Review: Men and Feminism

[Shira Tarrant. Men and Feminism. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2009.]

I sometimes find it hard to properly evaluate political books that are intended as introductory. Their goal -- or, at least, the most reasonable articulation of what they can accomplish -- is to stimulate new questions and new conversations among a public that has not previously encountered a particular field of critical ideas. As such, an important priority for such a book is to get people to start reading and keep reading, and to be able to provoke constructive reactions. The point is not to implant some sort of exact copy of a perfect platform in readers' brains -- that's not how people work -- but to get people talking. To a certain extent, then, the exact content is not always the most crucial part of this kind of text-as-intervention. At the same time, the difference between certain real people's real struggles getting seen and illuminated by that content versus them being erased and further marginalized is a big deal -- that's not just those who are already initiated quibbling about details, it's the central question. There are times when these two goals -- being broadly inviting, particularly to people with privilege, and exhibiting radical clarity -- are in tension with one another. I don't accept that this is nearly as broad a phenomenon as it is sometimes portrayed, such as by producers or publishers or editors who are rejecting critical content or content that features the standpoint of women or men of colour or white women, but I think it is still an issue. One outcome of this for me is that I feel pulled to evaluate many introductory books both too harshly and too softly -- both "Hey, this missed X!" and "Relax, it's all about the conversation."

The aim of this particular book is encourage people of all genders to "think more courageously and more deeply about get real about sexuality, power, and gender politics...[and] to speak up when the time is right" [ix]. After reading the book, I think it is fair to say that this broad and admirable stated goal is perhaps in practice a bit more narrowly focused on encouraging young, U.S. American men who identify with or are at least open to vaguely progressive politics to engage with feminist struggle.

The book is organized simply but effectively. It begins with an introduction to feminism and flows into a brief history of feminist struggle with particular attention to contributions from men. Then there is a chapter on masculinity, a chapter on masculine privilege, and finally a chapter on men getting involved and taking action.

There are at least a couple of obvious aspects of the book that make it a bit less interesting for me, but that are really more features than bugs. It is, as I've already indicated, an introductory book. People who have spent a lot of time reading and talking and thinking about feminism and about masculinity are unlikely to encounter much that is new to them. However, you still might encounter new ways of presenting important arguments and information -- this book's greatest strength, I think, is that within the bounds created by the political limitations discussed below it actually does a really good job of articulating sophisticated ideas in accessible ways. Another drawback for me is how completely U.S.-centric it is. In some ways this is a minor annoyance that is just par for the course if you are reading books about social movements in Canada, but it does feed in to more important problems as well.

One of the most concerning aspects of this book for me is its optimism. I definitely agree that men can and must get involved in struggles around gender, and I agree that it is not just an idle wish but something that can actually happen in a much more significant way than it does now. But it feels to me that this book vastly underestimates the challenges, and because it underestimates their significance it does not really offer advice for how to address them head-on.

A fairly trivial example of this is terminology. This book accepts labels like "pro-feminist" and "feminist ally" but it puts quite a lot of ink into encouraging men to think of themselves as simply "feminist." Personally, I tend to prefer "pro-feminist," though I don't get tied up in knots about it. I agree with the points made by the book (and to me by feminist friends at different times) that our politics must reject essentialism, and they must build political alliance based on actual shared politics and shared practices rather than on the assumptions about shared experience that are built into the static and reified notion of "identity." However, I am unwilling to completely reject the relevance of experience, as long as it is understood in a dynamic and fluid way. Even given that patriarchy harms men too, and even given that there is immense diversity (much of it related to other axes of privilege and oppression) within the experiences of masculinity and femininity, I still think that our politics as practices are a complicated product of dynamic interaction among our politics as series of statements and our experiences of privilege and oppression in a given area. It therefore makes political sense to me to have some kind of distinction between those who struggle in a given area in which they are predominantly privileged, and those who struggle in a given area in which they are within the broad spectrum of degrees and kinds of oppression.

However, the quibbles about labelling, though they have political content, fall into the category of things that do not really matter that much when you are trying to start conversations. I was a bit more concerned, though, that the book's to-me simplistic anti-essentialism and its to-me excessive optimism lead it to encourage men, at multiple points, to volunteer in feminist organizations responding on the front lines to violence against women. I agree that men need to be active in opposing male violence -- that is some of the most important work men can do to support women's struggles, I think -- but I am flabbergasted by the idea that the best way for us to do so is in that kind of organization. I mean, as far as I know, most such organizations in Canada don't allow men to volunteer -- there is some conflict within the sector about trans people, but it is pretty settled, I think, that cis-guys can best contribute to feminist struggle in other ways.

The most troubling element of the book's optimism, though, is its significant underemphasis on how hard such work will be. Not necessarily for the men, but for already-politicized women. People with privilege screw up around their privilege. All the time. I know this because I do it. You can probably find about a million posts out there on the interwebs by people who experience particular forms of oppression venting their hurt and rage at some supposed ally screwing up hurtfully yet again and responding poorly to being called on it. Obviously not encouraging men to think about masculinity and to contribute to feminist struggle is not an answer to that problem, and getting men engaged and active is probably one part of the necessary work to ease that burden, especially in the longer run. But the predictability of harm done by privileged allies is a huge issue, and the book does not deal with it even close to adequately.

The political limitations of the book probably have a similar shape in a number of areas. I am probably not spotting all of them, and I will talk only about two of the more obvious ones: race and class. In general, I think these limitations flow from a desire to conform closely enough to the U.S. political mainstream, and perhaps more particularly the U.S. progressive mainstream (which itself already gets painted as unbearably radical by many on corporate news outlets), that significant numbers of not-already-radical young men will feel comfortable engaging with it. I suspect these limitations also flow from the fact that the author is part of that progressive political culture, which means that the accommodation in the last sentence may often not have been all that conscious.

The book, in lots of ways, works hard to be attentive to women and men of colour, from the graphic on the front to the people profiled in the call-out boxes to the examples cited in the text. At the same time -- and I'm sure other eyes could do a more rigorous job of unearthing this than me -- I had the sense of anti-racist politics in the book playing a sort of game of hide-and-seek in the way that they do in mainstream U.S. progressive politics as a whole -- visible here, absent there. For instance, women of colour feminism and its emphasis on intersectionality was discussed, but was not placed at the centre of the book. Historical and contemporary limitations of mainstream feminism when it comes to race were sometimes mentioned, but usually in a very understated way. The chapter on feminist history and contributions to it by men began not with an acknowledgment that the first feminist actions in North America were the many resistances to colonization by indigenous women but with the oh-so-colonial moment of the founding of the U.S. state and the attempt by the wife of one of the framers of the U.S. Constitution to get women's rights included. As well, there is no mention of the very energetic and radical contemporary feminisms centred around women of colour involved Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, its member organizations, and its supporters.

Class issues were marginalized quite thoroughly, particularly the historical relationship between struggles against patriarchy and struggles against capitalism. Partly, I think, this is because that relationship has been historically quite weak in the United States and because the contemporary progressive environment is not conducive to treating anti-capitalist politics seriously. In the book, poverty got mentioned, and some of the global aspects of neoliberalism and struggles against it got mentioned -- including struggles against sweatshops in the so-called Third World as inherently a part of feminist struggle, for instance. But the idea that thinking seriously about women's oppression requires thinking seriously about capital was raised and dismissed only in a call-out box called "Feminism and German Socialism" that talked about the work of Friedrich Engels and August Bebel in supporting women's struggles. The box concludes with a fairly dismissive paragraph that points to some of the personal limitations of these men and political limitations of their work, as well as the limited accomplishments around gender of the states that existed in the 20th century and claimed the label of "socialist." The fact that these observations are largely true in their specifics obscures the larger and inaccurate implicit message to the reader that thinking critically about patriarchal social relations and struggles against them does not require thinking critically about relations of production and struggles against them. Even the choice to use these two men as the only mention of anti-capitalist feminisms is a politically weird choice given the fascinating recent work being done in this area (mostly not in the U.S.), and seems designed to keep such politics marginal to the text. (The reluctance to question capitalist and liberal-democratic commonsense is highlited when you contrast this call-out box to the one that talks about John Stuart Mill, whose personal failings around gender remain unmentioned, as does his gross political and intellectual support of colonization and empire, with all of the horrendous impacts those had on women.)

Of course, every text is a limited tool, and I have a feeling that this one is useful for many purposes, as long as its limitations are kept in mind. As I said, it does some things very well, and I'm sure has had success in prompting some young men to think about things they would otherwise have ignored. That's an important accomplishment.

My final thoughts are in response to the chapter on taking action. The suggestions made in the chapter (and those possibilities left in silence) reflect just as much as the rest of the book the U.S.-centrism and the quite specific understanding of useful and effective politics. Even given those limitations and silences, a lot of what the book recommends is very useful, from its suggestions for working against male violence to its ideas for establishing more equitable relationship practices to its strong message to "refuse to be a bystander" when something oppressive is happening nearby. Still, it left me wanting material that speaks more specifically to my own realities -- material that probes crucial questions in much greater depth, such as the relationships between masculinity and sexuality; material that talks about taking feminist and pro-feminist action in ways relevant to people like me who ground ourselves in social movement spaces that are largely not institutionalized; material that talks about applying a feminist lens to group process; material that gives grounded, North American examples of feminist anti-neoliberal struggle (and anti-neoliberal feminist struggle); and lots of other things.

Reprinted with permission from Scott Neigh's blog, A Canadian Lefty in Occupied Land.