Should being a man keep one from embracing feminist ideologies?
By: Tom Rose, Staff Writer
Can a man identify as a feminist? Up until recently, I would have told you it was a no-brainer. Raised by a single mother, the only male child of four, it never once occurred to me growing up that men and women were not equal. My sisters were – and continue to be – just as, if not more, capable than I was. As the years stretched on, and I started noticing the differences in the way folks treated us, their reasons for doing so seemed more and more arbitrary. And so, since the first time I understood what a feminist was, I’ve always thought I was one. Over time, however, I’ve come to realise this stance may (or may not) be problematic for some.
Before we dive into it, let me start with a disclaimer – I’ve always approached feminism from the standpoint of Frederick Douglass, who once said that “no man, however gifted with thought and speech, can voice the wrongs and present the demands of women…with the power and authority of woman herself”. As allies to our female peers, our job as feminist men (or perhaps, as we shall see, more aptly profeminist men) is not to argue for women. Assuming that our voices should somehow hold more weight due to the virtue of our gender only upholds patriarchal systems of oppression. Our job as allies is to challenge those systems where we see them, and allow room for women to make their own voices heard. To paraphrase the sage wisdom of Eurythmics, sisters are more than capable of doin’ it for themselves.
But is there room in feminism for men at all? Simone de Beauvoir, arguably one of the most important figures in French feminism, has indicated that for all their good intentions feminist men will always miss the point because they are not women. Intersectional feminists such as bell hooks, however, counter that the inclusion of men in feminist movements is vital to the cause. Obviously, it’s a tricky subject. While trying to remember that any liberation movement is coloured by the experience of those fronting it, it is equally as dangerous to suggest that men can’t be feminists as it is to insist they must. Some theorists, such as Harry Brod, offer a middle ground. If men calling themselves feminist risks eclipsing female actants, perhaps it’s best to take the term “profeminist” instead. That we embrace feminist ideologies and support the liberation of women is clear, and at the same time we acknowledge that our experiences necessitate a bit of distancing. Maybe it’s a wishy-washy issue of semantics, like when your coworker tells you they’re “spiritual but not religious”, but maybe it’s a matter of utmost importance.
The term “feminist” draws up many images for many different people, and it is not my intention to rehash them for you here. In my research for this article, a search for “male feminist” brought up so many offensive memes that it’s clear the image of the man-hating, take no prisoners feminist is still very much alive and well. Is it possible then, that this image is what’s stopping men from identifying as feminists themselves? The results of an Ipsos survey earlier this year show that while 67% of Canadian men acknowledge “unequal rights by gender”, only 57% of those men identify as feminists. This is a far cry from the 15% a similar survey back in 2014, but there remains a ten percent gap. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the question. For the purposes of both Ipsos surveys, the definition of a feminist was given as “someone who advocates and supports equal opportunities for women”. Could it be possible that that missing 10% felt it unfair to identify with a movement they’re not the loudest voices in?
It’s conjecture, to say the least, but evidence suggests that different terms used when asking the question garner different responses. In a 2009 poll conducted by CBS on American men, 80% of respondents did not identify as feminists, a number that fell by half when the term was defined for them. Perhaps if we were to ask Canadian men whether they identify as profeminist rather than strictly “feminist”, we would find our missing 10%. Perhaps not. What is clear, however, is that somewhere we have a disconnect. And it’s not just with men. Anecdotally, I have experienced the shock and disbelief of a left-leaning woman declaring that she is decidedly not a feminist. Statistically speaking, the disparity between Canadian women who believe gender inequality still exists (72%, according to the aforementioned Ipsos survey) and those who identify as feminists (62%) is about the same as with men.
I’m not in a position to suggest a redefinition of terms. If profeminist men shouldn’t presume to tell women what their problems are, we sure as shit shouldn’t tell them how to define feminism. All I can do – indeed, all I should do – is present the facts as they are and let my sisters in arms take them and run. It’s easy to think that in 2017 these issues are no longer important. It’s easy to look around at the world and think we’ve made leaps and bounds in the struggle for equality. But then, it’s easy to believe anything, given the right standpoint. What is difficult, and perhaps of paramount importance, is remembering that the experience of one is not the experience of all. That doesn’t mean that an individual experience is any less valuable, but it does mean that just because some women enjoy relative equality we should abandon the fight. For my part, having had the privilege of living and working alongside some of the most inspiring women to walk the face of the earth, the fight will not be over until all women have the same freedom and opportunities I do.