I used to be antifeminist, but I want to change. How do I do that?

Kevin
asks:
I've always been an antifeminist and I've started to realize the error in my ways. But, now I feel empty inside and I don't know how to fill that hole. I wanted to know what I could do to help the community out, and better myself.
ruby replies:

Hey, Kevin! This is a big thing to come to terms with, and I appreciate your honesty.

I don’t think you’re alone, and I also think reaching out and asking for help when healing from your trauma (we all have it) takes a lot of courage and shows a willingness to be curious about yourself. So, thank you! I have some thoughts to share on how you might move forward.

Reflect on the path that led you here. You can think about why you considered yourself an antifeminist to begin with. You mentioned that you’d “always been” one.

We aren’t born political; it’s something we are all socialized into over time, and then make choices about, not something hereditary. Can you think back and remember who taught you to be “against feminism?” Where did you learn it? When you thought angry or demeaning thoughts about women or feminists, whose voice was that in your head? Was it something you learned from your parents/caretakers or other family members, whether explicitly or more subtly and implicitly, or from someone or somewhere else? Was it something your friends talked about that you conformed to in order to feel safe and included in their group? Did you have a painful experience with someone who identified as a feminist?

You deserve to have compassion for yourself in considering these questions. These are all suggested prompts that could help you understand your motivations and move towards self-forgiveness, healing, and grace for yourself and others.

This could be a really heavy process. Remember the trauma I mentioned earlier? We’re ALL traumatized by institutional systems of gender, those who identify as men included. In patriarchal systems, not only are “women” expected to fulfill certain roles, but “men” are too, and those are equally as impossible to fill. Human beings are complex, expansive, and changeable.

If this feels intimidating to consider, take it easy on yourself, and move more slowly. The goal isn’t to suddenly be able to dismantle the patriarchy (or any systems of hierarchy) overnight -- no one can do that -- but to be able to notice them in yourself. Being able to shift your relationship to yourself, those important to you, and the people you have yet to meet is an incredible accomplishment all by itself. Just beginning this work, or even entertaining the idea that you might be able to do it, can open the doors to let the healing start to really flow much more simply and naturally than you might anticipate. It’s so heartening to hear your desire to not only take responsibility for your experience, but to get in right relationship with yourself and others. In that desire to heal, the repair has already begun. You are making a difference, even if it feels like the shifts are slow or subtle.

Feeling your feelings! I invite you to make a regular practice of sitting with your feelings, whatever they may be.

You can check in a few times per day with yourself, to ask, “What am I feeling right now?” Or you could even just notice the feelings as they arise: “Wow, I feel like I could cry and I’m not sure why,” or “I feel numb,” or “I feel exhausted,” or “I’m feeling a bunch of conflicting things at once!” Emotional self-awareness can be really helpful to notice when you’re past your point of tolerance and need to step back from whatever you’re doing and integrate it, which could look like resting, talking about it with someone, going on a walk, distracting yourself… among other things. If you’re feeling overwhelmed to the point of not being present, it’s okay to notice that and be honest with yourself about it. No shame! Letting yourself feel your feelings is one of the first steps on the journey to unlearning patriarchal values and becoming a better friend and ally to feminists. It’s not just a fluffy recommendation, it’s part of building a solid foundation to being more self-aware so that you can effectively unlearn antifeminism and help others do the same.

The experience of questioning your role as an antifeminist and feeling your feelings about it is essentially undoing everything you taught and thought was correct about how you should socialize with others, and that feeling of groundlessness can be very intense. Breathe. You might feel discomfort when you feel deeply or reflect on your past. Discomfort does not always mean something is wrong or needs to stop immediately. In fact, it can be a great indicator that you’re growing, shedding a sort of emotional skin that you’ve worn for a long time. If you’ve been conditioned to avoid feeling hard things, or to express that you’re feeling hard things through anger and punishment of yourself and others, this is a biggie. Over time, you can try to let yourself get tender. You can seek out support, maybe through men’s circles or classes where men can connect to spirituality or love in a different way than patriarchy typically encourages.

You can take responsibility for the harm that anti-feminism causes, and the harm that you perpetuated, but- this is important - as much as you can, don’t shame or hate yourself for it. Spiraling into shame and self-deprecation is a great way to freeze ourselves, to feel unable to continue the process of healing because we might not feel worthy of it. Shame and self-hatred are also literally tools to keep folks brainwashed by patriarchal values, so it is a feminist tenet to unsubscribe to shaming ourselves and others. Anyone who uses shame in their practice of “feminism” are often recreating and re-affirming what they experienced under patriarchy, not imagining into something new that can heal. In my experience, gentleness and enthusiasm are far more effective in the process of learning something new and healing rather than punishment and discipline.

If you notice yourself feeling ashamed - having thoughts like “I am bad, there is something wrong with me,” not “I did something harmful and want to fix it,” (which can be an expression of guilt or regret, and of accountability, but not deep shame) take a pause. That part of you needs some soothing, some care. This is an opportunity to treat yourself like the most loving parent you could ever imagine. If that feels too hard, you can reach out to others who care for you, do something that feels comforting, take a break. You don’t have to power through it. You can always return with more capacity for growth after taking some time to understand what’s coming up for you.

It is totally okay to feel guilty, regretful, lost, confused, angry, betrayed...remember, you were traumatized too. In your experience, you had to do what you did to feel safe. For many, including people who dole it out, misogyny is a cage. It keeps whoever’s inside feeling protected from those outside, but it also keeps them trapped, unable to form intimate relationships. That doesn’t make it harmless or something that needs to continue, but validating your experience can be very important in developing deeper compassion for yourself and others (especially those who are beginning to question their anti-feminist roles).

You can educate yourself. One way of looking at feminism is as several waves and many intentions based on who was practicing their version of it. It’s okay to be critical of feminism. In fact, it’s pretty important. Feminism is a large and diverse school of thought, a tradition that hasn’t been without its own grave errors and injustices, and it’s important to feel into what you truly, authentically identify with.

You’ll probably find a lot of articles talking about how “women won the right to vote,” and I encourage you to remember that in the “second wave” of feminism, white women won the right to vote. Women of color didn’t until far later. This is an example of how it can really make a difference to be specific in your inquiry: Black feminism deals not only with the relationship between those identifying as men and women, but with the intersection of racism and queerness. Some folks call themselves feminists but don’t really practice some of the values I associate with feminism (many of which are listed in our article What is Feminist Sex Education).

Some folks who claim to be practicing feminism make spaces very unsafe for trans people, disabled people, people of color, and others. No socialization is inherent to women or men because we all have vastly different experiences, but some folks who identify as feminists believe that our genitals dictate what experiences and power we hold with no tolerance for the complexity inherent in that conversation. Many white people practice an expressly white feminism, which centers their experiences of victimhood without taking into account the sociopolitical power they hold through whiteness. I have compassion that we’re all acting from the trauma of being gendered, along with our own individual traumas that compel us to feel as comfortable and non-threatened as possible in our communities, but that doesn’t mean those who call themselves feminists while intentionally causing harm need to be on your list of feminists to look up to.

You don’t need to appeal to every feminist (or every woman) to be pro-feminist; what I recommend is doing some research, thinking for yourself, and encouraging others to do the same. Discovering your values is important in developing feminist principles and practices, but it also helps you figure out who you are in general and what kind of relationships you want to nurture.

The book “Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power” by Lola Olufemi is awesome and packed with information about how “feminism” has become commodified by large corporations. Heather, founder of Scarleteen, also recommends "We Were Feminists Once" by Andi Zeisler. Try to read other books by and about women, femmes and other gender-diverse people! Consider reading Scarleteen articles about the intersections of feminism and health and so much more! Try checking out documentaries about the history of feminist movements and misogyny. Something doesn’t have to be explicitly feminist media to be worth engaging with. There’s a lot to be learned from the implicit language used in various movies, tv shows, podcasts, and books, even if they don’t seem related to gender liberation.

Share the wealth .You don’t have to keep this a secret. You have nothing to be ashamed of! There are many other people who have been conditioned to feel critical of feminism, or feel like they have no role in feminist spaces. There is no end point to loving yourself or learning to love those around you. That can sometimes feel exciting, and other times totally overwhelming. You can allow yourself to go through your cycles and waves of all feelings and come out the other side a more inquisitive, loving, honest, curious person who can engage in hard conversations.

It’s not just about “checking your privilege” as a man which means you can’t ever share your story. It’s about knowing when and where to speak up, and when to let others lead. For example, if there’s a meeting of women that you’re attending where they’re sharing their experiences or leading a workshop or sharing on an online forum, it’s probably not respectful to come prepared with your own lecture about your experience. If you are at a meeting for men and/or other people who have denounced feminism, you could have a really powerful impact by clearly explaining how your process of realization, healing, and care through change has helped you. If you’re in the U.K., check out HUMEN, which provides “anonymous and non-clinical spaces for guys to talk on a regular basis.” You could also check out the ManKind Project, which has in-person meetings (for post-Covid), online training, and a messaging forum.

Notice that all systems of oppression are connected, so take a look at not only how antifeminism lives in you but also racism, homophobia, classism, and anything else you can think of. For example, perfectionism is one of the fifteen characteristics of white supremacy as listed here. So, in your healing process, undoing perfectionism and knowing you may make mistakes or feel silly is really important. Remember, this process is not done overnight, or even over a few years. Take your time, but be thoughtful about how you spend it. There’s a whole world of liberation out there. I’m so excited for you!

Here are some other links we have that might be helpful:

Man to Man: On Sex, Masculinity, and Being Yourself

What Is Feminist Sex Education?

How "Men Suck" Messes Everybody Up