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Ms. Opinionated: I'm a Man. How Can I Help the Feminist Movement?

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Welcome to Ms. Opinionated, our weekly advice column dealing with questions of life, love, feminism, and pop culture. This week, a reader writes in with one of feminism's most enduring conundrums: How can men help the feminist movement?

Dear Ms. Opinionated,

I'm a guy, and I've developed quite an interest in feminism over the last few months.  While I know that there is a systematic laziness to portray women as individuals, I find it's a difficult subject to talk about with people.  When I mention things like the Bechdel Test and how most movies fail it I have a tendancy to tiptoe around the issue, because it feels like bringing it up is somehow rude. It even sounds shameful/embarassing for me to say "I'm a feminist", so I say "I've been learning about feminism" as if to separate myself from it.  What advice do you have for men who want to help the feminist movement?

Budding Male Feminist


Dear BMF,

In the first women's-studies class I ever took in college, there was this guy. He was big, he was loud, and every conversation in the class—which was a survey of feminist theory—was a chance he seized to talk about why he was such a good guy and so very, very feminist. His personal testimonies about his single mother, his girlfriend who'd been abused, and more were all delivered in a wildly self-congratulatory tone, and were so frequent that they became disruptive to class and frustrating to the professor. One day before class started, we took a vote and elected that we hold one class without him. It was a great, great day.

So my advice to you and to men in general who want to help the feminist movement is: Don't be that guy.

Don't even be a little bit like that guy. We've all had a that guy in our lives (only one if we're really lucky), and he's the reason that four out of five feminists gets a weird look on her face when the subject of male feminism comes up. It may not be fair, but there it is. That is not to say that male feminists, men interested in feminism, or people who want to be an ally to the movement are unwelcome within feminism. I can't, obviously, speak for all places and spaces within the movement. But that's definitely never been the case with Bitch, anyway—one of the cofounders is a dude!

You describe yourself as at the beginning-ish stages of an interest in feminism, which is fantastic because there is so much great reading for you to do right now. Seriously, read a lot. Read Feminism is for Everyone, by bell hooks, which is a wonderful introduction to the subject (and then move on to hooks's Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center). Read Allan G. Johnson's The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy, which offers a blueprint for understanding patriarchy without feel paralyzed by complicity in it, and Gerda Lerner's The Creation of Patriarchy, which traces how many essentialist stereotypes came into being in the first place. John Berger's Ways of Seeing, Jean Kilbourne's Can't Buy My Love, and Susan J. Douglas's The Rise of Enlightened Sexism are essential critiques of how visual culture, advertising in particular, impact how women see themselves and are seen. Read a variety of blogs and bloggers, and definitely check out Bitch's own "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Feminism But Were Afraid to Ask" for a sense of feminist history and more routes to explore.

All this reading means that you will have lots of opportunities to bring up subjects within and adjacent to feminism and not have it be awkward, because everyone talks about what they're reading sometimes, right? It doesn't have to be you delivering a lecture or definitive proclamation. It can just be you talking about an interesting book you're reading and how it's got you thinking.

And, honestly, don't feel like you have to talk about it at all. For a lot of people just starting to come to a feminist identification, listening may be a lot more productive and clarifying. "Listening" might mean attending talks or lectures, or it might mean reading blog comment sections or Twitter hashtags without feeling like you have to contribute. Everyone, no matter where they are in their feminist life, can benefit from listening, so I heartily encourage this activity. It's not only a great way to learn the shorthand and memes and key phrases and all that, but it's a good way to find people—especially other men—whom you might want to reach out to in your own future conversations.

I do understand your feeling that bringing up feminism overtly seems "rude." After all, only 14 percent of men consider themselves feminists, according to a 2009 poll issues by CBS news. Is that because only 14 percent of men believe that women should have equal rights and opportunities? Probably not; much more likely is that the low number is the result of feminism's legendary bad reputation. We live in a world where women regularly preface intrinsically feminist opinions by reassuring others that "I'm not a feminist, but…" and people often spout things like, "Why does it always have to be about feminism? Why isn't it just about humanism?"

So no, you don't have to walk around like Mr. Feminist Pants every day, declaiming about how bullshit state-mandated transvaginal ultrasounds are the foul byproduct of a patriarchal political system. The best way that guys can contribute to feminist discourse is simply by talking to the people you already hang out with, doing things you already do. Yeah, it might seem weird to bring up the Bechdel Test while playing a game of golf (if you play golf), but it totally makes sense to talk about, say, Sweden's adoption of Bechdel Test–like ratings after you've just watched a summer action-hero blockbuster. Likewise, if one of your male pals makes a sexist comment or a remark that smacks of rape apology,  rather than just bite your tongue and smile awkwardly, make it known that you don't think that's cool and why. You might lose that friend. But you also might get him thinking. Either way, men talking to other men about sexism in the ways and contexts that women often cannot is crucial in combating the quotidian moments that contribute to antifeminist culture.

This answer is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what men can do. If I haven't already given you enough to read, look at some great pieces that have already been published on how men can be wonderful feminists while also not being That Guy. (Aaminah Khan's "10 Ways to Be a Better Male Feminist" is a personal fave.) Follow folks like Jamie Kilstein, Jamil Smith, and Mychal Denzel Smith on Twitter. Watch this TED talk given by longtime antisexist activist Jackson Katz.

And anyone reading this who has further suggestions, leave them in the comments.

One of the last things I'd like to tell you is that "feminist" is not a particularly fun identity. And for men, it comes with a whole host of assumptions. People will assume you're interested in feminism because you want to get laid. Guys will make fun of you at some point. Many women will brace themselves for being mansplained to. I hope that the work of learning about feminism and advocating for it is worth enough to you that you're willing to deal with all that, because those men are exactly what feminism needs more of. Good luck!

Do you have a question for advice columnists Andi Zeisler, Sydette Harry, or Nicole Georges? Send it in! All questions will remain anonymous. 


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Comments

13 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Really great response!

Really great response! Especially "men talking to other men about sexism in the ways and contexts that women often cannot is crucial in combating the quotidian moments that contribute to antifeminist culture." Exactly. EXACTLY. Thank you. :)

I like the line: "The best

I like the line:

"The best way that guys can contribute to feminist discourse is simply by talking to the people you already hang out with, doing things you already do."

Does anyone know any links for gay/bisexual men who are interested in feminism?

Second this!

I'm also very much interested in getting my hands on some resources geared towards gay/bisexual males with a budding interest in feminism. Very happy and excited to have come across this site!

Great feedback!

This was a really well thought out response, lots of material for the guy to read, lots of constructive ways to approach his new found interest. As an allied male peer I'd say a few more things:

1) Your "label" as a feminist, or aspiring feminist or whatever is WAY less important as your actions. Like the columnist pointed out, many guys cry "feminist" in an effort to further abuse their privilege and manipulate women. Don't worry about what you call yourself, worry about what you're doing to support gender equity.

2) Whenever possible, try to avoid asking the oppressed group for what to do next. This one is tough: I had an experience talking with a Person of Color where I asked her why I should do this or what I should do in situation "X" and she told me that it was my job to find that out for myself.
Women, PoC and other oppressed groups have a lot on their plate as it is. Hell just walking down the street at night as a woman is a taxing affair, and if we place the burden of educating us as to how to dismantle our own oppressive behaviors we're adding another stone to the sack.

So really, actively seek to educate yourself, look for other men who are doing the same thing. Listen close when a woman speaks up about her oppression, but they should be doing so on THEIR terms, not yours.

3) It's definitely hard, it's embarrassing, it feels taboo, and it's definitely not going to win you friends or make you fun at parties when you have to tell someone that calling another dude a bitch is not cool, but do your best to engage it as much as you can!

Stick with it and find other guys who are like minded! Nothing reinforces your will to stand up to misogyny and sexism like someone having your back.

In Solidarity

Wyatt

This was an interesting read!

This was an interesting read! I thought this was a particularly poignant line: "Either way, men talking to other men about sexism in the ways and contexts that women often cannot is crucial." Very, very true. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, there are spaces where men might be more aptly suited to pushing social progress, just by virtue of being able to access traditionally male-oriented spaces and situations.

I'm shocked no one has brought this up, though - you voted and had a student removed from class?! I can quasi-understand this from a feminist perspective but speaking as someone who has taught at a University, this is really really gross. Not only is college a space where students have PAID for a particular service that they have a right to, but this is also supposed to be a bastion of knowledge, openness and education. I have had students who hog the discussion space, who are disruptive in class, and who don't participate - but that is very rarely, if ever, a reason to actually remove someone from class. The only time I can imagine myself ever removing a student is in a case of actual harm. It sounds like this student's only crime was being obnoxious. I am appalled that your professor would allow you to vote on a student's presence in class.

Shame! Ridicule for the young

Shame! Ridicule for the young man's efforts seems to pervade the tone. For some of us men who are gender war vets in this area it's funny -but if I was starting out it would terrify me!
I get it, you're fed up of being patronised but don't be patronising in return. Some of us believe Jackson Katz on issues like GBV and we work at it. Our biggest critics are actually women not men - but it's just that your more vocal in your criticism whilst most men remain silent - as Jackson points out very well.
I work on progressive fatherhood issues and gender sensitive parenting approaches and I'm disturbed that a lot of women see this work as reinforcing a patriarchal project. I have young daughters - are my concerns for them about increasing their future agency or decreasing it?
I think men can be good feminists and be supportive but that is not the frontline. The frontline for us is our work with other men.
We stand on the shoulders of many great women who've helped us develop a framework for understanding masculinities and particularly toxic ones but are starting to tread on your toes a bit now.
Are men really welcome in 'gender' work or should we just accept that the term 'gender' is really about women?
Now I will be accused of mansplaining - damned if I do and damned if I don't!
A brilliant post and we need more like this but give young men a more friendly entry point?

I didn't see the tone problem

I didn't see the tone problem that you did. I'm surprised to see you identify yourself as a "gender war vet" and then use one of the most basic anti-feminist derailing techniques known to the internet. http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Tone_argument

As someone who is new to feminism and excited to participate, BMF is probably aware that some people have feelings about the shitty things they have experienced and don't always restrain them. If not, he will probably come across this in his feminism 101 reading. You are probably underestimating his character, if you think the slightest amount of snark will cause him to abandon all of his empathy for women.

Dear 'Budding Male Feminist'

Andi : Thanks for this great response (and so many wonderful book/vid links)

I think this truth-filled quote also applies here : "If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you are here because you understand that your liberation is bound up with mine, then we can work together."(--Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s).
... IMHO this shift in perspective can be so useful for all kinds of allies... including Male Feminists/allies. It completely shifts the dynamic from a one-up/one-down place to a different motivation.
So, Dear 'Budding Male Feminist' : it's worth asking yourself the question of what motivates you - are you here to 'help' women or here because you understand that your 'liberation' is bound up with ours?... then we can work together, knowing that you're aware of your privilege, listening, working on your own stuff too etc....

So glad Ms. O is back!

This post has great advice for men who want to help the cause of women. As a male feminist, I have had to learn a lot of these lessons the hard way (i.e. by inadvertently pissing off my female friends). I agree with everyone else here that the identity politics (declaring that you ARE a feminist) is way less important that actually DOING things that help advance the cause. bell hooks talks about the mistake of thing to BE instead of trying to DO in _From Margin To Center_. That book is a great place to start learning.

I don't agree with the

I don't agree with the response. I think the first thing to say to a man that wants to learn about feminism is: "Wellcome!!" and "It was about time!" . Why could a man want be a feminist? because of many reasons:
1) Because sexism is violent towards women. Actually, 50% of the women that die murdered around the globe, are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends. Sex trafficking is the 3rd biggest illigal industry, after arms and drugs trafficking. According to a WHO 2011 report, domestic violence causes more inhabilities and death among women, that the total sum of those caused by cancer, traffic accidents and war. And not all men want to be violent mother batterers sons of a pimp.
2) Because sexism is violent towards men, banning them the possibility of a plain development of their personality, making them repress all features that are socially constructed as femenine. I strongly belive that this is functional to turning men into full day working machines, or soldiers that die in the war fighting for their dominant classes' interests, without critizising much, because if not they are accused of being cowards, like women, who stay at home and bring up the children.
3) Because is much better for a man to have a partner, both emotional and sexual, than a mixture of a sex object and domestic helper.
4) Because democracy is not something that is achieved at once, but something that must be permanently strived for, and that demands our commitment.
4) BECAUSE HEGEMONIC GENDER CULTURE SUCKS!! Its about time that men and women start being real partners, to have less steriotyped and deeper relationships, both in friendship, family and love.

But I would advice you is not to read all the books. And deffenitivelly, not to be quiet. I advice you to be confident about your beliefs, and stand for them. To be pacient, to try new and new arguments, underline why you think feminism can help constructing a helthier, more democratic society. Tell which aspects of culture you don't agree with. Not to be affraid to be rude, but kindly pose your oppinion, its your right! And .. you're not alone! 14% is a nice number for male feminism.

Thanks for this.

I'm a guy and I've recently been getting interested in feminism. Part of it was because I began to realize that my views have always been somewhat feminist, but also because I'm looking to become a writer and looking up feminist material has given me some great insight on writing women and people of different races well. Unfortunately, I've also been declaring my feminism loudly and rather defensively at times and this article has reminded me to not be so "in your face" about it. Thanks for that.

Katz hating Cats

I remind you that jackson Katz has made a motivational speakers career out of slide shows screencapping PETA protests as misogynist, same with all mediaEd agents. Want to know who else made careers out if calling AnLib protests misogynist? The RadFem ilk of Mary Daly like Carol Adams. Best make sure you're not promoting transmisogynists in the name of motivational speaker feminism; ersatz Master degree wielding frauds.

women too could support an end to sexism more!

still a topic which is tiptoed around - and here we are in Oregon / not all of us live in Portland, dang -

and the Washington County area is a hotbed of sexism, racism, and elitism, in every area of life -

would love to see some articles dealing with the impacts of these 3 evils (above) on the workings of government, and the decisions which are made by a handful of folks which impact all of us.