Men and Feminisms
Having recently started my MSc in Environment and Development at LSE, I had a look through the societies listed on the student union’s page for interesting ones to join. I stumbled upon the intersectional feminist society, and I was immediately intrigued. As a feminist, I was certainly interested in a society that promoted intersectional feminism because it can serve to go beyond white feminist perspectives and illuminate the everyday lived experiences of women of colour, disabled women, trans women, queer women among others. However, when I attended the meeting, I saw that the space was very white. It was problematic that an intersectional feminist meeting talked about moving beyond white feminism but did not in fact acknowledge the whiteness of the space.
During the meeting, the organizers also never pointed out the fact that I was the only man there. This made me wonder: What is the role of men within feminism? Do men not want to be associated with feminism? Should men be excluded from feminist groups, or conversely should they be included? The society committee also were not as inclusive as they could have been because they did not ask for pronouns (thus serving to exclude non-binary and trans people). I left the meeting disappointed because they did not talk about how problematic it was that there had been only one man in the meeting. If so few men are willing to associate themselves with the feminist label, then what does that say about the chances of overturning patriarchal forms of oppression? I would now first like to have a brief look at different kinds of feminisms before then talking about the role that men can play within feminism.
The reason that I use feminisms here as opposed to feminism is because feminism does not have a singular definition and is a highly contested term. In 2020, the feminist Anna Watz reviewed a selection of books in The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory, which covered relevant works from 2019. She describes how feminism has traditionally been thought of in terms of waves. The first wave happened in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in particular, with the fight for women’s suffrage. The second wave happened in the 1960s with looking at inequalities and how the world is structured along patriarchal lines. The third wave in the 1990s focused on intersectional and queer theory. And then some have now argued that there is a fourth wave in the 2000s with online feminism.
However, Watz points out how recent feminist scholarship by Robin Truth Goodman, Tasha Oren and Andrea Press’s has challenged this wave metaphor. They have argued that the wave metaphor perpetuates the idea that the waves built upon each other and discarded the ideas of the previous waves. Instead, it is important to acknowledge that the waves were not so radically different, and ideas from all the waves can be found within contemporary feminism.
Another interesting strand of contemporary feminism is its radical potential and connection to Marxism and the Communist Manifesto. Watz points out how the feminists Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser have published Feminism for the 99 percent: A Manifesto , which argues for feminism allying itself with anti-racism, anti-capitalists, environmentalists, and queer activists, and this will allow it to gain more traction. They provide an argument against neoliberal feminism, which might be what people think of when they consider feminism. Neoliberal feminism argues for things like equal pay for women and women having equal opportunities when compared to men, but it cannot address deeper patriarchal structural inequalities like those around race, class, sexuality and disability. Thus, the radical feminism advocated for by Arruzza, Bhattacharya and Fraser would serve to address these underlying inequalities and transform society along more democratic lines.
Clearly, then, current academic feminist scholarship is aligned broadly speaking with anti-racists, environmentalists, queer activists and anti-capitalists. The LSE intersectional feminist society noted that they changed their name a few years ago and added intersectional to their name. The name change is most likely reflective of this shift in feminism to be more anti-racist and inclusive of different perspectives. However, within this radical feminism it is still unclear exactly what role men play. I want to now turn to this question of men and feminisms.
Men and Feminisms: Why might men be unwilling to participate in feminist groups or not want to associate with feminism?
When talking about men and feminisms, it is important first to talk about the idea of gender as a social construct. As the feminist Margaretta Jolly argues in her 2019 book, Sisterhood and After, An Oral History of the UK Women’s Liberation Movement, 1968-present, gender is a “construct, performance, moving target, fantasy, game, relationship” (p. 159). In this sense, the construction of gender has been important in perpetuating perceived differences among the different genders. In other words, while gender is not, in effect, real, it is reinforced by actions. Men who take actions to demean women in an attempt to bolster their own masculinity are helping to perpetuate gender constructs and relationships. Thus, one of the ways that men may not wish to participate in feminist groups is because they feel it undermines their traditional gender role and may challenge the privileges that they have obtained by virtue of defining as a man.
Academic Jonathan Crowe argues in his article, “Men and Feminism: Some challenges and a partial response” that when men see that feminism is not directly about them or their interests, they assume that it must be opposed to them. Furthermore, in feminist discussions, Crowe notes that women often want to hear women’s perspectives and may not value the opinions of men as highly, which may anger men who are used to always having their voice heard. Another issue that has been raised in discussions of men and feminism is the idea that men feel as if they are to blame for the problems that feminisms are seeking to address. As Crowe notes, this is broadly true. By being a part of the social fabric, men do serve to support patriarchal hierarchies and ideas. Men may find the idea that they support patriarchal forms of oppressions against marginalized communities to be inherently challenging to their worldview because then they question their whole role in society. In this sense, if men are to be more accepting of feminism, they will both need to acknowledge the role that men have and continue to play in the oppression of women and listen to the voices of anti-racist campaigners, queer activists, anti-capitalists and feminists about how to change the system.
I would now like to turn to an example of a patriarchal (and racist) institution within the UK. The institution to which I am referring is none other than the police force. It makes a great deal of sense that police would uphold the status quo because their purpose is to uphold the laws (however unjust those laws may be). Their status as enforcers of those laws also means that they feel they could be immune from laws that apply to other portions of the population because the justice system will protect them. This is particularly relevant when discussing police violence against women and people of colour.
A recent example of violence perpetrated against women by police was the case of Sarah Everard in London. In the case of Everard, the perpetrator was a police officer named Wayne Couzens who used his authority as a police officer to handcuff her and drive her into the woods where he raped and murdered her. The case also shed light on how the police had failed to investigate Couzens previously for indecent exposure. After her murder, protesters gathered in Clapham in London where she had been abducted to protest violence against women and sexual harassment, with more than 80% of UK women reporting having been sexually harassed. The police responded with violence at the protests, thus emphasizing that they would defend patriarchal and racist institutions no matter what. Violence perpetrated by police is also classed and racialized. Police force is four times more likely to be used against black people when compared with white people.
So how does this example relate back to men and feminisms? It relates back to the discussion of men and feminisms precisely because policing is a prime institutional example of how men are complicit within patriarchal systems. When, for example, particularly middle-class (or wealthier) white men are faced with the choice of defunding the police, they may find doing so problematic when the police protect their property and class interests. If feminists have discussions around systemic violence against women, especially violence perpetrated by police, men may be uncomfortable addressing their complicity in upholding the various patriarchal systems that perpetuate this violence. While this example has focused on the Global North, there are also many gendered forms of discrimination within the Global South that men implicitly or sometimes explicitly support. There are, of course, also ways in which wealthier women (and men) in the Global North uphold these systems too, for instance, through consumption practices that place burdens on women working in precarious jobs in Bangladeshi textile factories. There are also certainly differences among police violence across space. Violence by police in countries like Belarus may also be vastly more dangerous (such as in the recent protests) particularly to women than in countries like the UK.
Thus, the problems lie in men acknowledging their complicity in supporting patriarchal institutions like the police force. Obviously, some women support the police force too, but men (particularly white men) may be uncomfortable with radical critiques of overhauling the police force and addressing widespread societal discrimination and harassment against women. In this way, if men generally are to be more accepting of feminisms and radical feminist ideas around the transformation of society, they will need to become more self-aware of the harmful constructions of gender in contemporary society and how they can listen to and uplift people of color and feminists.
Conclusions: toward a more contextualized understanding of men and feminisms
I do not presume here to have all the answers as to why men may oppose or not want to be associated with feminism. There are likely many more reasons than those I have given here. I also realize that I have generalized enormously among men and women as to reasons why men may oppose feminism, and obviously there are men who support feminism and women who do not. But I still thought it was striking in the LSE intersectional feminist meeting that I was the only man in attendance. Clearly even in a university setting that is most likely more left-wing than society as a whole, men are still not very interested in going to feminist groups.
I think an interesting area in relation to men and feminisms is the extent to which people (particularly men) and institutions in the Global North are responsible for gendered oppression and discrimination against those in the Global South (something I alluded to earlier with the Bangladeshi textile example). One of the issues with arguing this point is that the Global North is not uniform at all. There are many instances of extreme poverty and pollution of drinking water particularly for communities of color in the United States. Poverty also tends to be gendered with women forced to work in precarious positions to support themselves (through for instance a single mom working multiple minimum wage jobs). In the US, billionaires like Zuckerberg or Bezos do far more to uphold patriarchal structures that discriminate against women than others (for instance through Amazon’s global capital network). Another related question to this is: how responsible are precarious and poorly treated Amazon workers in Global North countries for upholding these capitalist supply chains? Or are those who consume Amazon’s products more responsible? Or are wealthy capitalists like Bezos solely responsible? While I lean on the fault mainly lying at the hands of the wealthy male capitalists and institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), I would argue that these questions raise strong structural critiques of current consumption patterns in Global North countries and draw attention to the complicity of wealthy white men (and women) who do not seek to undo these highly unequal and gendered forms of work. These men (and women) need to acknowledge the role they play in upholding these gendered forms of discrimination.
In some sense, then, men and feminisms raise the idea of looking at spatial and geographical inequalities and differences both between the Global North and South and within the Global North and South. It is also important to analyze examples of how men respond to feminisms in the Global South and how class affects this (for instance within highly unequal cities like New York). Beyond class, there are also presumably differences along racial and geographical lines. Therefore, how do class, race and geography affect men’s responsiveness to feminism? Of course, there is no easy answer to this question. With this question, I am moving beyond the scope of this post (and indeed the question could easily be the subject of a book), but I think it will be an important area for getting a more contextualized and spatially specific understanding of how men interact with feminisms.