The discussion of men in the feminist movement heats up in the comments below this post by Amelia at Feministe: The Masquerade: I call myself a feminist, therefore I am a feminist. She tells a story that is all-too-familiar to campus activists. A male student at Amelia’s university attempts to hijack a feminist student organization while claiming, with ever-increasing vehemence, to be a feminist. When his aims are thwarted, the male “feminist” insinuates he’s more committed to feminism than the women who lead the organization. The disruption he causes is more than exasperating, and raises serious questions about the role of men in the feminist movement.
There are many ways in which men who claim to be feminists can do tremendous harm. Two summers ago, we dealt with the infuriating and depressing story of Kyle Payne, an anti-violence campus activist, dorm adviser, and self-described feminist who ended up sexually assaulting a woman in his residence hall. But the problem isn’t limited to rapists who are “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Indeed, there’s a range of problematic male feminist behavior, with outright sexual assault at one extreme and well-meaning but utterly clueless insistence on taking on a leadership role in the anti-sexist movement at the other. Spend enough time doing anti-violence or other sorts of feminist work on campus, and you’ll meet young men very similar to the sort Amelia describes.
One commenter at Feministe suggests that the problem lies in having men take on any role in feminist organizations:
sorry, but you are going to have this problem constantly, and consistently be wasting your time with aggressive, entitled men and mansplanations, as long as you let men into womens and feminist spaces. full stop. there is no remedy for this problem, except to not allow them access. and unfortunately, theres really no way to limit membership and privatize groups when you are in a public school setting, even when its to deny men access to womens spaces DUE TO WOMEN NEEDING PRIVATE WOMEN-ONLY SPACE, DUE TO AGGRESSIVE, ENTITLED MEN.
I sympathize. But as a man who is committed to doing feminist work, I respectfully reject the commenter’s suggestion.
I’m a man who has spent close to 25 years working in feminist spaces, since I took my first undergraduate course in Women’s Studies at Berkeley in the mid-’80s. I was a member of a variety of feminist organizations when I was at university. I’ve taught women’s studies at the community college since the mid-’90s, and have been an adviser to campus feminist clubs throughout that time. And I’m particularly interested in this topic now as I’m working on the nascent Feminist Masculinities project within the National Women’s Studies Association. With colleagues from Harvard, Penn State, and USC, I’ll be part of a panel discussion on Men and Anti-Sexist Activism at this November’s NWSA conference in Denver. This will be a follow-up discussion to our very successful dialogue at last autumn’s NWSA conference in Atlanta, about which I blogged here.
As I commented at Feministe, I have a simple formula I’ve developed over the years to describe my thinking about men in feminist spaces. (I am perplexed as to why I’ve never blogged about it before.) Four words:
1. Step up.
2. Step back.
“Step up” means that men who choose to identify as feminists (or, if you prefer, as “feminist allies” or “pro-feminists”) are called to take an active role in the anti-sexist movement. Building a genuinely egalitarian and non-violent society requires everyone’s involvement. Empowering women to defend themselves from rapists and harassers is important; raising a generation of young men to whom the idea of rape or harassment is anathema is also vital. We need men of all ages in the feminist movement to “step up” and commit themselves to embodying egalitarian principles in their private and public lives.
Stepping up means being willing to listen to women’s righteous anger. That doesn’t mean groveling on the ground in abject apology merely for having a penis — contrary to stereotype, that’s not what feminists (at least not any I’ve ever met) want. That means really hearing women, without giving into the temptation to become petulant, defensive, or hurt. It means realizing that each and every one of us is tangled in the Gordian knot of sexism, but that men and women are entangled in different ways that almost invariably cause greater suffering to the latter. Stepping up doesn’t mean denying that, as the old saying goes, The Patriarchy Hurts Men Too (TPHMT). It means understanding that in feminist spaces, to focus on male suffering both suggests a false equivalence and derails the most vital anti-sexist work.
Stepping up means, of course, being willing to confront other men. I’ve said over and over again that the acid test of a man’s commitment to feminism often comes not only in terms of how he treats women, but also how he speaks about women when he’s in all-male spaces. Many young men are earnest about living out feminist principles when around women (of course, some like Amelia’s troll and the lamentable Kyle Payne obviously aren’t.) But get them around their “bros” and their words change. Or, as is more often the case, they may not join in on sexist banter — but they fail to raise vocal objection to it. Stepping up means challenging the jokes and complaints and objectifying remarks that are so much a part of the conversation in all-male spaces. This is, as far as I’m concerned, a sine qua non of being a feminist ally.
Stepping back means acknowledging that in almost every instance, feminist organizations ought to be led by women. It means that men in feminist spaces need to check themselves before they pursue leadership roles. While that might seem unfair, arguing that biological sex should have no bearing on who wields authority in a feminist organization fails to take into account the myriad ways in which the wider world discriminates against women. Even now, we still socialize young men to be assertive and young women to be deferential. (Yes, there are plenty of exceptions, but not enough to disprove that rule.) Part of undoing that socialization for women means pushing themselves to take on leadership positions even if they feel awkward about doing so; part of undoing that socialization for young men means holding themselves back from those same offices.
Stepping back doesn’t mean men should never speak up in feminist spaces. Stepping back is not about silently serving in the background. Stepping back is about the willingness to engage in self-reflection, to defer, and remembering that the most important job feminist men have within the movement is not to lead women but to serve as role models to other men. Stepping back is a way of renouncing the “knight in shining armor” tendency that afflicts many young men who first come to anti-sexist work. Women need colleagues and partners on this journey, not rescuers or substitute father figures.
As a male instructor who teaches women’s history, I’ve always made sure that female colleagues feel free to critique my syllabus and teaching methods. As adviser to the campus feminist club, I’ve done everything I can to make sure not to assert any more authority than necessary, and I defer as often as possible (without shirking work) to my two feminist colleagues who co-advise with me. I recognize that “stepping back” can turn into a convenient excuse for not doing some of the more tedious work of feminist activism (like paperwork), and I do my best to make sure that I’m both “pulling my weight” and “hanging back” as needed.
I am keenly aware that a great many women are deeply cynical about men who claim to be feminists. This mistrust is rooted in real experience. The consequent desire to exclude men from feminist spaces is understandable. But I’m also convinced that men do have a vital role to play in transforming the culture and building a truly egalitarian society. Imperfectly, I’ve been doing this work for over half my life, mentoring as I was once mentored. I believe in engaging men in the struggle to end violence; to create new models for sexual relationship; to build a world in which one’s biology is not the primary determinant of one’s destiny. Women in the feminist movement have brothers and fathers and boyfriends and buddies and sons and husbands and nephews whom they love. Most women I’ve worked with very much want men in the movement, but are often understandably wary about what role we will play. And as we acknowledge both that need and that wariness, I think it’s a good time to reiterate the importance of stepping up… and stepping back.
UPDATE: Wanted to link to this post of mine from 2008, written from the WAM (Women, Action and Media) conference in Massachusetts: Some Thoughts on Changing Attitudes towards Male Feminists. I see a major generational divide in terms of receptivity towards men in the feminist movement, and I’m old enough to have seen a significant shift towards “inclusionary” views of men in feminist spaces.