The debate surrounding whether men can identify themselves as feminists has raged for many years and there are many different view points surrounding it. So, can men be feminists? Does their inherent privilege make them unable to describe themselves as feminists? Should feminism be all inclusive? I think this depends on your definition of feminism and should consider the notion of male privilege as an obstacle to calling yourself a feminist.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, feminism is defined as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” I like this definition – it’s simple, it’s not convoluted and it’s inclusive of everybody, regardless of gender. Surely, by this definition everybody can be a feminist provided they advocate women’s rights and equality of the sexes? Georgia Luckhurst believes so, telling me that
“I believe men can and should be feminists: feminism is about improving the world for everyone, a benefit that is directly connected to furthering the advancement of women in society, and men should care about that. It’s important that those who have suffered from racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic or any discriminatory diatribe are able to discuss their experiences with others who have shared the same problem. It’s important that these people have spaces to discuss amongst one another how they feel. However, for any movement to succeed, it must include anyone who is truly passionate about the cause, no matter what - and men who support and campaign feminist issues are quite honestly my personal heroes.”
“Although I believe that men can be pro-feminist and anti-sexist, I do not believe we can be feminists in the strictest sense of the word in today’s society. Men, in this patriarchal system, cannot remove themselves from their power and privilege in relation to women. To be a feminist one must be a member of the targeted group (i.e a woman) not only as a matter of classification but as having one’s directly-lived experience inform one’s theory and praxis.”
A clear analogy can be made between male profeminism and anti-racism. Men cannot really be feminists anymore than whites can be black nationalists. However, men can be pro-feminist and whites can be pro-black nationalists.
“defin[ing] the tussocks and rabbit-holes in the lumpy playing field we’re all on, and where we are on the tilt of it. (Not very curiously, the people who are most insistent that the playing field is level are the most privileged.) If there is to be levelling of it, then those of us on the tussocks of privilege need to be leaning over to those falling down the rabbit holes and hauling them up, and likewise when we realise we’re on the way down a rabbit hole, we want to extend a hand and have someone grab it and help us. And that could be something as major as equalities legislation or something as minor as changing your repertoire of insults to try to remove the ablist ones.”
Its about inclusive debate, shared experience and sharing experience. The ‘well you’re x so you can’t talk about y’ thing is the antithesis of it. It should be, ‘if you’re x and you talk about y, be prepared for y to set you right on the things you don’t know about, and don’t get in a strop about it’. Yes there’ll be anger, reacting to percieved intentional baiting is – but if you want to do intersectionality and talk outside of your experiences, you’ve got to accept you’ll get it wrong AND you’ll get called on it. And then have a constructive dialogue about it.
So if men want to identify as feminist, they have to bare in mind their intrinsic privilege. Or should they simply not use the term “feminist”, favouring anti-sexist, pro-feminist or feminist ally? The term feminist ally is one that is championed by men and women that feel that men can or should not describe themselves as feminist. I asked fellow feminist Niz Bennett what she thought on the topic and she told me:
“Men can definitely be feminists. Feminism is about equality – if you’re for it, you’re a feminist (congratulations!) It’s true they have inherent privilege and some prefer ‘feminist ally’ or other but privilege-checking is more important. Just as white, cis, able-bodied straight woman can be feminist but may need to check their privilege on occasions, men can be.”
Niz draws the point that although their is certainly the point of argument that as men have inherent male privilege they are in no position to hold opinion on something that they have no experience of, privilege takes many different forms. Niz believes (as I do too, incidentally) that men can be feminists – as long as they understand their privilege and keep a check on it. Lyndsey Gormley agrees, telling me that
“Feminism can only work if privilege is acknowledged and used to benefit the masses, not the individual. It is about acceptance of all minorities, and unlike Julie Burchill in recent weeks, does not discriminate or ‘simply decide’ who is a feminist and who is not.
So, why do I believe that men can be feminists? Because those who are fighting patriarchy, stereotyping, homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexual assault, the glass ceiling, misogyny, body shaming, pornography, domestic violence, sexual harassment, reproductive rights and inequality do so, not because of their gender binary, but because of their ability to see the difference between right and wrong. Feminism is humanism.”
However, a great number of people disagreed. I was lucky enough to witness a great discussion surrounding this topic and was struck by the number of feminists who claimed that they prefer the word ally, for exactly the reasons discussed above: intrinsic male privilege and lack of lived experience of oppression. Ben Pike claimed that he describes himself as a feminist when in the company of men/non feminists, but is happy to use the word ally when in feminist company. He says that
I think people’s problem comes from that some have had bad experiences with men who self identified feminist which I completely understand and am happy to count myself as ally with these people. It saves pointless and unproductive arguing or hurt over semantics. I’ve found it puts people more at ease, some people aren’t comfortable with men identifying as feminist for whatever reason, I’m ok with that.
with @planetpavs remarking that any true ally would have no problem at all with describing themselves as such. Angela Towers emailed me her thoughts on the matter, saying:
When asked this question I am reminded of Natasha Walters description of current feminism; a stalled revolution. The revolution did stall, and not only that it began barking up the wrong tree. I think it’s time we climbed out of the tree. Feminism needs to be all-inclusive, it needs to be; understanding, but not complacent, powerful but not aggressive. In short; it needs to rise above and unite the many.
[...] For me Feminism is not about women or men, it’s about all of us. We really are in this together. I think we should not be fighting one another, but holding up a collective mirror to the face of society, and the more people to lift the weight the better.
Another side of the arguement that one must also consider that sexism does in fact work both ways – although I personally would argue that it’s more of a one way street than it appears. Katie Sinclair messaged me her view on the subject, saying
One point that [is] interesting to consider is the concept of “egalitarianism” vs. “feminism”, as some men agree with the concept of gender equality but take issue with the word (as do some women, of course). I would say it’s necessary to use the word “feminism” because most instances of male discrimination come about as a result of men expressing traits/occupations/interests that the gender binary dictates as exclusively “feminine” and therefore “lesser” e.g. a man who wants to go into hairdressing might be patronised/bullied for choosing a career trivialised because it’s seen as a woman’s work. Socially constructed terms “masculine” = good, “feminine” = bad. Feminism therefore concerns all genders, as all are affected by patriarchal concepts.
This is an excellent point and one that I have to admit I hadn’t really considered until Katie messaged me. Although I personally disagree with the notion and feel that the patriarchy is far more harmful to women than to men by its very nature, male discrimination does exist as a result of the patriarchy and for some men it is in their personal interest to end this gender binary. Perhaps then, as Katie points out, the term egalitarian may be more apt?
What have we learnt? Well, to start of we have learnt that this is a far more complicated issue that it appears on its surface – although ideally we’d like to think that everybody can and should identify as feminists, there are those in the feminist community who simply do not believe this to be the case. This is something that everybody needs to decide on themselves. Personally, I feel that if somebody is sincerely dedicated to women’s liberation and empowerment then of course they’re a feminist, regardless of their gender – although for arguments sake, identifying as a feminist ally is a-okay by me too. Will Brooker, a Twitter friend of mine, tweeted me his contribution saying:
“Men can certainly identify as feminist and be part of feminism but I think that is for women to decide. In any case, men’s principle role within feminism is to shut up and listen.”
I tend to agree. I’d like to end on another quote from the wonderful Lyndsey Gormley:
The biggest myth concerning feminism is the notion that we hate men and that all men in return, hate us. Feminism, to me, is the fight against patriarchy towards the equality of both genders. It is the acknowledgment of privilege and oppression in order to campaign towards the liberation of straight, LGBTQ, cis-gendered, gender queer, able bodied, disabled, white, WoC, working class, middle class and upper class women.
That concludes our whistle stop tour of the issue surrounding male feminists, male privilege and feminist allies – I don’t pertain to have covered everything here and if it is a subject that interests you there is a plethora of articles, opinion pieces and blog posts out there on the internet on the topic. I hope to have outlined all the major talking points. If you have anything to add, feel free to post a comment below or contact me on Twitter (@nitramarual). I will be publicising the next Beginners Guide on Well Behaved Women and on Twitter if you’d like to be involved.
Twitter handles of the contributors:
Laura Martin: @nitramarual (author and editor)
Angela Towers: @MissesTea
Ben Pike: @BenCPike
Georgia Luckhurst: @secretactivist
John Palethorpe: @JohnPalethorpe
Katie Sinclair: @katiemsinclair
Lyndsey Gormley: @LyndseyMG_
Niz Bennett: @NotASquib
Terica Adams: @danceTEAdance
Thomas Wales: @tomwales_
Tilly Grove: @tillyjean_
Will Brooker: @willbrooker
For general support and definitions:
Little Tweets: @stfumisogynists