Can Men Be Feminists? A Roundtable Discussion

by Amy Shaw on August 10

canmenbefeministsHere at Spiraling Up, we want to engage you on all sorts of topics, even things that might cause some controversy. While we are all for peace and butterflies and unicorns and David Bowie, we also value the exchange of ideas and perspectives on the things that really affect our lives and the world around us. The trick to not ruining our virtual dinner parties is that we have learnt how to communicate thoughtfully, listen generously and let each other let live. We value dialogue and respect different opinions.

With that disclaimer out of the way, Holly posed to the team the question of whether or not men can be feminists. This is what we came up with.

Holly:

I got to really thinking about this issue in 2013 after I attended a Reclaim the Night march in Sydney. A small group of people occupied the Prince Alfred Park, mostly young female university students. There were some impressive and extremely brave young women who shared their stories of sexual assault and street harassment and their determination to reclaim the streets of Sydney. Feminist leaders shared their wisdom and brought the humble truths home. After the rally, we were instructed to take hold of our banners and walk down the busy evening roads of Central and Surry Hills. The men at the rally were given due thanks and appreciation for being there and for supporting the cause, and were asked to wait behind at the park while the women reclaimed the night for themselves. We chanted about our right to walk safely down the streets at night without fear, about being free to wear whatever we want without harassment, and about saying no to sexual violence against women.

My friend put some photos of the rally on Facebook. One male friend was nothing short of irate when he learned that the men in attendance were not invited to march. I was shocked that he thought it would be appropriate for him, or any man, to be involved to that extent. I mean, we were chanting things like: ‘Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no.

It got me thinking about men who — and it seems there are more and more these days — identify as feminists and why this is potentially dangerous for feminism. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s really important for men to support feminism and to openly declare themselves allies. But by claiming membership to the cause, and by women encouraging them to do so, we risk diluting the important issues, the actual lived-experiences of women, the things men do not and cannot ever know. There is the risk that some men will attempt to dominate the cause, being louder, angrier, and ‘better’ feminists, like my Facebook friend who was happy to school me on how everything I know about feminism was flawed and how he, somehow, knew better.

I find it perplexing whenever I hear a man take such offense to being told he can’t be a feminist. Why is that? Is it not okay to take the back seat and let the women you support take the wheel? Why does hurt so badly to support us from the sidelines, as an ally, given that the very point of the feminist movement is elevate the platform of women so that we might enjoy equal rights?

Tim:

Most of us men have women in our lives, and we care deeply about them. Since feminism is about improving the lives of women, we want to support that as much as we can. We show how much we care by being involved. It’s not enough to simply raise a glass to your cause, especially when male behavior is often regarded as a problem. We want to show how different we are from those other guys!

Gail:

To be a feminist is to embody a set of ideals; to live in accordance with those. One doesn’t, necessarily, have to experience oppression directly in order to embody the ideals of freedom and equality. And regardless of that, a gay, black man living in a southern US city might have experienced more marginalization and discrimination than I have as a white woman in a liberal Canadian city. To restrict the definition of feminist to those who have a prescribed set of life experiences is to assert that objective experiences define our identity, and personally I reject that whole premise. The fear of another group appropriating our oppression seems to me to be parallel to the fear that privileged groups have of others appropriating their privilege. Both have the effect of “othering” and risk perpetuating the current status quo, rather than breaking it down.

By tying our identity as feminists to the patriarchal structure of dominance and oppression, are we not perpetuating that very structure? I would argue that not only can men be feminists, but that they must be feminists, in order to deconstruct patriarchy. The narrative of oppressed groups “rising up” to claim their power is a fallacy; privilege must also be challenged from within. Arguing otherwise is problematic because it implies that power is available — was always available — to oppressed groups “for the taking,” and thus places on them the responsibility for their own oppression. This strikes me as victim blaming. Far more dangerous than men appropriating our cause, is men distancing themselves from our cause, by deciding it “isn’t their problem.”

Tim:

This is true. The trouble is that I’ve never had any experience but that of a white male. People tell me I have a lot of privilege. I’ve never noticed. If what people are saying is true, it’s hard for me to truly understand their plight.

Let’s be real here: men and women have been confusing each other for centuries. Feminism is no different. Men don’t know what the hell is going on, so they try to fix it. Women can’t believe men would butt in on something they can’t possibly understand. Chaos ensues.

Amy:

The question of whether men can be feminists seems to depend on which definition of feminism we’re using. While I agree that the lived experience of sexism is vital to feminism — without it, there would be no feminist cause at all — equally important is the effort to expose and eradicate patriarchy. Anyone who does the latter, in my opinion, is a feminist.

That said, I think Holly raises a great example of how men can ineffectively participate in feminism. Certainly, complaining about feeling excluded from an event in which women are reclaiming the streets (cool idea!), misses the point entirely. I can think of many other contemporary examples, too, like #notallmen. Did we ever say “all men?” That’s a great straw man there, buddy.

Another thing that bugs me is when men decide it is their place to educate you on the best strategies to make feminism work, as it seems like Holly’s friend did. I’ve had men say to me something to the tune of, “you know, feminists should stop being so angry, and maybe we’d listen to you more.” Or, “feminism would be more successful if women didn’t keep making a stink about issues that really aren’t that important, like [insert most recent click-baity outrage piece here]”.

I think a more productive question to ask is not whether or not men can be feminists, but how they can effectively (or ineffectively) participate in feminism. At the end of the day, it’s not the labels that matter to me, it’s the actions.

Tim:

Is this an inappropriate time to reveal my five-step plan to fixing feminism?

OH GOD I’M KIDDING!

Seriously though, it’s not a man’s movement, but it does tend to focus on male behavior. Patriarchy is literally defined as a social structure where men run everything. I sure don’t feel like I run everything but apparently, I’m still part of the problem.

It’s often quite unclear to me what I should be doing as an ally of feminism.

Amy:

There are plenty of strategies that men can use to participate in feminism. Sometimes, that means sitting things out. Other times, it means taking action. It means promoting women to positions of power they have not historically occupied. It means giving us freedom over our reproductive choices, our bodies. It means putting in the extra effort to make sure women are included and appreciated in male-dominated environments where they may feel uneasy. As Gail points out, not only can men be feminists, they must be. Feminism’s work is far from over, and it is these sorts of actions that men must take to elevate the status of women.

It is no secret that government, business, and most other institutions of power in the Western world are still dominated by men. So unless there is some kind of revolution that happens tomorrow, the onus falls on men as much as it falls on women to address these glaring disparities.

I also think it is problematic to universalize the “experience of women,” as women’s experiences vary drastically across racial, ethnic, religious, and other identity-marking borders. So when you say that you must have “lived the experience of discrimination” to be a feminist, whose experience are we talking about? This is not to say that feminism can’t transcend other aspects of identity, as I think it does all the time. No matter one’s other identifications, the gender binary exists in most societies, and therefore, so does sexism. The point is that if black women, trans women, Muslim women, rich women, poor women — women whose experiences may radically differ — can be included in feminism, why can’t men? I may have more in common, in terms of my lived experiences of discrimination, with a gay American man than I do a Kenyan woman. The more specific we get with identity categories, the more difficult it becomes to create perfect empathy between members of a cause.

Holly:

I hear what you’re saying, Gail and Amy. And I agree that dismantling the patriarchy needs to happen from within. Would men — powerful men, ordinary men, all men — not be subverting the patriarchy by doing just what I suggest? By allowing women to take the lead on feminist issues?

Tiago:

I find myself agreeing with almost everything that Holly said. I don’t think men should be center-stage in the feminism movement. I just think that it’s better for men to be supportive of women’s rights, rather than be defensive and accusatory.

I’m not sure if we’re all defining feminism in the same way. Are we all using the same definition of feminist here? As in, a person who supports feminism?

If I try to put myself in Holly’s shoes, and I’m walking around or doing some activity, and a self-identified male feminist starts babbling on about what feminism should be about and he keeps rambling on and is basically speaking for women everywhere… well… that would piss me off, if I were a woman. Like, this guy hasn’t lived as a woman and yet he claims to know what they’re thinking and what they should do. Uh, what? Why is he the expert now? What the hell? Isn’t this our thing?

Some women prefer that men call themselves “feminist allies” rather than “feminists”. I think that’s a little silly because, agains, a feminist, according to the dictionary, is someone who is supportive of feminism. So a feminist ally would be someone who is allied with those who support feminism. Huh? So he’s a feminist, duh!

If someone can shine some clarity on the definitions of feminism, go for it!

In any case, as Amy said, you really do want men in positions of power to be feminists/feminist allies/feminist ninjas because, in a workplace environment, these same men currently have the power to replace the local chauvinist asshole with a woman. I mean isn’t this the optimal outcome? For men to help the cause with their actions? Men taking big steps to empower women is, in my opinion, extremely important.

Holly:

We seem to be thinking a little differently about what it means to be a feminist. Of course, at the very basic level it means to support feminism, which is about establishing equal rights for women. If we are to go by this definition, then yes, all of us here are probably be feminists.

When I speak about actively identifying as a feminist, it means more to me than this simple definition, for reasons I talked about earlier. Women around the world continue to be paid less than men, experience alarming rates of domestic violence and sexual assault, and experience sexism in our media, politics and institutions.

I am big believer in the importance of activism in creating lasting change, and I think women need to remain front and center. There is still a lot of work to be done and we need to keep feminist spaces safe for women to make sure that they continue to have their voices heard. Men, no matter how enlightened and supportive they may be, cannot remove themselves from the power and privilege they hold in this patriarchal system.

I think we need to be careful about how we use language so that the point does not get diluted and the real issues lost. Specificity with regards to labels is important here, in my opinion, because words are powerful and can have far-reaching consequences.

Men have a hugely important role to play, particularly with regards to being good role models to other men and in teaching boys to treat women as equals. They don’t need to identify as feminists to do so. Having said that, my desire is not to shut men out. I’d much rather they take an active interest in supporting women’s rights, whatever they call themselves, than opposing feminism in principles or in practise.

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Amy Shaw

Amy is a part-time teacher, part-time freelance writer and editor, and full-time building a life out of her passions. Always seeking new, fresh ways to improve herself, Amy's approach to personal development has shifted over time: she has been influenced by everything from Tibetan Buddhism, to New Age spirituality, to Mark Manson's "slap you in the face" style of self-help. She claims no status of guru-ship, but she hopes that you can find yourself in her down-to-earth, reflective writing. Amy is Spiraling Up's editor, and she can also be found at Fiction Edit. She loves cooking meals from scratch, drinks espresso multiple times a day, and plays in a rock band called Dr. Martino.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Sue Rawlinson August 11, 2015 at 2:50 am

Terrific discussion. In my opinion, everyone has raised valid and important points and is essentially on the same page. I certainly know where Holly is coming from and I agree with Tiago, Amy and Gail as well. And I agree the issue is definition is rather than tactics.

As a feminist activist of the 70’s, I moved from a fairly benign position of “we can’t leave men out” to a more radical “they need to look after themselves and get out of the way” stance. In Australia, it was an era of great change, as was elsewhere in the western world. We saw the establishment of women’s refuges, women’s health centres, rape crisis, abortion clinics, the Anti-discrimination Board, Equal Opportunity in Public Employment agency and many others.
The first feminist I knew was my male partner at the time. There was never any argument from him about my activism and, like a lot of sympathetic men on the left, he eventually joined a male consciousness raising group, just as my friends and I formed ours. The dominant position we assumed at the time was that men had to look after themselves. That we were sick of worrying about them being on-side and how they were faring. We had to get on with the fight and not waste energy trying to help men understand what feminism was about. They were expected to do their own psychological work and help each understand how they had internalised patriarchy and what they need to do to minimise its effects. Men were expected to equally share domestic and child rearing chores as well as support us in our struggle. And many of the men I knew did.
We all internalise the dominant ideological of our culture. As women we need to become aware of how it works within ourselves. In the seventies, women approached it in a number of ways. We were all part of a broad spectrum of feminist activities from the “femocrats” , who worked within the system to bring about political and legislative reform, to the radical theorists and activists who were involved in ideological battles and directive action. It was difficult and not without conflict and misunderstanding at times but it was important.
However, it can be dismaying for women of my generation to see how far we still need to go.

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Connor Dotay August 11, 2015 at 4:59 am

A fine article, gang. Everybody expressed themselves with great eloquence and mutual respect.

“Feminist” or not, I am a straight, cisgender, white male and an active advocate of feminist ideals. I understand women’s need to have communion with each other in a way that empowers them and that sometimes that means the exclusion of men; at least as I can understand it on an intellectual level. I think you risk excluding men from feminism altogether the more you limit their sense of tribal identity with the group, though.

True, you shouldn’t be trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator. We can’t just engineer a whole movement to make Holly’s Facebook friend feel appeased after all, but as Gail articulated brilliantly, a marginalized social group can not hope to usurp the social order without the willful involvement of those in the more privileged hierarchical position. It’s an inherent condition of non-violent revolution. The patriarchy will end when men will it so. That sounds abysmally un-feminist, but for women to gain an equal footing in the world it’s men who most have to change, and that won’t happen if they don’t want to change. Ultimately, you’d be asking them to restructure the balance of power against their own favor simply for the moral reasoning of a group you won’t give them equal membership in.

So yeah, I think it’s crucial that women lead in the advocacy of their own rights, often in a way that doesn’t include men, but I think the baby gets thrown out with the bath water when you keep men on the fringes of the movement by discouraging them from identifying as feminists. Granted, I may be just another man armchairing the direction of something that doesn’t as intimately involve me. I can’t speak on behalf of women or objectively tell anyone what feminism should be, but I am a member of the group that most needs to wake up to the harsh realities of sexism and I believe there’s value in the insights of men on what can be done to best expose men to those ideas. It’s not the perspective that should have the most value. It’s certainly not the one that warrants any sort of leadership within feminism. It’s just one among many, and I think that an appreciation of everyone’s distinct experiences of the world is one thing feminism does best.

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Andy Tucker August 11, 2015 at 5:23 am

Nice conversation! Connor, I’m with you 98%, but I don’t think it’s fair to construe feminism as being detrimental to men – against their own favor, as you said. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir, but everyone stands to gain from the deconstruction of social hierarchies. I would rather be taken at face value, apart from the mediating influence of gender, race, etc., than enjoy undeserved privilege. But I think framing feminism as detrimental to men only attracts the kind of men who see that as a positive – the smug jerks who act like they’re martyrs, or that their involvement in feminism requires any real sacrifice at all. Too often men involved in feminism are just leveraging their privilege to align themselves superficially with causes or ideas that grant them status with certain women and a feeling of superiority over most men. Being a male ally, sitting by the sidelines, is the ultimate “not all men” move. You’re distancing yourself from the problem while distracting from the fact that power operates on a structural, rather than individual, level.

Anyway, SCUM Manifesto had it right and all men should die. Thanks!

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Connor Dotay August 11, 2015 at 2:50 pm

For sure, Andy. I think Sophia actually highlighted how feminism benefits men really well in her comment. Sexism victimizes men all the time, though most often stemming from a man disparagingly being equated with femininity, such as homophobia, the imposed silence of male victims of sexual violence, the shaming and ridicule of men who don’t adhere to the stereotypes of the gender binary, etc.

The question remains, however, do most men recognize and appreciate the severity of these things? Allies, feminists, whatever you call us, you and I certainly “get it,” but how do you sell feminism to men who really reap the full benefit of their privilege? Not only are you asking them to forsake disproportionate privilege on behalf of women, a gender they don’t identify with; you are also asking them to do so for other gender identities and sexual orientations they don’t identify with. I think that even just as a somewhat superficial strategic move it makes sense to give men the mantle of “feminist” who would wear it, albeit with the understanding that it’s a movement that necessitates enabling the leadership and communion of women in a way that can’t always involve men all of the time.

But yeah, but I disagree with your reading of the SCUM Manifesto. As *I* understood it, just guys named “Andy” should be shot. Common misunderstanding.

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Sophia August 11, 2015 at 10:04 am

I am actually particularly interested in a sort of feminism that focuses on men. That is: breaking down male conditioning, teaching men they don’t have to be hard and emotionless and homophobic just to fit in. I don’t know how we’re ever going to reduce sexist violence without reaching out to the group that traditionally perpetrates it.

My boyfriend is also very interested in this. As a trans guy, he comes from masculinity from a different position, and doesn’t want to swallow the kool-aid and become one of those macho defensive guys. In my own way, being trans has made me interested in this side of the equation, because I’ve had to deal with my own male conditioning, which living as female has shone a spotlight on.

Me and Kado (that’s Kado, not Cado… different people :P) are planning to do some workshops for men sometime to address this matter. It could be called “Non toxic masculinity” or something similar.

I have an ulterior motive… I don’t want to have sex with any guy who has toxic masculinity… so the more non toxic guys we “create”, the more I can fuck 😛 OK, joking… kinda…

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Tim August 11, 2015 at 3:15 pm

Hi Sophia,

I totally agree, men could benefit from some “softening”. There’s a good book called, “Real Boys” by William Pollack that I feel goes a long way towards this. His argument is that boys can feel and express just as much emotion as girls, but society (all of us) hammer it out of them at a young age. The result is that grown men feel they have to hide this part of them or they simply don’t know how to express it.

Now, is feminism the answer? I don’t think so. It should be spear-headed by people who have had the male experience. You always seemed to be in touch with your emotions on PDSP, so I’d imagine you have something to offer here.

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Sophia August 13, 2015 at 8:23 pm

Well, you could call it what you like, but I think you couldn’t entirely separate it from feminism – toxic male conditioning is very linked to the power structures which feminism challenges.

But yes, people who have had the male experience should be involved in helping (other) men – I guess this is rather important. Which is why I think trans people of all sorts have such a useful position here – because we’ve experienced maleness, but have also been outside of maleness and had the ability to question it with that perspective.

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Jason August 12, 2015 at 8:45 am

I agree with holly that men shouldn’t associate themselves as feminist just to perpetuate the hierarchy mentality when expressing opinions and forming core groups within the movement for ego. I see how this could be very seethingly destructive. However I think men should be free to call themselves feminists if they have earned the right to do so. Earning this right means being active in the right way i.e. being present at consciously marches, and being dialectic, not rhetorically dominant. I believe men should freely identify as being feminist for the right reasons, and by using their own lived story, and not some just some mental board room takeover bid.

This is aligned well with the point that Sophia mentions, identifying as feminist is powerful in its message towards our own social groups, it speaks a strong message to our patriarchy that we should wakeup to ourselves and end our negative behaviors. This also means not degrading or dominating women by speaking for them, like the FB trolls and the activist egos can do. This means speaking for ourselves and telling all the stories that we see, how we find it disgusting when the wives go, we are left with circles of men who talk about how disrespected “he was” by a women who was “just asking for it” etc…

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