Can Men Be Feminists?
January 13, 2012 3 Comments
Can men be feminists?
[This is a question which rolls around from time to time and, loathe though I am to contribute to the decades of speculation on the issue, I hope a blog outlining my thoughts may excuse me from having to do so as frequently in future.]
First and foremost, I regard the question as one of semantics. No one is sensibly arguing that men cannot challenge sexism, attempt to understand feminist gender politics and so forth; indeed, it’s rather expected that they should. The question is how we refer to men who do so.
The reason that the word ‘feminist’ may be inappropriate is that, according to some, a feminist understanding of the world must be informed by explicitely female experience. A man, because his experience of patriarchal society is necessarily different from that of women, is incapable of reaching such an understanding. Various alternate phrases, like ‘supportive of feminism’ and ‘feminist ally’ exist to fill the gap (which I personally think sound uncommitted and somewhat patronising, though your mileage may vary).
It is arguably true that only those who have been on the receiving end of misogynist oppression can fully understand it, but is the ability to understand misogyny in this way the only definition of feminism? Is feminism not simply a body of ideas and schools of thought like any other, and ‘feminist’ simply a name for its adherents?
Considered another way: Feminist arguments made by women are often dismissed as being subjective (according to the prejudices proscribed by patriarchy; generally because the woman is emotional, hormonal, irrational or stupid). Of course, good feminist arguments stand objectively, regardless of who is making them, and (though they may be reached through uniquely female experience) can be comprehended, accepted and put forward by anyone. Yes, a man’s capacity to contribute to feminist discourse will at times be necessarily different to that of women (and often of less usefulness), and yes men should not crowd women out of feminist discourse, but an awareness of and attempts to challenge one’s own privilege is surely something we should expect from any feminist, regardless of gender.
The degree of commonality in female experience is itself debatable, especially when sexist oppression intersects with other forms (racial, homophobic, transphobic, ablist and class being the most obvious). It seems flippant and evasive to respond to any issue of gender politics by disputing the inherent essentialism, but it is never the less worth considering that any attitude which relies on a ubiquitous female experience is likely to fall foul of other, more nuanced, feminist thought. Our gender should not define our intellectual or political identity.
A significant contributing problem, which demands more consideration than I’m going to give it here, is a habit of reducing all things to uncomplicated labels which we can then chose to apply to ourselves or not. Therefore, several centuries of probing, ever developing, frequently contradictory critical thought are reduced to a binary of political identity: one is or is not a feminist. Similarly, concern over whether or not one is a Marxist, an anarchist, a post structuralist etc are often unhelpful. These are schools of thought from which one may take what is useful and consider it without redefining one’s own political identity. These ideologies, rather than describing who we are, enable us to describe what we are thinking.
I argue, often, from a feminist perspective. Feminist ideas inform my interpretation of my experiences, which informs my thinking, and that thinking informs my actions. I consider myself a feminist.