Can men be feminists?

As feminist icon Professor Germaine Greer made headlines today for the wrong reasons

the Internet lit up once more with debate about feminism, just who is a feminist, who is not, and what ‘feminism’ means. (In the words of author Rebecca West, ‘I myself have never been able to find out what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.’)

One blog, Jack the Insider, wrote: ‘Do I agree that women should have equality of opportunity? Do I agree that some earnest ecclesiastical or lay types have no truck rooting around in women’s uteri? Yes, but none of this makes me a feminist.’

I argued that it makes him exactly that. His reply, ‘It makes me a humanist.’

One basic definition of humanism: ‘An outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.’

And feminism?: ‘The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.’

Certainly there is room for debate here as to whether the definitions above are correct or absolute, but still, it seems to me at a glance that our friend Jack the Insider is both humanist and feminist. In fact, any person who truly believes in human rights and equality for all human beings would naturally be a feminist, wouldn’t they?

In 2003, on Enough Rope with Andrew Denton, journalist and radio broadcaster Derryn Hinch said the following, with regards to whether or not he was a feminist: ‘I try to be. I’ve always said I’m as much of a…of a feminist as I could be. No man can be an absolute feminist. First of all, we don’t have a clue about the pains of childbirth and never will — that’s number one. You can’t be an absolute feminist but you try to be as much as you can. I grew up… In my 20s, I was interviewing people like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, so that gave me a pretty good grounding. No, you can’t be a total feminist, but you try.’

While I can see where Hinch is going with his assertion that he can’t fully understand the female condition without being female (which absolutely true), the pain of childbirth, of course, does not make someone a better or more complete feminist. Yes, child birth gives you some first hand experience into what is one of the major, life-changing experiences in many women’s lives, but many prominent feminists have never given birth, Germaine Greer included. No, it’s not giving birth that makes you a feminist.

Jack the Insider said of a man (Derryn Hinch) declaring that he is a feminist: ‘I’ve always thought it an odd thing for a man to say.’

So can men be feminists or not? Can they not be ‘total feminists’? Only half feminists?

Academic Brian Klocke writes, ‘If feminism is to attain its goal of liberating women, men must be a part of the struggle…’ but goes on to say that ”To be a feminist one must be a member of the targeted group (i.e a woman) not only as a matter of classification but as having one’s directly-lived experience inform one’s theory and praxis.’

As I see it, feminism is an ideology. It seems logical to me that one does not have to be born with a particular gender, or to identify as a particular gender to believe in a set of ideals, ie: that those without the Y chromosome are equal to those with a Y chromosome, and deserve to be treated as equals, given equal opportunities, rights over their own bodies and so on.

The belief in women’s rights and equality is what makes you a feminist, not your chromosomes. You don’t need to be a woman to believe in feminism any more than you need to be homosexual to believe in marriage equality. The female legislators in the US who are rolling back reproductive rights are not feminists. Jon Stewart, for example, is an awesome feminist. Likewise, Buffy creator, screenwriter and director Joss Whedon is a damn fine feminist , and also openly identifies as one.

When I asked my friends and twitter followers whether men could be feminists there were some excellent responses. Here is a small sample:

‘Feminism is humanism. Obviously, not all women will be humanists, and some men will be proud proponents. XY and feminism are definitely not mutually exclusive.’ – Kathryn Fox, Award-winning author.

‘Feminism is a belief, it is not restricted to women because it is a belief about women….You can’t be feminist if you’re not a feminist, that is all…Yes, John Stewart is an awesome feminist, and we need more awesome feminists, and I don’t care which gender they are.’ – Ella James, Broadcaster, journalist and performer.

‘Of course. And I find it quite difficult to be close with men who aren’t.’ – Feminist writer Emily Maguire.

And writer, comedian and poet Ben Pobjie responded with a resounding, ‘Yes! I think?’ (You are, Ben. I believe you are.)

Feminism must always be led by women, just as the fight for racial equality must be led by those who are most affected by racism. Women need to champion other women, to legislate on issues affecting women. But to subscribe to feminist ideals, to be a feminist, to champion human rights as they affect women does not require being female.

Does it?

PS And now you can buy the T-shirt, above. It’s 100% cotton and while it doesn’t make you a feminist, it can express that you identify as one. Looks good on him, don’t you think?

22 Comments

  1. Melanie

    I do agree that men can be feminists. They all have women in their lives, whether it be their wife, mother, sister etc. Im almost certain that those men therefore would want these women to have equal opportunity and access to things like basic health care; not to mention a safe and friendly society.

  2. I find it hard to have any respect for people who don’t treat women fairly. I don’t know if that makes me a feminist, but it definitely makes sexism a point of ridicule from me.

  3. Richard

    you dont need to be a women to be a feminist! having the power to bear a child makes you a woman. the fact that men cannot give birth has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with being a feminist!!! i am a man, and I AM A FEMINIST.

  4. @kev_martin

    Wonderfully sensible. Feminism is an ideology – a state of mind if you like. And to my mind being feminist and humanist are in fact mutually INCLUSIVE. The only thing stopping some men from being feminist is their belief that they can’t be feminists because they are male. The "can’t understand without experiencing" brigade always get under my skin a bit – whatever particular experience they may be referring to. Experience and empathy are not the same thing. And the ONLY thing that not giving birth denies me is the actual experience of giving birth. Cheers.

  5. @kev_martin

    Additional thought: Brian Klocke’s comments seem to me to suggest that feminism is destined to always be a minority ideology. Likewise, presumably, for opponents of other types of minority oppression. That is a very sad view of the future. And hopefully wrong.

  6. Hinch’s statement makes no sense. Does that mean that women who are unwilling or unable to bear children also can’t be feminists? On the other hand, there’s a good argument to be made that while men can attempt to learn about the extent of male privilege on an intellectual level, we will always experience the world through its lens.

    One of the more cutesy analogies in software development is dividing participants in a meeting into "chickens and pigs", from the old joke that when it comes to deciding what to have for breakfast, chickens are involved but pigs are committed.

    Men can be involved in feminism, and can even identify as feminists, but ultimately we’ll always be chickens.

  7. I don’t understand the need for badges. I never really have. Surely we’ve all but moved beyond the whole placard-waving, club member, ‘ya gotta believe!’ schtick. We are all in the pond together and I believe most of us blokes are respectful and decent enough to make the recalcitrant few no more than a bum burp whose stink will soon enough dissipate. No lapel pins for me. I’ll just keep it simple sans slogans and get on with it. But knock yourselves out haggling. It’s definitely an interesting discussion.

  8. I absolutely agree that men can be feminists. But I am more concerned that some self-professed ‘feminists’ say I can’t be one, because I don’t agree with everything they say. I believe that women are equal to men. I believe in ‘The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.’ Always have. Have been through being called ‘feminist’ as though its a bad thing. Now I find that, as far as some are concerned, it’s a closed club. It’s hurtful, it’s amazing (to me) and it’s depressing.

  9. Ross H

    I simply believe in equality. And have done for a lot of years now. I believe in us all having the same basic, human rights. I believe in the woman’s right of choice. Does that make me a feminist? Dunno. As Imelda quite correctly notes above, there is a school of feminism out there with a view that if you don’t agree with everything they say then you are against them.

    I think I prefer being called a ‘humanist’ although even that was used against me in the workplace – but that’s another story for another rant.

  10. Great post Tara. There are two things I want to add, from my perspective:

    1) Feminism, just like any other ideology, is a messy and plural business. So some feminists may advocate male involvement in feminism, while others do not. The word of one feminist critics should not be taken as an absolute summary of what feminism stands for as a whole. Feminists disagree with each other all the time, and it’s this debate that keeps it going. I don’t see a problem with that essentially, as people generally have different opinions about a host of other issues, and I don’t see why feminism should be any different. The thing is, people like to attack feminism when one feminist disagrees with another, or when one feminist says something that many people will disagree with. It’s an easy tactic to take one opinion out of many to discredit feminism as a whole, and it’s annoying to see it perpetuated by the media.

    2) I’m one of those feminists that likes to see men involved in feminism. I think though I can understand the perspective of some feminist critics who feel men shouldn’t take an active role in feminism (although this doesn’t mean I agree with them). A lot of the time, men’s voices and opinions are taken more seriously, and the discussion about women’s rights starts to sound a bit paternalistic in tone. But, I certainly agree that if we’re to make any lasting changes in gender equality, men need to be involved and I would love to see more men wearing the ‘feminist’ tag with pride. I know a lot of my close male friends do.

  11. Ooh – getting that shirt for my husband. Since he stood on a chair, with me, and shouted "I am a feminist" as instructed in Caitlin Moran’s book, I figure he’s earned it!
    Love this take on feminism – I weighed my own little war on what exactly is a feminist too.. http://petajo.wordpress.com

  12. Anonymous

    It is wonderful to see so many men identify with feminism. Thanks for your comments, everyone. (You’d all look quite fetching in the tee…)

    Hila, Thank you for your two well-articulated points, above. Feminists do not and simply cannot agree on absolutely everything, just as individuals in every other social movement must naturally disagree with one another on certain issues. And on the topic of whether men can be feminists, I am pleased to also agree with you. Feminist men are the best kind, aren’t they?

    Best wishes,
    Tara

  13. captain planet

    I am male, and i believe women deserve equality in all things. I am supportive of women’s afvancement, education, reproductive freedom, and empowerment in all its forms. but i am not a feminist.
    I agree with the definitions postulated in this article, and it did not escape me that humanism is defined as a belief system (yes, i am a humanist) whereas feminism is defined by advocacy. am i a feminist? No. I do not actively strive through my actions for the goals of feminism. I will not oppose those who do, for i agree with their principles: but i cannot be a feminist just through a frame of mind… it takes action.

  14. Yep, I’m a Feminist. The thing to watch out for when flying the flag is to check your privilege and let women speak for themselves, step back when a woman speaks on feminism and support her.

  15. To be a feminist (or any "ist" for that matter) do you need to be actively engaged in progressing the cause/science/agenda? If so, I’m not a feminist but a strong supporter of the feminist cause, as I suspect most women are. Or, is support, continual respect and being happy to stand up for women’s rights if required in daily life enough to make one a feminist? Some of my female friends say I’m a feminist but I’ve never been totally comfortable with it, for the same reason I am passionate about rocks but I’d never call myself a geologist.

  16. sam gilmour

    I’ve thought long and hard about this and must confess I cannot say if I am a humanist, or a feminist or any other ‘-ist.’ What I can say is that I agree with and support the feminist ideal – not for myself so much, but for my daughters’ sake.

    They’re the ones I hope will be able to hold their heads up high, sans cosmetics if they choose, knowing their natural faces are just fine as they are, thank you very much. (I wish it were so for all women now, but to this day, very few of the women I’ve encountered who are old enough to and do wear make-up, seem to comprehend the enormity of the damage done to their psyches by the cosmetics industry.)

    They’re the ones I pray will be able to pursue any career they like, for the same rewards as their male counterparts and without opposition for lack of outdoor plumbing. How does that make them inferior again? Seems to me like more compact design is actually better, when you think about it.

    They’re the ones who, as this world becomes more complex and faces ever-increasing threats against its very survival, will have to deal with these issues. They’ll be more able to do so without the unnecessary added burden of debate as to whether they’re fit to do so, or even decide what’s best for their own organs, on account of their gender.

    Perhaps I can be a feminist after all… I have daughters.

  17. xena_xerox

    My One observation is that often when men get involved in discussion that it tends up to always end up being about men (rather than about women). This even happens within this discussion thread!

    I guess I’m just a bit exhausted of years of discussions with men about what feminism is, is there a place for them in the movement, their poor bruised egos that some women don’t want them in the "feminist club". Those are all such male centered discussions!
    I think the real way men can help the "feminist cause" is by listening to the voices of women. By this I mean- READ the words written by them, rather than expecting them to give you their time to explain it to you and then expecting some reward for not being a sexist pig. Then take what they have said on board and actually act on it! Not only in your dealings with women but also challenge men who are being sexist within the male domain.

    Men who want to identify as feminists really have to actually be willing to stand with other feminists (even if that means standing challenging other men). That’s the hard part- and I wonder how many "male feminists" actually do that…

    It’s easy for men to talk the talk about being feminist but i have a sneaking suspician that if all the men who claimed to be feminist (or even humanist) actually walked the walk- then the world wouldn’t be the way it is….

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