It is a precarious question, to ask what role men have to play in the feminist movement, and to men and women alike the answer is commonly agreed upon. They don’t have one.
For the “male feminist” (a term that’s best avoided), engaging with feminism, anti-violence and patriarchal structures is not straightforward. No matter who you’re in conversation with, you should keep any opinion on you have on feminist issues to yourself. In general, a man discussing gender equality looks like ‘mansplaining’ to a woman and men will see you as a ‘simp’.
In other words, you’re either met with resistance from men and suspicion or skepticism from women. And, in any case, why would feminists allow men to take over spaces that were created exclusively for women, particularly considering that we’re beneficiaries of the systems of patriarchy that they loathe?
I have less sympathy for men, but I can understand why they meet challenges over their sexism, misogyny, and violence with resistance and ridicule when they’re called out. You’re advocating for something that threatens their privileged position in the world – and you look weak and timid.
“There is often concern among women and women’s organizations about men’s involvement. Some fear that attempts to engage men will distract from the primary task of empowering women, or that ‘men will take over’ women-led actions and campaigns,” Research Fellow at the Department of Sociology at Durham University, Sandy Ruxton, writes for CIDSE.
“For men there are significant obstacles for them in doing so. Personal challenges may include lack of awareness of the issues, resistance or hostility from other men, and difficulties in finding like-minded, supportive men. More broadly, there may be a lack of opportunities for men to get involved, criticism and suspicion from some women’s organisations, cultural and faith-based constraints, and lack of funding for relevant projects.”
A different perspective
In a survey of men sympathetic to the feminist movement, Ruxton found that they mostly said that they came to develop their support for Women’s Rights through a process, rather than through some kind of epiphany and were tracing “their involvement through various influences and pathways in their child and adult lives. Most often it was a general awareness and activism around anti-sexism that came first, sometimes alongside an increasing involvement in left politics.”
Furthermore, there is no doubt that men are also, in their own way, victims to patriarchal norms and those surveyed cited “a lack of positive male influences when growing up, often because of absent or disengaged male family members”, and a sentiment among the “men [who] felt they didn’t ‘fit in’ while growing up, generally either because they didn’t like sports or were gay” as some of the negative effects that they experienced as part of their increase awareness of gender inequality.
In short, gender norms that dictate that men should be “tough”, that they shouldn’t express their emotions or cry and a continued weight of expectation to be successful in their careers and financially, even while there are more women are in the workplace than ever before. What this all leads to is an epidemic of depression among men, which is commonly manifested in active resistance to feminism. Why? Men feel aggrieved – like the tables have turned, that feminism is anti-Men’s Rights. And, so called Men’s Rights activist will raise awareness about mental health – something that is not unreasonable.
In Europe, for example, suicide rates are four times higher among men, compared to women, it’s 3.6 times higher in the Americas, 1.5 times higher in South East Asia and 2.2 times higher in Africa. Globally, men are 80% more likely to commit suicide than women, and this is no doubt a manifestation of patriarchal structures.
What can be done?
As I said before, more and more boys feel that there’s a lack of positive male influence in their lives, that they aren’t allowed to express their emotions, because it makes them look weak, AND they feel like feminist movements are threats to the social status that has come to define them. So what can we do about it? I’ve got a few suggestions:
- Get rid of the stigma surrounding “male feminism”. In fact, stop using the word “male feminist” altogether. It just feels dirty and sounds pejorative. It carries bad connotations about men that are simply “advocates for gender equality” (which is a mouthful, but more accurate and just sounds better. By making the discourse sound more positive. By making the fight against the patriarchy not only a Women’s Rights issue, but a Men’s Rights issue as well. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
- It’s fair to say that men shouldn’t take over spaces reserved for women and it’s probably best to simply support the feminist movement, without necessarily playing an active role in it. Women know what women want and they will have a far easier job to do if their efforts aren’t met with resistance. We men can do the bare minimum and just do nothing.
- If you feel compelled to play an active role because you really want to be involved in making the world a better place with genuine equality, where men and women operate in harmony to tear the patriarchy apart, focus on how the patriarchy affects men. Encourage men to play a more active role in childcare; make father’s playing active roles in their kids’ lives the norm, not the exception to the rule. Choose to value men for more than their ability to provide. Give them room to be vulnerable and be an emotional outlet. Too many men keep their problems to themselves and it manifests in their propensity to suffer from mental health issues and all it takes is for you to be a friends and listen.
What it all boils down to is the fact that men do have a role to play in feminism… just not in the way that one may think. It is possible for feminism to be embraced by men so the world shifts towards more co-operative and equal relationships and friendships, as well as a greater sharing of care and work responsibilities. And as a consequence it will also go a long way towards reducing gender based violence.
You don’t have to call yourself a ‘feminist’ – you just have to stand for equal rights. And, even dismantling the patriarchy in by helping your fellow men and your own sons will go a long way towards breaking the toxic cycle that has claimed so many victims of both sexes. Emotionally stable and mentally healthy men will create a solid foundation that can serve as a breeding ground on which the feminist movement can thrive and perhaps one day we can achieve that seemingly elusive dream of gender equality.