Some regard possession of a vagina as crucial for membership in the feminist movement. But can a man be a feminist too?
“Female” is a biological distinction. “Femininity” is that group of personality traits women are traditionally expected to exhibit. “Feminism” is a movement which challenges these gender stereotypes and combats discrimination against women.
If you're a man, obviously you cannot be biologically female – at least not without major, and quite painful, surgical intervention. As a man, you can be feminine, or, like most people, exhibit a mix of “feminine” and “masculine” characteristics. Likewise, progressive men should be allowed to regard themselves as feminists. Despite my aversion to the limiting effects of labels, I would certainly define my views on gender issues as being “feminist”.
Cath Elliott's article last week highlighted the controversy about whether men can be classed as feminists. Although she expressed her personal indifference to labels, some activists – both women and men – are not so accommodating. In fact, some claim that men cannot be regarded as feminists – a view which strikes me as paradoxical, since feminism strives to end sexism, yet this exclusion strikes me as sexist.
The main rationale seems to revolve around the notion that only women can truly understand the female plight and truly know what it is like to face gender discrimination. But humans are equipped with a remarkable imagination and sense of empathy, if they choose to exercise it. History is replete with examples of “outsiders” who become the iconic embodiment of certain struggles, such as the privileged young doctor turned poor man's revolutionary.
After all, you don't need to be working class to be a socialist, nor a member of a minority to appreciate the suffering caused by racism. People didn't need to be black to struggle against apartheid nor Spanish to fight Franco's totalitarianism.
Besides, if the lack of direct experience disqualifies one from being a full member of the cause, should we bar western feminists from showing solidarity with their “sisters” in less enlightened societies because they have not experienced the same magnitude of discrimination in their relatively egalitarian corner of the world?
Moreover, men do have direct experience of sexism and a major stake in combating it. First of all, there are the women in their lives. If your wife, girlfriend, mother or sister experiences gender discrimination, it also has an impact on you, because it makes you angry and frustrated on her behalf. Moreover, men who discriminate against women are not acting in the name of the rest of their gender and the best way to express that would be to describe ourselves as “feminists”.
In addition, the macho culture which sidelines women can also belittle and ridicule the men who question it – and so fighting shoulder to shoulder for the cause of gender equality is as much a progressive man's prerogative as it is a woman's under the banner of “feminism”. As Elliott rightly points out: “Centuries of patriarchal hegemony has harmed men too.”
Amusingly, one post in the debate under the article asked, if men can be feminists, “can women be male chauvinists?” I believe they most certainly can. Some of the loudest advocates of the patriarchal order, both in the past and today, have been women. And this highlights perfectly the fact that just because you have a vagina it does not automatically make you more sympathetic to the cause.
There seems to be a fear that men would try to dominate the movement. Elliott says that “I really don't need men telling me how to be a better feminist, or that my kind of feminism is wrong”. I find such a description of, let's call it, “male, feminist pigs” rather unflattering. Relating obnoxiousness and bossiness to gender in this way is quite frankly rather sexist.
After all, men do not have a monopoly on being domineering, or is Elliott suggesting she's never come across obnoxious female feminists? Would Elliott appreciate a woman feminist lecturing her on how to become a better feminist or trying to dictate to her the terms on which she should act as a feminist?
Elliott stresses that “You can't call yourself a feminist and then go home and beat your partner … and in the next breath deny your daughter the right to decide her own future.” I agree. In fact, that is precisely where I would regard myself as a fully-fledged feminist. I don't go to rallies, nor shout slogans from the rooftops, but I strive to apply the principles of equality in everything I do.
To my mind, feminism is about gender equality and the freedom of choice to enable girls to be boys, and boys to be girls, and girls to be girls, and boys to be boys, and all the shades in between.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 29 April 2008.