Thoughts of a Man within Feminism

Term’s finished, so I’ve finally got round to catching up with all the fantastic stuff written on this site at the start of the year. This article engages with (or is at least inspired by) one of my favourite pieces – “Soul of a Man under Feminism” by A. MacDonald. I do not know the author (sorry if I actually do!), but like him I define as both a straight male and a feminist. A lot of what he said resonated with me – especially the remark that “Our society fetishizes struggle and adversity which leaves the privileged in a reality gap. It’s an envy of struggle through an ignorance of struggle.” For me, middle-class guilt defines almost everything in my life. It has turned me rabidly cynical, that constant, all-knowing guilt. Oddly enough, however, I experience it slightly less when it comes to feminism. Because this article risks falling into unstructured rambling due to the “disordered and circular” nature of such experiences highlighted by MacDonald, I will present the points I want to make separately:

  • Firstly, my experience of feminism has actually been very different to what MacDonald describes. I’ve never felt excluded or “part of the problem” or even particularly confused. The feminists I know, and they are fewer than I would like, have all been extremely welcoming and friendly, and actually an embarrassingly happy bunch of people. My encounters with them have been characterised by joking and light-heartedness, though obviously they often hold much anger and frustration beneath the surface. None of this has ever been directed at me. I have three sisters but none has ever told me that “there’s just things you’ll never understand” (as MacDonald’s did).
  • I do get a lot of surprise, however. Mostly from non-feminists. When I manned the student Feminist Society’s stall at fresher’s fair, I got many derisive snorts from strangers. A lot of my friends who happened to see me came over and congratulated me on actually being a male feminist. Even I was shocked at how much this happened. However – unusually for me – this didn’t make me feel guilty or unwanted or out of place. It merely stoked my feminist anger to a slightly higher notch – a slight sensation of outrage that the world is still so amazed by the concept of men not being happy with the gender status quo. One more thing that we need to change.
  • I don’t buy the idea that our experiences define us so radically that we cannot understand where others are coming from when they describe their feelings and emotions to us. I have read my Foucault – and yes I do agree that people are fundamentally shaped by discourses and cultural power, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t communicate or empathise beyond this. I am a social anthropology undergrad – my discipline is founded on the practice of people integrating across discourses. A European goes to Indonesia and lives there for a long time – eventually they can understand what’s going on in that culture as well as any “native” and they are capable of explaining this back to other Europeans who can in turn comprehend it. Yes there are problems with cultural assumptions and so forth, but these can be identified and eliminated. Anthropology *has* essentially thrown off its colonial past. My point is that while men and women tend to have very different experiences in life and thus become very different people, it’s ludicrous to imagine that they cannot possibly comprehend the experiences of each other, especially when they have so many shared cultural referents.
  • In fact, I’m even offended by the suggestion/implication (again, this has not come from any feminists I know) that I am incapable of knowing or caring about the problem of “women” or of any type/group of humans. As if the constructed boundaries separating us were greater than our shared humanity. As if the suffering of others doesn’t bother me or touch me, as if I can’t know or even imagine what it’s like to suffer. I *am* a feminist. Not in a detached or intellectual way. Feminism for me is highly emotional and experiential, founded utterly in my horror at the various gender-based realities that I have become aware of either first-hand (yes, men do get gender discrimination, and no, it’s not as anything like as bad as what women get on average) or via what I’ve heard from/seen in others. This is not a complicated or unusual state of affairs. It happens frequently in millions of people every day.
  • I’m not a big fan of the idea that you can teach men to be feminists by following certain rules, as suggested in this article (though I do support *most* of what it calls for). That reeks of categorisation. You don’t have to tick boxes to “be” a feminist, whatever gender you define as. Feminism is personal – it emerges in each individual for different reasons and is composed of different feelings and experiences – we mustn’t essentialise it. I also dislike the idea that the author might view me as attractive by virtue of my feminism – it just feels uncomfortable, as if I was being judged as a person on the basis of my opinions/ideologies (though to be fair the author is mostly talking about actions).
  • Refusal to categorise or essentialise is also key for thinking about the vast numbers of misogynist women and the male feminist heroes, both famous and little-known. For the majority of feminists (in my experience), I’m stating the obvious here, so I shall state it again, just to be clear: Men and women are equally key to ending the gender problems we care about. The categories themselves are central to these problems, because the problems are largely structural. The patriarchy is not a literal conspiracy, it is a social phenomenon that was not consciously created. Surprise at the creature known as the male feminist only indicates how much we still fail to appreciate structural and discursive power and how much we continue to cling to essentialism. Here comes the but.
  • BUT. But, it is equally ludicrous to say that feminists are man-haters, or to blame them if they are. Not just because most don’t hate men. It’s ludicrous to say that feminists are man haters because – even if they are – saying so allows you to reject everything else they also are. Or more precisely, it allows you to miss the fact that feminists, as already explained, *are* not any definable thing or even set of things. I cannot count the number of times I’ve seen wonderful articles and brilliant analyses completely rejected out of hand merely because the author has indulged in a generalisation/stereotype/homogenising narrative/portrayal of “men” as evil. Sure, 90% of the time I agree that the generalisation was inappropriate, and these problems are endemic in feminism and need to be dealt with. But  it shouldn’t detract from the point being made. Worse, the dismissal is often arbitrarily extended to all of feminism, which is then branded as dogmatic and fringe.
  • It is not a contradiction with my points about structure and categorisation to say that male people DO generate and sustain the majority of the problems feminists care about. The vast majority. People defining as women suffer BY FAR the most. The two genders tend to have PROFOUNDLY different experiences, so while I still stick to my point, above, that we can always empathise across experiential differences, this often requires A LOT more effort than we might imagine. It especially requires that all concerned LISTEN to each other, really listen, and make a strong effort to hear what is being said without one’s customary ideological or gender filters. Those who fail to do this should rightly be the subject of scorn and anger. They certainly make me furious, though I understand why it happens. Further, while the patriarchy is NOT a conspiracy, and seeing it as such can make us adopt misguided tactics for dealing with it, it DOES behave pretty much AS IF IT WERE a conspiracy. So casually treating it as such in our articles and conversations is not surprising, unforgiveable, nor the end of the world – though I do agree it should be avoided as much as possible.

I’ve veered far from my original thoughts about being a male feminist, but as I hope you can see, I think the issue is relevant to more or less all of feminism. I would love to develop these thoughts further!


  1. Lis

    Given the extent to which you seem to understand that comprehending patriarchy, as a man, requires significant amounts of listening and effort, I’d like you to apply that as best as you can to what I’m about to say:

    You need to be prepared to be told by feminist women that you are not behaving in a feminist way, and to accept that. If told it repeatedly, or if told by a feminist woman that basically you’re not a feminist, you need to stop using that word. If you claim the label so firmly that you won’t let go of it when a feminist woman asks you to, then at the very core of things you are still an antifeminist man who thinks he knows better than women how we should conduct our lives.

    For example, you tell me that 90% of the time when an article contains a “generalisation/stereotype/homogenising narrative/portrayal of “men” as evil”, that generalisation was “inappropriate” and an example of an “endemic problem” within feminism that “needs to be dealt with”.

    But it isn’t your place, as a pro-feminist man, to attempt to structure feminist discourses. It’s much more likely that you just don’t understand those articles, than that nine times out of ten, your superior vantage point is better than the viewpoint of whatever woman wrote the article, and that you are in a position to level this kind of judgement.

    If you are a genuinely committed pro-feminist man, you will understand that the structuring of women’s intellectual and experiential landscapes is one of the fundamental activities of patriarchy, and that to be pro-feminist You. Must. Stop. Doing. That. I don’t care how right you think you are. Stop. Doing. That.

    This is why I use the language “pro-feminist man”, or more commonly nowadays, “apparently pro-feminist man”, since it seems that so many of them, when challenged, will reveal their antifeminist colours. But it seems that no other language will convince a man that he must not attempt to structure feminist discourse, or must stop doing so if his efforts conflict with the efforts of a feminist woman. Given the breadth and wisdom of feminist women’s thought, this is almost inevitable, so that’s why I give the advice not to do it in the first place.

    Even writing this response has taken some of my energy which I could have used doing other feminism. I’m sure that many other women have also read your article here and had their energy sapped. Equally, I’m sure that yet more women have read it and found it useful and energising. Now imagine how much better it could have been if that was the feeling of every woman who experienced this piece.

    Whatever you do and say, you will never be a feminist to me. This is not an insult. “Pro-feminist man” is a compliment. If you find this uncomfortable, I’d like you to apply that listening and effort which you’ve urged above, and to deeply introspect that sense of discomfort.

    (And the same applies for other pro-feminist men who are reading this article, of course.)

    • Fergus

      Dear Lis, I made a reply to your comment without posting it as a ‘reply’ (please see below), this is just in case you didn’t revisit this page.

  2. John

    I’m more than happy to call myself/be called pro-feminist rather than feminist – I think that could be quite a useful distinction and thank you for pointing it out.

    The thing I’m not quite sure about is the point about structuring feminist discourse – obviously this is something I’m keen to avoid and I’ve taken care to phrase things as my non-judgmental personal opinion and without any moral or other authority. Where I’ve failed, I apologise, and can only offer a promise to try harder in the future. Clearly, however, as you say, just writing an article on a feminist blog has a certain degree of influence. I’ve written articles on this blog before and had only positive responses, so I’ve been led to feel like this is an acceptable place to participate and express my opinions – as long as I do not take a leading or structuring role. If I had got the opposite impression, I certainly would not have written this article. Even now, if there’s a consensus that I shouldn’t participate, I am happy to take my feminist discussions elsewhere.

    If you feel that as a man I should not discuss feminism ANYwhere for fear of impacting feminist discourse (sorry to misinterpret you if this is not your point, I’m not quite clear) then I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree. For two reasons: 1 I’ve had loads of discussions with feminist women which have been productive and in which all involved have felt energised and good about it – or at least conveyed that impression. In rare cases where I’ve felt the opposite, I have ceased participating, without any loss of good faith. 2. I think men in some way or other need to contribute to, if not feminist, then some separate gender-related discourses for progress to be made. If they don’t – if they can only be pro-feminist by their silent actions and passivity – then they are unlikely to feel any need or desire to participate in the general project of gender-related change in the world, in my opinion. But I strongly agree that such male participation does have to be achieved extremely cautiously – there are countless examples where it has resulted in reproduction of patriarchal authority. I do agree that the mere fact of maleness necessarily means that non-structuring discussion is impossible – I don’t see why this should be the case.

    I’d just like to reiterate that this is all opinion, it is not intended to convey any sense of judgment or authority, and is merely undertaken in the spirit of debate and in good faith. As I have said, I only feel enabled to participate here because of positive reactions to it in the past. I’ll set what I feel is a reasonable marker of consensus: if two more feminists other than Lis would like to endorse her position, then I will respectfully never post a comment or article on Gender Agenda again, with no hard feelings. Thanks.

  3. John

    That should be a “do not agree” at the end of the second-last paragraph.

  4. Lis

    If you feel that as a man I should not discuss feminism ANYwhere for fear of impacting feminist discourse (sorry to misinterpret you if this is not your point, I’m not quite clear) then I’m afraid we’ll have to agree to disagree

    I think I’d just say that it’s an enormous risk, and that pro-feminist men are often not best placed to gauge that risk. I think that very cautiously engaging in feminist conversations from a clear understanding of your position as pro-feminist, not feminist, and constantly checking your privilege and being open to checks from that privilege from feminist women, is probably the way to go, making sure that much of your activism is the reflection of and signposting to the political views of other feminist women.

  5. clementineb

    I mostly disagree with Lis, and I can’t see any need to add a pro- before your feminism, John. I thoroughly enjoyed your article, and hope you don’t feel that you shouldn’t write and comment on articles just as legitimately as if you were a woman.

  6. SwynHaf

    My tuppence worth: any emancipatory struggle needs to come from, be lead by, and belong to, whichever oppressed group whose struggle it is. Allies of the oppressed group can and should support the struggle in whichever way the oppressed group believes might be helpful. Participation in any capacity that is not supportive and invited is usurption of the struggle, alienating it from the oppressed group; it’s no longer *their* struggle.

    @John: whilst I wouldn’t say the participation represented by the above article was uninvited, as I’m sure your thoughts have, as you say, been well received here, and it is an open space, I would not say that it is supportive; it is largely critical of woman lead feminism. Personally, I did also find it “sapping” to read, knowing it would lead to another debate about the role of men within feminism, which I’ve almost never encountered without the presence of or compulsion towards sugar-coating women’s grievances and pandering to male anxieties. More importantly, that conversation is one more conversation in a feminist space that is not about advancing women’s emancipatory struggle. We should not be having so many of those.

    • Lis

      > knowing it would lead to another debate about the
      > role of men within feminism, which I’ve almost never
      > encountered without the presence of or compulsion
      > towards sugar-coating women’s grievances and
      > pandering to male anxieties

      You are a prophetess. How could you have known? 😛 Thanks for this comment. 🙂

  7. Fergus

    Whilst I am sensitive to the importance of discourse, I strongly disagree with what comes across as a very exclusive view of feminism/s.

    I agree with SwynHaf that an emancipatory struggle should be led by those seeking emancipation and I completely agree that listening carefully to feminist discourse is crucial to avoid any form of misrepresentation. However, I would disagree with you and say that the subject of male participation is relevant to women’s emancipatory struggle.

    The Civil Rights movement in America openly embraced white support and was stronger for it. Likewise the participation of straight people in the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign has been welcome and beneficial.
    As well as expanding its base of support the very participation of whites and blacks as equals was creating the reality in microcosm they wished to expand to the whole of the United States. I would posit that the same principle applies to feminism.

    You seem to imply men have at best a very limited right to comment on an issue that should be relevant to everybody. How can society acheive equality between genders if feminism can’t acheive it within its own movement?

    • Lis

      Fergus, you seem to be suggesting that I am only advocating a separatist feminism. I am a separatist, certainly, but that’s not what I’m advocating here. I am asking for the accountability of men to women in the feminist movement and against efforts by men to structure the feminist movement and feminist thought. It’s not a request which comes from nowhere; it’s based on observations of what happens if I don’t ask this.

      The reason those checks are necessary is because of the existence of patriarchy and male privilege, and they are in fact what are required for men to participate as “equals”, as you put it, rather than as dominators. It’s a little bit like when you tell the big child who is stronger than everyone else and keeps breaking things that he has to be careful if he wants to play with the others (and sometimes, the reaction is similar too).

  8. Fergus

    Lis, I don’t really understand the analogy as it seems to imply that women are incapable of defending themselves against men in the context of a discussion and the role of an authority figure to police said discussion.

    I find it hard to square how men and women can participate as equals, which I assume is one of the hopes of most feminists, where one group has the automatic and exclusive right to check the other.

    I am not familiar with the separatist literature and I’m sure these are common questions but ones I find interesting and important.

    • Lis

      You’re right that they are common questions, and they’re widely discussed. That should make it possible for you to find the answers you’re looking for, as I’m not willing to go into an extended discussion on the subject beyond repeating that the issue is male privilege.

      • Fergus

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