#19: Can men be feminists?

Our 19th prompt comes from princelySid. He asks:

Are there male feminists? Like you since I found out what it meant to be one, I’ve identified as one but I’ve been told I need to stop using it publicly, there’s no such thing. There’s a bit more to the story but I’d like to know what you think.

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princelySid,

This is a question that many within the movement ask themselves. Feminism is a movement that advocates for the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. It is “the radical notion that women are people.” In the words of bell hooks, it is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. And, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, being a feminist means having a major problem with the way gender functions in the world and not just having a problem, but wanting to fix it; wanting to act.

When we look at feminism from that vantage point, then yes, anybody can be a feminist, men included. However, I look at the matter from a different vantage point. And to understand it, we’ll take a look at the movement at different points of its history.

The first wave happened in the late 1800s and early 1900s as the world industrialized. Its focus was on suffrage, that is, the right to vote, as well as property rights. Women were working in industrialized economies, their labour was heartily welcomed, yet when it came to making decisions that affected them on a national scale, they were excluded. When it came to ownership of property, they were also excluded. This wave of feminism changed this in many parts of the world. It is important to note that this wave of feminism occurred during the times of colonialism and just after slavery was abolished, so its beneficiaries were mostly white women.

Then came the second wave. This wave began in the 1960s and went on through the early 1980s. This wave of feminism noted several things, all of which regarded the place of women in society. Sexuality and reproductive rights were key issues, and this wave put a spotlight on the objectification of women, domestic violence and rape (including marital rape), unequal pay for equal work, and the large scale subjugation of women to men through stifling gender roles. This wave was post-colonial and post-slavery, and drew solidarity across national, colour and class lines, though it has also been critiqued for not recognizing equally the achievements of the women who led it.

In came the third wave in the 1990s, and its focus was largely introspective. What did it really mean to be feminist? The focus of this wave was queer women, and women of colour. Until this point, the movement had benefited straight white women the most. The spotlight was on them, and all other sisters were at the periphery, regardless of their contribution to the movement. This wave questioned the construct of gender, as well as its stereotypes and prescribed roles; it began the reclamation of words used to put women down, like slut and bitch; it viewed women’s sexuality as a tool of empowerment, bringing into the fold sex workers who had mostly been overlooked in the second wave because sex work was viewed as a tool of the patriarchy (thus it was considered anti-feminist). It went across boundaries, and shunned simple narratives on gender, sexuality and identity.

Now, we are in the fourth wave – what an exciting time to be alive. If the third wave was introspective and focused on the personal being political, the fourth wave takes this to the nth degree. It embodies the words of StaceyAnn Chin: all oppression is connected. The fourth wave is intersectional. The word intersectionality was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, recognizing that we have intersecting social identities that then dictate how we are treated in society. These identities determine our oppression and discrimination, or lack thereof. Your sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, class, ethnicity, nationality, age, mental/physical (dis)ability and illness, religion and so on all intersect and contribute to your social position, thus dictating the level of oppression/discrimination you experience.

In the words of Flavia Dzodan, my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit. Intersectional feminism puts lived experiences at its front and center: lived experiences are the first hand experiences/accounts of people who are part of oppressed/minority groups. It places this personal, intimate knowledge above the thoughts and theories of others. In my own words: thoughts do not equal lived experiences.

The fourth wave also recognizes something else: that the inequality between the sexes is caused by a penalty imposed on the feminine. Proximity to femininity is punished by the patriarchy. This contributes to the horrid attitude we take to transgender people – trans women are treated like rubbish and killed because “why would a man want to be a woman?” Trans men, on the other hand, are treated like rubbish and killed because they were not “born as men.” Apparently, they are not real men.

Real men don’t cook, they don’t clean, and they don’t display emotions. Real men don’t cry. They also don’t talk much and share what’s going on in their lives. Real men don’t raise their children, they babysit. Real men make more money than their female partners. Real men are not gay, because why would a man want to be penetrated and treated by men the way men treat women? Real men have magic penises that make lesbians straight, because the only reason these women are lesbians is because they have not had some real man dick. Real men are visual, and can’t help themselves when a woman is dressed in a “sexy” manner – they just have to conquer/have sex with her whether or not she consents.

In the patriarchy, if you want to shame a man, compare him to women – accuse him of displaying stereotypically feminine traits. If you want to praise a woman, tell her she displays masculine traits. You know, she is stoic. She does not cry. She is not emotional. She can roll with the boys. She is confident, and strong. She doesn’t talk too much. She can handle her liquor. She is smart (but not smarter than you). Also compare her to other women (who did not agree to this contest) and tell her she is a good woman – you know, she is chaste, submissive, godly, beautiful (but not too beautiful), or whatever else men have decided they value. Femininity is punished, regardless of one’s station in life.

In my own words:

Patriarchy, in many ways, is the primary form of oppression. Its victims comprise half of the world (there are 102 men for every 100 women on the planet) and it transcends all other forms of discrimination – be it on race, religion, education, social class or sexuality. It is pervasive – transcending time, all social strata and affecting all societies. It is the most universal form of oppression.

In all this, what becomes apparent is that there is barely enough space for women. From the first to the fourth wave, we see that efforts have been made to increase the amount of space women can occupy in our society. Efforts have been made to increase the amount of power women can wield. First we can vote and own property, then we can go to school, then we have control of our own bodies, and have the right to give consent and so on. We are punished for being women, then not only are we punished for being women, but our oppression as women intersects with our oppression as members of other social classes, then we have the realization that ultimately, being feminine in the patriarchy is the  biggest crime.

As we stand, feminism is still as relevant as ever because women, queer people and people who are feminine are not allowed as much space as men (as we described them earlier). They live in fear of assault, rape, unequal pay, unequal labour, and so on; they do not move around as freely because of these fears. They do not enjoy the same rights and freedoms.

My question then becomes why. Why, when these people do not have as much space, freedoms and rights, do men want to occupy the same space as they do, when men already occupy so much? Why, when feminism occupies such little space, do men want to take some of it up? Why is it more important for them to claim feminism, than to be allies to those who live these terrible experiences daily? Feminism is not just about the label, but about thought and action as well. Is it important that you as a man call yourself feminist, or that we put an end to this patriarchy that continues to oppress most of us to varying degrees? Do you need to occupy the same small space that has been created, or can you use your male privilege to access the spaces that we can’t and continue the work there?

I understand that perhaps labelling oneself as feminist seems like the best way to show that one is not like those “other men” who believe women are lesser than. But we must not forget that whether or not one agrees with these men, the patriarchy ensures that you benefit from it all the same, whether or not you are aware of it. If this is about the work, and not about one’s ego, I believe that men who agree with the movement are better off as allies, using the spaces they already occupy to advocate for women and other people who suffer because of their proximity to femininity.

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This post is part of a daily writing experiment that I’m running for a year. I’d love it if you took part! 🙂

7 thoughts on “#19: Can men be feminists?

  1. It’s not necessary to identify with and join a female led movement for change. We as men accept the notion of patriarchy and work WITH MEN to effect change in attitudes and behaviour. We make these changes for ourselves not for women but our goal is to improve society for all.

    1. Then you’re clearly not reading the piece. As with many things human, the answer is complex and it cannot be reductive. Also, I am not obliged to answer in any specific manner. Thanks for your prompt.

  2. I somewhat disagree or I’m enamored to a dissent in the least. The question as asked is whether a man can be a feminist or not. I will substitute a similar question: Can a straight man be gay? From cursory evaluation point of view, the latter sounds more ridiculous than the former. But in function and form, your examination on the issue of feminism suffers the same pitfalls. A female is function of sex, a woman a function of socialcultural position and feminism, a social political movement addressing the latter. In essence a man cannot occupy the former but even in the politics of gender and proponents of intersectionality acknowledge many men (trans, LGBT) are embroiled in the same struggle of feminism. Remember, to upturn the system of patriarchy or race doesn’t tame the form but enlightens the function.

    1. Thanks for your comment Eric. I think you may have missed the part where I addressed the penalty imposed on proximity to femininity. Please note that I ended the essay with questions, as well.

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