Admission: at least a 1/3 of the stuff I’ve ever written has come from a conversation I’ve had with someone. Maybe even 1/2. Case in point, one of my first articles was about why I happily identify as a feminist and why I think Feminism is so valuable. Someone’s criticism of my argument already inspired one article in response. Well, here’s another.
In this case, the conversation wasn’t one critical of feminism or feminist ideas, but rather two other male friends asking whether men had a legitimate place within the feminist movement. They’re both good blokes, and definitely people who support equality in both word and action. In their cases, the concern is whether identifying as a feminist ‘usurps’ a role or identity that isn’t theirs or isn’t appropriate for them.
One said “it [feels like it’s] not my space, it’s not a label/group for straight white men to have a voice in” and the other said “it’s hard to know what it’s like to live a day or week or month in a woman’s shoes” (sort of inherently defining feminism as a purely female activity). They both also mentioned not wanted to be seen like the creepy skeezers who use performative feminism as a pickup line:
There were definitely echos of the latter in the criticism some people faced after the Golden Globes. When someone like James Franco, who faces multiple allegations of sexual impropriety, or Justin Timberlake, who just completed a film by Woody Allen (one of the biggest ‘Open Secret’ figures left standing), are wearing all black and sporting #TimesUp pins, it can be difficult to sort through the facade.
There’s a reality that wolves will always try to appear as sheep – that’s an issue beyond just gender relations. And while such concerns are valid, I’d definitely argue that shouldn’t be enough to keep men from real work towards gender equality. After all, “a woman might wrongly think I’m creepy,” is both a concern entirely about men’s experience *and* a symptom born of the nastier, predatory parts of patriarchy. Using it to curb open support for feminism seems like missing the point twice.
Because of that, I’d argue there is still a very real need for men to work in Feminism. It’s just that our role isn’t the same as womens’ role, and it’s definitely not the role that men are used to playing in our heavily patriarchal society. With that in mind, here’s my reply to my friends (and anyone else asking similar questions):
I read a tremendous quote (but cannot find the original – if you know it, please mention in the comments) that said “We don’t need men in feminist spaces, we need men to take male spaces and make them feminist.” That idea was recently echoed in a tweet by Jamil Smith of the LA Times:
Lindy West is 100 percent correct. I’ve made similar arguments in the past about racism, and it applies to every other form of systemic bigotry. It is up to those who built and benefit from the system to tear it down. Gents, this is our problem to fix. https://t.co/fJdDq1euqY
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) January 4, 2018
Referencing a concise and incisive op-ed by the New York Times’ Lindy West. Her argument: Men were the primary architects (and beneficiaries) of patriarchal inequality – therefore men are absolutely people who should be taking a primary role in dismantling that unjust system.
Head’s Up: That role may not look like men expect
One of the basic elements of Patriarchy is that men hold the majority of leadership positions in any institution or arena. We can see that in Congress, in Fortune 500 boardrooms, in Hollywood. It’s the default, and because it’s the default, it’s hard to conceive of situations that are different.
The issue of course is that the default is unjust. It is, by definition, unequal. It is iniquitous. It’s a situation that advantages men, not because of superior character or quality but because of the accident of genetics. That’s why it’s so important for men to be involved in fixing it, deliberately, openly. Withdrawal is a tacit approval of the status quo – and the status quo is unjust.
What then does it mean then “to be a male feminist”? I argue it means silencing our voices and letting female voices be heard. It means supporting female leadership whenever possible. When a space is so male-dominated that there aren’t female voices, then it means taking feminist ideas into those spaces. It does not mean taking a leading role in feminist spaces.
Some might bristle at the idea that the key to equality is for men to take a subordinate role, but think on it a second. If equality is the goal, and the system is currently unequal in men’s favor, then reaching equality means giving up some of the power/benefit/privilege we now enjoy. If the scales are tilting too far one way, you balance them by taking some weight from one side and moving it to the other.
The concept of ‘ally-ship’ is a complex one, and there’s a lot of debate about exactly how best to be an ally. Whatever it means though, in Feminism, men are allies. Women are the ones enduring an unjust system. In that regard it is “their fight” and while it might be hard to recognize that, it’s a fundamental truth to being an ally. I previously wrote the following in reply to someone warning against ‘alienating allies’:
Treating the opinions of allies as so important that it requires self-censorship is inherently not being an ally. Being any ally means *supporting* others in *their* struggles, not co-opting that struggle by elevating the ally’s importance. In the role as allies, we are less important than those we’re supporting. If we don’t recognize that, we are not truly being allies.
“We don’t need men in feminist spaces, we need men to take male spaces and make them feminist.”
I think the phrasing of this quote is so important. I don’t need a new car, but I’d take one – it’d be nice to have one. Similarly, men aren’t needed in feminist spaces, but if they’re there to genuinely ally and support, that’s excellent. However, I need to breathe. I need to eat. We need men to transform male spaces, since – by definition – we’re the ones with access.
That it’s a very different thing for a man to be a feminist isn’t an insult (and it certainly isn’t some imagined ‘reverse sexism’), it’s a reflection of the social reality in which we live. Men inherently benefit from societal privilege, we sit on the heavy side of the scale. Trying to be a major voice in the general discourse only perpetuates the unequal benefits we already enjoy. To end that inequality requires giving up those benefits. Our leadership is required only to convince other men to do the same.
In “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center,” bell hooks wrote “Feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression.” In “Ain’t I a Woman” she wrote “to be ‘feminist’ in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression.” If Feminism is fundamentally the fight against harmful sexist inequalities – and, if it’s not yet clear, I think it is – then it is absolutely a fight in which every person can play a part.
Even when (especially when – actually – only when) the parts we play aren’t identical.