How men can support women and Feminism

(Note, this is another post that I’ve written with the audience of Scarleteen in mind, and this piece also appears there)

Recently, I’ve been talking about men and feminism a fair bit, and not just in what I write, but in other places online and in real life. This is pretty normal for me, but what’s a bit interesting is that a lot of these conversations have been around the relationship of men to feminism and in particular, what role men can play in supporting feminism and women in general.

A lot of this discussion has been about names; and in particular what you call a male identified person who supports and actively promotes feminism. ‘Feminist’ is the obvious answer, but this can be problematic because the word is SO strongly associated with women, and some feel that there personal, experiential aspects of feminism, along with male privilege (the numerous benefits and opportunities that biological men often enjoy solely on the basis of their sex – better average wages, less harassment, etc) think that is important for the term ‘Feminist’ to remain exclusive to female identifying people. Other people think that males SHOULD label themselves feminists, to better challenge the notion feminism is a concern only of women, and actively engage men in struggles for gender rights and equality. Just like UK comedian Bill Bailey is doing here.

Some other terms that are used to describe men who identify with feminism are ‘Allies,’ a term which is used by people in many contexts (not just men) who advocate and support struggles around a particular issue, for example rights for sex workers, but, for whatever reason, do not identify with that community themselves. ‘Male feminist’ and ‘pro-feminist’ are also used, which include the term feminist, along with a caveat that creates a distinction with female feminists.

This stuff with names and terms can seem kind of beside the point, but it all means quite a bit when it comes to how we think about gender, feminism, etc and this theory naturally informs personal politics and action in these areas. It’s a personal choice though, and I don’t think any of the above labels are more right or wrong than the others, it’s about what you believe and what you feel comfortable with. Regardless of what you call it, there are many ways the actions and behaviours of male people can support women and promote gender equality. I’m only going to outline a few broad (and I think key) points, I’d be really interested to get your input and perspectives and experiences, (male and female) so please be vocal in the comments section.

As a male, it’s important to understand and realise that you have certain advantages and privileges purely on the basis of your biological sex. Individual men are privileged because, overwhelmingly in the world and throughout history, men as a group have been privileged; more money, less domestic work, more rights, getting to keep their name in marriage, etc. Privilege is tricky, because so often the advantages and preferential treatment can seem small; for example, you get a promotion at work. Sure this is because of your hard work and general talent, but chances are that some part of the reason is that because you’re a guy you are seen as ‘more reliable’ or a ‘harder worker’ or a ‘ leader.’ I should point out that privilege is by no means a single, solid overarching thing. Not all men have the same privileges; older, more well off, heterosexual men (for example), usually have more opportunities and advantages than say, men of colour, homosexual men, lower socio-economic men, transmen etc. Gender is only one aspect among many in determining privilege. Part of the problem with male privilege and countering it is that it is often so intangible and difficult to clearly demonstrate its operation. It’s based in hundreds and hundreds of years of culture and thought, and that is tough to change. And this systemic privilege isn’t just changed in activism for institutional change, like women getting the vote, or being able to work, or have access to healthcare, (which are really important struggles by the way) but by changing attitudes and beliefs on an individual and cultural level. So you, as an individual male, can help the struggle for gender equality by recognising that, in some ways, you have certain advantages because of your sex. In recognising this, you can take some actions, big or small, to highlight this privilege, and make inequality based on sex or gender more visible.

Another really important thing that you can do to support women and feminism, and something closely linked to the sentiments above, is to listen to women, and respect what they say. It really should be that you listen and respect what anyone has to say, but again, history and culture have shown us that some voices get heard a whole lot less, and when they are heard, they are often not respected. Oh, and again, all this stuff is applicable to not just gender, but  also factors such as class, race, and very often age (younger people in particular). So in general, listening and valuing what the women around you have to say is a good idea, even (and especially)  if it is a topic that women are “traditionally” excluded from, for example car repair or something else ‘blokey’ is a spot on way to practice principles of equality and feminism.  Also, and this links in to the whole male privilege thing, there are times and conversations with women were you should just listen, and think very carefully about speaking, the appropriateness of you speaking, and what you are saying. I’m talking about conversations where the male voice (that’d be you) often is a unneccesary or unwanted one; conversations about violence against women, including sexual violence and harassment and conversations around pregnancy and reproductive choices. In this sort of conversation  it’s probably best to take a back seat and to respect the experiences that you may not have had. Respecting what women say, and respecting that some conversations are for women more than men are really good ways to support women.

The final way in which males can support gender equity is perhaps the most obvious, and often (I think) the hardest. And that is actively speaking out when you see or hear behaviour which is sexist, misogynistic or generally denigrates women – say something about it. This is especially important in exclusively male, or male dominated environments where other voices of dissent may not be heard. I often find it really hard to speak up in this kind of context, especially among people who I otherwise like,  respect and value. However in a few instances, after I’ve repeatedly called someone out for a sexist  or misogynist comment, they’ve stopped speaking like that around me. That doesn’t mean that I, on my own have caused a fundamental shift in behaviour in attitude, but it at least demonstrates that they are thinking about what they say in some circumstances. I reckon this as a good thing.

So, above are a few ways I think men can be supportive of gender equity and the goals of feminism. This is all just my own opinion, and should not be taken as gospel, and really is just a few ideas. I think it’s really important to work out your own personal relationship and interactions with feminism. Like I said at the start I’d really like to hear your thoughts and comments on men and feminism.

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16 Comments on “How men can support women and Feminism”

  1. Charita Says:

    in my opinion ,this post was really well-written and clearly articulated a lot of thoughts and conversations that i’ve had around this topic.

    i’m curious to know how the author identifies in terms of gender, but then again, that inevitably colors the way we receive the material – it could go either way, adding a layer of depth or judgment, maybe both.

    i think it’s quite difficult, or a bit uncommon, for men to recognize male privilege (in the same way it’s hard for white people to really recognize white privilege, etc). especially in many developed, democratic countries, it’s easy to believe that there is no discrimination.

    anyways, i think i fall into the group that prefers men to also be called feminists if they share those views. not all women are feminists, so i don’t see a problem with men having that label if they share the views of other feminists, i don’t think it needs to be reserved for just females.

  2. Jake Says:

    I just see things I think aren’t fair and find that my position on those issues is a feminist one, so I don’t mind being called feminist. I try not to call people “a” anything because calling someone “a” fascist “a” ludite tends to remove them from me and mould them as a perminant allie or enemy and with one small language habit gives social licence to the adversarial mentality, as in “it’s people like you that” or “it’s your sort that” when actually we’re all people and when you see someone doing anything they’re one of us.
    Sorry bit of a rant there:)

    So I’d rather say I’m femimist not I’m a feminist.

    Of course in an emergency I woukd ask if anyone is a doctor 🙂

  3. boldredrosie Says:

    As a feminist alarmed at the number of young women who claim not to be feminists I think it’s valuable to have as many people as possible identify themselves as feminists and continue to discuss issues around equality. Critical, if you think you’re a feminist then use that label.

    • Jake Says:

      I thought somebody might think I don’t want to identify as feminist, I do. My point is about a linguistic habit we’ve inherited that’s confrontational and that I try not to use. I think the best way to advance the cause of feminism is to try not to be confrontational and be persuasive.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to make this post! It is essential that men contribute to conversations around sexism, as this is a concern that must be resolved by men at least as much as by women. I have many thoughts on your article, and would love to have longer conversations with you on the topic. Perhaps we can arrange a tea or skype date sometime soon?

    I teach graduate student-therapists about violence in the family, which is a subject that must be prefaced every semester with a brief introduction to topics such as the definition of violence (I side with Maturana on this one: the imposition of one’s will over another) and of family (self defined? gov defined? church defined?) and other topics which are strongly associated with feminism. We also discuss feminism itself, both directly and indirectly. Here are some points that are regular parts of the class, but that I rarely see in other discussions of feminism and feminist issues.

    1.) Feminism is a philosophy and perhaps an epistemology. Those who subscribe to this world view are feminists. Difficulty and debate often set in over whether men can truly stand behind this world view without experiencing it. I consider this a damaging, isolationist perspective and prefer the perspective that women should be the strongest voices in this movement, and men should be responsible for listening and applying women’s voices to patriarchal concerns. Yes, women have responsibility in applying things, too, but I’m focusing on the role of men here. I was so glad to see you address this in your essay!

    2.) Humans are limited to looking upward, and thus can only really see the people who have power over them and rarely the ways in which we have power over others. As a white woman I’m severely limited in my ability to recognize my undue privilege over African-American women, for example. Thus we are all called to listen attentively and to take responsibility to confront our own biases while doing so, so that we can move forward with the wisdom shared those with less undue privilege than ourselves. I was also glad to see this addressed, and wanted to support you in this, as well.

    3.) Men also suffer from sexism. We all do. No only do men suffer indirectly because the women in their lives suffer, but also because men directly suffer under patriarchy. Yes, I absolutely agree that men have a large level of undue privilege in relation to women. I also recognize that this privilege limits the identities of men and their ability to be whole. It is a rough responsibility to be the main income provider for a family, it is damaging to be raised without free access to understanding/developing/expressing one’s emotions, etc. All of this negative impact is absolutely clear when we look at what happens to men when a female partner leaves or dies and is not promptly replaced: they become malnourished, sicken and die at drastically increased rates. Thus, men benefit from a holistic, welcoming and progressive perspective on feminism in both direct and indirect ways.

    4.) I wanted to add I believe it is essential for men to address intimate partner violence with each other. While this is a problem for women, the problem itself lives primarily among men and thus must be abolished by men. It is not enough to talk more openly and confront poor use of language and assumptions, although this is an essential start. Simply stated, men must hold each other, and themselves, accountable for violence as individuals and a community.

    In my mind I can hear the students in the back of the room speaking up “What about women? Women are sexist and sometimes say the love sexist things like being house wives while the husband works!” Sure, there is a lot to be addressed there, too, but that’s not what you were writing about.

    • EI – Great comments! because they’re pretty lenghty I’m going to respond, as per your numbering.

      1. I totally agree with you.
      2. I totally agree with you.
      3. I totally agree with you, and thanks for talking about something I didn’t really address explicitly in the above, which is that gender equity benefits everyone, directly and indirectly. (just as inequality harms everyone) And in writing this piece I definately did not want to trivialise the real pressures and problems that men face in society, but rather that this article was explicitly about men and their interactions with women/feminism.

      4. Again, I totally agree with you about this, but it was a little outside the scope of this piece, and deserves a whole post on it’s own.

      And in re to you point about some women being sexist, and enjoying “traditional” gender roles. I guess I’d say that yes, gender roles are very complex things, and it’s up to the individual to work out their own relationship with this stuff, but that doesn’t mean that the same beliefs and standards apply to broader communities or societies of people.

      • 3. I gotcha! I do like to include this when speaking with men and mixed groups, though. Since doing a lot of work in the south-east corner of the USA (aka the historic American South) I find that talking about the obligation of men to women & feminism comes across in a weird way so I try for the holistic angle. Might well be a regional issue, though.

        4. Yes, for sure. Just remembering the backlash with certain classes, including one (female) student who raised her hand and said “I think your information is out of date. Sexism is no longer a problem in our generation.” I wish.

        and you’re #5 about traditional gender roles: Very complex. Choice, equal valuing of roles and equal opportunity are important considerations in there, for sure.

  5. Kim Says:

    Hi, I read your article on Scarleteen but could not reply on there, so I’m hoping it’ll work here. I’ve had all my posts on Scaleteen blanked out so far, so I’m hoping it’s not something I’ve said (don’t think it’s offensive). Anyway, here goes:
    This is an excellent piece, and nice to read coming from a guy’s perspective.
    The reply (on Scarleteen) was also interesting and made me remember exactly how I used to feel in my college days surronded by an abundance of male and female friends and feeling equal in status to them all. Feminism to me back then was a word that turned me off, my male friends respected me and I did not feel any more limited than them. I thought feminism was a bit wrong back then, we should strive for gender equality, males have it hard too!
    However, my views have changed slightly since then. I’m older, been married, had a baby and have far more responsibility than I did back then. Now I do feel limited as a female and I do feel I have to stuggle harder for equal treatment in areas of life that never even crossed my mind when I was younger and more care free. Now I am approached in society as a mother (and a single mother at that), not just a student or a career professional, and now I can see how women seeking to get support and network in the community can feel limited just because they are female, and at their most vunerable and also most accomplished state.

    I still think gender equality is a good thing but also realise that I totally misunderstood feminism before, not having the experience I do now. Mixing with other young, open-minded students is fine but having to deal with sexist, chauvanistic older macho guys is a different thing, and some of those young students do eventually get old and cynical and become self centered old guys.
    I have to say though, by comparision, I live in quite a progressive community. There are very good women’s groups here and ALSO very good men’s groups that offer men who seek help and support in, counselling, family matters, relationship, health, career, etc. that is male focused. And the best thing is that both the women and the men’s groups, both respect and support each other. Sure men also have their issues in society and culture and suffer hardship as males but that doesn’t mean that feminism seeks to put them down, it should be recognised but respected that men are the best people to deal with those issues, supported by women, whilst women can best understand their problems and focus their energy on working through those, ideally, also supported by the guys. No-one gets anywhere if we’re are all arguing about why feminism is unfair to guys or how women’s rights are uncompassionate to men’s issues. Women need to understand that men also have a hard time dealing with being a guy and it’s not all easy for men in scoiety but also recognise that whilst we want to promote and highlight the cause of women, we are not trying to stop men in any way, doing the same thing for themselves. Women should support men’s groups, but that doesn’t mean they also have to take on all their projects and do it for them. Both genders can be separate but still supportive and respectful of each other. An androgynous concept of gender equality is not realistic! Women and men ARE different, we are separate, but that doesn’t mean we have to oppose and fight each other.

    Good support networks for both men and women are important but should, and need not, be a confusing melee of one group fits all.
    I think the article above should be praised as a good move in the right direction of male understanding and respect of women’s issues. I know a lot of male and female friends and associates who have a very negative view of feminism and all the ‘male-bashing’ that it implies in their minds, even women who are verbally sexist of men do not like feminists or the term feminism! I usually find this goes hand in hand with a misunderstanding and untenable concept in their minds that feminism is one-sided and cannot be balanced, they are also usually sexist or have negative opinions of other women too, their own gender (rare to find in men) and this makes me think that they are probably just confused about both or too fixed on their limited ideas of men and women to be able to come to terms with the seperate identity and value of either one. True ‘male haters’ in my experience are usually women who have a history of abuse and control at the hands of men, they, as the other comment pointed out, also attack women who they feel are not as anti-men as them. Yet I feel deep down they are still fragile, damaged, and hurt and actually yearn for love and sympathy for their unresolved grief. They would love a kind partner to care and understand them, be it male or female. Their views are extreme but just because they identity themselves to a particular cause doesn’t mean that they ARE the cause. We should be strong enough and secure enough in our own minds to not get embroiled with their beliefs if they don’t fit our own.
    I kept my own name when I got married and my son has my surname, even though he was born in wedlock when we were still happily together. Yes, it’s unusual but it is not imposed on you by law. Taking the man’s name is purely by choice in this country (Australia, and UK too I imagine) but women willingly and unthinkingly, gives up the freedom to keep their identity and takes the man’s name because of expectation and cultural ideals not coersion or duress.

    In a conversation with a close male friend and confidant, we came to agree that GENERALLY and unconsciously, both men and women see men as fathers, sons, brothers whereas usually only women see women as mothers, sisters, daughters. Guys generally see women as, well, women. And that manifest in our attitudes towards each other, even women will bicker amongst themselves for the struggles of their male fathers, brothers, sons, but it’s rare to find grown men arguing between each other for the tremendous and overwhelming struggles of women.

  6. […] Critical Masculinities: How Men can support Women and Feminism […]

  7. Hi, pardon the late addition to the conversation, but since you asked…

    Working out what to call myself now in relation to feminism is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and I can’t say that I’ve come up with any solid answers. Describing myself feminist-the-adjective, in some circumstances, is totally appropriate, when “feminist” is defined as “Who believes there is something Hinky* about humanity’s ingrained attitudes regarding gender that places Femaleness, Femininity, and Woman subordinate to Maleness, Masculinity, and Man and Chooses to protest these attitudes”. There is, however, something about trying to call myself a feminist-the-noun that doesn’t quite sit right, that rather sounds like I’m appropriating an oppressed identity I don’t actually have any right to. It’s about where my (male) voice belongs in the debate, I think, and since so much of the feminist struggle is about giving voice to those who are often silenced by the Ingrained Attitudes, that place is in the background.

    Of course, being a transgender man I’m in somewhat of an in-between place at times. My voice is “not quite male” to some of those who know my history and thus could be subject to same subconscious dismissiveness that is often given to female voices, yet at the same time I’ve found that it is “male enough” to grant me access to the boy’s club where, as you point out, sexist comments are the most out in the open.

    So I guess sometimes I think of myself as a Feminist Ally, in a similar way that I (as a white person) try to be an Anti-Racist Ally, so that I remember to shut up and listen to people who are actually living female lives. But I also consider myself a practitioner of Feminism in the broader sense of Working For Gender Justice.

    *totally a sociologically technical term

  8. JENSESinHRO Says:


    I would like to discuss some things with you. Or maybe, you can help me to understand some issues I am thinking about. All world knows that women get less money at the workplace. But why should any firm hire a man for the job when a woman would do it for less money. Actually, I don’t understand that. It makes me thing there must be more to it. There could be something we haven’t taken into consideration. Something we don’t know yet.


  9. cloud#9 Says:

    I think it’s contradictory that a philosophy which propones greater equality for the sexes and a closing of of gender divide should encourage division by gender among its own supporters…?

    won’t this risk estranging our beloved openminded and farseeing men, whose main reason for involvement in the cause is simply pure empathy and understanding – and yet we’re saying ‘you can’t REALLY be a feminist because you can’t REALLY understand’? why should men not be allowed to have the same status as women if they are amazing enough to care enough to want to?

    this even to me, a young and very ardently feminist woman, has an air of snobbishness and petulance.

    lets reclaim the word ‘feminist’ and MAKE it ‘one size fits all’. one battle against injustice and one struggle for universal equality should, after all, fit all.

  10. Judy Minx Says:

    hi all
    this is a very late addition to the debate, from a feminist girl from France.
    first, to the author of this post, i have to thank you for it: i think it’s very good, and a useful tool – a man asked me for resources on what to do to be a good feminist ally and i looked for online tips and found this. it sums up pretty much all that came to my mind when he asked me – and it’s written clearly.
    one thing bothers me though: i think that the fact that the positionality of the author of this post (as in “i’m a cisgendered man, perceived as a man socially and identifying as a man and benefitting from male priviledge”, but also with regards to other things such as race, class, ability, age etc) does not appear anywhere in the post is a problem.
    yes, you answer the question and clarify the thing in your answer to a commenter’s question, but i think it belongs in the introduction to the text. it is very important to state where you are writing from – what position of power and privilege. especially on this issue, not mentioning that you’re a man in the text fails to accomplish the first tip you are giving: acknowledging your priviledge.
    for example, something you could have said in this text is: this text will probably be taken more seriously by other men if they know it’s been written by a man than if they think it was written by a woman, although it deals with an issue they know more about and are more legitimate to talk about. that you leave this unadressed and unacknowledged seems weird to me.
    Gabriel Faith, judging from your comment you seem to be a really thoughtful and precious feminist ally, i would love for there to be more people like you in my community. if you ever come to France please let me introduce you to queer Paris!
    and to everybody: do you know of any other resources like this one, texts with tips about how a (cis) man can support feminist movements without appropriating stuff that isn’t for him, or reproducing privilege and oppression? i’d like to read more of them!

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