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“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[1] 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.

[1] White, cis men again.  Gosh, we get everywhere, don’t we?