I am engaged to a man that I consider feminist to an equal, if not greater, degree than I consider myself. At the beginning of our relationship, I was consistently surprised that I didn’t have to explain my desire to split the tab or my hesitation about marriage (and my refusal to ever change my last name). He just got it. And, in fact, there have been times that he has pointed things out that I didn’t even realize may have been rooted in misogyny. One recent example: we just moved into a small cabin in Woodstock, NY, and I proposed calling our place a “housette” to denote its diminutive form. Tom thoughtfully pointed out that “ette” is not only a suffix that indicates “smaller” or “less” but is also, as in French, the feminine form (i.e. “bachelorette”). (We went with “houseling” instead!)
However, there are those who argue that the existence of a male feminist is inherently impossible. With the Hugo Schwyzer debacle in the news constantly, male feminism (or the lack thereof) has been getting its day in the limelight. The argument can be made, and many have made it, that any “male feminists” are simply toeing the line drawn by women. Since feminism is based around the promotion of women’s rights, it seems natural that men involved in feminist debate would, as Ally Fogg argues, “take their cues from the women around them.”
Fogg also makes the extremely valid point that many male feminists avoid this issue altogether by focusing on what men should do. While much of the feminist writing by women (including mine and many of Luna Luna’s other posts) focuses on giving advice on the best ways to act or react, a similar piece written by a man would certainly face criticism on the surface level, as men telling us what to do is exactly what we’re trying to get away from. I get that, and it makes sense.
I also understand the ambiguity that women feel towards male feminist leaders or activists. Jackson Katz, an activist who created a gender violence program for US military and sporting organizations, describes this superbly in his TED Talk. “Women built these movements,” he says, and any male speakers on the issue are necessarily “indebted to the leadership of women.” “Often times,” he points out, “men like myself get a lot of credit and public acclaim for doing the work that women have been doing for a long time.” Male feminists are considered pioneers, and yet much of what they say has been said for decades by women but is only now being legitimized by male support. I completely understand why this is frustrating for women, especially women activists who have been making the same points but haven’t gotten the same level of attention.
Essentially, the most noncontroversial way for men to function in the feminist movement is much in the same way that “allies” do in the LGBT* movement: people that don’t necessarily live the lifestyle, but want to protect the ability of those who do to do so.
However, I’m going to take the opposite, and what I consider more optimistic, approach. I believe that any logical, non-bigoted, and open-minded man should be able to see the truth in feminism. To say that feminism only “makes sense” to women is ignoring the fact that the demands of women activists are (as they should be) based in logic, stemming from the desire for equality. A majority of men should have no problem understanding the movement if they can look past the benefits they receive from the status quo, and in fact, the epitome of empathy and open-mindedness may be the ability to see the problems that affect others and demand solutions. I hesitate to use the phrase, as I consider it overplayed, but men who are able to recognize their privilege deserve the same praise as those who are able to recognize the privilege of being white, thin, upper middle class, etc. It is human nature to focus on our own little “bubble” and to promote the social changes that best benefit ourselves, so men who are able to see past these natural instincts are an asset to the movement as well as to society as a whole.
Additionally, it’s important to note that feminism is only one branch of the large tree we know as “gender studies.” Jackson Katz says of gender education that “these are movements that are affecting, in a positive way, everybody, not just women and girls.” Although men’s roles are both freer and more privileged than women’s, there is no question that they too face social restrictions on their behavior, interests, professions, etc. Eliminating female gender roles goes hand-in-hand with eliminating gender roles (and the gender and sexuality binary) as a whole, which is beneficial to everyone: male, female, straight, queer, etc. Therefore, it seems as though the movement would benefit from more male voices speaking out against gender restrictions and the gender binary, as this is not a one-sided issue.
In general, I think it’s important to invite as many voices in to the discussion as possible. We may be hesitant to open the circle of feminism to men, as women have worked for centuries to get themselves into that circle, but I say if men are ready and willing to learn and participate in feminist action, welcome them. The more the merrier.
Alecia Lynn Eberhardt is a logophile and a library bandit wanted in several states. In addition to feminist rants, she also writes essays, short stories, bad poetry, recipes and very detailed to-do lists. She currently resides in a little blue cabin in Woodstock with one fiance, one Dachshund and one pleasantly plump cat. Find her tweeting @alecialynn.