Whenever I tell people I’m a feminist, I often get puzzled looks and ambivalent responses like, “oh, that’s interesting, but why?” As a male feminist this isn’t uncommon. Just Google, “can men be feminists?” and there are tons of opinion pieces from major news sources posing the question along with articles like, “I’m a Male Feminist. No Seriously.”
Often both men and women are united in thinking it’s strange that a guy would care about something that’s “not their problem,” and seems to have nothing to do with them. Imagine the sort of reaction you think a man might get if he tells his friends he’s majoring in women’s studies. People would be confused, to say the least.
But feminism does not deal with issues that are irrelevant to men. Men benefit from male privilege, which drives a sexist culture that largely favors them. Just by being a man, I already have significant advantages over half the world’s population, and because these unearned advantages are deeply rooted in our society, they often go unchecked and unseen. We, as men, may hate hearing this and may not consciously consent to the status quo, leading us to believe that male privilege doesn’t exist or has been heavily exaggerated. But like any other serious issue the first step to confronting a problem is admitting that there is one. You can check out this list for a few dozen examples of male privilege if you’re particularly skeptical.
This is why it’s so dangerous that men in our culture are expected to be apathetic about women’s issues. And why shouldn’t men care about women’s issues when they’re ultimately human issues? As with many other forms of oppression, discrimination against women won’t diminish without men stepping up and becoming allies in the cause against sexism. In other words, men must become feminists.
Still, even if a man is concerned about women’s issues, it’s a very popular idea in our culture that he, himself, cannot identify as a feminist. Famous singer/producer Pharrell Williams sums up this attitude well in a recent interview. After talking about how it’s unfair that women are paid less than men and are denied control over their reproductive rights, he hedges a bit when it comes to calling himself a feminist:
He’s clearly not apathetic about women’s rights but doesn’t feel there’s a place for him in feminism. He can be an ally to feminists but not one himself. In some ways, his hesitation is understandable. In fact, a lot of feminists are weary when men use the label, and rightfully so. So often men are taught to be aggressive and take over conversations, pushing the viewpoints of women aside. The term mansplaining is used to describe this kind of thing, coined by women sick of men telling them how to fix their problems in a sort of “father knows best” approach that is both condescending and naive. Victoria Brownworth explains this well:
So we need to find out how to become feminists without becoming this guy:
Here’s a few suggestions:
1) Listen! This might be the most important word for any male feminist. Listening is the opposite of mansplaining. As men, we should ask questions and try to learn from women’s experiences rather than projecting our experience on to them. It’s so important that women, rather than men, lead the discussion because sexism predominately affects them. This is why its so infuriating when so many of our politicians are men who act like they know what’s best for women. Women should be given the ability to make their own choices and determine how they want to live. For that to happen men have to listen to women and take what they say seriously. Women’s experiences cannot be defined or managed by the commentary of men. That leads to the next point…
2) Check your privilege. But be kind to yourself. Male privilege gives men an unfair upper hand that is deeply rooted in how we are treated and think of ourselves. It’s always important to acknowledge this and fight for gender equality in whatever ways we can. But as a man you will sometimes screw up, and people will let you know it (and they should). Don’t overwhelm yourself with waves of guilt, and don’t make it all about you. Apologize; learn from your mistakes; and move on as a better person and a better ally. Being a male feminist isn’t about being perfect. It’s about recognizing that there’s so much work to do, both within ourselves and in society, and that it’s worth it because all people deserve to be treated with respect.
3) Talk to your male friends. Unfortunately, feminism and the fight for women’s rights have wrongly been associated with women whining and complaining about everything they don’t like. This in itself is sexist and is based on the idea that women’s experiences should not be taken seriously. Because of this, it often takes a man pointing out that a misogynistic joke is harmful or that pay inequality is real for another man to listen and take women at their word. So as a man don’t just check your privilege, but fight sexism within your own community.
This isn’t by any means a complete list, but it’s a good place to start!
*Have any other good suggestions for how men can be better feminists? Let us know in the comments below!*
Matthew Reyes is an executive director of Why Feminist. He has his Masters in philosophy from SUNY Stony Brook where he researched art and ethics. He’s also abnormally obsessed with Seinfeld and basketball.