Men’s roles in achieving gender justice

Men’s lives have changed in substantial ways over the past three decades. They have changed in the context of broader upheavals in gender relations and sexual relations, prompted particularly by the women’s movements and feminisms. There are at least four key areas of change. The legitimacy of men’s monopoly of political and institutional power has weakened dramatically. The gendered organisation of paid work has been disrupted. Public alternatives to heterosexuality have emerged. And new images of alternative masculine identity are evident.

I use the word “masculinity” to refer to the meanings given to being male in any particular context or society, and to the social organisation of the lives of men. Some traditional forms of masculinity — based on being emotionally shut-down, dominating others, work-obsessed and aggressive — are often seen now as obsolete, unhealthy and indeed downright oppressive.

Some commentators make the simplistic claim therefore that men are in ‘crisis’. Certainly there are some men who are in crisis. Think of the likely experience of a 45-year-old heterosexual man who has just been divorced, a young gay man in high school or in a country town, an Aboriginal man who’s gone to jail after assaulting another man who ‘looked at his woman’, or a working-class man who is long-term unemployed. In each case, this man’s crisis has something to do with masculinity – with the patterns of belief and behaviour associated with being male. But these crises also have to do with other social divisions, other forms of social differentiation, such as race, class, sexuality and age.

I do not want to give you the impression that men in general are suffering in the context of shifting gender relations, because we are not. Many men are flourishing. We are enjoying having more trusting, respectful and egalitarian relationships with our wives and partners, having greater connections with female and male friends, and being involved fathers to our babies and children. Men show increased support for women’s paid work outside the home; young men are taking greater responsibility for contraception and safe sex; there is a decline in men’s agreement with myths about domestic violence; and there is increased attention to the quality of fathering.

However, I want to sound three notes of caution. First, images of change may not match the reality. The best example is parenting and domestic work. There has been a very noticeable shift in our images and ideas about fatherhood, but the widespread belief that fathers are significantly more involved with their children and with domestic work is simply not true.

Second, few men have challenged gender inequalities.

Third, the Federal Liberal government has been rolling back some of the gains made by the women’s movements, reasserting traditional patriarchal masculinity through its economic and family policies. Things weren’t that great under Labor either. And “men’s rights” and “fathers’ rights” groups are having important successes in changing family law to increase men’s power in families and over wives, ex-wives and children.

Gender relations in Australia show three key features, and keeping these in mind is vital when considering “men’s issues” and men’s role in gender justice. First, “Men, as a group, enjoy institutional privileges at the expense of women, as a group.” (Messner, 1997: 5) There is a gap between the reality of gender injustice and men’s awareness of this injustice, and this gap is typical to systems of power and oppression. Second, men pay some heavy costs under the current gender order, and they are limited (but not oppressed) by the unattainable ideals and constricting social relations of masculinity. Third, there are differences and inequalities among women and among men, and men of different backgrounds simply don’t have the same access to social resources and social status.

There are three principles which are fundamental in engaging with men and men’s issues, and each corresponds to one of the features of gender relations I’ve outlined (Flood, 1993–94). First, to be gender-just is to be guided by principles of equity and social justice. It is to be critical of those aspects of men’s behaviour, constructions of masculinity, and gender relations which are harmful to women or children (and indeed to men themselves). It is to challenge women’s oppression, sexism and gender injustice. Other terms one could use are “profeminist” and “anti-sexist”.

Second, to be male-positive is to believe that men can change, to support efforts at positive change, to recognise the positive aspects of masculinity, and to be oriented towards enhancing men’s lives.

Third, any approach to men’s issues acknowledge both commonalities and diversities in the lives of men, accepting the feminist insight that gender intersects with race, class, sexuality, and so on.

I move now to the central question of this session: what is men’s role in achieving gender justice? First of all, men are part of the problem, but they are also part of the solution. For whatever aspect of gender inequality we consider —violence against women, inequalities in political power, the division of paid and unpaid work, oppressive and degrading cultural imagery — men’s behaviours, attitudes, identities and relations are part of the problem, part of what sustains and makes up these inequalities.

Men are therefore necessarily also part of the solution. If men do not change, then gender justice is simply impossible. In fact, the notion that it is desirable and practical to involve men in the movements towards gender justice is rapidly becoming institutionalized in the philosophies and programmes of international organizations such as UNICEF, the UNDP and the World Health Organization, particularly in the areas of family planning and reproductive health, violence, poverty and development, and HIV/AIDS.

We should be heartened by the fact that men have shown that they can support feminism and gender justice, both in their personal lives and through organised activism. The example with which I’m most familiar is men’s activism against men’s violence, which in Australia is represented primarily by Men Against Sexual Assault. Small numbers of men have also taken up profeminist agendas in men’s health, boys’ education, and fathering. Men’s organised and public support for gender justice has historical precedents in support for women’s suffrage and equality by men’s groups in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Strauss, 1982; Kimmel and Mosmiller, 1992; John and Eustance, 1997).

Men’s anti-violence groups are one expression of a wider network of profeminist men’s activism, represented for example by the National Organization of Men Against Sexism (NOMAS) in the U.S.A., the European Profeminist Men’s Network, and the Men For Change Network in the United Kingdom. While some campaigns such as the White Ribbon Campaign achieve large numbers, I should caution though that the numbers of men directly involved in profeminist men’s activism is small.

Men’s collective mobilizations on gender issues are a delicate form of political activity, as they involve the mobilization of members of a privileged group in order to undermine that same privilege. The same issues arise when white people try to do something about racism or heterosexuals do something about homophobia.

Most if not all contemporary societies are characterized by men’s institutional privilege (Messner, 1997: 5), such that men in general receive a ‘patriarchal dividend’, a ‘payoff’, from gendered structures of inequality (Connell, 1995: 79–82). The danger therefore is that by mobilising men collectively as men and thus drawing on their shared interests, activists will inadvertently entrench gender privilege (ibid: 234–238). This potential has been realized among the ‘men’s rights’ and ‘fathers’ rights’ groups in the men’s movements, in that this wing of the movements is energetically engaged in an anti-women and anti-feminist backlash (Flood, 1997; 1998). While the men’s movement has a small profeminist wing, most of the movement and most public attention to “men’s issues” shares a “men’s liberation” perspective. Promoted particularly by Steve Biddulph, this focuses on the ways in which men are limited or harmed, and it very easily slides into the reactionary claims that men are oppressed as much as women or even by women, women and feminism are to blame, and men are now the real victims.

It is not surprising therefore that some women are nervous about men’s participation in gender issues.

However, men can be and are motivated by interests other than those associated with gender privilege. There are important resources in men’s lives for gender justice. Through their loyalty and closeness to particular women — a mother, a partner, a friend, a sister, a daughter — some men come to an intimate understanding of the injustices suffered by women and the need for men to take action. Some men’s advocacy is grounded in other forms of principled political activism, such as economic justice, pacifism, green issues or queer politics. Others become involved through dealing with their own experience of sexual violence or sexual abuse from other men and sometime women, perhaps as children or teenagers (Stoltenberg, 1990: 11–12). Men’s desires to be trusted, loved and respected and to be good husbands and fathers are further resources.

Men have much to gain from ending gender inequality. Feminism offers men the possibility of freedom from a way of life that has been isolating, violent, obsessively competitive, emotionally shut down and physically unhealthy. Yes, it demands that men let go of their unfair privileges too, but outside a patriarchal worldview this is a small price to pay for the promise of more trusting, honest, pleasurable and fair relations with women and with children.

If men are to be effective participants in action to achieve gender equality, they will have to do so in partnership with women. Cross-gender partnerships and alliances are the crucial foundation of men’s involvement in gender justice. Partnerships with women and women’s groups are critical in three ways. First, they enable men to learn from existing efforts and scholarship rather than ‘reinventing the wheel’. Second, they lessen the risk that men will collude in or be complicit with dominant and oppressive forms of masculinity. Third, they are a powerful and practical demonstration of men’s and women’s shared interest in democratic and peaceful gender relations. Women and men are in this together, and the reconstruction of gender requires our shared commitment and involvement.

Men’s partnerships with women are an inspiring example of cross-gender collaboration, a form of activism which reaches across and transforms gender inequalities.

Profeminist men typically conduct their efforts in alliance with women and women’s organisations. Ideally, they consult with women’s groups, do not compete for funding or other resources, and build strong lines of communication and trust (Funk, 1993: 125–126, 132–134).

Responses to men’s involvement in gender issues are themselves shaped by patriarchal privilege. First, men’s groups receive greater media attention and interest than similar groups of women (Luxton, 1993: 368). This is partly the result of the former’s novelty, but it is also a function of the status and cultural legitimacy granted to men’s voices in general. Second, men acting for gender justice receive praise and credit (especially from women) which is often out of proportion to their efforts. Any positive action by men may be seen as gratifying in the face of other men’s apathy about and complicity in sexism. Third, men are able to draw on institutional privilege to attract levels of support and funding rarely granted to women (Landsberg, 2000: 15). This can of course be turned to strategic advantage.

Men have a critical role to play in achieving equality. Their involvement must be guided by gender justice and gender partnership, as these principles are integral to men’s ability to work with women in cultivating a lasting legacy of equality.


Keynote address to Australian Women Speak: Inaugural National Women’s Conference, 26–28 August 2001, Canberra.


References cited

Cameron, Margaret (2000) ‘Young men and Violence Prevention’, Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice No. 154, Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.

Connell, R.W. (1995) Masculinities. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Flood, Michael (1993–94) ‘3 principles for men’, XY: Men, sex, politics 3.4, Summer

Flood, Michael (1997) ‘Responding to Men’s Rights’, XY: Men, sex, politics 7.2, Spring.

Flood, Michael (1998) ‘Men’s Movements’, Community Quarterly No. 46, June.

Funk, Rus Ervin (1993) Stopping Rape: A challenge for men. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers.

Hayward, Ruth F. (1999) ‘Needed: A new model of masculinity to stop violence against girls and women’, WHO Global Symposium on Violence and Health, 12–15 October, Kobe, Japan.

John, Angela V. and Eustance, Claire (1997) (eds) The Men’s Share?: Masculinities, male support and Women’s Suffrage in Britain, 1890–1920. London: Routledge.

Kimmel, Michael S. (1993) ‘Clarence, William, Iron Mike, Tailhook, Senator Packwood, Spur Posse, Magic… and us’, in Buchwald, Emilie, Fletcher, Pamela and Roth, Martha (eds) Transforming a Rape Culture. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions.

Kimmel, Michael S. and Mosmiller, Thomas E. (1992) Against the Tide: Pro-feminist men in the United States, 1776–1990. Boston: Beacon Press.

Landsberg, Michele (2000) ‘Canadian Feminists’ Uneasy Alliance with Men Challenging Violence’, Voice Male Spring (Men’s Resource Centre of Western Massachusetts).

Luxton, Meg (1993) ‘Dreams and Dilemmas: Feminist musings on ‘The Man Question’, in Haddad, Tony (ed) Men and Masculinities: A critical anthology. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.

Messner, Michael A. (1997) Politics of Masculinities: Men in movements. University of Southern California: Sage Publications.

Stoltenberg, John (1990) Refusing To Be a Man: Essays on sex and justice. CA & Suffolk: Fontana/Collins.

Strauss, Sylvia (1982) “Traitors to the Masculine Cause”: The men’s campaigns for women’s rights. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Further reading on…

Note: Also see the references above. All pieces by Michael Flood are available from him directly. See XY magazine’s website (below) for copies of any pieces from XY. See The Men’s Bibliography (below) for a comprehensive list of works on men, masculinities and sexualities.)

Profeminist men and men’s relation to feminism

Digby, Tom (ed) 1998 Men doing feminism, New York & London: Routledge

Flood, Michael 1999 “Introducing pro-feminism”, URL:

Pease, Bob 2000 Recreating Men: Postmodern masculinity politics, London: Sage

Men’s anti-violence activism

Flood, Michael 2001 (forthcoming) “Men Stopping Violence: Men’s collective anti-violence activism and the struggle for gender justice”, Development, Special Issue: Violence against Women and the Culture of Masculinity, Vol. 44 No. 3

Fuller, Bob and Fisher, Stephen (1998) ‘A Decade of Profeminist Activism: A brief history of Men Against Sexual Assault’, Community Quarterly No. 46, June.

Kaufman, Michael (1997) ‘Working With Men and Boys to Challenge Sexism and End Men’s Violence’, UNESCO Expert Group Meeting ‘Male Roles and Masculinities in the Perspective of a Culture of Peace’, Oslo, Norway, 24–28 September.

Pease, Bob (1997) Men and sexual politics: Towards a profeminist practice, Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications

Pringle, Keith 1995 Men, masculinities and social welfare, London: UCL Press

Men, men’s issues and masculinities

The Men’s Bibliography:

XY magazine: