Can a man be a feminist?

That’s right. Tackling the big gender issues straight away, here At Critical Masculinities.

I’ve thought about this question, more or less frequently, for the last 6 years. For me the answer, like so many of my answers is, Yes and No. Yes, in a theoretical sense a man, believing in the ideologies of whatever stripe of feminism he chooses to believe in, can identify as a feminist. I would go so far as to put myself in this basket. But for me the above question isn’t a great one, and the world of theory (sadly) rarely correlates perfectly with the real one. So for me the question is really: Should a man be a feminist? And this question is more ambiguous.

I’ve got big problems, as a white man  of education and general privilege , going ahead  and calling myself a feminist.

I simply have not and in many cases can not, experience the types of inequality others are subject to.  And for all that I espouse and advocate for equality – I am treated differently (often to my benefit) because of my gender. I recognise this privilege, and given this my personal relationship to feminism is quite different to a woman a for whom reproductive, sexual, legal and economic equality and rights (as a few examples) have a very different meaning.

I also think that men co-opting the powerful (in a social, cultural & political activist sense) label of ‘feminist’ CAN, in some uses & pragmatically speaking, devalue the word.

For these reasons I choose not to identify as a Feminist, but rather I prefer the less loaded and more neutral term “Pro-feminist.”  And I am aware that some think that this term is a lesser commitment, and that by identifying with it, I am effectively stating  something along the lines of; “I agree with what you’re doing, but don’t want to fully commit.” For me this is not the case, and I have made my choice of identifying moniker out respect,  but I can understand this perspective and would be particularly interested to read your thoughts or perspectives on this issue (so please comment) as I recognise it as one (like so many things) with many shades of grey.

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13 Comments on “Can a man be a feminist?”

  1. violacious Says:

    Be a feminist. It doesn’t co-opt anyone’s experience to be anti-oppression. And working out various politics of difference is a major activity of feminism.

    Coming up with terms like “Pro-feminist” or “post-feminist” negatively typecasts feminists in an unhelpful way. Feminism isn’t static: it has a range of problematic and disagreed-upon histories and contemporary currencies. But awareness of that fact can help to open up more space for difference, complication, activity, thought.

    • Hi Violacious,

      I agree with you that the world of feminism is contested and varied, and was wondering if you’d care to expand upon why terms like pro-feminist, or post-feminist negatively typecast feminism?

      • violacious Says:

        Sure; systems of domination rely on the incomplete processing of human emotion.

        Because of feminism’s difficult histories, it’s easy to see it as outmoded, outré or deeply uncool.

        Swapping in new terms like “pro-feminist” or “post-feminist” maybe does help people avoid grappling with some of the emotional baggage and past problematics of feminism (you explain that because of your self-recognized privilege and concern not to be perceived as co-opting others’ experience, you have chosen a less “loaded” moniker).

        But processing these two issues in an ongoing way is crucial to feminist practice.

        Side-stepping hard questions by coining new labels isn’t helpful — it’s just confusing.

  2. JNgaio Says:

    This is my own personal opinion, obviously…

    But I think part of the negative stigma surrounding feminism is very much because it’s considered by some to be a “girls only” club… and this is where it tips right over into being considered to be outright man hating.

    When I was very young, I was taught that the meaning of “feminism” was simple – it was about women being given equal rights to men. This is still how I view it.

    Don’t get me wrong, I understand that it’s far more complex than that, with so much discourse around what it is to be a feminist. But ultimately, feminism has been a movement that fights for women’s rights and tries to break down the barriers of privilege.

    And I think if men can’t call themselves “feminist” then perhaps feminism will always be seen as something which women should only care about and which men feel alienated from.

    I suppose I do just get tired of the overall weirdness surrounding the word – in my ideal world, anyone who believed in equal treatment of the sexes could call themselves a feminist – and then when addressing all the complexities of the actual issues and coming to opinions about that – this is just the person creating their own brand of feminism.

    I hope that makes even an ounce of sense. And obviously, whatever you call yourself, I like that you’re so sympathetic and self aware. Kudos.

  3. I used to think as you do, that the feminist movement has to be pioneered by women, and that I could be a supporter but not part of the movement. However, I no longer believe that to be true, and call myself a feminist, with no need for a new coinage.

    One part of my reasoning is that by making feminism a women-only movement fails to break the cycle of gender antagonism. The other part is that putting men on the sidelines of feminism effectively compartmentalises the movement. This view is particularly strengthened by my view that feminism is beneficial for men as well as women, as it frees us from damaging stereotypes of masculinity.

    There will always be people who abuse and misuse the label ‘feminism’. I’ve heard of men describe themselves as feminist to appear ‘sensitive’ to attract women. Then there was the US politician Sarah Palin who chose to define herself as feminist as a misguided campaign ploy to win votes of supporters of Hilary Clinton. However, these things happen, but we shouldn’t let these frauds tarnish the bold principles of feminism.

    Society and media often make ‘feminism’ a dirty word. Choosing not to use the word looks like you’re trying to put a little distance between yourself and an often demonized word. For that reason, I think you shouldn’t shy away from using it.

    That you’re supportive of feminism is great, but I would urge you to take that simple, bold step of saying “I’m a feminist!”

    • Gareth, Thanks for your kind words,

      To clarify my original post, I’m not trying to suggest that men should be marginalised from feminism, and indeed I think that a greater involvement of men in feminist discourse is essential for broad cultural and social change.

      And it is not from fear of the “f-word” that I choose not to use it, but rather it from my own engagement with feminist discourse has resulted in me being in a place where I think it is more appropriate for me – in that (for example) I have not (and in some ways can’t) experience oppression in the same way as women, I feel that my engagement with the world of gender politics should be labelled or identified as pro-feminist.

  4. Wes Says:

    I’ve always felt that the word “feminism” was out-moded for the same reason Gareth touches on above; it’s not just the stereotypes and gender roles assigned to women that equal rights advocates are questioning. There is no shortage of bullshit surrounding the expectations on little boys as they grow up either – the whole idea of masculinity as opposed to femininity and the various passages of rites on the way towards becoming A Man.

    When I call myself a feminist I always feel a little strange, because ultimately it’s not just women’s rights I’m interested in – really the ideal is a society where gender roles are not forced onto either sex.

    I think the word “feminism” makes a lot of sense, of course, given that in the way things are now, the fight for equal rights between genders is the fight for women’s rights. With that point in mind I think men should feel free to call ourselves feminists. By somehow placing ourselves off to the side as supporting characters aren’t we just polarizing our roles again by sex?

    • Yes indeed Wes,

      That oppositional binary of which you speak is also a part of why I use the term pro-feminist – De-constructing this oppositional is a big part of what I’m interested, and hope that one day, the term feminist will be redundant. I can’t at this point imagine a world where that would be the case, and so I think feminism is a powerful and pragmatic tool to achieve greater equality and broaden norms of gender.

  5. ErikB Says:

    I personally identify as a feminist, although it comes with a host of caveats (as any simplistic label ought to). My reasoning involves the long history of defining what a feminist is within the feminist movement itself, including among women. There have been divisive battles within the movement regarding who is a ‘real’ feminist and who is being left out. Some results of this can be seen in the diversification of the current feminist community. There are Womanists, ‘pro-sex’, ‘anti-sex'(whatever those labels mean…), liberal, radical, etc. To me all of these are equally valid interpretations/flavors/beliefs of feminism. Each of these ‘types’ of feminist (and moreover individuals)come from different viewpoints and frequently different backgrounds. And these backgrounds and viewpoints matter. Yet I don’t think there is such a background or viewpoint among them that inherently qualifies only some as feminist and the rest as something else. The backgrounds of those in each type of feminism inform how they relate to women’s rights and the goals they set for feminism.

    I think my background (white male with other social privilege to boot) certainly informs and effects how I do relate and can relate to feminism. In some, perhaps many, cases this will limit my ability to engage in conversation/discourse. It means I have to be extra cautious at the very least. It does not mean I don’t qualify as a ‘real’ feminist. It means I have my own set of caveats and experiences that inform my interpretations that I should be aware of, just like other feminists. Mine might be more inherently problematic in certain ways, but that is a distinction between particulars and not types. (type-token distinction here for any philosophers)

  6. figleaf Says:

    A little late to the party but my take is that if you get that you can genuinely gain something from the goals of feminism you probably ought to call yourself a feminist. If you think it’s just about gains for others it’s probably appropriate to call yourself a pro-feminist or feminist ally instead.


  7. writtenon Says:

    Be pro-feminist. My boyfriend doesn’t like being told that he is not needed in the push for post-patriarchy, but thats just his machismo complex. Some men honestly are open to complete equality, most say they are. Almost all men are afraid of women becoming more powerful, and so they like to say that without them, we can’t get anything done. My boyfriend calls feminism a man hating club, but the only way this makes sense is because the rest of the world is generally a womyn hating club, and we are the opposing force.

  8. […] equality and how gender/sex/etc based oppression works, I’ve written about it a bit before (here and here for example, but it’s an unsurprisingly common refrain here). I reckon that […]

  9. Robert Bress Says:

    A friend recently pointed out, and I believe rightly so, that the essence of feminism, regardless of ones position in the ever fractuous “what is” debate, is marked by an openness to the deconstructive hemeneutics of gender topics that previous to feminism (and hegel and all the thinking that fell out of his thinking that I’d argue led to feminism as it did marxism, existentialism,….too many isms to name) did not exist in letters per claim that this way of thinking previously unspoken by women, and to which the feminine aclimates far more easily than the masculine, is a characteristically feminine discursive methodology and by women’s pioneering work in this field should be honored as thus as of the feminine province. By this logic, the best an enlightenend masculine can do is to honor this difference firstly through humility to the object/other, that being the feminine for a gender locked heterosexual male, and that by such humility, your likelihood as a gender fixed male to comprehend the sisterhoods mysticism is possible She further posited that men by are simplicity of focus are less open to that way of thinking. I agree with that point as well as few men are evolved to where they can stomach the neverending upheaval that is feminist thinking, but of course my view is tainted by my seeing this critical method as nihilistic, which per the feminine means I’m not sufficiently humble to the otherness, the feminine, and by my lack of humilty I am de facto slave to a quasi fascistic fraternal mentality that is and remains the dominant politic and conspiracy whose authorship is solely the product of the fool hardy vicissitudes of the masculine. So my answer is this; a man can be feminine in the discursive, as was Joyce from the “Molly” chapter forward, but by definition cannot be a feminist because he is merely co-opting an otherness not his own to where all the dialectal fomentation in the world can’t negate the taint his organic manscent brings to the party. Since I agree with my friend’s analysis, a male whose object choice fixes on the feminine cannot be a feminist but can feel free to “pervert” their thinking by cognitive cross dressing as many great male writers have just as a female may skillfully co-opt Hegel as most feminist critical theorists have done whether their doing so gets them any closer to oneness with otherness than Joyce had with Finnegan’s Wake. That’s my answer, though I likely find it more unsatisfactory and less coherent than any external critic and welcome correction or further mutation. TIA.

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