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How men can support women and Feminism

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Submitted by Felix on Mon, 2010-03-22 22:35

Recently, I've been talking about men and feminism a fair bit, and not just in what I write, but in other places online and in real life. This is pretty normal for me, but what's a bit interesting is that a lot of these conversations have been around the relationship of men to feminism and in particular, what role men can play in supporting feminism and women in general.

A lot of this discussion has been about names; and in particular what you call a male identified person who supports and actively promotes feminism. 'Feminist' is the obvious answer, but this can be problematic because the word is SO strongly associated with women, and some feel that there personal, experiential aspects of feminism, along with male privilege (the numerous benefits and opportunities that biological men often enjoy solely on the basis of their sex - better average wages, less harassment, etc) think that is important for the term 'Feminist' to remain exclusive to female identifying people. Other people think that males SHOULD label themselves feminists, to better challenge the notion feminism is a concern only of women, and actively engage men in struggles for gender rights and equality. Just like UK comedian Bill Bailey is doing here.

Some other terms that are used to describe men who identify with feminism are 'Allies,' a term which is used by people in many contexts (not just men) who advocate and support struggles around a particular issue, for example rights for sex workers, but, for whatever reason, do not identify with that community themselves. 'Male feminist' and 'pro-feminist' are also used, which include the term feminist, along with a caveat that creates a distinction with female feminists.

This stuff with names and terms can seem kind of beside the point, but it all means quite a bit when it comes to how we think about gender, feminism, etc and this theory naturally informs personal politics and action in these areas. It's a personal choice though, and I don't think any of the above labels are more right or wrong than the others, it's about what you believe and what you feel comfortable with. Regardless of what you call it, there are many ways the actions and behaviours of male people can support women and promote gender equality. I'm only going to outline a few broad (and I think key) points, I'd be really interested to get your input and perspectives and experiences, (male and female) so please be vocal in the comments section.

As a male, it's important to understand and realise that you have certain advantages and privileges purely on the basis of your biological sex. Individual men are privileged because, overwhelmingly in the world and throughout history, men as a group have been privileged; more money, less domestic work, more rights, getting to keep their name in marriage, etc. Privilege is tricky, because so often the advantages and preferential treatment can seem small; for example, you get a promotion at work. Sure this is because of your hard work and general talent, but chances are that some part of the reason is that because you're a guy you are seen as 'more reliable' or a 'harder worker' or a ' leader.' I should point out that privilege is by no means a single, solid overarching thing. Not all men have the same privileges; older, more well off, heterosexual men (for example), usually have more opportunities and advantages than say, men of colour, homosexual men, lower socio-economic men, transmen etc. Gender is only one aspect among many in determining privilege. Part of the problem with male privilege and countering it is that it is often so intangible and difficult to clearly demonstrate its operation. It's based in hundreds and hundreds of years of culture and thought, and that is tough to change. And this systemic privilege isn't just changed in activism for institutional change, like women getting the vote, or being able to work, or have access to healthcare, (which are really important struggles by the way) but by changing attitudes and beliefs on an individual and cultural level. So you, as an individual male, can help the struggle for gender equality by recognising that, in some ways, you have certain advantages because of your sex. In recognising this, you can take some actions, big or small, to highlight this privilege, and make inequality based on sex or gender more visible.

Another really important thing that you can do to support women and feminism, and something closely linked to the sentiments above, is to listen to women, and respect what they say. It really should be that you listen and respect what anyone has to say, but again, history and culture have shown us that some voices get heard a whole lot less, and when they are heard, they are often not respected. Oh, and again, all this stuff is applicable to not just gender, but also factors such as class, race, and very often age (younger people in particular). So in general, listening and valuing what the women around you have to say is a good idea, even (and especially) if it is a topic that women are "traditionally" excluded from, for example car repair or something else 'blokey' is a spot on way to practice principles of equality and feminism. Also, and this links in to the whole male privilege thing, there are times and conversations with women were you should just listen, and think very carefully about speaking, the appropriateness of you speaking, and what you are saying. I'm talking about conversations where the male voice (that'd be you) often is a unneccesary or unwanted one; conversations about violence against women, including sexual violence and harassment and conversations around pregnancy and reproductive choices. In this sort of conversation it's probably best to take a back seat and to respect the experiences that you may not have had. Respecting what women say, and respecting that some conversations are for women more than men are really good ways to support women.

The final way in which males can support gender equity is perhaps the most obvious, and often (I think) the hardest. And that is actively speaking out when you see or hear behaviour which is sexist, misogynistic or generally denigrates women - say something about it. This is especially important in exclusively male, or male dominated environments where other voices of dissent may not be heard. I often find it really hard to speak up in this kind of context, especially among people who I otherwise like, respect and value. However in a few instances, after I've repeatedly called someone out for a sexist or misogynist comment, they've stopped speaking like that around me. That doesn't mean that I, on my own have caused a fundamental shift in behaviour in attitude, but it at least demonstrates that they are thinking about what they say in some circumstances. I reckon this as a good thing.

So, above are a few ways I think men can be supportive of gender equity and the goals of feminism. This is all just my own opinion, and should not be taken as gospel, and really is just a few ideas. I think it's really important to work out your own personal relationship and interactions with feminism. Like I said at the start I'd really like to hear your thoughts and comments on men and feminism.

(This piece also appears at my personal blog Critical Masculinities, which mainly consists of me writing about what masculinities mean in culture and society).

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