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One of the major debates surrounding contemporary feminism is the question of men’s participation in what is at heart a movement focused upon the emancipation of women and the creation of a society where true gender equality exists. This is a debate which has gained considerable attention recently as a consequence of the launch of the UN #HeForShe initiative. As popularised by actress Emma Watson, the initiative encourages men to actively support efforts to combat sexism in society, under the logic that “one half of humanity” should actively work to support the other half. This notion that feminism would benefit from men’s involvement, while at the same time men would benefit from feminism, is not unique to this recent initiative; a brief online search of “Why men need feminism” will generate a multitude of articles arguing not only that men should support the struggles of women over issues such as sexual harassment or equal pay, but that men themselves would benefit from gender equality. In a world no longer dominated by patriarchy, so the argument goes, men would no longer feel forced to conform to stereotypical ideas of masculinity, such as being dominant or hard working bread-winners, and that an equal society would enable men to explore alternatives, such as being able to express emotions or look after children. In this way, not only would men be helping women by campaigning to eliminate sexism, but men would be helped too, and on the surface such an argument in favour of men’s participation in feminism seems quite attractive in that it draws attention to the ways in which patriarchal society has negative consequences for men and encourages them to supporting gender equality.
Now, although this line of thought has merit, the participation of men in feminism is not as simple or clear cut as men joining feminist movements or feminists movements declaring themselves supportive of men. Several issues are worth considering – ones that show that although there is value in men’s involvement in feminism, as called for in the #HeForShe campaign, it must be critically engaged with and thought about. As an aside, this piece was written in response to requests from women identifying as feminists and I have consulted feminist friends I know about doing it in order to avoid the sort of pitfalls of men engaging poorly with feminism as outlined below.
Although, as said before, patriarchy has negative consequences for people of all genders, it must never be forgotten that it primarily has such effects upon those who are not men, as men do receive benefits from such an unfair framework, for example greater pay for doing the same or a similar job. A failure to recognise this can be seen to risk downplaying the fact that feminism is a movement intended to emancipate people of oppressed genders and that although such a struggle will have positive effects for men, it must be remembered that this not its primary purpose. As a consequence, although men should definitely support feminist struggle, they must do so in the knowledge that they are not at the centre of it, and that as such they should not expect to be pandered to e.g. constantly being reassured that their contributions matter, or else they risk reinforcing patriarchy’s submission of women’s interests to those of men.
Furthermore, the fact that men may proclaim themselves feminists and support feminist campaigns does not automatically mean they are no longer capable of sexist behaviour. Men who define themselves as feminists or feminist allies have a great responsibility to ensure that they live up to such declarations in their everyday lives; for example, by being willing to listen and learn from others rather than being defensive when challenged over a problematic remark.
In addition to men’s engagement with feminism not being as easily clear cut as it may appear, the ways in which feminist groups and campaigns engage with men is also worth considering. What do we even mean when we talk about “men” here? Just as the category of “women” encompasses a wide range of women of different classes, races, sexualities etc., so too does “men.” Men who are white will experience life very differently from those who are black, or men with disabilities will experience different issues to those defined as able bodied. As a result to talk about the need for feminism to incorporate men and men’s issues is not as simple as it may seem at first. As was suggested to me by a feminist friend in the context of the #HeforShe debate, it could be strongly argued that rather than just appealing to “men” as a broad category, feminist campaigns would be more effective at reaching out to and supporting men if such struggles were closely linked to other liberation struggles over such issues as race, class, disability, and sexuality, where people who are men are oppressed by other social hierarchies operating alongside patriarchy. Doing so would also help to ensure that those men who do become involved in feminist struggle include the most marginalised in society rather than simply being the most privileged i.e. white, middle class, straight etc.
In conclusion, although men may have a role to play in feminism and the struggle against patriarchy this does involve contentious issues which cannot and must not be ignored, but ones which if tackled critically can help to ensure effective, meaningful feminist politics and the creation of a more equal society. As another feminist friend of mine likes to put it, in the end “equality is everyone’s issue.”