Man-Friendly Feminism?

Why is it that the phrase ‘male feminist’ strikes us as implausible as ‘vegan butcher’? Even for men who support human rights and equality, mentioning feminism can resemble the arrival of Marilyn Manson at a Methodist prayer meeting. “All men are rapists” and other radical hissings will often be the first thing the stereotypical idea of ‘feminism’ calls to mind. In fact a misquote from second wave feminist Susan Brownmiller, this is still one of the most commonly touted ‘facts’ about the movement. The belief that feminists are ‘man-haters’ is another popular retort when someone drops the ‘f-bomb’. One young feminist, so sick of this reaction, was recently moved to set up the now very popular facebook group “Yes I’m a feminist. No I don’t hate men”. Radical feminism was a marginal strand even in the seventies. But now, when such ideas are thinner on the ground than ever, many men still regard feminism as an odious political carbuncle.

The mainstream media has much to answer for when it comes to misguiding the public about the true character of feminism. Their frenzied vilification overlooks the enduring inequalities facing women; that they still earn on average 20% less than men for doing that same job; that at 19.5% of all MPs, we are going backwards in terms of female political representation; that violence is responsible for more death and disability in women than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents or war.

Strangely unsold on the belief that the pursuit of female rights amounts to militant man-hating, there are a small minority of men speaking out. The White Ribbon Campaign (WRC) is a male-led charity that seeks to confront violence against women in the UK. I asked Director Chris Green about stepping into what has traditionally been the terrain of female activists: “More and more people are very supportive of men being involved. There is an appreciation that men have an important role to play in taking action against sexism and inequality”.

But what about groups such as the London Feminist Network who, alongside organising mixed gender events, describe themselves as “women only”? Criticism has gathered around this term and the implications it carries for the transgender community, who undoubtedly experience misogyny at its most savage. As if pre-empting the charge of being man-haters, they explain their women-only stance on their website: “We believe it is vital that women have safe and supportive space where we can work together”.

Jon Waters from the London Pro Feminist Men’s Group (LPMG) believes he has been privy to the reason women meet alone: “Men can be incredibly imposing, trying to dominate the conversation. There are those who are very well intentioned but there are also those who represent a backlash against the gains of feminism, and just want to talk about men’s rights”. Jon Waters and Chris Green agree that women only spaces are important in feminism. They also say that it is very rare women criticise them for their involvement.

Interestingly enough, it is the men I spoke to who urged caution when describing themselves as feminist. Some women have refuted men’s right to describe themselves as such because they believe the term can only apply to women. However, several activists I spoke to thought men should be encouraged to call themselves feminist. Sally Campbell from the Fawcett Society said “if men wish to make a stance for equality by calling themselves feminist, then we’re happy to have them on board”. A few years ago they launched a PR campaign which photographed famous people wearing a T-shirt reading “this is what a feminist looks like”. Among these celebs were high profile men such as Bill Bailey and Adrian Edmondson. The campaign made a powerful statement about the potential of men to promote the feminist agenda.

Sarah, a young Leeds- based feminist I spoke to believes this women-only stance sends out the wrong message: “As women it is our responsibility to educate our brothers, lovers, fathers, friends and sons. Men need to be brought on board so they can understand that they have certain advantages and privileges purely on the basis of their biological sex. This will never be achieved by groups that are women-only. Men’s involvement should be actively encouraged”.

Whether or not you believe in women-only spaces within feminism, it is hard to deny that when it comes to the movement for gender equality, men are most notable by their absence. The London Feminist Network is unlikely to be descended upon by a swarm of pro-feminist men hell-bent on discussing the scourges of patriarchy. When you consider the history of people campaigning for right’s beyond their own, it does not follow that men should be turned off just because they are not direct beneficiaries of feminism. As Chris Green from the WRC points out, charities such as Amnesty International and Oxfam enjoy wide support across the sexes. But when it comes to the rights of specifically women, male involvement dwindles dramatically.

Chris Green sees this lack of male interest as a huge problem in the campaign against gender based violence. “When I give talks, men are only ever a tiny minority in the audience. They are incredibly reluctant to discuss these issues”. That men desperately need to start talking about issues like rape and domestic violence is one of the central messages of the WRC. Groups like this and the LPMG are exceptional because they are in such a minority. Chris Green explains “I am often uncomfortable with the disproportionate praise we receive. It just points to how few men are willing to confront the issues”. Despite the recognition WRC have received, the role of men in gender activism is still a novelty. Their work was praised by the last Government but public funding has continued to elude them. The scope of the charity therefore remains sorely limited.

Jon Waters and Chris Green agree that there is a massive stigma attached to men who stand up for women’s rights. The accusation that they have betrayed their gender or been hypnotised by man-hating propaganda is likely to follow. It may be macho to physically defend a woman but to speak out against the wide spread violence and discrimination women face is unlikely to win kudos in male peer groups.

Even for men who wouldn’t dream of buying Nuts magazine or listing Danny Dyer amongst their heroes, there is an over riding reluctance to discuss gender inequality. The tendency is to view gender differences as the inescapable product of biology. Jon Waters believes that men “seriously need to start taking certain features of masculinity to task; the inability to express emotions, the ingrained acceptance of violence”. Chris Green concurs; “although there are some great programmes working with perpetrators of abuse, there is nothing challenging the underlying culture of male violence”.

Lad’s mags and pornography are now intrinsic to mainstream culture. Whatever you might think about the impact of this on young males, there is now very little in this culture that challenges female objectification or the darker implications of the sex industry. The voice of dissent is quieter than ever. And whilst the tide of internet porn is a trend very unlikely to ever be reversed, this dissent would allow boys to develop more balanced attitudes to women and sex. The values of publications like Nuts and Zoo have fed an environment where young people are less willing than ever to consider the dehumanization of women. Chris Green sees this as WRC’s greatest challenge: “We need to work at this cultural level to challenge peer pressure which glorifies violence and the objectification of women. We want to create positive role models who respect women and speak out against abuse so young men can develop more rounded attitudes”.

If the ‘new man’ with his exploration of his feminine side ever really existed, his reign was short. The new lad is among us with renewed vigour. Look at brands such as Yorkie and McCoy and you see men eager to define their masculinity in rigid opposition to femininity. The renaissance of these fixed gender myths which can be pandered to at the lowest common denominator has been a triumph for advertisers everywhere.

It is likely men remain attached to such myths because they understand they are intrinsic to male dominance. Men need to be encouraged to see how these myths not only translate to violence and objectification for women but also trap them in limiting and undermining stereotypes.

Pointing to these cul-de-sacs of masculinity, Jon Waters suggests that patriarchy is in fact a system which devalues us all. Male on male violence for instance is a phenomenon borne more out of male codes of courage and respect than it is man’s pre-disposition to violence. And with its celebration of prowess, strength and stoicism, patriarchy holds men under its grip in a way that they are often very unwilling to question. These apparent truths govern the way many peer groups operate. Deviation is scorned with zeal. Several male friends have spoken to me about how insulted and inhibited they feel by the myth of the unfaltering male libido. Whether they would express the same sentiment to a group of male friends is another question entirely.

Jon Waters believes that under the heading ‘pro-feminist’, men have a distinct remit which is theirs’ to address, namely the negative aspects of masculinity. “Men should explore male violence and control and how it manifests in things like domestic abuse and rape”. He believes that pro feminism and feminism are best viewed as movements with a slightly different focus. This strikes me as a powerful template which allows women and men to work together towards equality.

More groups like the WRC are urgently needed to demonstrate to men their role in ending gender oppression. And if we are going to promote the wider relevance of the feminist agenda, campaigns like Fawcett’s ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ will be needed to bring about a sea change in men’s attitudes. In the words of Fawcett “the movement for women’s rights [is] part of the wider campaign for human rights and we believe that men need to be part of the campaign for gender equality”. Because when two women die every week in England and Wales at the hands of their current or former partner, when men can rape with very little threat of being brought to justice, it is not just women’s humanity that is at stake. It is the humanity of our whole society.

Find out more about the author of this article, Heather Kennedy, here.

(Photograph taken at ‘Suck My Left One’ club night, organised by Leeds based feminist group Manifesta)

By: Heather Kennedy, 24.06.2010 | Comments (13)
Comments
  • Dave Warnock
    June 26th, 2010
    7:40 am

    “Even for men who support human rights and equality, mentioning feminism can resemble the arrival of Marilyn Manson at a Methodist prayer meeting.”

    Disclaimers:

    I am a man.
    I support feminism and have been called a feminist (a key focus for me being equality within the Church).
    I am a Methodist Minister

    Marilyn Mason would be a very interesting arrival at a prayer meeting :-) Like everyone else he would be very welcome. I imagine it would liven some meetings up :-)

    If you know him, please pass on the invitation.

  • Paul
    July 6th, 2010
    2:13 pm

    A male feminist is a masochist. All varieties of feminism seek to promote women at the expense of men, although some intellectually dishonest women argue otherwise. Almost all men know better.

    Very interesting that, after decades of telling men they were useless, some of the few remaining feminists are starting believe it would be better to be nice to men, gain their trust and subtly undermine them. I suppose they can’t be blamed for trying. Still, I think they would do themselves a far greater service by accepting their naturally-determined roles, as the overwhelming majority of women do quite happily (especially before and after their idealistic twenties). Life is difficult for everyone, but it gets infinitely harder when people convince themselves they are worse off than others and fight futile internal battles.

    Work for the good of people, not just women, and you will gain the support of both men and a greater number of women than the few who still support divisive feminist rhetoric.

  • Heather Kennedy
    July 7th, 2010
    9:09 am

    @Paul
    And what “naturally determined roles” would these be Paul? Please clarify.
    So referring you to the stats I quoted, you’d presumably argue these inequalities were “naturally determined”? Or do you refute they exist at all, I am interested?
    In my experience most people involved in feminism also campaign for social justice in other forms. But when inequality is predicated on gender (often combining with other factors; class, ethnicity, etc), the call for gender equality is needed. Life IS difficult for everyone, yes. What makes it infinitely harder is asking people to swallow these harderships as “naturally determined”. Not to undermine you Paul, subtly or otherwise, but I invite to question how equipped you are to judge how the “overwhelming majority of women” feel about gender equality.

  • Paul
    July 7th, 2010
    9:35 pm

    Heather,

    I am glad I returned to this article! Thank you for your reply.

    Feminists tend to believe that men and women are mostly alike, or are at least equally able in almost every way. This presumption – coupled with the belief that it will naturally lead to equal achievement in politics, business, etc – is, in my view, quite obviously flawed. Sexual dimorphism clearly exists for a reason, and the feminist tendency to dismiss it and its implications looks like wilful denial of facts that hinder their agenda. I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt, and attribute it to being an unpalatable truth they subconsciously choose to ignore – although I don’t think it should be unpalatable at all.

    Thank goodness women, generally, are more moderate and cautious in behaviour than men – and I believe this is a fair generalisation. Society needs responsible women just as much as it needs, for example, the exceptional men who make the majority of scientific advances. A woman is less likely than a man to become a self-made multi-millionaire, yes, but she is also less likely to die young or end up homeless.

    I simply cannot accept that feminists have somehow been able to measure women’s suffering as greater than men’s! They are comparing apples and oranges, and it is a great waste of mental energy.

    The problem is that too often these days the individual is prized above all else: family, local community, and society at large. This social model is untenable and we cannot continue propping it up with the welfare state and capiutalism run amok. Women are generally still the biggest champions for families, bless them, but clearly the situation is precarious.

    It is no mere co-incidence that the areas with the greatest amounts of violence (against women AND men) are poor areas where family breakdown is rife. Replace working-class men with benefit payments and you get purposeless, angry men and vulnerable, abused women.

    So I do indeed believe that the overwhelming majority of women accept that equality of outcome between the sexes is not the natural result of living in liberal society with equality of opportunity. I think every woman I know rather loves being different than men! Personally, I am descended from three generations of women doctors, the first being my great-GREAT-grandmother! Probably a feminist icon in her time. But they were all ‘traditional’ mums (with outside endeavours like volunteering) and I really don’t believe any were coerced or regretted it. I feel very fortunate to have been brought up in a traditional family, and that’s why I believe so strongly in them. Gender roles are natural, fair, and desperately needed to fight the social problems we all want to see eliminated.

  • Poe
    July 10th, 2010
    1:27 pm

    “Radical feminism was a marginal strand even in the seventies. But now, when such ideas are thinner on the ground than ever, many men still regard feminism as an odious political carbuncle.”

    And will continue to regard it as an odious political carbuncle so long as you continue to promote your quest to “reconstruct” masculinity and turn men into women, deny biological reality for tactical purposes while maintaining the female priviledges that biology leads society grant you, parrot false statistics so you can potray women as victims of discrimination so you can discriminate in favour of women as a necessary counter measure, complain about male objectification of women yet ignore female objectification of men, ignore all injustices against the opposite sex (discrimination in family courts, a popular culture saturated by misandry to name but two)…the list could go on.

    Stop doing that, and views might change. Then again, stop doing that…and what point is there to even considering yourself as an feminist in the first place?

  • Bill
    September 9th, 2010
    7:31 pm

    A male feminist is a masochist. All varieties of feminism seek to promote women at the expense of men, although some intellectually dishonest women argue otherwise. Almost all men know better.

    I’m a male feminist, and not a masochist. I believe in equality, in the fact that it took both men and women to build a partriarchal society that discriminates and victimises women (and others) and that it will take men and women to rebuild a fairer society.

  • Poe
    October 4th, 2010
    2:18 pm

    Bill, if you believe in equality, you would not consider yourself a feminist – you would consider yourself merely someone who believes in legal equality for everyone – that is, unless you blindly accept feminist rhetic and Orwellian doublespeak, which, I have to say, really doesn’t say very much for your intellectual faculties.

  • Chris
    October 30th, 2010
    12:27 am

    I don’t know any feminists who want to “turn men into women”. I don’t know of any feminists who take issue with men doing masculine things such as playing sports or taking an interest in cars. They are not trying to emasculate men, but argue that it would be better for both genders for men to exhibit tenderness and sensitivity. (at least sometimes)

    Defining masculinity by violence, bullying and consuming large amounts of alcohol is a pointless, illogical and dangerous idea that benefits no one.

    Defining masculinity by respect, dignity, courage, fatherhood, compassion and justice benefits everyone!

    Male violence is an incredible burden on the economy. If domestic and sexual abuse ended tomorrow the UK would come out of recession immediately and the nation would prosper. Rather than raising university tuition fees the government could scrap them all together. And we’d have lower taxes- leaving men able to afford to buy the latest gadgets and a season ticket for their favourite football team!

    Pro-feminism would also lead to men having improved friendships (with both genders) and better sex lives!

    Who doesn’t want lower taxes, a flat screen tv and amazing sex?

    Pro-feminist men aren’t traitors to their gender. Its the chauvinists who let the side down by making men look bad, threatening our loved ones, keeping taxes high, wrecking family life and enforcing a model of masculinity that does nothing but bring men pain!

  • Chris
    October 30th, 2010
    12:39 am

    “Work for the good of people, not just women, and you will gain the support of both men and a greater number of women than the few who still support divisive feminist rhetoric.”

    Many feminists actively support causes benefiting other people. For example feminists are involved in the fight against racism. Many feminists advocate rights for gay men. And there are quite a lot of socialist feminists who aim to improve life for working class men!

  • Poe
    November 16th, 2010
    12:46 am

    “I don’t know any feminists who want to “turn men into women”. I don’t know of any feminists who take issue with men doing masculine things such as playing sports or taking an interest in cars. They are not trying to emasculate men, but argue that it would be better for both genders for men to exhibit tenderness and sensitivity. (at least sometimes)”

    Have you ever actually read feminist literature? You obviously have very little, if any, understanding of feminist ideology.

    I’d recommend you read Christina Hoff Sommers’ War Against Boys, this documents the social engineering of children promoted by feminists in their quest to “reconstruct” a “new man”.

    “Defining masculinity by violence, bullying and consuming large amounts of alcohol is a pointless, illogical and dangerous idea that benefits no one.”

    Who defined masculinity as you describe?

    “Male violence is an incredible burden on the economy. If domestic and sexual abuse ended tomorrow the UK would come out of recession immediately and the nation would prosper. Rather than raising university tuition fees the government could scrap them all together. And we’d have lower taxes- leaving men able to afford to buy the latest gadgets and a season ticket for their favourite football team!”

    Oh dear. Please tell me you’re joking?

  • Poe
    November 16th, 2010
    12:51 am

    “Pro-feminism would also lead to men having improved friendships (with both genders) and better sex lives!”

    Who doesn’t want lower taxes, a flat screen tv and amazing sex?

    Pro-feminist men aren’t traitors to their gender. Its the chauvinists who let the side down by making men look bad, threatening our loved ones, keeping taxes high, wrecking family life and enforcing a model of masculinity that does nothing but bring men pain!”

    Reading this, I’ve just realised you’re a woman.

    Nice try ;)

  • Gupta
    November 17th, 2010
    8:15 am

    There’s a lot in feminism that has left me cold. A few years back I would have marked myself down as very supportive of feminism but I think the movement has run its course and needs to switch to a more gender neutral approach to social issues. This is coming from a guy who doesn’t hate women, doesn’t think they are any less, would gladly have a female doctor pick a tumor out of his brain. Like much else the movement has become defined by the fringe that seems to be preoccupied with securing their federal funding or seeking atonement for past wrongs. If the mainstream movement does not agree with their agenda, then their calls for change are few and far between.

    Often when well meaning men and women jump to feminism’s defense, it is not feminism they are defending, but a subset of the movement they have picked out based on their own egalitarian values. It is similar to being a Christian; there is just too much that we consider abhorrent and oppressive in the bible, yet some of the best people I know follow the faith. They are blind to the contradictions that I, as an outside observer, cannot contort around.

    On the things I do pay very close attention to, such as education, feminist organizations (like the AAUW) have very successfully twisted statistics and campaigned to stamp out any investigation of boys’ issues in schools and colleges. I would have understood (but not been pleased) if they had simply stated that helping boys was outside their manifesto, but they crossed the line when then actively started downplaying real issues and continued to divert attention to nonexistent girl problems. Reading what they publish and what they I know to be fact leaves me wondering how much they stretch the truth on everything else they cover.

    How can I reconcile an article by a feminist gloating about girls outpacing boys, about high unemployment amongst male college graduates, their relative inability to claw out of poverty, the reversed pay gap among those under thirty, loudly touting ‘The future is female’ with another’s claim that women are oppressed. Whether these trends are temporary is not important. What is, is the fact that they are so overjoyed, not pleased, not satisfied but exhilarated that the very things we found unacceptable in the eighties were to be celebrated when applied in reverse.

    I will wait for a better ism to label myself with. Till then I will simply help both men and women as best I can.

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