I had a lengthy chat with a producer from BBC Woman’s Hour the other day, about a feature they ran this morning on some men’s reluctance to identify as feminists. I missed out on the chance of a free BBC croissant in the end. This may have been partly down to my inconsiderate refusal to live in London like normal people, but in truth I think I lost her when I started channelling Nina Power on the reconstruction of feminism as a neoliberal capitalist accessory and the interchangeability of emancipation and consumption in the dominant discourse. With hindsight I should have stuck to the question of whether little girls can pee standing up.
The conversation did however give me pause to think about a fairly key question. I’m often told I am a feminist by others, in roughly equal measure as a compliment and an insult. I take it in the intended spirit either way. If others think I am a feminist so be it, but it is not how I define myself. By coincidence, this morning also saw the launch of a new blog edited by Joseph Stashko, entitled Meninism, exploring the place of men in the movement. I had the honour of the first piece on there, in which I argue that the feminist trope “the patriarchy hurts men too” is not the solution to male-specific gender issues. The tl;dr version would be this: Even if patriarchy does hurt men too, that’s for men to realise and address; we can’t leave it to women and feminism to solve it for us.
Feminism is and should be a movement of women, for women and led by women. While any man can offer a voice of agreement, it is not for us to define the issues and prescribe the solutions. But with whom are we agreeing? Feminism is an impossibly diverse ideology, riven with internal argument and debate. To be a full participant in the movement, one needs to be able to take sides in those disputes. That puts a man in the impossible position of either telling half the feminists that you’re wrong and I know better, or else smiling and saying “well you both make very good points” like a liberal vicar trying to intervene in a pub fight.
If I’m forced to define my own politics, it would be in broad terms as a believer in social justice and human rights. From that perspective, I would have no qualms about telling a feminist that I think she is wrong about an issue. To take one example, there are many feminists who argue that there should be no prosecutions of women who make false allegations of rape. In my opinion, this is a patently unjust position, not from the perspective of feminism, but from the perspective of justice. A man who is grievously and maliciously wronged by such an act deserves redress, and others who may be so wronged deserve the protection of a legal deterrent. I can make that point more strongly and effectively if it is not prefaced by three little words ‘As a feminist…’ Indeed, I think a man who argues any point with those words is likely to find himself hoisted by the goolies, and probably deservedly so.
By identifying as a feminist, I would have a lot to lose, and little to gain. My stance does not preclude supporting feminists where I support their aims. For example, I wrote in support of the Slutwalk movement last year, not because I am a feminist, but because I agreed with the fundamental aims; I applauded their inclusive approach to men and trans people; and I admired the fusion of assertive female sexuality with demands for bodily autonomy and personal safety. I don’t need to define as a feminist to say that. On the contrary I’d like to think my words carry slightly more weight precisely because I do not.
Over the years I’ve been called feminist, pro-feminist and a ‘mangina’, I’ve been called anti-feminist and misogynist, and sometimes those allegations have all come in response to the same piece. Once there was a time when I cared about how my views were labelled by others, these days I mostly just eye them with curiosity. I’ll try to call the issues as I see them, and you can call me what you like. Deal?
By coincidence, the Good Men Project has also run a series this week on men’s place in feminism. There’s an awful lot of talk of transformational journeys and personal healing and the kind of thing that generally makes me reach for the sick-bowl. Sorry Tom, Hugo et al, but I don’t think the arena of gender politics is the best place to work through one’s personal demons and guilt. The series left me no more convinced about the value of the label “feminist”, and less convinced than ever about the label “good men” which is deeply problematic to me. One day I might come back to that.
But within the series, there’s a piece by GMP editor Noah Brand which is, I think, absolutely brilliant. Unlike me, Noah does identify as a feminist, but he does absolutely nail the point that feminism offers a lot to men, not just in terms of practical outcomes but in offering an intellectual toolbox to help us understand and analyse gender issues, and possibly even find some solutions. Go see.