The place of men within feminism is a subject that inevitably attracts heated debate, and perhaps dominates discussions more than it should. However, whilst feminism should remain primarily a movement for women, driven by women, the personal relationships between men and women demand mutual understanding, and with this in mind I decided to interview my boyfriend Chris on the subject.
F: So feminism has seen a recent surge in popularity, which is great. But sometimes I think this popularity has led to some people coming to feminism with false expectations: thinking feminism starts and ends with legal equality between men and women, a definition that becomes inadequate when you want to talk about structural inequality. And then there’s the whole question of how men relate to feminism, and how some men become hurt when they learn that feminism prioritises women’s issues. So why do those men feel so hurt? And should feminists be trying to engage with them?
C: Most men who come to feminism are well-meaning. But feminism has something of a monopoly when it comes to gender equality – it’s the obvious place to turn for men interested in criticising gender norms. When they find that they’re not a priority it becomes frustrating. This leads onto your second question – as a man, I can’t dictate how far men should be accommodated in a women’s movement. However, isn’t there an issue with wanting to dismantle a patriarchal society on the grounds that it damages both men and women, but dismissing legitimate issues that men might have, because they have the apparent protection of that very society?
F: I think the argument as to whether men can by definition be feminist just depends how broadly you define terms. But whether we end up using ‘feminist’ or ‘feminist ally,’ the same question applies – how far men’s issues can be accommodated? Because whilst patriarchy undoubtedly hurts men, women generally suffer more and feminism has to deal primarily with women’s concerns. So can men’s problems be brought up in feminist spaces without detracting from that, or should men be looking at other outlets?
C: Ideally other outlets – but where? The danger is they become inward looking, and start to rely on individualism.
F: Or become MRA’s.
C: Pretty much.
F: The other point is that women aren’t best placed to lead discussions on men’s issues because we don’t experience them. I was reading an interview with a guy who works in all-male support groups saying that men need to organise in ways that aren’t anti-feminist, but not explicitly feminist either, and that seems spot on.
C: I’d agree – the ideal would be something that dovetails with feminism but exists independently of it. The problem is how that starts – one of the factors behind the problems men typically experience – depression, suicide etc, is that men are told from the beginning that they shouldn’t admit their problems.
F: There are groups in Bristol like Men Against Patriarchy who have male-only sessions where they discuss the impact of patriarchy on their lives. It would also be helpful to have typically ‘manly’ individuals talking about these things in public and to have ground-up education in schools – but that’s a way off.
C: It’s starting to happen – there was that campaign about prostate cancer a little while back, and the other one – #mankind is it? So there is progress.
F: What worries me is that instead of having men’s groups that aren’t antithetical to feminism, we get MRAs. But yes, there is progress. The next question is easy – what attracted you to feminism?
C: Frankly, academic interest. I didn’t see it as something I’d get anything out of personally.
F: Thinking about now, do you feel that there are any elements of it that helped clarify aspects of your own behaviour?
C: That’s a difficult one. I’m loathe to use the phrase ‘not all men,’ but when you’re criticised, the first reaction is to be defensive and say ‘hey, that’s not me / my friends’, and then you start to see little things everywhere, so you become more careful about what you say / do, to the point you almost over-think it, and in time it becomes natural (in theory).
F: What can you do practically as a man and a feminist/ally to help things along?
C: The most important thing to do is consider what you’re saying. I find myself thinking far more about what I say than before. Like at that meeting* – there were so many things I wanted to say but didn’t because it wasn’t my place and I didn’t want to put my foot in it. Essentially, the role is to be supportive. Actually believe victims, or engage with friends.
F: I’d say be aware, but don’t be afraid to speak up. Though there’s a tension in that women shouldn’t be expected to educate people who speak without thinking, but people sometimes have to make ignorant comments to learn.
C: For me it’s not about being afraid – it’s about considering whether your point is relevant.
F: But sometimes people don’t understand the need to be considered – they just aren’t there yet. It’s frustrating, but this might be the first time they’ve articulated those thoughts. You have to judge who is a decent person trying to figure things out, and who is just playing devil’s advocate.
C: Ultimately men are responsible for their own education, but many people, and especially men, are oblivious to the inequalities in front of us, so there’s a need for them to be pointed out in the first instance.
F: You can show people inequalities but you can’t force them to acknowledge them. I think that’s what it’s about: be welcoming, but know there are going to be some people who aren’t worth your time. But to come full circle, I think that whilst some people will come to feminism and be disappointed or not fully understand the nuances and perhaps come to oppose the movement, there will be people who undergo a dramatic learning curve, including men – and that is something that I find heartening for both of us.
*A FemEd Coffee Morning, hosted by the university of Bristol Feminist Society. Founded in 2014 by Chloe Maughan.