Although many may litter me with objections, I would like to operate on the assumption that feminism is a stand-in word for ‘egalitarianism’ – but with a more focused appeal to gender inequality, which is what gives it it’s linguistically controversial power.
Older Feminists argue that men are not able to be feminists because they represent a face of privilege and oppression. However, I argue that this ignores the fundamental role men play in achieving the equality at the heart of feminism.
If one’s focus of feminism is on achieving equality and fighting oppression, then men should be considered ‘feminists’. The key reason men can and ought to be feminists is due to the direct benefits on societal perceptions of masculinity as well as on their own lives which their advocacy of the movement will bring; the patriarchy is damaging to both genders. Issues such as reductionism in excluding men from feminism need to be brought to light because underprivileged groups of men face a form of oppression closely linked with female oppression which means that being a woman is not required to face a similar oppression that can be targeted by feminism.
However, lived experience is also an important factor for feminism. Perhaps, we should question whether one must be a ‘woman’ in some sense in order to label themselves as a feminist. What troubles so me is that complete male inclusion within the feminist movement could take up the political space needed to make women’s voices heard.
How Feminism Benefits and is important to Men:
In a patriarchal society, people of both genders are conditioned to view women as subordinate and by nature inferior to men. Sexism spreads the view that women are less able to benefit from equal concern than men, thus systematically disadvantaging them in society (Cudd and Jones 2003).
Patriarchy therefore harms women directly as the term encompasses the structural inequalities between these two genders, defining women as (generally) those who are oppressed whereas men are their oppressors (Kahane 1997).
However, while such institutional, unconscious and interpersonal sexism leads to seriously negative consequences including violence, oppression, abuse and marginalisation towards the female form, it is not merely the woman’s body that is stigmatised but also the stereotypical qualities associated with femininity.
In the modern day, it is easier and even encouraged for women to access the male world, superficially through clothing as well as traditionally masculine character traits, than it is for her male counterpart who is indoctrinated, along with women, to accept the superiority of the masculine ‘ideal’.
Males who do not conform to gender norms and act noticeably ‘feminine’ or ‘androgynous’ are often shamed societally through the ‘real boys don’t cry’ attitude (Van Der Gaag 2014) which stipulates notions of toughness and detachment that come with the expectations of maintaining the role of provider and protector.
Sexism therefore results in psychological and even physical impacts on both men who subvert such aspects of dominance, such as stay at home fathers who are made to feel emasculated, as well as typically ‘traditional’ men who maintain a strictly masculine façade. In the latter case, the ability to seek emotional and even medical support, embrace fatherhood or connect with partners is significantly impaired due to the pervasive toxic masculinity that men are encouraged to harbour.
In contrast, those in touch with their emotional sensitivity have felt reward and satisfaction (Van Der Gaag 2014). The wider societal harm of such traditional gender roles based on the assignment of masculinity to men and femininity to females also leads to unjust discrimination against men.
Namely, in the court of law women are treated more leniently, especially with respect to children in custody battles (Benatar 2012), which further ostracises the role of men in fatherhood and emotional attachment. By accepting the stigmatisation of femininity, women’s inferiority is further assumed as they are confined to meet the corresponding expectation of a traditionally feminine role. Therefore, men are inextricably tied up in the impacts of patriarchy and would greatly, if not equally, benefit from feminist activism that subverts traditional gender tropes alongside women.
Feminist concerns and arguments against male inclusion:
However, although men can benefit from feminist activism, some argue that the position of privilege institutional sexism places men in means that the definition of feminism is incomepatible with men who are on the advantaged end of the social hierarchy (Kahane 1997).
Even if a putative male feminist is committed to equality, there is a disparage between their beliefs and their everyday personal and pedagogical behaviours which mean that male feminism could become oxymoronic.
The unconscious bias present in most individuals means that men lack strong incentives to spread feminist knowledge and understand gendered power relations deeply. While women’s discourse is not secured as feminist in virtue of their gender, the reality of their lived experience as objects of oppression is politically negotiable (Jardine and Smith 1987) in a way a man’s discourse is not.
Arguably, men’s status of lacking direct experience makes male feminist discourse a reflection of domination and “social maleness”. Even male feminist academics have a limited conception of the most demanding aspects of feminism as they lack insightful knowledge of the reality of patriarchal harms, and even the patriarchal elements in a woman’s self understanding, that are integrated into key feminist knowledge and analysis.
Therefore, while men can gain feminist knowledge, their dominant social position and lack of systematic oppression renders them epistemologically limited in their understanding of feminism.
Nevertheless, not all who fall under the category ‘men’ have equal privilege to that of a straight, cisgender, middle class white man.
The view that men’s relation to feminism is impossible politically (Jardine and Smith 1987) is reductionist as not all men are representative of the ‘oppressor group’ and are in fact victims of institutional oppression themselves. This is due to homophobic, transphobic or racialized discrimination that closely aligns with the overriding aim of feminism: equality and the dismantlement of oppression.
The patriarchy should not be equated with ‘men’. It is a male privileged and dominated society that both genders participate in which centres around control and female oppression (Van Der Gaag 2014).
It therefore also effects men outside the sphere of traditional male privilege. For example, LGBTI issues that affect gay and trans men are interlinked with the same notions of masculinity that also effect women. They are viewed as more naturally ‘feminine’, either in sexuality, character or body, and are victims of violence and harassment, even in the Western world.
It should be important to intersectional feminists, who study intersections between different forms of systematic oppression, to incorporate male LGBTI issues because questions on sexuality are at the forefront of challenging traditional gender norms that impact female power.
Likewise, although men of colour are often equivalent to white men in their adherence to masculinity, they lack equality within a universal system which places them in a position of inferiority. As objects of oppression, they can bring a unique experience to the feminist movement as well as alternative tactics for refuting the domination of those in power.
It is limiting to confine all men solely to the privileged role of oppressor. However, feminism should be most focused on tackling women’s issues and including male feminism could detract from this. There is a danger that pro feminist male voices could take up political space without intending to do so, such as in meetings or in funding (Van Der Gaag 2014) because they still represent power which gratifies over-arching respect. While men have historically campaigned against violence towards women and paternal rights, they pay less attention to structural inequality than women who more successfully link the personal with the political.
To improve feminist activism, men must work on challenging the system, preventing sexism equally and acknowledging that women are the primary subjects of feminism (Jardine and Smith1987) whereas cis-gendered male feminists, who have often experienced the benefits of patriarchy, can be agents of structural transformations and representatives of the effects of confining masculinity.
The woman’s oppression is often the man’s experience and therefore, rather than seeking to ‘colonise’ feminism, successful male feminists should tackle both gendered issues that apply to their own lived experience as well as take on the more difficult, self-critical task of challenging male domination.
It is important to remember that targeting one problem helps solve others and whether men should be considered feminists should not be a matter of semantics or a question of labelling themselves allies or pro-feminists.
This is especially true as not everyone who identifies as male is in an equal position of privilege. Many men (such as trans or gay men) often have less power than a cis-gendered white woman, which produces innovative ideas to contribute to the activism.
Women are not feminists in virtue of their gender (Jardine and Smith 1987), but they are the subjects who often make it their affair and, while it does not centre equally on men, it is important for men to spread awareness in their real lives.
Lived experience motivates subjects of oppression to use their knowledge to implement change yet it is only by combining efforts and perspectives that the goal of feminism (gender equality) can be served (Stringer 2015).
Definitions of Feminism: feminism as gender equality
If one defines feminism as gender equality, males should be feminists especially as feminism also serves male issues. Saying that one is a feminist is not the same as saying one is a woman (just like saying one is anti-racist is not the same as saying they are a person of colour) and ideologically, a male can be a feminist if his actions correspond to his views.
Lived experience is not a necessary determination of one’s understanding of feminism. However, male inclusion should not detract from women’s voices which remain the face of the movement.
While it takes courage for men to become active feminists in a society that rewards stereotypical masculinity, feminist men should nevertheless try to negotiate an awareness of their privilege (Kahane 1997).
Feminism does not require one gender to lose for the other to benefit, therefore an inclusive space is necessary to achieve gender equality.
-Images are my own, taken at London’s Fashion and Textiles Museum: The T Shirt Cult-Culture-Subversion
-Other images sourced by Tumblr and Instagram.
- Benatar, D. (2012). The Second Sexism. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.
- Cudd, A. E and Jones, L. E. ed., (2003). Sexism. In: A Companion To Applied Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 102.
- Jardine, A. and Smith, P. (1987) Men in feminism. New York: Methuen. Available at: http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/warw/detail.action?docID=171553.
- Kahane, D. J. ed., (1997). Male Feminism as Oxymoron. In: Men Doing Feminism. New York: Routledge. Available at: https://remuernotremerde.poivron.org/uploads/2014/09/male-feminism-as-oxymoron.pdf
- Stringer, J. (2015) ‘Feminism and Men’, Gender & Development, 23(1), pp. 181–183. doi: 10.1080/13552074.2015.1026636.
- Van der Gaag, N. (2014) Feminism and Men. London, [England]: Zed Books. Available at: http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/warw/detail.action?docID=1758716.