunt ― sexual assault, and wrote an article about the hypermasculinity of the Trump campaign and its connection to a college culture of sexual violence and toxic masculinity. I called in my male peers to step up and speak out against Trump and his hypermasculine behaviors. The article blew up on social media as I received notification after notification ― from women.
Women thanked me for writing the article and for voicing what they were thinking. The few men and male-identified peers that shared and discussed the article were refreshing, for sure, but they were just that: few. In the months since Nov. 8, the “resistance” has given me opportunities to rally, march, phone bank, canvass and more. While each event brought revitalizing energy, I remained bothered by the gender ratio I observed. Time and again, women and trans folks were showing up, regardless of the cause ― abortion access, environmental justice, immigration rights. I could not say the same about my cisgender male peers.
Unfortunately, my observations are not limited to my relatively small sphere in Central Maine. A Washington Post poll in February found that Democratic women are more likely than Democratic men to get involved in political activism. Lake Research Partners suggests a drastic difference: they found that women placed 86 percent of calls into senators’ offices. Jimmy Dahman, founder and Executive Director of the Town Hall Project, says that their email list has a 60:40 gender ratio ― with women comprising the majority.
So why is it that women and gender minorities are pulling the weight of the resistance?
An obvious answer, of course, is the Trump administration’s direct assault on women’s and trans rights. Emily Magner and Kaitlin Flynn, community organizers at Planned Parenthood Maine Action Fund, are well aware of the patterns within PPMAF. Flynn notes that “when you volunteer, you tend to gravitate toward the issue that is highest priority to you.” In the case of Planned Parenthood, the vast majority of volunteers are women, at least one in five of whom are served by Planned Parenthood’s services. The phenomenon of those most affected by injustice doing the most work to fight the injustice is widespread and troubling (to say the least).
However, I think the cause for gender disparity is deeper than the issues at stake. Consider the socially-constructed expectations we hold around gender. Women are expected to be caring, emotion-driven and submissive. Meanwhile, masculinity carries the expectations of emotional stoicism, independence, dominance over women, physical toughness ― the list goes on. The very construction of masculinity, even within progressive populations, affects the low turnout and, all too often, apathy of men in the Resistance.
Over the past three years, I’ve worked with academic Mark Tappan, EdD, at Colby College, along with other students, to research healthy masculinity, particularly what motivates social justice activism among men. In our conversations, men report a lack of feminist encouragement in the media, as well as overwhelming pressure from peers and people in power (e.g. parents, coaches, the president) to conform to masculine stereotypes. Many men care deeply about issues of gender equity and social justice, but social barriers like gender roles limit their participation.
Even within their volunteer base, organizers Magner and Flynn saw a gender discrepancy: A higher proportion of men volunteer for data entry than they do to canvass or phone bank. The emotionally-intensive work of the Resistance ― phone calls, in person conversations, rallies ― is gendered, and it ultimately places a greater burden on women and gender minorities. Magner, who identifies as female, notes the toll the past nine months have placed on her and Flynn.
“When you’re stretched this thin, you’re having to ask yourself what can I do so that I can get up tomorrow and do this work again,” she said. The emotional and physical toll of resistance is significant. (Heck, I’m frustrated and tired just writing this.)
I may be naive ― though the energy I’ve given to this topic makes me think not ― but I believe we can change our conception of gender. As long as we’re talking about femininities and masculinities, can we imagine masculinities that value socially engaged citizens, that help us carry the weight of fighting sexism, transphobia, homophobia, etc.? I think so, but it will take work. To achieve gender equity within the movement that claims to be working for gender equity, we all need to be willing to interrogate our understanding of gender.
Dahman, who worked on the Clinton campaign prior to founding Town Hall Project and has been a progressive activist since high school, notes that working for social justice as a male feminist requires extra consideration.
“It’s understanding what you don’t know and taking stock of your position― the advantages I have of being a straight white male in politics,” he said. That extra work of acknowledging privilege is difficult, and it requires extra intentionality. The more that men like Dahman are willing to talk about their privilege, the easier it becomes for other allies to join them.
The toll that the resistance is taking on women and trans folks is significant. I find myself exhausted keeping up with the news and rallies and action alerts, and I too often neglect my relationships and schoolwork. General anxiety levels are up thanks to the ideologies of the Trump administration (my own clinical anxiety included), and the positive energy generated by one victory can be quickly erased by yet another assault on a minority community.
If we want to lessen that toll, we cannot take gender dynamics for granted. We need to reconsider the gender norms that encourage some to get involved and discourage others to sit back. We need to encourage masculinities that are about emotional ― not just physical ― strength, and that value women’s rights, not just women.
Adrienne Carmack is a communications intern at Center for Community Change and rising senior at Colby College.