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How men can support women and Feminism

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Submitted by Felix on Mon, 2010-03-22 21:35

Recently, I've been talking about men and feminism a fair bit, and not just in what I write, but in other places online and in real life. This is pretty normal for me, but what's a bit interesting is that a lot of these conversations have been around the relationship of men to feminism and in particular, what role men can play in supporting feminism and women in general.

A lot of this discussion has been about names; and in particular what you call a male identified person who supports and actively promotes feminism. 'Feminist' is the obvious answer, but this can be problematic because the word is SO strongly associated with women, and some feel that there personal, experiential aspects of feminism, along with male privilege (the numerous benefits and opportunities that biological men often enjoy solely on the basis of their sex - better average wages, less harassment, etc) think that is important for the term 'Feminist' to remain exclusive to female identifying people. Other people think that males SHOULD label themselves feminists, to better challenge the notion feminism is a concern only of women, and actively engage men in struggles for gender rights and equality. Just like UK comedian Bill Bailey is doing here.

Some other terms that are used to describe men who identify with feminism are 'Allies,' a term which is used by people in many contexts (not just men) who advocate and support struggles around a particular issue, for example rights for sex workers, but, for whatever reason, do not identify with that community themselves. 'Male feminist' and 'pro-feminist' are also used, which include the term feminist, along with a caveat that creates a distinction with female feminists.

This stuff with names and terms can seem kind of beside the point, but it all means quite a bit when it comes to how we think about gender, feminism, etc and this theory naturally informs personal politics and action in these areas. It's a personal choice though, and I don't think any of the above labels are more right or wrong than the others, it's about what you believe and what you feel comfortable with. Regardless of what you call it, there are many ways the actions and behaviours of male people can support women and promote gender equality. I'm only going to outline a few broad (and I think key) points, I'd be really interested to get your input and perspectives and experiences, (male and female) so please be vocal in the comments section.

As a male, it's important to understand and realise that you have certain advantages and privileges purely on the basis of your biological sex. Individual men are privileged because, overwhelmingly in the world and throughout history, men as a group have been privileged; more money, less domestic work, more rights, getting to keep their name in marriage, etc. Privilege is tricky, because so often the advantages and preferential treatment can seem small; for example, you get a promotion at work. Sure this is because of your hard work and general talent, but chances are that some part of the reason is that because you're a guy you are seen as 'more reliable' or a 'harder worker' or a ' leader.' I should point out that privilege is by no means a single, solid overarching thing. Not all men have the same privileges; older, more well off, heterosexual men (for example), usually have more opportunities and advantages than say, men of colour, homosexual men, lower socio-economic men, transmen etc. Gender is only one aspect among many in determining privilege. Part of the problem with male privilege and countering it is that it is often so intangible and difficult to clearly demonstrate its operation. It's based in hundreds and hundreds of years of culture and thought, and that is tough to change. And this systemic privilege isn't just changed in activism for institutional change, like women getting the vote, or being able to work, or have access to healthcare, (which are really important struggles by the way) but by changing attitudes and beliefs on an individual and cultural level. So you, as an individual male, can help the struggle for gender equality by recognising that, in some ways, you have certain advantages because of your sex. In recognising this, you can take some actions, big or small, to highlight this privilege, and make inequality based on sex or gender more visible.

Another really important thing that you can do to support women and feminism, and something closely linked to the sentiments above, is to listen to women, and respect what they say. It really should be that you listen and respect what anyone has to say, but again, history and culture have shown us that some voices get heard a whole lot less, and when they are heard, they are often not respected. Oh, and again, all this stuff is applicable to not just gender, but also factors such as class, race, and very often age (younger people in particular). So in general, listening and valuing what the women around you have to say is a good idea, even (and especially) if it is a topic that women are "traditionally" excluded from, for example car repair or something else 'blokey' is a spot on way to practice principles of equality and feminism. Also, and this links in to the whole male privilege thing, there are times and conversations with women were you should just listen, and think very carefully about speaking, the appropriateness of you speaking, and what you are saying. I'm talking about conversations where the male voice (that'd be you) often is a unneccesary or unwanted one; conversations about violence against women, including sexual violence and harassment and conversations around pregnancy and reproductive choices. In this sort of conversation it's probably best to take a back seat and to respect the experiences that you may not have had. Respecting what women say, and respecting that some conversations are for women more than men are really good ways to support women.

The final way in which males can support gender equity is perhaps the most obvious, and often (I think) the hardest. And that is actively speaking out when you see or hear behaviour which is sexist, misogynistic or generally denigrates women - say something about it. This is especially important in exclusively male, or male dominated environments where other voices of dissent may not be heard. I often find it really hard to speak up in this kind of context, especially among people who I otherwise like, respect and value. However in a few instances, after I've repeatedly called someone out for a sexist or misogynist comment, they've stopped speaking like that around me. That doesn't mean that I, on my own have caused a fundamental shift in behaviour in attitude, but it at least demonstrates that they are thinking about what they say in some circumstances. I reckon this as a good thing.

So, above are a few ways I think men can be supportive of gender equity and the goals of feminism. This is all just my own opinion, and should not be taken as gospel, and really is just a few ideas. I think it's really important to work out your own personal relationship and interactions with feminism. Like I said at the start I'd really like to hear your thoughts and comments on men and feminism.

(This piece also appears at my personal blog Critical Masculinities, which mainly consists of me writing about what masculinities mean in culture and society).

Comments

Male privilege?

Tue, 2010-03-23 07:21
Anonymous

"As a male, it's important to understand and realise that you have certain advantages and privileges purely on the basis of your biological sex."
As a feminist it is also important to understand and realise that men have certain disadvantages and are sometimes underprivileged, based not on biological sex, but on the basis that feminism denies that these issues men face exist and focuses on forwarding those whose biological sex is female. Feminism may tell men over and over again that they are privileged, they are in many aspects, but in doing so it's ignoring that men face issues too, as well as telling women over and over again that they are underprivileged, victims (which is hardly the woman-positive strong message we should be sending to women).

This is part of the problem, feminism is seen as a movement working for WOMEN'S rights, forgetting that men too face prejudice and issues all of their own; not as free to show emotion, considered as being rapists or abusers by default (also making it more difficult to get justice or support if they're victims of rape themselves, particularly at the hands of women), fathers rights, not as free to work in traditionally 'female' careers such as childcare (often seen as wussy or assumed to be child molesters if they do pursue that career) shown as stupid in modern media (if a woman is portrayed as stupid or as a sex object then complaints are made, but not when it's done to men), having to be the providers for their family aka women and children, higher rates of suicide, the issue of masculinity. All these also have a flip side that effect women; emotions seen as weak, [if men are abusers by default then women are...] considered as victims by default, the issue of femininity. Men and women not only have to live side-by-side but all effect the society in which we live in, equality should be for all, equal and balanced, but feminism [as a movement] by its very nature grossly outweighs the balance to benefit women, so men suffer and in turn we don't have equality.

Feminism is also now a dirty word, many men (and people in general) hear the term 'feminist' and instantly turn off, so they don't hear what is being said, if anything I think these days calling yourself a feminist does more harm to the cause than good...oh, and male feminists or those men into feminist issues are also prone to having their masculinity questioned (irony?). For years I (as a woman) refused to call myself a feminist for it was seen as anti-male, I was encouraged to take up the term, but I found whenever I spoke up for men's issues I was viscously personally attacked by other feminists, and whenever I called myself a feminist people would ignore what was being said. I found that even those feminists who are not openly anti-men are blinkered to how sexist feminism can be, and so are not doing their job to bring equality to the sexes.

Many of the men I know who are interested in feminism, gender issues, and equality call themselves 'anti-feminist' as they've have found too much sexism within feminism and don't want to support a cause that seeks to promote women while putting men down, they'd rather support equality for BOTH the sexes.

ways to support feminism

Thu, 2010-04-22 21:34
Anonymous

men can give support to feminism by giving them space to make opinion, to contribute to the decision.. You said about actively listening to ladies.. I want to take it little further.
i tel my case about my girl-friend. whenever we face any problem, like she need to go abroad for a long time, or we have to be separated for some serious cause, if we feel the need to discuss then i take her opinion at equal stand as mine. By rational thinking, a male can easily support feminism.

Hi Anon, I understand your

Tue, 2010-03-23 17:38
Felix

Hi Anon,

I understand your concerns in regard to feminism not recognising that males have particular concerns and areas of disadvantage. And I agree their are many issues with how masculinity is represented in modern media. And I think these are areas that need to be worked on, and I'd say that there needs to be a greater critical engagement from men about their own gender identity. However I think you're making some big generalisations about a: How men are percieved in culture, and b: What constitutes feminism. Feminism is not a single monolithic structure, and while it is a movement that has at it's aim gender equality (often explicitly through the promotion of womens rights and issues), I don't think it's accurate to say that men suffer because of feminism. And there is a common perception of feminism as misandrist or anti-male, I can honestly say that in my years of interacting (as a male) with feminism and feminists, I've found that perception rarely matched with my experienced reality. Maybe I've just been lucky.

But even though it's important to recognise that men have their own issues and challenges related to gender, I think that the vast array of inequalities that women (even considering only women in developed countries)face; the institutional, cultural, & social (etc.) disadvantages faced on a daily basis, mean that the broad aims and goals of femisnism are still HIGHLY relevent. Speaking only about a gendered analysis of power and it's operation,in a broad sense men have so much more access to resources and oppurtunities, ie - privilege, as to make the womanist focus of much feminism highly appropriate. And I'd argue that we need to do much much more to address issues of women's disempowerment and disenfranchisment.

Oh, and thisis a handy list of some of the ways in which male privilege operates - http://www.amptoons.com/blog/the-male-privilege-checklist/

One Girl's Opinion

Tue, 2010-03-23 16:16
Anonymous

This is an excellent piece, and nice to read coming from a guy's perspective.
The reply was also interesting and made me remember exactly how I used to feel in my college days surronded by an abundance of male and female friends and feeling equal in status to them all. Feminism to me back then was a word that turned me off, my male friends respected me and I did not feel any more limited than them. I thought feminism was a bit wrong back then, we should strive for gender equality, males have it hard too!
However, my views have changed slightly since then. I'm older, been married, had a baby and have far more responsibility than I did back then. Now I do feel limited as a female and I do feel I have to stuggle harder for equal treatment in areas of life that never even crossed my mind when I was younger and more care free. Now I am approached in society as a mother (and a single mother at that), not just a student or a career professional, and now I can see how women seeking to get support and network in the community can feel limited just because they are female, and at their most vunerable and also most accomplished state.

I still think gender equality is a good thing but also realise that I totally misunderstood feminism before, not having the experience I do now. Mixing with other young, open-minded students is fine but having to deal with sexist, chauvanistic older macho guys is a different thing, and some of those young students do eventually get old and cynical and become self centered old guys.
I have to say though, by comparision, I live in quite a progressive community. There are very good women's groups here and ALSO very good men's groups that offer men who seek help and support in, counselling, family matters, relationship, health, career, etc. that is male focused. And the best thing is that both the women and the men's groups, both respect and support each other. Sure men also have their issues in society and culture and suffer hardship as males but that doesn't mean that feminism seeks to put them down, it should be recognised but respected that men are the best people to deal with those issues, supported by women, whilst women can best understand their problems and focus their energy on working through those, ideally, also supported by the guys. No-one gets anywhere if we're are all arguing about why feminism is unfair to guys or how women's rights are uncompassionate to men's issues. Women need to understand that men also have a hard time dealing with being a guy and it's not all easy for men in scoiety but also recognise that whilst we want to promote and highlight the cause of women, we are not trying to stop men in any way, doing the same thing for themselves. Women should support men's groups, but that doesn't mean they also have to take on all their projects and do it for them. Both genders can be separate but still supportive and respectful of each other. An androgynous concept of gender equality is not realistic! Women and men ARE different, we are separate, but that doesn't mean we have to oppose and fight each other.

Good support networks for both men and women are important but should, and need not, be a confusing melee of one group fits all.
I think the article above should be praised as a good move in the right direction of male understanding and respect of women's issues. I know a lot of male and female friends and associates who have a very negative view of feminism and all the 'male-bashing' that it implies in their minds, even women who are openly sexist against men do not like feminists or the term feminism! I usually find this goes hand in hand with a misunderstanding and untenable concept in their minds that feminism is one-sided and cannot be balanced, they are also usually sexist or have negative opinions against women too, their own gender (rare to find in men) and this makes me think that they are probably just confused about both or too fixed on their limited ideas of men and women to be able to come to terms with the seperate identity and value of either one. True 'male haters' in my experience are usually women who have a history of abuse and control at the hands of men, they, as the other comment pointed out, also attack women who they feel are not as anti-men as them. Yet I feel deep down they are still fragile, damaged, and hurt and actually yearn for love and sympathy for their unresolved grief. They would love a kind partner to care and understand them, be it male or female. Their views are extreme but just because they identity themselves to a particular cause doesn't mean that they ARE the cause. We should be strong enough and secure enough in our own minds to not get embroiled with their beliefs if they don't fit our own.
I kept my own name when I got married and my son has my surname, even though he was born in wedlock when we were still happily together. Yes, it's unusual but it is not imposed on you by law. Taking the man's name is purely by choice in this country (Australia, and UK too I imagine) but women willingly and unthinkingly, gives up the freedom to keep their identity and takes the man's name because of expectation and cultural ideals not coersion or duress.

In a conversation with a close male friend and confidant, we came to agree that GENERALLY and unconsciously, both men and women see men as fathers, sons, brothers whereas usually only women see women as mothers, sisters, daughters. Guys generally see women as, well, women. And that manifest in our attitudes towards each other, even women will bicker amongst themselves for the struggles of their male fathers, brothers, sons, but it's rare to find grown men arguing between each other for the tremendous and overwhelming struggles of women.

*nod nod nod*

Tue, 2010-03-23 11:03
Anonymous

Loved the article. I also thought this was a great response. I think any discussion of men's role in feminism should talk about their stake in it. Because Heather is right - men DO have privilege. Sometimes it is very difficult for us to relate to women because we haven experienced the same pressures/challenges as they have. And yes, men SHOULD care about the plights of women that do not also affect them. But even so, its important to recognize how sexism affects men as well. At least, if you want to get more men interested in feminism. And then the more they learn, the more they WILL learn to identify with and respect women.

However, I'm not sure I've had much experiences with feminists dismissing me or my viewpoints. Yes, its happened on occasion, but more from commenters on blog who fancy that men can't POSSIBLY have ANY positive input. I feel like generally the people writing the books and blogs I read are VERY inclusive of men. But that's just my impression of my experiences. *shrug*

Reply to comment

Wed, 2010-04-21 04:40
Anonymous

I am of the opinion that extreme feminism- that which puts down men- is bad, as a whole for society, but I do support equality for the sexes. I believe that the author of this article is not trying to put men down, but rather, acknowledge that men have an edge over their female counterparts. As such, please do not associate feminism with your own bias, which is, women putting men down.

*shrug*

As a male Women's Studies

Sat, 2010-04-24 16:46
Johann7

As a male Women's Studies student (and feminist activist), I know a lot about this! Feminism is NOT misandry; the overwhelming majority of feminist discourse does not seek in any way to subjugate men to women nor denigrate individual males. I realize that this is exactly what you are saying, Anonymous, but I would urge you to not use phrases like "extreme feminism" to describe misandry, as feminism already has enough of this sort of frame conflation with which to contend. Even the more extreme forms of Radical Lesbian Separatism sought escape from men/male-dominated society, not the assignation of men to a lower social class.

I would like to point out, however, that while feminist discourse does not seek to subjugate men or "put down" any given man for being male, it absolutely does seek to criticize "men" as a group and to dismantle systems of privilege to which many men have become accustomed and have even integrated into the identity "man". Because feminism seeks generally to dismantle systems of privilege, men who have internalized this privilege as part of their "man" identity do accurately perceive feminism as a threat to their identities, to "men". For example, if part of what you see as "being a (real) man" is, say, being the Head of House and having your decisions with regard to the family and the household be unquestionable, then feminism IS a threat to you personally and men generally, given the way in which you understand the identity/role "man".

In this way, feminism definitely seeks to "put men down", and it should: the cultural construction of the identity category "man" is an oppressive process that constructs anyone with certain genital characteristics as beholden to a role characterized by oppressive authority, (violent) (sexual) aggression, egoism, a lack of emotion, material affluence, etc. In fact, our construction of "man" is very similar to our construction of "sociopath", although the shared characteristics are less-extreme in the "man" identity. This is seriously problematic for both men and women (and others; the man/woman binary in and of itself is problematic, but that's a different, peripheral discussion), and it's why men also have a vested interest in the aims of feminism (gender equality, and, increasingly, challenging all systems supporting the unequal exercise of power). Patriarchy is bad for everyone, it's just much WORSE for women than it is for men.

Anyway, the next time anyone (and especially any other men) encounter "feminism" putting men down, take a second to stop the "[presumably she] just said something bad about men; I'm a man; she just said something bad about me; feminists don't like me; I don't like feminists" response pattern and examine what it actually was that the person said. It can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between generalization (ALL men do this) and discussion of a social group or role as a group or role (society says all men SHOULD do this), particularly if one has not heard the entire context/conversation, so make an effort to find out which it is. Is it an unreasonable generalization about how all men individually act, or is it a valid (or an invalid) criticism of how men are socialized to act?

Also consider if the comment is true, even if there are unfortunate implications for oneself: if I say, "Male-dominated societies are self-destructive," this comes off as an attack against men, with the implication that women are/would be better at running things (the implication is based on oppositional binary thinking, which, again, is problematic). But all I've actually said is that men make a mess of the societies they run, mot that women wouldn't do the same or that it's even possible to do differently. Also, the entire history of male-dominated (now, globalized Western) civilization is characterized by war, oppression, exploitation, overdevelopment, etc. that has culminated in an overpopulated planet characterized by bitterly tribalist, warring societies with an ecosystem that is rapidly losing the ability to support any human life. Ask: is the statement baseless misandry, or is it accurate?

Finally, keep in mind that a given person making statements does not necessarily speak for feminism as a whole (actually, it would be impossible to speak for feminism as a whole). Mass media distributors in particular go out of their way to find radical, controversial, or otherwise inflammatory figures; what someone says about feminism on a talk show may bear no resemblance to feminism in the academy or feminism on the street (similarly, the person in the bar who gets all of hir feminist theory from said talk shows may not be accurately representing the theory/position sie claims to support). Or it may; this is why multiple sources of information from multiple perspectives are so important. The person may simply be wrong, a misandrist, etc. and this is not (necessarily) an indictment of feminism generally.

I find people relating experiences of male marginalization within feminist communities interesting, as I have not experienced any of this. In fact, my experiences have been quite the opposite - the women in my classes and community action groups have always been quite happy to have men participate. In fact, it's only been people outside of the feminist circles in which I travel who seem to think my presence there merits explanation; I've been asked plenty if I'm there to meet girls when I tell someone I'm majoring in Women's Studies, but it's never been by someone IN one of my Women's Studies classes.

Ultimately, feminism NEEDS men (just as men looking to perpetuate male privilege need women), because feminism is as much about changing men's gender roles as women's (in fact, it's almost certainly a necessary condition of ending gender oppression), and men will have to be the ones who change how men behave by behaving in a different fashion. Unless we develop human cloning, that is; then we men could all be killed-off without dooming the human population, though I really hope this doesn't happen, primarily because it would drastically reduce genetic diversity, and I don't want to be killed in a massive androcide. :-)

it seems there's a bit of

Wed, 2010-05-05 16:37
Anonymous

it seems there's a bit of confusion in the last reply, in the use of terms men, man and the "cultural construction of the identity category "man" ". don't you mean the target of your discourse is 'patriarchy'?

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