Miss Ginger at Diary of a Freak Magnet will be hosting the next “Carnival of the Feminists” on December 6; please consider offering a submission.
One of Ginger’s suggested topics is what she calls the “Y Factor” — the role of men in the feminist movement. Few topics are nearer and dearer to my heart, so I’ll see if I can’t oblige again.
Once Lauren and I get some 1200 old posts categorized, I’m sure I’ll have quite a few that fit both into the “men and masculinity” and “feminism” rubrics. But there’s always room for more. Blogging is, I suppose, a bit like teaching: one returns to the same material, again and again, trusting that many will be hearing it or reading it for the first time.
There are few questions that I get asked more often than “What do you think the role for men in the feminist movement ought to be?” Relatively few men teach women’s studies courses at any level in higher ed, and those of us who do are rightly scrutinized. Folks want to know why we do what we do. Some just want to psychoanalyze the “strange beast” of the male feminist, while others are genuinely interested in discovering if we have something important and unique to contribute.
Someone — perhaps Jeff of Feminist Allies, since I’m fond of volunteering others — ought to organize a thread for pro-feminist men in which we tell the stories of how we became interested in doing this work. Some of us were raised by feminist mothers (and fathers!); others came to it through friends in high school or college; others were inspired by teachers or activists. I don’t know if anyone’s put together a compendium of “male feminist stories”, but they ought to. Someone might even come up with a book proposal out of it.
Speaking only for myself, the key foundation of what it means to be a male feminist goes beyond an ideological belief that eradicating sexism in the world is a good idea. The sine qua non of pro-feminism ought to be the commitment to match one’s language to one’s life. It’s one thing to give intellectual assent to a series of political positions (“sexism is bad”; “women should be paid the same as men”; “abortion should be legal”.) It’s another thing altogether to examine one’s own attitudes and behavior, ruthlessly determined to overcome one’s own sexist impulses and behaviors. Any man who publicly identifies as a feminist risks scorn from non-feminists, and justifiable suspicion from many women in the movement. A feminist man establishes his bona fides over time, and he establishes them less through his political work than through his commitment to personal transformation.
Radical feminists (in the authentic sense of the phrase) are always wary of the rhetoric of “bourgeous navel-gazing.” (And jeez Louise, am I a bourgeois navel-gazer, par excellence!) But let me be clear: I don’t see men’s personal transformation from sexist jerks into models of self-restraint, compassion, and kindness as the final goal of male feminism. Personal transformation is an ongoing process, after all; it is not an instant event. But the end result of the process is not just a “nice guy” or an “enlightened man”, but someone who is active in the struggle for global and local change.
I am convinced that our efficacy as “change-makers” is contingent upon our character. Despite what some folks see as a vaguely Puritanical streak in my writing, I’m not suggesting constant self-criticism that would make a Maoist (or an Inquisition confessor) proud. I’m advocating a commitment to exploring ways in which our goals and our practices can converge. I’m advocating a life that sees congruence between private and public acts as among the highest of virtues. I’m advocating tremendous patience with those who still struggle to reconcile their beliefs and their behaviors, and great sympathy for those who fall short of the mark time and again.
Once we’ve walked a bit down this road, we can start to become effective members of a larger feminist community. We can start leading by public example, exhorting and encouraging and challenging both women and men, but especially our fellow men. We live in a world where men are still given greater respect in many walks of life; we live in a world where our voices are more likely to be heard, at least in certain quarters — we can both lament that unearned privilege and take advantage of it for the cause.