Feminist men: friends or foes?
- Published: 15 March 2010
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Gender and concepts of masculinity strongly shape feminist men’s experience as feminists in a world that considers them to be neither real men, nor real feminists, writes Rosalie Scolari.
When you opt to conduct academic research on a controversial topic, I have discovered you are not in for an easy ride.
In my case, I was fighting against decades of feminist research, by arguing that there are men who deserve to be seen as legitimate, committed feminists, and deserve a position of camaraderie in our quest for women’s rights.
Now, this is not an easy thing to do when feminism is often marked for “women-only”, or defined in the competitive terms of male versus female privilege.
Any utterance about my research was met with a barrage of catch cries, often from women, demanding: What right do men have to muscle in on what is about and for us? Isn’t feminism and men a contradiction of terms? Or my personal favourite: If anything with a pecker actually truly gave a shit about me, my rights and my body, I would hand over my first born and join the circus.
For me, however, looking at worthy men, and seeing and accepting them as feminists, was conflict-free. Because of how I choose to define feminism, and what I consider its goals to be, the connection between feminism and men was no more controversial than the connection between feminism and women.
What does a feminist look like?
It is important to remember that the terms “feminist” and “woman” are not synonymous. Similar to Simone de Beauvoir’s observation that one is not born a woman, but rather, society creates women, academics like Judith Butler and Judith Grant, suggest that the experiences of women are not necessarily indicative of the standpoint of a feminist.
Rather, it is only with what Grant calls an “interpretive feminist lens,” that women’s experiences come to be part of feminism. In other words, feminism may claim to speak for all women, but not all women speak for feminism.
Despite this obvious truth, the association of feminism with women is overwhelming. Over the years, numerous authors have proposed various definitions of feminism.
While there are often ideological disagreements over exactly what a feminist should stand for, there appears to be some general agreement that since men cannot experience women’s oppression, they cannot be feminists.
I find the experience argument problematic. I just need to compare my own experience as a white, western, middle-class, queer, 26-year-old woman to any women not of the same race, class, country, sexuality or age, to understand that I could not possibly experience oppression like others.
Perspectives and knowledge of all people, regardless of gender, are partial and situated. A full understanding of oppression requires that we recognise these multiple realities, each valid from the perspective of those having the experiences.
It is experience that also shapes men’s relationship to feminism, with some forming a feminist worldview after objecting to the sexism they see around them, reflecting on their own sexist behaviour, or when they have experienced oppression themselves (often racism or homophobia).
Take a story from one of my research participants for example:
“I was sexually assaulted by a group of boys, not long after I came out in year 12. It was a crime of hate ... I know what it feels like to be violated, to have your rights stripped away, to be oppressed daily. Understanding and relating to women’s oppression has always been easy ... and I will do everything in my power to fight for a world where their safety and rights are never compromised.” (Dan)
Women have been burnt, however, and some reject men as feminists because of personal experiences with so-called feminist men, who have turned out to be phallocentric misogynists.
Sadly I too have had encounters with such types, and it is very disheartening. However, I feel much the same when the likes of Girls of the Playboy Mansion, or the delightful (insert sarcasm here) Sarah Palin declare themselves as feminists too.
I wanted to see the pathways men travelled to become feminist, and how this act shapes their lives.
For my honours research I gathered the social, personal and theoretical reflections of 12, self-identified feminist men (six being heterosexual, five being homosexual and one identifying as “queer”).
These men see feminism as a social movement that seeks equality of opportunity for all people, regardless of gender. To them, it is a political perspective that uses gender to critically analyse power – who has it, who doesn’t, who abuses it and why.
Let’s take Nick for example: Nick is a 27-year-old vegan, who works in a music store. Nick believes girls and women should not be raped, abused, discriminated against, and should have control over their own bodies.
Feminism provided him with the tools to start thinking critically about his gender and his unearned privileges as a heterosexual white male. As a result, he tries in his everyday life to avoid doing things that oppress other people, and he attempts to confront oppression when he sees it.
Nick an active member of various communities and organisations that fight for women’s rights.
Now, while many feminist women may find no conflict, and may even applaud Nick’s convictions, the problem often lies in the adoption of the term “feminist”, which “was not designed for men, it was designed because of them.”
So, what is in a name?
While some men who recognise problems of gender oppression, misogyny, sexism and the politics of domination take a stand by identifying as feminists, others call themselves pro-feminists, feminist allies or even menists.
Although I personally see actions as more important than labels, I recognise, like the men in my study, that labels can be used as a powerful display of our politics. Therefore I see the bold, political act of identifying as a feminist, as a profound act of solidarity.
“I call myself a feminist because for me, it politically makes a lot of sense. Sex and gender binaries need to go, and in my ideal world, anyone who believes in equal treatment of the sexes can call themselves a feminist. I think if men can’t call themselves feminists, then perhaps feminism will always been seen as something that only women should care about.” (James)
Gender, masculinity and femininity
The most important issue that the men face, however, is around the topics of gender and masculinity.
The men in my study adopted the feminist view of sex/gender and worked with the concept in the same way feminists have since Ann Oakley’s ground-breaking work in 1972.
Sex basically refers to our biology: what’s between our legs when we are born. Gender is taught and reinforced through institutional arrangements that tell us how men and women “should” behave.
In other words, gender is about the social construction of masculine and feminine, or in act of resistance to these, genderqueer identity.
“We might come into this world with a penis or a vagina, but we’re not born wanting to fix things or carry a purse.” (Shaun)
Our ideas about masculinity and femininity run deep and are reinforced, in part, because of something called dichotomous thinking, or dualistic epistemology.
This means we think in terms of binaries; good/evil, light/dark, love/hate, male/female, and so forth. As discussed by Nick, there are many unexamined presuppositions we have about masculinity and what it means to be a guy:
“Look, ask people what they associate with masculinity and there is a pretty good chance they will say thing like; strong, unemotional, providers and protectors. Men are supposed to be the ones who open the jars, fix things, kill the spiders and so forth. Fuck knows where that leaves me, I hate spiders.”
All 12 of my participants rejected traditional ideals of masculinity and struggled with being the men they wanted to be, and being the men they were expected to be. Jim’s story was particularly interesting:
“I grew up Mormon. Even when I was young I knew what kind of boy I should have been; one that wanted to help my father make pig pens and chop wood. It was clear that I was the wrong kind of boy and my brother was the right kind. I wanted to stay indoors with mum and chat and help her cook. My brother went exploring, hunting and helping Dad with the chores. My father would shake his head with disapproval at me and say things like ‘You will end up a fag the way you are going’. I wasn’t a fag, I just didn’t identify with that particular kind of masculinity. Still don’t.”
Jim’s story recounts familiar themes for feminists; he has demonstrated how particular gender roles are constructed and others discouraged.
It is also an indication of the strange link often assumed in society between sexual orientation and gender behaviour. With all 12 men reporting attacks on their masculinity (by being “sissy boys”) and sexuality (by being “fags”), it is clear that homophobia works hand in hand with heterosexuality, and becomes another glaring trait of the ideal masculinity.
By identifying as both feminist and men, my participants are stretching the definition of man, rather than enforcing the construction of stereotypical gender roles.
Perhaps they are still upholding the gender binary, but they are pushing it. In addition they are reconstructing and rethinking the technology of gender by pluralising and opening up the term man, to encompass more kinds of men.
As Australian social scientist R.W Connell (herself formally male) argues, there is no one true version of masculine identity, instead, there are aspects of, and multiple ways of performing masculinities.
Women’s hostile responses to feminist men
I went into these interviews knowing that these men would not have necessarily received warm support from feminist women, some of whom are deeply distrustful of all men; most of whom are wary of men’s power, and all whom make a political commitment to solidarity to women.
So, while these men do share positive relationships with feminist women, hostile encounters had been experienced by all participants.
Riley, for example, discussed being yelled at by a female university lecturer for putting up posters advertising a fundraiser for the on-campus women’s collective.
Tim shared his experience of when at a Women and Climate Change seminar, several women announced that his presence was “inappropriate and made them feel uncomfortable.”
Shaun was called an “ignoramus” by a female acquaintance when wearing his “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt.
John talked of his exclusion from a “women-only” violence against women protest: When he explained to organisers that he would really like to attend because he was a feminist and strongly opposed violence against women, he was told “[You will] make all the women feel unsafe as you represent every wife basher and rapist out there.”
Within third-wave feminism, radical/separatist feminism has a complex and often vexed place. It is undoubtedly a difficult and distressing part of the movement for my participants. Even when they understood the reasons or their exclusion, they still hoped they would be made an exception to the rule:
“I know women need their own spaces, groups and organisations. I can see the need to sometimes exclude men. Rationally in my head I know these women-only zones are what ensure that women run the feminist movement, as it should be. But every time I get shat on, every time I get told to piss of, I can’t help but feel wounded. Because it reinforces that they see me as a man, not the kind of man I see myself.” (Nick)
These men want to be judged on their merit, not on their membership to a particular group, in their case, men.
Time for change
In my view, the position that men cannot be feminists is based on the same male-female dichotomy that underlies patriarchy.
I believe the time has come to reject this artificial boundary and move beyond it, as it is working against feminist objectives: it sets up boundaries beyond which men need not go; it excuses men from gaining any sort of feminist understanding, and it spares them from having to change anything in their personal lives.
Since men are the primary agents maintaining and supporting sexism and sexist oppression, the system can only be successfully eradicated if men assume responsibility and take action.
Women alone cannot make feminist revolution, and men can provide a tremendous contribution in the area of exposing, confronting, opposing and transforming sexism.
When men show a willingness to assume equal responsibility in the feminist movement, it is my hope that women will acknowledge them as comrades in struggle.
Note: pseudonyms have been used.
Rosalie Scolari is a 26-year-old queer, residing in Melbourne, Australia. Despite having a deep dislike for assignments and a strong love for wine, friends, art and dancing, Rosalie has degrees in sociology (Hons), community development and education. When she is not pretending to be a dedicated student, she is a nanny for two beautiful boys, involved in various social justice campaigns, or more often than not, has her nose in a book.