Can Men Be Feminists?

9 years ago

With all the controversy swirling around Ms. magazine's cover picture of Obama wearing a t-shirt reading, "This is what a feminist looks like," under his suit, the important point - that Obama told Eleanor Smeal that he is a feminist - seems to have been lost. (Instead, feminists are spazzing that the cover indicates that once again, a man is here to save the day.) I think it is awesome that Obama identifies publicly as a feminist. You can barely get women to come out in public these days as feminists, so besmirched is the image of feminism. But I digress, as the topic I want to explore is whether men can really be feminists.

Dolly at Dolly Speaks, a fantastic feminist blog written by a very wise young feminist, recently found herself challenged by a male friend, and exploring in depth whether men can be feminists or, at best, pro-feminist. Here's an excerpt:

...even if men are sincere in their efforts to end sexism, they can’t just wipe away male privilege. It exists with them regardless of whether they think they are feminists or not, and that means they will always have blind spots to certain sufferings and experiences women must face. Unless women explain this to them and they open their ears, they will not understand. It locks them in a location where they can sympathize with women, but they can’t empathize. This is why a lot of feminist women believe that men can only be pro-feminist, not purely feminist.

But... [a]s bell hooks has defined it, feminism is a struggle to end sexism and all forms of sexist oppression. While sexism primarily hurts women, patriarchy indeed hurts men in ways too (though the profit off the privilege makes many guys, IMO, blind to these consequences). That means, we need men to address male privilege, and I don’t think being profeminist is enough. You’ve got to dig deep and interact with women and educate yourself... As I think we should have learned from second wave feminism, not all women’s experiences are the same. Even though many of us share an understanding of the way sexism hurts us, can relate to one another’s pain, and often feel more comfortable sharing our stories with other women than men, that does not mean we have to have all the same experiences to be good feminists... Frankly, we talk about a lot of things in feminism that we as women feminists may or may not have experienced.

Men have to work hard at being feminists–they have to be aware they cannot dominate the discourse of the movement as they previously have in the discourse of the world; they must learn to listen to the stories of women who have been used to being silenced. They have to realize it’s not about “picking up chicks,” and it’s not about self-hatred. They have to study and learn and engage, just like we all do when it comes to addressing privilege. But, ultimately… men can be feminists. It just requires honesty, sincerity, dedication, hard work, compassion, respect, and ultimately a love and value for women as equals and human beings.

I'm going to have to agree with Dolly. Merely being a woman, I've noticed, hardly makes one a feminist. Part of the reason I turned into the hard cynic that I am today is that so many women have worked really hard against other women, either out of religious beliefs (see: Phyllis Schlafly and her insane insistence that no women should ever work outside the home even though that's exactly what she does while her husband stays home with the kids) or out of a desire for personal gain (like when women sabotage female co-workers). In fact, I noticed that a lot of the men I met or admired far better represented the goals I had as a feminist than many women I knew.

In response to the Ms. dust up, Kathleen Wilcox at Heartless Doll pointed out that:

... progressive men in general can and should be recruited and commissioned to help us all keep fighting the good fight. Saying women alone can be feminists is as preposterous and ultimately defeatist as saying that only people of color can fight racism. The fact that this needs to be explained speaks volumes about the long way baby we still have to go...

Earlier last year, Cath Elliott at The Guardian in London raised the question of whether men can use the label of feminist for themselves and cited some compelling reasons why they can't:

Brian Klocke of the National Organisation for Men against Sexism has argued: "Although I believe that men can be pro-feminist and anti-sexist, I do not believe we can be feminists in the strictest sense of the word in today's society. Men, in this patriarchal system, cannot remove themselves from their power and privilege in relation to women. To be a feminist one must be a member of the targeted group (ie a woman) not only as a matter of classification but as having one's directly-lived experience inform one's theory and praxis."

Women feminists have also voiced misgivings about men's involvement in the movement. Some men, they argue, automatically assume a dominant role when they become activists, claiming to be better feminists than feminist women, and failing to recognise and challenge their own sexist behaviour. These so-called fellow travellers merely reinforce the tired gender stereotyping that feminism seeks to subvert, and by their domineering behaviour, they silence women's voices and perpetuate existing male power and oppression. They jockey for control and appoint themselves as spokespeople, in a diverse non-hierarchical movement that neither needs nor seeks figureheads or leaders.

Personally I have some sympathy with this position, having had my own run-ins with so-called male feminists.

Yet Elliott ultimately concludes, "I don't care what they call themselves either: allies, fellow travellers, feminist sympathisers, pro-feminists, or even just plain feminists; it doesn't matter what's on the label, it's how feminism is translated into everyday life that matters."

While debate is generally important and healthy, the nitpicking over who gets to call themselves what can have negative consequences. Two years ago, Aspazia at Mad Melancholic Feminista pondered the issue and wrote:

I guess my concern over the complicated semantics involved in whether or not a man can be a feminist, is that it makes men who are quite committed to these causes will be fearful of participating more fully. I have had many men out with me while I protest, or helping me with the NOW chapter. I have quite a few male colleagues who are probably more attuned to the nuances of gender discrimination than I tend to be. I would trust those men to challenge male students to consider their own privilege. I also worked with a man who runs NOVIS, a non-profit that works with male batterers. These men are feminists.

Since ending sexism and the patriarchy does not benefit only women, I'm going to agree with all the bloggers cited here and say that actions speak louder than words. Regardless of gender, if you walk the walk, you get to talk to talk.

Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants

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