A Beginners Guide to Feminism – Can Men Be Feminists?

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.”
When I posed the question on Twitter, the overwhelming response from a great number of people was that yes of course men can be feminists! We should encourage and welcome male feminists as progressive and helpful to the cause! However, others disagree. Indeed, the head of National Organisation of Men Against Sexism (NOMAS) claims in this article that
“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.”
Brian Kloke (the writer of the quote above and head of NOMAS) claims that as men are intrinsically privileged, they cannot be feminists as they have no “directly-lived experience”. Within the article, Brian claims that
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. 
Thomas Wales agrees, tweeting me regarding the article that he agrees with Klokes analogy.
tomwales
The point made by Kloke is that due to male privilege and lack of lived experience of the oppression feminism strives to hault, men cannot truly describe themselves as feminists. We all know what privilege is – a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group. The London Feminist describes privilege as
 “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.”
So does male privilege prohibit men from identifying as a feminist? John Palethorpe says not, in this wonderful piece on intersectionality, privilege and male feminism (set against the backdrop of the Suzanna Moore fiasco). He claims that

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_
Nick: @NickehBee
Niz Bennett: @NotASquib
Terica Adams: @danceTEAdance
Thomas Wales: @tomwales_
Tilly Grove: @tillyjean_
Will Brooker: @willbrooker

For general support and definitions:

Little Tweets: @stfumisogynists
Pavs: @PlanetPavs
Stilli: @Stillicides

24 Comments

Filed under A Beginners Guide to Feminism, Feminism, Feminist Allies, Intersectionality, Male Feminism, Privilege

24 responses to “A Beginners Guide to Feminism – Can Men Be Feminists?

  1. martindufresne

    Thank you for unpacking so carefully this question, one that is sadly fraught with opportunities for setting up straw arguments in order to trash the opposition.
    I personally identify as .profeminist. in order to respect and abide by women’s agency in defining and steering this struggle, as I have seen a number of sexist ideologues claim to be feminist in order to confuse their audience.
    Let me suggest another angle to the question “Can men be feminist?” Maybe it is the first term of the equation that needs to be poked… Since most people now agree that “masculinity” is a social construct, maybe the question ought to be turned around to ask “Should male (pro)feminists identify as “men” (given the structural association of that notion with inequality, power-over-others)?”
    P.S.: You wrote: (…).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(…)
    Wasn’t the fourth word meant to be “agree”?

    • A very interesting thought – turning the whole notion of the gender binary on its head! Makes my head hurt a bit though so I will leave that for another day/blogger haha!
      Re P.S. No, I disagree with Katies point but do see her argument – may not have been put very eloquently but I was in a hurry to publish on deadline! Will review this!

      • martindufresne

        If patriarchy wasn’t generally much more beneficial to men that it is harmful to *some* men (the ones deemed “unmanly”), you’d think they would have used all huge power advantage to end it by now, no? Would you support the same argument in the case of race or class power differentials? Slavery having “harmed” white plantation owners, really? I think the patriarchy-hurts-men-too is dangerously seductive. because it suggests men just need the shells to fall from their eyes for the problem of gender oppression to end, on the basis of some pristine inner male morality.

  2. I have a friend who thinks he may be a feminist but who might be a bit confused now after reading this article. I think he (not me) would like to know what he could do, practically, to be more feminist. Or is it all talking and stuff? He asks. Asked me to ask. Maybe an article like:’ Ten Things a Man Can Do To Be A Feminist/Feminist Ally/ProFeminist/Not A Twat (Oops You Can’t Say That For Starters). Thanks (he asked me to say).

    • Hi Neil – I apologise if your friend found this page confusing. The gist of the argument is that men and feminism is a very subjective issue – some believe that men can and should identify as feminist, whilst others feel that due to male privilege and lack of experience of the oppression feminism strives to end they should instead use the term feminist ally or pro-feminist. This is 100% subjective and everybody will have a different view point.

      From a personal point of view, I think the most important things a man who wants to be pro-feminist can do are
      1) Be aware of their privilege – this is the most important thing. Until a man can truly understand the privilege he has been bestowed with and appreciates that he will never *truly* understand as he hasn’t been there, he will not progressive in feminist thinking.
      2) Listen
      3) Learn

      There are lots of grey areas and it is by no means cut and dry but if I were him I’d read up on the notion of male privilege and carry on! I feel that worry about semantics is unproductive and a man actions is far more important than their label. Basically, don’t worry too much about it, read up on privilege and intersectionality and carry on being a crackin’ feminist ally!

      • martindufresne

        “a man actions is far more important than their label”
        Abolutely!
        4) Take action.
        It is quite simple to nix a rape joke, write a check to your local women’s shelter, or point out that a woman has just been interrupted (again), for instance.
        John Stoltenberg has put together a series of talks that I have found very enlightening, wherein he insists on concrete everyday gestures to devolve male privilege.
        You can access this book free of charge online at http://radfem.org
        Just scroll down to “Refusing to be a man” and click to download it.

      • seebster

        TRUST WOMEN. Not just listen. Listen and take seriously her account of her experience. Listen and heed boundaries she sets. Take what she says in good faith realizing that you’re getting thousands of constant messages daily that will make your default reaction one that demonizes her. TRUST WOMEN. TRUST WOMEN. TRUST WOMEN.

  3. I find that men who are insistent that they MUST use the word feminist as a self descriptor are often the ones who are, in fact, not particularly feminist. Those who are willing to accept they’re not in charge by calling themselves allies are often those who ‘get it’ most instinctively. However, that is entirely based on anecdata and as such, not terribly scientific!

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  7. Sam

    Hello,

    I think feminists are a bunch of whiny, illogical people who get off on thinking of themselves as victims. They have a big fantasy construct called a ‘patriarchy’ for which there is no evidence whatsoever. They ignore the fact that as white, wealthy western women they are amongst the most privileged people on earth, but spend no time examining their own privileges.

    They occasionally give lip service to the genuinely oppressed of the Earth – billions of men and women living under terrible political systems, tyrannies, and so forth, starving to death, having no health care and no education, being genitally mutilated and dying young from various diseases.

    They whine on about the few areas of society in which women are disadvantaged and ignore all the ones that favour them. Not many CEOs are women, but neither are many sewage workers. Men live 10 years shorter, get half the health care money, are more likely to be victims of violence, much more likely to commit suicide etc. etc etc.

    There are men who identify as feminists but frankly I can’t understand what they are trying to do apart from get laid by feminist women.

    I personally think men should identify as humanists, equalists, egalitarians or non-sexists. Feminists like to pretend they are a special club which only special people can join, those with impeccable credentials. You aren’t. You a bunch of studenty-types who have no understanding of how the world works but have read some ludicrous book and decided to follow what is essentially a cult.

    In ten years you will all look back at this blog and be appalled at some of the pompous nonsense you spouted and believed. Argue with this post all you want, but come back in ten years, and if you don’t agree with me then, I will give you a doughnut.

    I hope this makes clear my reasons for not identifying as a feminist, but as a decent human being who is against violence, gender differentiation, inequality and all the other evils that plague the world. Genuine evils, not imaginary ones.

    • Sam, I think that they way you put your point across is both condescending and crude. Whilst I agree with some of your points, I do believe that you’re rather missing the point of the post author.

      Yes we in the UK live in a privilege d society but there are still qualities. And why shouldn’t they fight it? You mentioned about there being no female sewage workers. Have you considered why? Any woman who worked for the sewage company would, no doubt, be given a hard time as it’s ‘no place for a lady’.
      Is that fair? No of course not.

      Whilst you make some valid points, you totally ruin it by being totally patronizing and turn to belittling the author.

      And isn’t THAT what they’re fighting against?

    • Hi Sam

      I think you are a whiny, illogical person who gets off on thinking of yourself as a special snowflake. You ignore the fact that many feminists are not white or wealthy or western or women, and that many belong to different oppressed, marginalised, disadvantaged and/or minority groups, but you spend no time examining your own privileges.

      In ten years you will look back at your comment and be appalled at some of the pompous nonsense you spouted and believed. Argue with the original article all you want, but come back in ten years, and if you don’t agree with it then, I will give you a cookie.

      I hope this makes clear my reasons for identifying you as someone who has no clue about feminism.

      Adam

      • Sam

        Adam – this is a page by and for white, western, wealthy feminists dealing with issues that could only concern white, western, wealthy feminists. I think you are just upset because your blatant attempt to try and get laid by pretending to be a feminist has been uncovered, Your post is hopelessly illogical and bizarre – formulating any kind of response to pure nonsense is extremely difficult. Where does one start?

        Bipolarbiker – yes, you’re right of course, never write a post when irritated, you’ll always regret it. My post was pretty awful in some ways but there is something about people feeling sorry for themselves with no good reason that just really winds me up. Next time, I will take a deep breath before I post and hopefully I will be less arrogant and smug.

        I stand by every point I made though. peace and equality to all.

      • Sam,

        Why is it about getting laid? I don’t think it is. It’s about being supportive. Personally, I don’t need to write a reply to a blog to get laid, but I digress…

        You seem to think white women of certain class can’t complain about the injustices THEY feel, but it is ok for you to complain about them.

        Do I detect a certain irony?

        I really don’t see what color OR class has got to do with injustice, no matter how small they may seem to you.

      • Sam

        > “this is a page by and for white, western, wealthy feminists”

        That’s not your call. But it’s good to know that you feel that you can speak on behalf of the author of the blog, and on behalf of all feminists everywhere.

        > ” issues that could only concern white, western, wealthy feminists”

        Again, good to know that you believe that you understand what all feminists everywhere are concerned about.

        > “your blatant attempt to try and get laid by pretending to be a feminist”

        You assume that I claim to be a feminist. You also assume that I am a straight man. Bipolarbiker asked you, “Why is it about getting laid?” I think it is because you view women as sex objects, because you believe that the only reason a straight man would have anything at all to do with women is to have sex with them, and because you have totally bought into heteronormativity, compulsory heterosexuality and patriarchy.

        > “Your post is hopelessly illogical and bizarre…[and]…pure nonsense”

        Funny. I mainly used your words.

        It would be really great if you would learn some stuff about feminism. Here are a couple of suggestions to get you started:

        http://zeeblebum.tumblr.com/post/42138170355/feminism-101-helpful-hints-for-dudes

        http://guysguidetofeminism.com/

        Happy to discuss these with you further if you feel like opening your mind a little.

    • Hi Sam. I think you’ve missed the point of this post. It was designed to be instructive because it’s a debate that gets brought up again and again – I was trying to present a balanced argument so that people can make up their own minds. Clearly you think I’ve failed in doing that but, you know, haters gonna hate. I’m not going to address the issues you have with feminism as a whole because I feel it would be a waste of my time but I will address one of the offences you laid against me: although I know that my position as a white western woman gives me inherent privileges, I am acutely aware of that fact. I am not, however, wealthy in relative terms. I was brought up on a council estate, attended comprehensive school and only got in to university because I worked my arse off. I live in one of the poorest areas of the country. You seem to think that I come from a background of immense privilege purely because I write fairly well and have a white face. I don’t. Frankly, I think this speaks volumes about your own presumptuous nature and view of the working classes. I wont presume to know anything about your personal background; for all I know, you come from a very similar background to myself. This may even part of why I’ve pissed you off so much. If you comment again I will delete it so please don’t waste your own or my time. Thank you and goodbye. I look forward to the doughnut.

  8. Your missing the point: I don’t have an argument when it comes to this. That was the idea.

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  10. Kira

    Literally every single English dictionary defines a Feminist as ANYONE, of ANY gender, as being a Feminist if they support equality for women.

    There’s no argument here. Only sexist idiots and the severely ignorant think men can’t be Feminists.

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