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Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Male Feminist


In my final semester at Beloit College, I was confronted in my Feminist Theory class with the question:
can men be feminists? The class was 9 females and 1 male. While many of the women in class were eager to show the inclusion of the feminist movement in saying that of course men can be feminists, the one man in the class spoke up saying that he still wasn't quite sure if they could. While he certainly agreed with feminist values and the "feminist cause," he wasn't sure if they could actually be part of the category called feminist.

Ever since I started my career as a Women's and Gender Studies major, I was convinced that men could be feminists. But this class discussion in my final semester started me questioning (becuase that's what Women's and Gender Studies is all about anyways). Here are some of the points that were brought up in the discussion and some that I thought about later:

Men CAN be feminists:
  • Many men believe that women should have equal status in society and do not see this as a threat
  • Feminism is about the inclusion of differing opinions centering around women's equality, so men should be included for that differing opinion
  • Excluding men can be seen as a form of sexism, which is what feminism is trying to fight against
  • With the inclusion of trans and gay rights, men can "benefit" from a feminist "agenda" (this is not to say that they wouldn't benefit from women's equality, there is just a more clear connection between men and feminism)
Men CANNOT be feminists:
  • Feminism is grounded in women's experiences, which men do not have (yes, trans men do have experiences as a woman and while every woman's experinece is different, trans men's experiences are fundamentally different than women's experiences)
  • Can't women just have something that is their own instead of having to share it, like everything else, with men?
After this class discussion, I started asking some of my guy friends (some of whom I knew called themselves feminist and some who I knew didn't) if they thought men could be feminists. I mostly just got a yes or no answer (because it was the middle of the semester and people were busy and I just sent out an email to a lot of people, and only had a full conversation with a few people). But one of my favorite answers was along the lines of: "I think men can be feminists like Jane Goodall can be an ape. They can study feminism, they can believe in feminism, they can act like feminists, but they can never truly be feminist." While this is not the most perfect analogy, it made me chuckle and I could see where he was coming from.

After this discussion and the ongoing debate on my part, I have come to my personal conclusion that
men can be feminists, but they are a fundamentally different kind of feminist than women. Men have different experiences and so do women, so everyone is going to approach feminism in a different way. In "third wave feminism," there are many different identity "themed" (for lack of a better word) feminisms, such as black feminism, lesbian feminism, Asian feminism, working class feminism, Middle Eastern feminism, etc. So why can't we add male feminism to that list in which that type of feminism is approached from "the" male perspective.


Note: this picture came from the blog Gapers Block in a post about the 2004 March for Choice.

5 comments:

Kayla said...

I stumbled across your blog from Feministing.com and I think it is quite wonderful. I completely agree with you that men can be feminists so long as we realize their experiences are inherently different.

Dawn. said...

Interesting post, Laura. I'm a relative newcomer to your blog and I'm really enjoying it. I agree with you for the most part, but there were a couple things in your post that concerned me.

1. With the inclusion of trans and gay rights, men can "benefit" from a feminist "agenda" (this is not to say that they wouldn't benefit from women's equality, there is just a more clear connection between men and feminism)

I think that you could expand more here to point out that although many men feel disconnected from their direct benefits from women being treated equally in society, there are direct benefits that we need to clearly express. Patriarchy hurts men too, in many ways, and if men are reluctant to call themselves a feminist, they should be reminded of that.

2. Feminism is grounded in women's experiences, which men do not have (yes, trans men do have experiences as a woman and while every woman's experinece is different, trans men's experiences are fundamentally different than women's experiences)

Your clarification in parenthesis really rubbed me the wrong way. I know you're not intending to exclude anyone, but you are. What about trans women and gender queer folk? Trans men do know what it feels like to be treated like a woman in our society, I agree, so they do have intimate knowledge of women's experiences. But trans women are women and you are denying their experiences here by not even mentioning them. You also don't mention how gender queer folk fit into this at all either. Your statement implies that only ciswomen can be feminists, and I know you probably don't think that, but I just wanted to let you know that's what it seems like.

I personally think anyone can be a feminist, and I shy away from calling men who identify as feminists "male feminists," since it seems divisive. But I can understand the other side's argument.

Laura said...

Dawn,

I guess I should have been more clear and expand more re: trans people. In my head I was including trans women in the category "women." I should have stated this and expanded on it more because trans women also have different experiences than biologically born women. But I wasn't meaning to exclude trans women, because in my head I wasn't. And like I said, every woman's experience is different. Sorry for the confusion and thank you for your excellent points/concerns!

recursiveparadox said...

It's important to point out that the experiences of a trans individual (and how they might relate to a cisgendered woman's experiences) depend very heavily on when they started to transition and their "passing" capacity (Quotes because I hate that word).

So a young transitioner will likely have very similar experiences to a cis woman or cis man (unless transphobia comes into play) and an older transitioner will experience male privilege or female oppression (depending on birth sex) for a period of time before flipping to a different area of society. After that (provided people actually respect their identity or alternately don't know they're trans) a mtf will face pretty standard female oppression and a ftm will take on pretty standard male privilege (with nonbinaries just getting screwed from every direction with either trans phobia or sexism or both)

Obviously transphobia and cisgender privilege muddy the waters a bit, but this really means that it's not only difficult but nearly impossible to make a viable general statement about all transgendered feminists because of all of the extra factors.

Some trans women do lack the experiences of cis women, no insult to identity included. Some have virtually all of the experiences you would expect in a cis woman. Many more have a blend of experience with male privilege and then that disappearing in the face of being seen as female.

I'm sure a lib arts minor could be made studying the impact of sexism on trans folk alone. XD

K.C. Jones said...

I used to say that I thought that men can be feminists, though I could never figure out what exactly bothered me about saying it. I've finally realized that I never truly believed what I was saying. It was only after a read a post on Womanist Musings where she declared that white womyn can be womanist allies, they can never be womanists, themselves, and suddenly it clicked! I absolutely think the same applies to men and feminism. Men can be feminist allies, but the next time a guy tells me he's a feminist I will gladly wake him up to his undeserved privilege. I no longer see a middle ground in this-men can only be feminist allies. But what I want to know is, why is it so horrible for them to be an ally? That should be good enough! If we womyn cannot have one label for ourselves, then they still need to check their male privilege at the door. (Clarification-trans womyn are fully womyn, so of course they can be feminists-just like I believe male trans cannot.)

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