“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a door mat or a prostitute” - Rebecca West
I have never really been able to find out precisely what feminism is either. I’m inclined to think this is because it isn’t ‘one thing’, any more than being a woman is. Personally, I like to think of feminism in its most simple terms – that people defining as women should experience the same rights as people defining as men. Thus I can sometimes find it difficult to understand why anyone would not define as a feminist. Yet, it would be at the very least inflammatory for many to suggest that the antonym of ‘feminism’ is ‘sexism’. Of course it’s pretty obvious why the majority of feminists are women, but it’s interesting to consider why many men do not identify as feminists (other than simple lack of awareness, or sad, persistent misogyny) and indeed, whether they can.
Photograph credit: Fawcett society
It has been argued that being a feminist is more than an intellectual agreement with a set of principles that then influence a person’s behaviour. It has been argued that having not lived a woman’s experiences, and/or the fact that men possess an inescapable degree of social privilege makes it impossible for men to truly identify with female struggles. Some also consider that for a man to take the label of feminist allows for the co-opting of a feminist identity, potentially resulting in less power for women themselves and the silencing of female voices. This has led to some men taking on the moniker of ‘profeminist’- agreement with feminist goals and politics, without claiming inclusion within the group of ‘feminist’ themselves.
Problems with this arise in several ways. Firstly, this understanding rests entirely on a binary model of gender with no obvious way to resolve the inclusion or exclusion of those who exist outside of this framework, or have moved transitioned from one group to another. Trans men have often lacked male privilege and have experienced a ‘female’ narrative based on how they have been treated before transition, yet do not identify as female. Likewise trans women will be experiencing a female narrative after transition, but have also arguably been privy to male privilege at some point in their lives. This reduces acceptability into the group of ‘feminist’ based on both bodies and on how gender is expressed (that is, whether one appears adequately ‘male’ or ‘female’ to ‘pass’) which is clearly problematic as infertile women, ‘masculine’ women, and indeed any other variation one cares to mention does not in any way invalidate their membership of the identity category.
One can call into question whether this argument of needing to have direct experience of ‘a woman’s narrative’ is indeed valid, as what is a woman’s narrative? As the feminist writer bell hooks (deliberately not capitalised) points out that “the insistence on a “women only” feminist movement and a virulent anti-male stance reflected the race and class background of participants”, that whilst bourgeoisie white women experience sexism, they still retain more social privilege and particularly in historical contexts would be less likely to be exploited than poor, uneducated non-white men. To attempt to simplify narratives such that the intersectionality of race, class, and sexuality aren’t considered to shape the idiosyncrasies of identity experience may only serve to alienate various (poor, non-white, etc.) women from such a feminist movement. A blanket-exclusion of men also implies that experience of male privilege by men is a homogeneous thing, as is enforcement of patriarchal systems, both of which are (hopefully) patently untrue. Men (and sometimes, women) can repress and marginalise men, too. Power is sourced in more than sex.
An interesting historical perspective can be considered when examining the quest for women’s rights and recognition before feminism was established as a term or identity. The philosopher John Stuart Mill co-published the paper ‘The Subjection of Women’ with his wife in 1869. His empathy, intentions, and actions were not invalidated by his gendered position. Likewise the acts of the male abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Lenox Remond, Nathanial P. Rogers, and Henry Stanton to sit silently with the women (who were forbidden to speak) at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1849 was a clear refusal to accept this element of male privilege, challenging the patriarchy in a way that is not dependent on gendered identities or bodies of the social actors.
Parker Pillsbury, 1809-1898. Pillsbury was another important early male feminist, who co-edited the women’s rights newsletter ‘The Revolution’, founded in 1868 with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
There also exists the problem that the exclusion of men from the group ‘feminist’ places the tasks of this movement as an exclusively feminine task, arguably a hypocritically sexist circumstance. This argument clearly cannot be extended to the occupation of women-only spaces by men, as marginalised and oppressed groups have a requirement of, and a right to safe spaces. However, men certainly have at least as much responsibility in battling sexism and patriarchal structures as women, and to attempt to do this in a political environment with an extremely dubious (as race relations have taught us) ‘separate but equal’ policy, does not best serve either group.
The distinction then, between profeminism (or pro-feminism) and feminism is a construct that arguably echoes an inflexibility regarding the nebulous nature of gendered identities, as well as the interplay that exists between different facets of an individual’s personal, social identity. The complexities that exist in then grappling with the differences in stance that various interpretations of feminism can hold are another question entirely. However, I am proud to call myself a feminist, and accept with the use of that label the social reactions and judgements that follow.