The problem of gendered, sexist expectations of men is enormous, and deeply ingrained into the culture. How are we to even begin dismantling such profoundly entrenched and damaging ideas? By using the same skills and tools that have worked before…
From Michael Kimmel’s essay This Breeze at My Back:
“This invisibility [of privilege] is political. This was first made visible to me in the early 1980s, when I participated in a small discussion group on feminism. A white woman and a black woman were discussing whether all women were, by definition, “Sisters,” because they all had essentially the same experiences and because all women faced a common oppression by men. The white woman asserted that the fact that they were both women bonded them, in spite of racial differences. The black woman disagreed.
“When you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, what do you see?” she asked.
“I see a woman,” replied the white woman.
“That’s precisely the problem,” responded the black woman. “I see a black woman. To me, race is visible every day, because race is how I am not privileged in our culture. Race is invisible to you, because it’s how you are privileged. It’s why there will always be differences in our experience.”
As I witnessed this exchange, I was startled, and groaned – more audibly, perhaps, than I had intended. Being the only man in the room, someone asked what my response had meant.
“Well,” I said, “when I look in the mirror, I see a human being. I’m universally generalizable. As a middle-class white man, I have no class, no race, and no gender. I’m the generic person!”
Sometimes, I like to think that it was on that day that I became a middle-class white man. Sure, I had been all those before, but they had not meant much to me. I enjoyed the privilege of invisibility. The very processes that confer privilege to one group and not another group are often invisible to those upon whom that privilege is conferred…”
As long as we participate in social systems, we don’t get to choose whether to be involved in the consequences they produce. We’re involved simply through the fact that we’re here. As such, we can only choose how to be involved, whether to just be part of the problem or also to be part of the solution. That’s where our power lies, and also our responsibility.
Allan Johnson, Privilege, Power, and Difference
“Since men are the primary agents maintaining and supporting sexism and sexist oppression, they can only be successfully eradicated if men are compelled to assume responsibility for transforming their consciousness and the consciousness of society as a whole. After hundreds of years of anti-racist struggle, more than ever before non-white people are currently calling attention to the primary role white people must play in anti-racist struggle. The same is true of the struggle to eradicate sexism–men have a primary role to play. This does not mean that they are better equipped to lead feminist movement; it does mean that they should share equally in resistance struggle. In particular, men have a tremendous contribution to make to feminist struggle in the area of exposing, confronting, opposing, and transforming the sexism of their male peers.”
– bell hooks. “Men: Comrades in Stuggle,” Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. 1984 (emphasis added)
We are officially on the New Orleans Free School Calendar:
What is feminism? Why should men care about it? This weekly discussion group seeks to explore these questions. No background knowledge is required. Topics for discussion will include socialization, gender roles, patriarchy, male privilege, domestic violence, sexual assualt, intersectionality, how to be an ally, etc. The specific syllabus, however, will be decided by the group members themselves.
For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
We will be meeting at Fair Grinds Coffee House @ 3133 Ponce de Leon every Sunday, starting May 13th, at 5pm. Note, this is mother’s day. Do right by your mother and come talk feminism! And please please please suggest articles, topics, or films for the class.
Finally, while all are welcome to join in the conversation, this group aims to provide a space for men to talk openly about feminism.
What is feminism and why should men care about it? The word “feminism” refers to a diverse array of thought and action. While recognizing this diversity, a concise definition of feminism is provided by the author bell hooks:
Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.
Generally speaking, feminism seeks to understand and address the ways in which our society’s institutions (political, economic, familial, etc.), culture, and ways of thinking influence how power and inequality affect men and women and how these dynamics interact with other forms of oppression such as racism and homophobia. Thankfully, the idea that feminism entails hating or blaming men is simply wrong.
Given this broad and somewhat fuzzy definition, why should men care about feminism? There are many reasons. First, men should care about feminism because of all the women in their lives. Second, sexism constrains the lives of women and men–denying them both the full expression of their humanity. Finally, as the main perpetrators and beneficiaries of the sexist oppression of women, men have both a unique capacity and responsibility to help end it.
As to the first reason, a few facts help bring home why every son, brother, and father should care about feminism:
In light of these figures, the chances are that someone you know has been intimately affected by sexist oppression. If you care about the women in your life and you care about the oppression of women, you care about feminism.
In addition to exacting a terrible price on the lives of women, sexism affects men too. One way it does so is through gender roles. Men, like women, are taught, explicitly or implicitly, how to act, think, feel, and relate to others and themselves, based on their gender. This “socialization” can take many forms, from dinner table discussion to the messages communicated by T.V. shows and movies.
What is gender? To put it simply, sex refers to our biology, “what’s between your legs,” while gender refers to the meanings and status we associate with masculinity and femininity. Often, we take those things that are associated with masculinity and femininity and we assume that they are just as natural and permanent as our biology appears to be. We might assume that men are naturally drawn to the color blue and women, the color pink. Or we think it natural that men are drawn to football and that women are drawn to paint their nails. This assumption, that differences between men and women are permanent and independent of historical, cultural, and social contexts is called biological determinism. Instead, feminists argue that gender is something that we learn and perform (for instance, by dressing baby boys in blue clothing) and would not exist apart from our performances of it. “We might come into this world with a penis or vagina,” writes author Shira Tarrant, “but, we’re not born wanting to fix things with a hammer or carry a purse.”
OK, so whats the big deal? Well, as the writer Michael Kimmel has stated, “We live in a culture in which half of all traits and behaviors [are] coded as feminine and half [are] coded as masculine.” The outcome of this gendered categorization of human experience is eloquently expressed in an adaptation of a poem by Nancy Smith:
For every girl who is tired of acting weak when she is strong, there is a boy tired of appearing strong when he feels vulnerable. For every boy who is burdened with the constant expectation of knowing everything, there is a girl tired of people not trusting her intelligence. For every girl who is tired of being called over-sensitive, there is a boy who fears to be gentle, to weep. For every boy for whom competition is the only way to prove his masculinity, there is a girl who is called unfeminine when she competes. … For every boy struggling not to let advertising dictate his desires, there is a girl facing the ad industry’s attacks on her self esteem…
In other words, men should care about feminism because gender stereotypes, or the sexist scripts that we are all expected to perform, constrain the lives of both women and men. Such stereotypes affect how men relate to women, how they relate to other men, even how they relate to themselves. As Shira Tarrant writes, in seeking to abolish gender stereotypes, feminism is concerned with “maximizing liberty and minimizing arbitrary constraints” by allowing men and women to enjoy their full humanity. Granted, the case should not be overstated. As the writer Robert Jenson reminds us, “there’s a big difference between women dealing with the constant threat of being raped, beaten, and killed by the men in their lives, and men not being able to cry.”
In addition, men’s humanity can be affected in other, darker, ways by sexism: oppression warps the humanity of the oppressor. For example, as the group Men Can Stop Rape has written, “The great majority of all sexually violent crimes are committed by males. Even when men are sexually victimized, other men are most often the perpetrators.” Similarly, based on the numbers, there isn’t a “domestic violence” problem in the U.S. so much as a “male violence against women” problem (note how our use of language obscures the role of men). What these examples show is that, as the main perpetrators of the oppression of women, men have both a unique capacity and responsibility to help end it.
However, a piece of the picture is missing. While acknowledging the agency of individual rapists and batterers, we must also ask ourselves, what kind of a society do we live in that produces the men who commit such atrocities? Why are the levels of such abhorrent behavior so much higher in the U.S. than in other nations? In order to answer such questions, a systemic perspective is required.
Many people think that feminists hate men. Or, that in discussions of feminism, men are to be blamed and should feel guilty. This is not the case. Really, feminists hate patriarchy, which is any system based on domination and control, in which men hold a disproportionate amount of power, highly valued attributes or qualities are identified with men, and men or masculinity are taken to be the norm or natural center of attention. Now, patriarchy does not mean that all men are in a position of power. It does mean, however, that when you look at people in power, they are more likely to be men. Similarly, feminists do not want merely to replace patriarchy with “matriarchy,” or put women in power either. Instead, feminists seek to end all sexist domination and oppression.
The key word in the paragraph above is “system.” What makes a system unique is that it is more than the sum of its parts. Systems cannot be reduced to their components (or their participants). In other words, men are not patriarchy. So when feminists attack patriarchy, men should not feel under attack as well. While it is certainly true that individual men can be sexist or oppressive and should be held accountable for their actions, in discussions of patriarchy feminists oppose a system that produces oppressive outcomes.
The flipside of the fact that patriarchy is a system, however, is that it can produce oppressive outcomes without any ill will or intention on the part of those who participate in it. In the same way that the rules of “Monopoly” compel players (whether they are generous people or not) to act greedy by accumulating property, patriarchy sets up “paths of least resistance” that guide our actions and constrain what we think is appropriate or possible. This is done through numerous institutions (such as the media, family dynamics, and the educational system) that influence power relations and common conceptions of what is “natural” for men and women to do and be. When a man hears another man tell a sexist joke, for example, the path of least resistance is to simply laugh along. The fact that other courses of action are available might not even occur to him. As the author Allan Johnson explains, because of systemic factors that act like paths of least resistance:
Patriarchy can exist without men having “oppressive personalities” or actively conspiring with one another to defend male privilege. […] When oppression is woven into the fabric of everyday life, we don’t need to go out of our way to be overtly oppressive in order for an oppressive system to produce oppressive consequences. As the saying goes, what evil requires is simply that ordinary people do nothing.
Patriarchy is a system we have all inherited. We did not choose it. However, we all have a choice in terms of how we participate in it: whether we work to support the system, perpetuate its unjust outcomes through inaction, or struggle against it.
Anytime one group is oppressed, through systems such as patriarchy, another group is necessarily privileged. Privilege can be loosely defined as unearned advantages or opportunities. These privileges are often seen as natural and are therefore often invisible to those who enjoy them. These are just a few examples of male privilege:
Once again, men did not ask for such privileges. Unfortunately, we cannot just “give them back” either. That would require somehow stepping outside of the patriarchal structure of our society. Therefore, we must recognize that as the main beneficiaries of patriarchy, men have a unique responsibility to do all that we can to help end it. This responsibility does not mean that men need to “save” women (thereby co-opting their own political struggles), or should attempt to speak for them, or claim to understand their experiences. Instead, men should recognize their privileged place in society and the responsibility that this privilege entails.
It should also be noted that because people have multiple and layered identities, someone can be privileged in one respect, while being simultaneously oppressed in another. For instance, a low-income, gay, white male can experience white, male privilege while also facing economic disadvantage and homophobia. Indeed, different identities interact to produce different experiencesof privilege and oppression. Thus, because people have multifaceted identities and because systems of oppression are intimately intertwined, men as a group can be privileged while individual men have unique experiences of both privilege and oppression.
Given that sexism destroys the lives of the women we love, that it prevents the full expression of our humanity, and that men are the main perpetrators and beneficiaries of the sexist oppression of women, what concrete steps can men take to act as allies in feminist struggle? Three simple steps are self-education, practicing awareness, and speaking out. Regarding education, men must recognize that it is our own responsibility to educate ourselves. Three great starting points for learning more about men and feminism are bell hooks’ “Feminism is for Everybody,” Shira Tarrant’s “Men and Feminism,” and Allan Johnson’s “The Gender Knot.”
In addition to education, we can also be more aware of how the dynamics of gender play out in our everyday lives. Our gendered upbringing, or socialization, has profound and subtle consequences for the way we think and behave. It can even influence something as simple as a conversation. The next time you’re part of a group, be aware of who does most of the talking. Be aware of who is interrupted, who does the interrupting, and who is silent. Being aware of gender dynamics, particularly our own actions, is one of the most important steps men can take in being allies.
Finally, when you see something that doesn’t seem right, do something about it. Speak out! As bell hooks has said, “men have a tremendous contribution to make to feminist struggle in the area of exposing, confronting, opposing, and transforming the sexism of their male peers.” Granted, this is easier said than done. However, working to subvert patriarchy can be as simple as not laughing at a sexist joke or questioning someone as to why they said what they just did. Recognize that we have to meet folks where they are and that people are starting out at varying levels of understanding sexism.
* * *
“If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
–Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s
1. Don’t interrupt women when they speak, control their space, or assume they need your protection. Focus on the effect of your actions, rather than on the intent.
2. Support women’s leadership and help elect progressive women to political office.
3. Support women’s equality in education, sports, and in the workplace.
4. Be willing to make mistakes. Be willing to make yourself and others uncomfortable.
5. Don’t condone, laugh at, or tell sexist (racist or homophobic) jokes or stories.
6. Model other behaviors by deviating from paths of least resistance.
7. Listen, believe, and be accountable to women and their stories. When confronted on your own sexism (racism, homohobia, etc.) listen instead of getting defensive.
8. Tell the women and men in your life that you love them, out loud.
9. Take responsibility for birth control and reproductive health and safety.
10. Speak up when you see violence or abuse directed at women or children, in real life, or in the media. Donate to a local rape crisis, sexual assault, and domestic violence program.
1 Roni Caryn Rabin, “Nearly 1 in 5 Women in U.S. Survey Say They Have Been Sexually Assaulted,” New York Times, 12/14/2011
2 Annual median earnings in 2008, US Census Bureau
5 The following section is almost entirely derived from Allan Johnson’s excellent essay Patriarchy, The System, found in Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives by Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey.