“The Trouble With Male Feminism” is the topic Ally Fogg wrote about over at The Guardian this week. He argues that the “retirement” of Hugo Schwyzer from his self-appointed position as “Professor Feminism” highlights some of the issues men have with feminism. In a nutshell, men who write about feminist issues feel they have to “take their cues from the women around them”, that they must “yield first in disputes” and toe an ideological line “very carefully”. I respect Ally’s work a great deal, and I realize that he’s explaining why he can’t identify himself as a feminist any more, but I think his piece makes some assumptions which show up the real problem with many male feminists. They can’t imagine not being the heroes of the movement.
What could be the problem with taking cues from women, for a male feminist? Feminism works to rectify centuries of imbalance during which women have been silenced, oppressed and subject to male authority. It seeks to articulate the experiences of a massive swathe of people who have often been ignored and exploited. What’s wrong with the assumption that those of us who haven’t had those experiences shouldn’t be giving orders? If there’s an “ideological line” to be drawn, why should it be an affront that men didn’t get to draw it? For white cis men, one of the most important things we can realize about feminism is that it is not about us. We can contribute, we can co-operate, but we can’t lead it, win it or set the agenda. We can’t embody it or introduce it to the big time. We can’t be feminism. If we ever did, it would stop being feminism.
I can’t see why yielding first in disputes, or working within ideological structures created by other people, are issues either. I do this all the time as an academic. Sometimes it’s very obvious, like getting up to begin a paper which develops the ideas of another writer and realizing they’re grinning at you from the third row. Other times it’s more subtle: when I’m a bit less dogmatic talking about medieval literature than the seventeenth century, or when I defer to someone in the room who I know has spent years reading the manuscripts I’m talking about. I happily accept that other people know more than me in various fields, and that I’m speaking “subject to correction” when I give my thoughts on a topic. We all assume that our ideas are contingent, open to nuance or flat out contradiction by other people, in a process which ultimately (hopefully) moves the field forward. If we don’t have a problem taking into account another person’s special expertise in a setting like that, surely we should be even more keen to acknowledge their right to speak about their own experience. Even if it contradicts a theory we’re so sure works out.
The only way these could be problems for male feminists would be if they didn’t want to contribute, but wanted to be the Christopher Hitchens of feminism: lone fearless outriders sneering at the intellectual credentials of all those who disagree with them. There will never be a Christopher Hitchens of feminism. Partly because Hitchens seemed to have trouble imagining women could be as clever as he was, but also because the male hero, leading from a lonely and glamorous eminence, isn’t what feminism needs from men. The craggily authoritative “public intellectual”, the charismatically self-destructive bad boy, the strict but sentimental “leader of men”: these are all male roles which feminism critiques, not roles waiting for the right guy to come along and fulfil. Feminism isn’t just a set of propositions about the way the social, cultural and economic structure supports a harmful gender binary. It’s a mode of operating – or rather, a set of modes – which includes an attentiveness to other’s voices, a willingness to take things seriously which you’d like to dismiss and an awkward, ongoing encounter with the reality of other people. You can’t just sign up to the right statements and then expect people to snap into line because you look more like a leader than they do.
There won’t ever be a Four Horsemen of Feminism, and that’s not a problem with feminism. It’s part of feminism’s success in questioning the images of male intellectual and moral authority which our society holds so dear. I’d guess that the problem with male feminists is that too many want to be Richard Dawkins, only with the right opinions. The problem certainly isn’t that they might spend too much time listening to women.
 White, cis men again. Gosh, we get everywhere, don’t we?
Reblogged this on feimineach.com and commented:
Excellent piece. Example: […] I think his piece makes some assumptions which show up the real problem with many male feminists. They can’t imagine not being the heroes of the movement.
this is all correct obviously, but i think the problem wasn’t from “taking cues”, but rather that male feminists only position is to agree with female feminists rather than offering any thought of their own.
of course it is fine if male feminists’ job is to support the females in feminism, but it might be beneficial to also have high profile male feminists. furthermore, as it is mostly the men’s fault women are in this position, more males should feel a responsibility to be more active on the matter maybe?
but i don’t want to see any more christopher hitchens in any arena
I agree mostly but I also see exceptions and areas for men to shine and take the leadership position.
Redefining masculinity to rid men of limitation imposed upon them by stereotypical gender roles and sterotyped social constructs. This is something that only men can do. Women can only support men to take this very important journey and be aware of the impact of male stereotypes on our own psyches and expectations so as not to reinforce outdated stereotypes.
Redefining the role of fatherhood from a secondary caregiver position to an equal primary caregiver position. Here again, a womans role is as a supporter of this very important role being reclaimed.
Events of support. The most famous that automatically comes to mind is ‘A mile in her shoes’. Events like this are critical to changing the silent epidemic of violence against women.
To me, when placed in a positive context, I’m really not opposed to a bit of the hero role being enjoyed by male feminists and I encourage all people to give credit where credit is due.
Having said this, I remain in agreement with you when the hero role oversteps and enters an inappropriate domain.
I agree with this, if feminism is about equality we all need to address the sexism that seeks for force men to act in a ‘masculine’ way alongside the oppression that women face. Caregiving being the perfect example where equality and choices for women in the workplace etc (‘male’ spaces) will only be fully achieved alongside equality and choices for men in caregiving (‘female’ spaces). I also feel that unless both genders embrace equality and see themselves as agents of chance we will only ever make so much progress.
Personally I feel that if someone has something interesting or useful to contribute, bring it on, no matter who you are. (although I take the point that a man may need to approach how he makes that contribution with regard to sensitivity).
Reblogged this on candid sparrow.
Daniel Copeland said:
I agree with you. I think men do have a role in feminism, but it’s a subsidiary one. The problems feminism seeks to solve are chiefly (let’s face it) male behaviours and their consequences; and of course in order to change male behaviours we need a perspective on male motivations. So men can say “These are the things guys are doing wrong, this is why they do them, this is what motivates me as a man not to do those things, here are some ideas for spreading the message.” At least, that’s what I’m usually trying to do when I write on feminist issues.
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So this piece highlights a lot of problems I have with the feminist movement, or at least with the online/Twitter wing of the feminist movement. Take this, for example:
This strikes me as a deeply counter-productive position. It seems to imply that feminism is some exclusive club, rather than a political ideology. As such, there is no ‘agenda’. There is no need for ‘leaders.’ A set of moral or ideological propositions constitutes an agenda in and of itself. A political ideology succeeds through persuading as many people as possible to adopt its tenets, and not through the creation of charismatic leaders.
Political movements succeed by building coalitions of interests and coalitions of agreement. If feminism is to succeed it must include men, and it must make itself appealing to men.
I know that this last sentence will probably outrage a lot of people, but the facts are that men are approximately 50% of the human race and represent rather more than 50% of the existing power and wealth of the human race. Is this a good thing? No. In the best of all possible worlds, would it be the case that there existed such an inequality of power? No. Do we live in the best of all possible worlds? No.
To succeed in making a better world, feminists must co-opt men and ensure that men are ‘on board’ with the feminist movement and with its ideals and objectives. As has already been mentioned, it’s mostly the actions and behaviour of men that results in a need for feminism in the first place. If men feel like feminism is ‘something for women’ they won’t care about, or they will dismiss it, or (perhaps worst of all) they will simply continue to be indifferent to it.
Men like to be heroes. They like to see themselves as heroes. Women probably like to be heroes too. So what’s the harm with encouraging people (including men) that they are the heroes of a morally righteous political movement? It’s the sort of thing that gets the juices flowing. It’s the sort of positive vision that people could actually feel enthusiastic about supporting.
There is a difference between data (e.g. a woman’s particular experience of sexism in a patriarchal world), and doctrine (e.g. feminists must oppose Page 3). The latter, unlike the former, is the subject of debate and argument, and the quality of an argument is independent of the person making it.
Look: I know that this comment probably sounds incredibly trollish, and I apologise for that; but I’d sincerely like to hear someone explain why I’m wrong, if I am.
Dominique Millette (@grokerati) said:
Dominique Millette (@grokerati) said:
Which is to say: no, we must not cater to men. This is the undoing of the empowerment of women. It’s best to be boss of our own affairs, than to be subservient to a lip-service version of our own ideology.
Let me explain my thinking. In society, there is a problem called sexism. In those societies fortunate enough to have achieved a high degree of formal legal equality between the genders (the UK, the USA, Canada, and many other countries besides), there remains the problem of sexism; a problem which takes many forms, such as women being underpaid, under-represented in certain jobs, suffering from sexual abuse and rape etc.
The purpose of feminism is to remove this sexism. The victory condition for feminism is a society without sexism. Fine. But what is sexism? Broadly speaking, it is a set of beliefs and attitudes that are widely held about how women should behave; and these beliefs and attitudes are held by *everyone*, both men and women. These beliefs and attitudes are the *cause* of the various inequalities that exist between the genders (again, this obviously only applies to those countries that *don’t* still have inequalities enforced by law).
In order to combat this sexism, we must endeavour to change people’s beliefs and attitudes. Now, because many people will deny that they *do* hold sexist views, this process of changing beliefs will require that we first persuade people that a problem exists in the first place. A great deal of sexism is ‘subconscious’ sexism that manifests itself in things that don’t happen as much as things that do happen (e.g. women’s lower pay may be attributable to men simply not thinking to offer women promotions. While it is difficult to *prove* that a particular woman has lost out, the macro-level evidence is clear.). Once we have successfully persuaded people that a problem exists we can persuade them to change their beliefs and hence change their behaviour.
But here’s the problem: the vast preponderance of sexist beliefs are held by men, and the vast preponderance of sexist behaviour is performed by men. This means that at some point the feminist movement will have to persuade men that a) many men hold sexist beliefs, and b) that these sexist beliefs cause those men to behave in a sexist fashion.
So yes. The feminist movement needs men. It needs to include men. In fact, the victory condition of feminism would be one in which *all* men were converted to feminism, and in which all men were good feminists (i.e. non-sexist).
I think the problem here is that the OP conception of ‘the feminist movement’ seems to be some sort of army or corporation, with hierarchies and bosses at the top – bosses who OP says can only be women – and which does… something, somehow, to combat sexism. Like as if sexism was a foreign army of people that you could defeat on a battlefield. But sexism isn’t like that.
I sincerely believe that we are more likely to succeed if we are polite, and if we make our arguments rigorously and calmly, because we are right. I don’t think feminism will succeed if we insist that feminism is transformed into some kind of ‘no boys’ social club for women.
This is basically an argument for tone policing. If women are just nice enough, stroke men’s egos enough, let them take charge enough, men will let women be equal. That is not a revolution. It’s encouraging women to comply with the status quo. So sorry you don’t like feminism that doesn’t let you be in charge. But that means you are not our ally. You are part of the problem.
You don’t speak for all men. There are lots of men who see feminism as something for women and because they value women, they value feminism. If you’re being dismissive of something for women, it’s entirely indicative of your opinion of women. Either be supportive or get out. We’re too busy fighting for our rights to coddle your delicate ego.
Quite Irregular said:
@TACJ Thanks for your comment. On the contrary, I don’t remotely imagine feminism as a hierarchical army – in fact the piece as originally drafted had a paragraph drawing comparisons with the passage in the Witches of Eastwick where a man drops out to join ‘the counterculture’ and is baffled when they don’t make him a colonel in ‘the movement’. It is that very attitude which I am critiquing in this piece.
is so wrong.
Feminism is one species of the civil rights movement. It’s not as if it’s a separate mission, focused on women insofar as they are women. No, feminism is focused on women insofar are they are human, just as the racial civil rights movement is focused on black people not as black, but as human, just as the struggle for lgbt rights is focused not on lgbt people as lgbt, but as human, just as the fight against anti-semitism…. you get the point. Feminism is about civil rights, and the civil rights movement is about the value of humanity in every single human being. To claim that feminism is “not about us” (men) is to miss the fundamental premise of the civil rights movement, namely, that we have a moral responsibility to recognize and honor the humanity in everyone.
Sounds about right to me …
Women liberating women is feminism.
Men liberating women is paternalism.
It’s really that simple.
Dominique Millette (@grokerati) said:
How could men fighting to empower women be construed as paternalism (restrictive action, like that of a parent, intended to be for someone’s own good)? Men can only take a paternal role toward women if they have more power, but the goal of the struggle for gender equality is, well, equality.
Or if you meant patriarchy (a state of affairs where men hold more power than women), how could men fighting to empower women possibly result in this state of affairs? If the effort toward gender equality is at all successful, it will result in more power (ideally equal power) for women. That’s the opposite of patriarchy!
I’m baffled by the tone of some of these comments. It’s as if you don’t want men to be part of the effort toward equality, and not because of what they actually do, but because of their gender. Don’t you see that judging someone not by who they are, but by their gender is sexism? That’s what we’re working to overcome.
For that matter, men being heroes of feminism is not about ego (there will of course be some exceptions), because most (the overwhelming majority?) of the male heroes of feminism are fathers who teach their daughters to be strong, independent thinkers. And they do it out of love, not for public recognition. You want to tell me they’re not heroes and leaders in the movement?
Isn’t Germaine Greer probably already the Christopher Hitchens of Feminism?
Blind Labyrinth said:
We think that thinking men have a responsibility to confront oppressive behavior by other men. To wit, a song we wrote about paranormal investigator Karen Stollznow, and her four-year sexual harasser Benjamin Radford (with a jab at Richard Dawkins thrown in for good measure):
(Kenneth Downey and Robert Gross)
Flo me la said:
No that certainly isn’t the problem!
Great blog post.
By the way, it’s interesting how it seems the (critical) men commenting on this post take up twice as much space as the women… Which isn’t unusual in discussions on feminism that suggest men shouldn’t step back a bit.
White people love to poke their noses in other’s affairs. Whether it’s men wanting to be involved in feminism or women jumping on the Civil Rights bandwagon. White women poked their noses in Black people’s affairs and Feminism was born. It’s what priviliged people do…we know what’s best.
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John Doe said:
Jem, stop trying to make cis happen! It’s not going to happen.
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Historically speaking women have been provided for and protected, not “victimized and oppressed”. Men worked down the mines, their wives cooked biscuits in the company shack. Men sacrifice their lives and their wellbeing for the good of their families because that is our biological imperative as the disposable sex.
It’s important to debunk this idea, not only because the actual conditions that men endured are and always have been far more deleterious relative to women of similar station, but it is the victimhood narrative which has again and again throughout history placed women into the positions of non-agency that we recognize in hindsight as “oppressive”.
We see this today with campaigns like “he for she” that make men responsible to women instead of women responsible for themselves or (heaven forfend) as responsible to the men of society as the men already are to women.
Your granddaughters will rail against the societal role that your establish for them today, but like all generations they will blame their grandfathers for it.
This has to change. Changing this IS progress.
I’m not sure I understand you – you seem to be suggesting that women have “had it better” than men throughout history, but that they have also been “oppressed” by being put into a “victimhood narrative”?
More mra bullshit, men the universal protector rather than the people that sell their daughters to be raped and call it child marriage, who fought to deny women education, the vote and right to support themselves and who now fight for international mens media that calls women and children whores and bitches and shows footage that portrays us as entrappers of men into raping us. With protection like that, who needs enemies?