It’s a phrase I keep seeing on Twitter over and over again: To have a woman’s back.
It’s certainly not a partisan slogan. It’s not, per se, a feminist phrase either. It’s a defensive ideological stance that both the left and right can embrace. It’s an act of solidarity with women. Yet, it obviously does imply a certain gender loyalty.
In fact, the rarity of men who use it has raised questions.
That said, you will see men post it from time to time. However, even then, they tend to find examples of it more often in fiction than reality.
Obviously, those five words — “To have a woman’s back” — speak powerfully to our present moment. The Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh was a high-profile example of what it means for a nation not to have a woman’s back. Meanwhile, #MeToo is an example of what it looks like for a culture to wrestle with what it means. And the wave of newly elected congresswomen is what it looks like in action.
But what does it look like when a man has a woman’s back, when he grapples with the tensions and struggles implied by the phrase? How can a dude step up and have a woman’s back, unfailingly, when she needs it most?
To consider these questions, I gathered a roundtable of five men from different cultural, racial, socio-economic and geographical backgrounds. Some specifics about them:
- Ben is a biracial thirtysomething designer who lives with his girlfriend in San Francisco.
- Michael is a twentysomething Korean-American producer who lives in New York.
- Brian owns a construction company in Tahoe-Truckee. He’s in his 40s, married and the father of two.
- James is a white thirtysomething teacher who is also married and a father of two. He lives in Redding, Pennsylvania.
- Langston is a black fortysomething lawyer who lives in L.A. He, too, is married with two kids.
Together, the five of them considered what “having a woman’s back” meant to both them and the world at large.
Let’s start in as straightforward of a way as possible: What does it mean “to have a woman’s back”?
James: It means to support a woman and her choices in life. Granted if someone’s going to go out and kill someone, I’m not just gonna have her back. If I’m saying, “I have a woman’s back,” it usually means I’m going to support her. When it comes to my wife, it means I’d defend her and fight for her.
Michael: To support them, through and through.
Langston: Yeah, you’re supporting them. You’re an advocate for women. Whenever you see a woman being assaulted or you see something going on, you step up and defend her. When it comes to understanding gender roles, you’re mindful of your own biases and our social biases. You’re always thinking about women as people.
Ben: There’s a fundamental difference between having someone’s back and having a woman’s back. This is something I’m still chewing on, but it has to do with telling someone whether they’re wrong or not. Like, I have enough people in my life who I’d say have my back. And to me, that’s someone who knows you, respects you and will tell you what’s really good about something. There’s a sense of honesty or directness that I expect from someone who I consider having my back. That’s different, though, for women.
Ben: To borrow the line from The Wire, to have a woman’s back means: “If it’s a lie, we fight on that lie.” There’s a sense of not questioning an interpretation. It’s less about the reality of the situation. To have a man’s back — or for a man to have another man’s back — means that they’re there to grapple with the reality of the situation. To have a woman’s back means that you’re there to support how she feels about a situation. I think that’s a key difference.
Brian: Here’s what I think: At a dinner table, if somebody says something like — for example, we have a woman running for local sheriff — “I don’t think she can do that job. I don’t think that a woman can interact with all those men like that. I’m not going to vote for her.” Having a woman’s back would be to say: “Why not? Why can’t that woman do that job?” Especially if you’re at a table of men and somebody says that — having a woman’s back isn’t having her back when some dude says something to her face, it’s having her back is when it’s just you and the boys.
Also, when somebody says to me, “Is your son going to take over your company?” Why would my son take over my company? He’s as smart as a bag of hammers. My daughter will take over my business. She’s really smart and focused. To put that out there in the world, so that people say, “Oh shit, Brian legitimately — he’s got their back. And he doesn’t give a fuck what that guy says.” That’s having a woman’s back.
To that end, my wife doesn’t give a shit what I do when she’s around. She’s got her own back. Why do I need to cover her when she’s around? What am I gonna defend when she’s standing right there? She’ll defend herself. She’s smart. I didn’t marry a dummy. If somebody says something to me in public, I don’t want my wife to step in and be like “Hold on! What did you just say to my husband?!?!” Fuck that. She’s got her own back. I’ll get her back when she’s not there.
If a guy says, “You need to have a woman’s back,” what do you imagine? Do you think of it according to the original militaristic phrase? “I got your six. I have your back.”
James: But what woman? It’s very vague that way. That’s the thing. For me, each time you say that phrase, you’d need to specify the woman. Like, I wanted to vote for Hillary Clinton. But I definitely didn’t have her back.
Michael: I think of it both ways. In the military, it’s physical. I’m going to shield you; I’m going to protect you. But also in the civilian life, when you say, “I’ve got your back,” it’s “I support you. I support equality. I will fight for your equality. I will fight for your peace in this world.” That’s how I see it.
Ben: I think initially you think of the military idea. I think that’s what informs that masculine sense of “Who cares how you feel about it — what’s actually going on?” It doesn’t matter if you’re cold, it matters that someone is watching what’s behind you. It doesn’t matter if you’re hurt, it matters what’s actually back there. But for a woman, it’s very different. Because what they’re struggling with when they bring something to you, when they ask you to back them up on something, is less about what’s actually going on than is it about how they feel about it and how they’re reacting to and dealing with those feelings.
In a male-female analysis, for a man to have a woman’s back, it’s about the plan going forward. Somebody’s got your six. We’re moving forward. It’s a process of movement, change and reaction to the situation around you. Whereas to have a woman’s back, for a woman, is, first of all, not to be thinking about your own front. But then also, it’s not a moving thing. You’re not reacting. You’re not engaging with the situation. You’re doing the opposite of that. You’re privileging the feeling and focusing on what already has happened. So, if anything, to have a woman’s back, feels more like a support, rather than a protection.
Langston: I don’t think I’m here to protect a woman. I’m here to defend and stand up when I see something wrong, though. But no, I’m not a woman’s protector. I never lived in a house like that. Women were my protector, damn near. My grandmother slept with a gun under her pillow. She shot people with that gun. She didn’t even get that one door replaced until I was like fourteen.
Wait, what happened to the door?
Langston: It had the bullet hole in it still. It never got replaced. (laughs) Dude was fucking hassling with her. My grandmother had a really short temper, a really short fuse. She told him to get off her. Guy got up off her, and he tried to break, that’s when she pulled out the gun and she fired through the door. And hit him, too. (laughs)
Was this the front door–?
Langston: No, her bedroom door. He got up off her, all nervous, tried to fucking run out, he closed the door behind him. Blaow! (laughs)
(laughs) She sounds like a woman who definitely had her own back.
Ben: It’s interesting that you contacted me about this today. Because, yesterday and the day before, my girlfriend came back from work and was convinced that she was going to get fired. Absolutely convinced. She didn’t want to hear otherwise. I sat there. I listened to her about it, and she told me everything that happened. In my mind, as she told this stuff to me, I was thinking: You’re over-reacting. But to tell a woman that isn’t to have her back.
That’s not something most men think about before they speak.
Ben: If I were having a similarly intense situation, and I called up one of my boys and I laid it out for him, I’d pretty reasonably expect him to say, “Nah, man. Just get your shit together. There ain’t shit you can do about it anyway. Just onward and upward. Keep pushing.” It’s not about, “Oh you’re right, you’ve analyzed this correctly. You’ve interpreted these things in the proper way.” It’s more like, “It is what it is, and you gotta deal.” That’s the difference. Especially for men.
To have a woman’s back means not to question her experience. And not to apply that sort of male logic, if you will. Because I know one of the things that I’ve struggled with in my relationships with both my significant other as well as women in general, is my urge to rationalize, to compartmentalize, to analyze, to break things down, to put the touchy-feely things to the side and just deal with what’s actually happened. But the key to having a woman’s back is to prioritize all that stuff, that as a man raised in the West, you’re encouraged not to think about.
Would you ever tell a woman that you have her back? Like, you’re on social media, or talking with a friend casually.
James: Well, it depends on what’s she’s doing.
Langston: I’ve said that, yes. It was something at work, She was complaining about a supervisor’s misconduct, and I was like, “Don’t worry, I got your back. If something comes up about it, I’ll vouch for you.” She’s a woman who’s my partner in my office fantasy football league, and she and I have been partners in that for like the last four years. She’s such, like, a homie to me. I said, “Don’t worry, I got your back.”
What about to a woman who’s not your homie? Would you say it to a stranger?
Langston: Yeah, sure. It’s loyalty. And I’m a loyal person. So to me, that just shows loyalty. I don’t say it with any different intention. My intention is no different than if I were to say it to you. I don’t consciously distinguish women and men like that. To me, you’re an adult.
Michael: I don’t think I’d use it. Now that I think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever said the words: “I have your back.” But I have said, “I’m supportive of you 100 percent.” I guess, approaching it in more of a linguistic way, I don’t think I’d say it as literally as “I got your back.” That sounds very masculine. I’ve definitely said it to a lot of my friends, my bros, like, “Yeah, I got your back. I got you.” Whenever I’ve said something like it to my female friends, though, it’s kinda like it’s almost in a facetious manner. Kinda joking, if still very honest.
Going back to the militaristic metaphor of having someone’s back, it means to protect their exposed side. It’s a promise to guard their blind side, which also implies a readiness to get hurt on their behalf. You’re saying, “I won’t let you get hurt. I’m behind you. They have to hurt me first to get to you.” Do you ever think of that when you say, “I got you” to a woman — that you’re offering to be hurt on their behalf, to get hurt so they don’t?
Michael: I’ve done that for friends who are women. I’d go out of my way to essentially protect them. I’ve certainly done that for my mom. I’ve done that for past partners. Friends. Past colleagues — male or female.
Brian: It’s similar to when somebody says — because I’m in the construction industry — “God, all these Mexicans are coming over, and they’re taking our jobs.” I look at ‘em, and I’m like, “I love the Mexicans who are in my company and who work for me. Carlos — I’d go to his family’s birthdays. He’s my man. I don’t go for that racist shit.” You try not to tolerate it, in a friendly way.
I’m in a really unique position as a successful white man who owns his own company to change what people think. So when I put it out there amongst my ethnocentric crew, it means I got some backs. If somebody drops the n-word on my job site, I’m like, “Hey, yo, we don’t say that shit. That ain’t how we roll.” That means something.
That’s very powerful. As a black man in America if I call someone out for racism, it sounds expected, or maybe like some harangue that gets ignored as soon as my voice falls silent. But when you say it, it’s like a laying down the law.
Brian: I don’t know if it’s that. My guys can do what they want. But when I say something like that, it at least stops the stereotype. It stops the spread of the image.
How, though, can any man, anywhere, “have a woman’s back?”
Langston: You could start with equal pay. Then move into supporting women in all the important ways — like speaking up when a woman’s being disrespected, or any time she’s being treated like less than a person. Like an object, or some shit.
So, if you told another guy “You need to have this woman’s back,” what would you be saying to him? What actions would you expect him to take?
Langston: Treat her with respect. Treat her like a full person. Don’t objectify her. Stand up for her if she’s being disrespected. Stand up with her.
James: I’ll speak for myself here: In the most general terms, yes, I’m a feminist. Women want equal rights. I support that. But if you’re a woman who is bashing men, no. Fuck that, too. I have a woman’s back for equality. Use the definition for a feminist and that’s how I have a woman’s back. If I didn’t know the situation, I’d be like, “Well, is she seeking equality? Then I got her back.” If some guy is beating her up in the street? That’s not equal. I have her back. If some guy is yelling at her in public because she burnt their house down because she left the stove on? I might yell at somebody for that. Like, “WTF, you burned the house down?!” (laughs)
For me, I literally have to use the definition of what feminism is. If you’re a truly intelligent man, you usually want equality. You want an intelligent woman. So I come at it from the perspective of a true feminist, not a man-hater feminist.
To my reading of it, to “have a woman’s back” isn’t just a call for defense or solidarity. There’s also a possibility of empathy in that statement. To have a woman’s back also implies all the historic strain and stress that women have endured and continue to endure.
Now, in the past, the times when I’ve considered someone’s back very deeply, with great empathy, it was black-and-white photographs documenting the lattice of whip scars raised across the backs of former slaves. I could look at those images and identify with them — and their backs. Not to conflate racism and sexism because I don’t recommend that, but generally speaking, I don’t look at my peers and consider their backs as a way to identify with them, with their personal struggles.
Yet now as I think about the phrase “to have a woman’s back,” and what that must be like, I’m thinking of the daily stress, the tiny acts of bodily resistance, and for some, a bone tiredness. I also think of the proud arch of a woman’s back, a lift of pride, the indomitable will of a woman having her own back. Do you ever think much about a woman’s back?
Langston: No, I don’t. Now, I’m feeling guilty about it because I have a wife with constant back problems. Shit, I should think about a woman’s literal back more often — at least my woman’s back.
Ben: There’s something there. The martial sense is how I understand the phrase to have someone’s back. But when you talk about the back as a structure, I start thinking about what it means to take the pressure off of a back. You think of a wall that someone can lean against. Maybe that’s the best distinction. For a man to have another man’s back is this active martial violent thing — we’re in the trenches, we’re in the shit, it’s going down — I need you to have my back and to be moving with me. But to have a woman’s back is to be a wall — to provide her with a space to put down some of what she’s carrying. To sort of be a buffer from what’s outside, what’s real, to provide that sense of isolation and insulation she’s looking for.
You make it sound like creating your own little secret garden for her to safely, serenely, momentarily inhabit, but available whenever she needs it.
Langston: Yeah, absolutely. When do you have someone’s back, if you don’t have it all the time?