“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.
Comments on: "Can a man be a feminist?" (3)
Chris P directed me to your blog, and it’s absolutely incredible. I especially loved this post about feminism – really made me think, because often now in “social justice” circles the dominant narrative is “trans men always had male privilege even when not passing or transitioning and trans women never had it even if they transitioned late in life”, which makes it hard to engage with these issues without being seen as a privilege denier, so thank you for this
Thank you so much! Very high praise… My understanding of feminism and feminist theory of course has a long way to go, and quite probably always will do. Whilst I still stand by this argument I perhaps have more awareness now of its risk of erasing those women who may radically disagree with what I’ve said. Ultimately as someone who certainly experiences male privilege, I feel it is my responsibility to listen to and support women in the pursuit of equality and safety to the best of my ability.
I suppose I have little knowledge of or understanding about social justice circles, though without having done any further reading on what you’ve said, I find the notion of “trans men always [having] had male privilege even when not passing or transitioning and trans women never [having] had it even if they transitioned late in life” as non-intuitive at best, and tentatively I would describe this as erasing of a complex yet important part of many trans narratives. I would suggest that as privilege is born from how others perceive and then interact with the person in question, it is vital to consider how an individual is perceived *however false*, as well as how they in fact identify (and therefore, ‘are’). It seems a bit ironic to me that one might be called out as a privilege denier (re. trans men) for following this line of argument, when it seems at least possible that one is engaging in privilege denial to say that no trans woman has ever experienced male privilege, despite (obviously) not being male. I would say that the possession or lack of male privilege doesn’t actually say anything about one’s gender any more than the ‘M’ or ‘F’ on a birth certificate does.
…Clearly this is an issue that could be talked about in much more detail, so apologies for not doing it justice in a simple comment reply. Privilege denial is also clearly an awful thing to be hunted down and challenged at all costs, and this discourse is an example of why this isn’t always clear cut. But for me, this only further highlights why cooperative discussion is so important on the topic of gender!
That was a really interesting comment and I’m sorry I can’t do it justice, really!
The spaces that I’ve encountered those attitudes are quite toxic in general, it must be said.
Thinking about the issue further, I’d say that whilst privilege is born from how others perceive and interact with a person it’s also tied to how they then internalise that – so for example male privilege often leads men to speak over women in groups, and that’s because they’ve internalised messages that allow them to. Therefore, whilst trans women may have been given it in terms of perception and interaction they may also have internalised it differently. I can’t speak to their experiences.
As a trans man I feel my male privilege to be conditional and different to someone who was raised male. I see it as conditional because in a lot of situations, were people to realise I have what they would consider a vagina, the privilege they were giving me would be lost. I also feel like in many ways I haven’t internalised it the same as a cis man, because it wasn’t extended to me during my formative years – if you think about the studies about babies crying and the way they’re treated depending on whether they’re read as male or female. As a result my socialisation has impacted on my interactions – especially with regard to forming close emotional bonds with straight cis men – as a man they see me as someone with whom there is no risk of sexual attraction, and as someone with female socialisation I’ve been raised to speak and demonstrate emotion more freely.
Some people argue trans men haven’t experienced misogyny, which I consider to be a completely false argument, speaking to my own experience I have, and I’ve internalised messages from it, especially around anxiety and strange men (stranger danger and rape culture), and body image concerns about weight and figure.
These issues are really difficult to engage with, and you’re right, open discussion where good intent is assumed is really important.