Why It’s Becoming Harder To Be A Male Feminist (And Why This Is A Good Thing)

Men have always had a place within feminist movements, though exactly what role they have to play within feminism is something of an awkward subject. This awkwardness is not inherent, for (barring perhaps certain forms of radical feminism) there’s no intrinsic incompatibility in the idea of a male feminist—gender equality is something that anybody can strive towards.

That being said, feminism isn’t about men, and it shouldn’t be co-opted by men claiming to speak on behalf of women. Thus, there is a need for sensitivity when one considers how men can play an active role in feminist projects without paradoxically telling women how best to achieve their own emancipation.

Some men, in both the first and the third wave of feminism, however, have managed to navigate this tricky territory, occupying a less than trivial position in promoting and supporting feminism either ideologically, socially, or politically. [Incidentally, I can’t think of any male second-wave feminists at all! As usual, comments with suggestions are appreciated.] Thus, whilst there are principled reasons for being cautious about the role that men should play in feminism, there are still active roles that men can and have played to help achieve gender equality.

However, this is beginning to change.

Feminist and queer zines have been a grass-roots outlet for feminist self-expression for a long time, but over the last few years or so projects of this sort have burst out into the mainstream, largely thanks to the rise of social networking. Sites like The Everyday Sexism Project (and its Twitter account), Mansplained, and (one particularly close to my heart, given the subject area) What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy? are examples of grass-roots projects aimed at giving women a chance to voice their experiences of sexism.

[Recommendations for similar online projects are welcomed in the comments.]

These sorts of movements and projects are fantastic for a number of reasons. For one, “if you don’t experience this kind of abuse, it’s difficult to believe it exists (particularly if you’re a man and this just isn’t part of your daily experience)“. These sites give a sense of the sheer pervasiveness of sexism that can’t be achieved by the reports of a single person, which can easily be dismissed as exceptional. Dismissing over 20,000 voices all reporting the same sorts of stories over, and over, and over, and over again is far less plausible.

For another, the anonymity of the internet provides a context within which people can share such stories without fear of judgment or repercussion. Aside from the fact that this sort of forum removes the potential for dismissive or mocking reactions, making people more likely to share their experiences, in the case of stories that relate to professional contexts this sort of anonymity is absolutely crucial, for (hopefully) obvious reasons.

However, at a more fundamental level, these sorts of projects mark a shift towards a type of feminism that aims to articulate the experience of women without theoretical, ideological, or political mediation of any kind. Whilst men can detail the theoretical reasons in favour of gender equality, or work to promote political and legal equality, one thing men cannot do is explain what it’s like to experience sexism. In this sense, these movements leave no room for men to try to speak on behalf of women, and this is something that every male feminist should be happy about.

That being said, if you do consider yourself a male feminist, there are still things that you can do to show solidarity in response to these projects. For example, Hollaback! encourages people to call out acts of street harassment and stand up against sexism of the sort documented in Everyday Sexism. Similarly, on the academic front, there’s the awesome Gendered Conference Campaign, which male philosophers can help to contribute to by refusing invitations to keynote at conferences that have no women speakers.

Without a doubt, however, the best thing that male feminists can do in response to these projects is to listen. Quite simply, we don’t know what it’s like to deal with sexism on a daily basis, but these projects provide a window into that experience that wouldn’t otherwise be available to us. Sexism comes in many forms, many of which aren’t obvious if you haven’t been on the receiving end (I know I’ve been guilty of mansplaining on more than a few occasions, and if it hadn’t been pointed out to me I’d probably still be doing it now without even realising).

By paying attention to the experience of women, male feminists can combat sexism in the most efficient way possible: by calling it out wherever we see it, including in our own behaviour—whether obvious or subtle.

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