Man-friendly Feminism?

Why is it that the phrase ‘male feminist’ strikes us as implausible as ‘vegan butcher’? Even for men who support human rights and equality, mentioning feminism can resemble the arrival of Marilyn Manson at a Methodist prayer meeting. “All men are rapists” and other radical hissings will often be the first thing the stereotypical idea of ‘feminism’ calls to mind. In fact a misquote from second wave feminist Susan Brownmiller, this is still one of the most commonly touted ‘facts’ about the movement. The belief that feminists are ‘man-haters’ is another popular retort when someone drops the ‘f-bomb’. One young feminist, so sick of this reaction, was recently moved to set up the now very popular facebook group “Yes I’m a feminist. No I don’t hate men”. Radical feminism was a marginal strand even in the seventies. But now, when such ideas are thinner on the ground than ever, many men still regard feminism as an odious political carbuncle.

The mainstream media has much to answer for when it comes to misguiding the public about the true character of feminism. Their frenzied vilification overlooks the enduring inequalities facing women; that they still earn on average 20% less than men for doing that same job; that at 19.5% of all MPs, we are going backwards in terms of female political representation; that violence is responsible for more death and disability in women than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents or war.

Strangely unsold on the belief that the pursuit of female rights amounts to militant man-hating, there are a small minority of men speaking out. The White Ribbon Campaign (WRC) is a male-led charity that seeks to confront violence against women in the UK. I asked Director Chris Green about stepping into what has traditionally been the terrain of female activists: “More and more people are very supportive of men being involved. There is an appreciation that men have an important role to play in taking action against sexism and inequality”.

But what about groups such as the London Feminist Network who, alongside organising mixed gender events, describe themselves as “women only”? Criticism has gathered around this term and the implications it carries for the transgender community, who undoubtedly experience misogyny at its most savage. As if pre-empting the charge of being man-haters, they explain their women-only stance on their website: “We believe it is vital that women have safe and supportive space where we can work together”.

Jon Waters from the London Pro Feminist Men’s Group (LPMG) believes he has been privy to the reason women meet alone: “Men can be incredibly imposing, trying to dominate the conversation. There are those who are very well intentioned but there are also those who represent a backlash against the gains of feminism, and just want to talk about men’s rights”. Jon Waters and Chris Green agree that women only spaces are important in feminism. They also say that it is very rare women criticise them for their involvement.

Interestingly enough, it is the men I spoke to who urged caution when describing themselves as feminist. Some women have refuted men’s right to describe themselves as such because they believe the term can only apply to women. However, several activists I spoke to thought men should be encouraged to call themselves feminist. Sally Campbell from the Fawcett Society said “if men wish to make a stance for equality by calling themselves feminist, then we’re happy to have them on board”. A few years ago they launched a PR campaign which photographed famous people wearing a T-shirt reading “this is what a feminist looks like”. Among these celebs were high profile men such as Bill Bailey and Adrian Edmondson. The campaign made a powerful statement about the potential of men to promote the feminist agenda.

Sarah, a young Leeds- based feminist I spoke to believes this women-only stance sends out the wrong message: “As women it is our responsibility to educate our brothers, lovers, fathers, friends and sons. Men need to be brought on board so they can understand that they have certain advantages and privileges purely on the basis of their biological sex. This will never be achieved by groups that are women-only. Men’s involvement should be actively encouraged”.

Whether or not you believe in women-only spaces within feminism, it is hard to deny that when it comes to the movement for gender equality, men are most notable by their absence. The London Feminist Network is unlikely to be descended upon by a swarm of pro-feminist men hell-bent on discussing the scourges of patriarchy. When you consider the history of people campaigning for right’s beyond their own, it does not follow that men should be turned off just because they are not direct beneficiaries of feminism. As Chris Green from the WRC points out, charities such as Amnesty International and Oxfam enjoy wide support across the sexes. But when it comes to the rights of specifically women, male involvement dwindles dramatically.

Chris Green sees this lack of male interest as a huge problem in the campaign against gender based violence. “When I give talks, men are only ever a tiny minority in the audience. They are incredibly reluctant to discuss these issues”. That men desperately need to start talking about issues like rape and domestic violence is one of the central messages of the WRC. Groups like this and the LPMG are exceptional because they are in such a minority. Chris Green explains “I am often uncomfortable with the disproportionate praise we receive. It just points to how few men are willing to confront the issues”. Despite the recognition WRC have received, the role of men in gender activism is still a novelty. Their work was praised by the last Government but public funding has continued to elude them. The scope of the charity therefore remains sorely limited.

Jon Waters and Chris Green agree that there is a massive stigma attached to men who stand up for women’s rights. The accusation that they have betrayed their gender or been hypnotised by man-hating propaganda is likely to follow. It may be macho to physically defend a woman but to speak out against the wide spread violence and discrimination women face is unlikely to win kudos in male peer groups.

Even for men who wouldn’t dream of buying Nuts magazine or listing Danny Dyer amongst their heroes, there is an over riding reluctance to discuss gender inequality. The tendency is to view gender differences as the inescapable product of biology. Jon Waters believes that men “seriously need to start taking certain features of masculinity to task; the inability to express emotions, the ingrained acceptance of violence”. Chris Green concurs; “although there are some great programmes working with perpetrators of abuse, there is nothing challenging the underlying culture of male violence”.

Lad’s mags and pornography are now intrinsic to mainstream culture. Whatever you might think about the impact of this on young males, there is now very little in this culture that challenges female objectification or the darker implications of the sex industry. The voice of dissent is quieter than ever. And whilst the tide of internet porn is a trend very unlikely to ever be reversed, this dissent would allow boys to develop more balanced attitudes to women and sex. The values of publications like Nuts and Zoo have fed an environment where young people are less willing than ever to consider the dehumanization of women. Chris Green sees this as WRC’s greatest challenge: “We need to work at this cultural level to challenge peer pressure which glorifies violence and the objectification of women. We want to create positive role models who respect women and speak out against abuse so young men can develop more rounded attitudes”.

If the ‘new man’ with his exploration of his feminine side ever really existed, his reign was short. The new lad is among us with renewed vigour. Look at brands such as Yorkie and McCoy and you see men eager to define their masculinity in rigid opposition to femininity. The renaissance of these fixed gender myths which can be pandered to at the lowest common denominator has been a triumph for advertisers everywhere.

It is likely men remain attached to such myths because they understand they are intrinsic to male dominance. Men need to be encouraged to see how these myths not only translate to violence and objectification for women but also trap them in limiting and undermining stereotypes.

Pointing to these cul-de-sacs of masculinity, Jon Waters suggests that patriarchy is in fact a system which devalues us all. Male on male violence for instance is a phenomenon borne more out of male codes of courage and respect than it is man’s pre-disposition to violence. And with its celebration of prowess, strength and stoicism, patriarchy holds men under its grip in a way that they are often very unwilling to question. These apparent truths govern the way many peer groups operate. Deviation is scorned with zeal. Several male friends have spoken to me about how insulted and inhibited they feel by the myth of the unfaltering male libido. Whether they would express the same sentiment to a group of male friends is another question entirely.

Jon Waters believes that under the heading ‘pro-feminist’, men have a distinct remit which is theirs’ to address, namely the negative aspects of masculinity. “Men should explore male violence and control and how it manifests in things like domestic abuse and rape”. He believes that pro feminism and feminism are best viewed as movements with a slightly different focus. This strikes me as a powerful template which allows women and men to work together towards equality.

More groups like the WRC are urgently needed to demonstrate to men their role in ending gender oppression. And if we are going to promote the wider relevance of the feminist agenda, campaigns like Fawcett’s ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ will be needed to bring about a sea change in men’s attitudes. In the words of Fawcett “the movement for women’s rights [is] part of the wider campaign for human rights and we believe that men need to be part of the campaign for gender equality”. Because when two women die every week in England and Wales at the hands of their current or former partner, when men can rape with very little threat of being brought to justice, it is not just women’s humanity that is at stake. It is the humanity of our whole society.

Find out more about the author of this article, Heather Kennedy, here.

(Photograph taken at ‘Suck My Left One’ club night, organised by Leeds based feminist group Manifesta)

Reprinted with permission from Uplift magazine.