Feminism Vs. Sexism

The other day I ran into a friend who was on a date. He was all dressed up and I was happy to see him excited but whenever I know a guy friend is starting to date somebody new, I get that big sister protector feeling that can sometimes manifest as something that might seem, to a newcomer, like I've got a bit of a shell. Really, though, it's just a healthy layer of suspicion. 

Before I met this girl I said to myself, "Be nice, be welcoming, be open, because she's probably great," so when she approached, I introduced myself and commented on her hair. She had this really nice color and, since beginning to work in a hair salon, I've taken special note of good hair color. In response, she complimented my earrings, and I, super playfully, said, "Oh, thaaaaanks!" 

She then turned to my friend and said in what I interpreted as a patronizing tone but what I think she probably thought sounded cute and playful, "See? This is what girls do. We sit around and compliment each other."

First of all, I hate being referred to as a girl. I'm closer to 30 than 20 and I identify, if anything, as a woman, but often feel more androgynous than feminine, and 'girl' just feels diminutive--a shallow adjective that leaves all the important things out. Second of all, she made a sweeping judgment about me. I was being nice and trying to meet her where she was, and as a result, put me into a superficial category with her that I don't belong in. 

In order to separate myself, I said, "Well, actually, I compliment all people equally, regardless of gender," to which she responded while looking coyly at my friend and again with the tone, "I only compliment women. Never men. I'm just a feminist that way."

If she were being facetious, I probably would have laughed, but I am pretty sure that although I doubt she considers herself a feminist, she actually thinks that feminists are defined by their negative feelings toward men. There was nothing I could say to her without pointing out what I thought to be a shallow perception of feminism, and I didn't want to embarrass her, so instead, I made the situation worse by awkwardly staying mute, and then turning around to go do something else. 

This is a problem. Yes, my awkwardness in weird social situations like that is a problem, but the perception that feminism is a negative thing is a bigger problem. I know this has been written about and talked about by so many academics that it would be silly for me to write much about it here, but I am really bothered by this sexist perception of what was meant to be (as I understand it) equalizing movements. It's not, "Down with men and treat them like shit because they're dogs." It's something more like, "Hey man, I am as capable as you and want the chance to benefit from all the same privileges as you, in and out of the workforce, including being able to move through the world without being catcalled for having a vagina."

Personally, I think it's a really radical act, especially in my life, to be really sweet and gracious toward men. Doing so doesn't require me to sacrifice self respect, and instead creates a safe space for dialogue. My natural inclination is to bristle and defend as a result of experience and information, but I feel that acting in that way just widens the gap and undoes the important work done by social movements like feminism. There are some situations where a person is repeatedly disrespectful, and therefor maintaining an open dialogue would be unhealthy, but I have been trying to meet people where they're at and talk about things that bother me rather than just shutting my mouth and walking away like I did the other night. 

In a different situation I might have begun a dialogue with her, but the timing was bad.

So what do you do in a situation like that? How do you handle it? How do you open a dialogue about touchy issues with people who maybe have never, for example, taken a women's studies course, without making things awkward? I could use a little help.