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Am I a feminist?

February 21, 2011
"A feminine philosopher."

John Stuart Mill: a feminist?

There is some confusion over what a feminist is. I have often argued that a feminist is anyone who answers yes to the following questions. Do you think women should have the right to vote? Do you think women should be allowed to work and be paid at the same rate as men? Do you think women should be treated the same, legally and socially and be afforded the same opportunities as men? It seems to me to be as simple as that (the tricky bits come in the implications of the third question). Some would say that there should be one other question that comes before any of those: are you a woman?

If that question is essential then I would obviously not be a feminist. Some feminists would use the term ‘pro-feminist male’ or some other qualifier to show the sex of the feminist in question. I don’t agree with the accusation of hypocrisy which this practice often gives rise to. Feminism is not just an anti-sexist campaign dedicated to rooting out all forms of discrimination. As Germaine Greer has said, the slogan of second-wave feminism was not ‘equality’ but ‘liberation’. There is room in feminism, particularly in the essentialist varieties, for this kind of distinction to be made. Personally I tend to qualify my feminism by saying things like, ‘if a man can be a feminist then I am a feminist’. I do feel that, as a man, if I were to claim ownership of the word against the objections of women I would negate the statement.

As someone who believes, broadly speaking, in human rights, liberty, justice and equality I would describe my feminism as simply a logical consequence of my humanism. Women are the largest group of disenfranchised, discriminated against people and therefore merit the most attention. Of course feminists have rightly objected to the fact that ‘humanism’ has often ignored women and simply meant ‘man-ism’. Not wanting to associate myself with that perhaps I could be a Homo sapiens-ist but the word ‘homo’ is Latin for man so we have the same problem. The only label which expresses my concerns is feminist.

Identifying as feminist is also risky. It is something I have to live up to. It is certainly not true that I always treat men and women in exactly the same way, partly because I have a tendency to indulge in positive discrimination and partly because, in certain circumstances, I have different goals in my interactions with women from those I have with men. So what behaviour would qualify me as feminist? For the term to mean anything, feminist behaviour must go beyond simply avoiding acts which are illegal anyway (physical abuse, harassment, etc). That just qualifies one as law-abiding. I think that treating women with respect is a start. Trying to avoid relating to women in ways which are patronising, paternalistic or patriarchal (do I need to point out the common root of those words?). This is not always as easy as it sounds because women are still frequently taught and expected to assume a submissive role in their interactions with men. (I’m sure it’s dying out, but ‘laugh at his jokes’ and ‘don’t contradict him’ are still current as dating advice for women. Any man that this actually works for must be less secure than an astrologer’s grasp on reality.)

Secondly I think avoiding sexist language is important. Using ‘woman’ to refer to females over the age of eighteen rather than ‘girl’ seems fairly simple but the tendency to refer to women as children is so prevalent it can require some concentration. Challenging other people’s use of ‘girl’ can be amusing and often causes confusion. One conversation I had went like this: “A blonde girl just smiled at me.” “You’re in there!” “Don’t be disgusting, she was about four years old.” There is of course a whole bestiary of sexist language to be avoided and challenged. I am personally profoundly uncomfortable with what seems to have been a half-hearted attempt to ‘reclaim’ the word bitch: it still means a female dog, however often Paris Hilton uses it as term of endearment. Playing with language is something I enjoy and challenging sexist terms is a great opportunity for disingenuity: “I don’t understand, I always understood a bird to be a warm-blooded, bipedal, egg-laying, feathered vertebrate of the class Aves.”

As a male feminist can one criticise women? If a female feminist describes Paris Hilton as an airhead bimbo and traitor to her sex who has put feminism back ten years and corrupted the minds of millions of impressionable young girls, many people would agree. If I were to say such a thing I might well be accused of misogyny. And quite rightly I think. Having thought about this for some time it occurs to me that a misogynistic impulse in a man can be channelled into disapproval of ‘unfeminist’ women. This might be considered the Sarah Palin question. Any person who was awake at the time could see the outrageous sexism of the media when it was covering Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic candidacy or Harriet Harman’s stint as Labour leader. Sarah Palin’s views are so abhorrent to any thinking person, however, that it’s tricky to object to her treatment and to her. It’s hard to say that treating female politicians as stupid is wrong if they actually are stupid. She seems to have provided a convenient outlet for liberal misogyny. As a man I think one has to avoid being judgemental of women from a feminist perspective, partly to avoid the possibility of misogyny and partly to avoid giving the impression that men have the right to do so. My own opinion of Paris Hilton, for what it’s worth, is rather more complex and subtle than that above, which I do not endorse.

Gender, as Judith Butler has argued, is performative. It should be seen not as an essential part of our identity but as the result of certain actions we make. A consequence of this is that we can disrupt gender by changing our performances. Acting ‘out of gender’ is inherently subversive and reminds our audience that gender is not natural, rather like a Brechtian alienation device. This is something that men can/must do as well as women. In fact, one might argue that this is more important for men. Masculine behaviours in women have become more acceptable than feminine behaviours in men so there is greater subversive potential in gender-troubling men. Simple possibilities include cross-dressing, wearing make-up or professing a fondness for romantic comedies. (All things I have done at various points.) More difficult, but, I think more useful is to try to show no allegiance to a particular gender, to mix ones messages in a way that cannot easily be pinned down. It requires a certain self-examination and the awareness of moments in which one might slip into conventional gendered behaviour. It also has the advantage of allowing one to be more true to one’s instincts (and to one’s ‘self’, whatever that is) without engaging in any attempt to fit into people’s expectations and so might also help in a quest for existential authenticity. If gender is a performance then we should play with it and this should be enjoyable.

Perhaps the trickiest part of being a male feminist is talking to women who do not identify as feminist. It was within this context that I started using the three questions at the head of this piece. I think most feminists (of any sex or gender) would agree that reclaiming the word ‘feminist’ and making clear that it is not synonymous with misandry is a prerequisite for any serious change, so it seems worthwhile to encourage people to see feminism as positive and in some way try to fight against the propaganda of the Daily Telegraph/Daily Mail/Sun (delete as applicable to your educational level). The trick is to do this in a way which does not appear superior. As a feminist I believe that women should identify themselves however they like, but I also believe we would all be better off if more of them identified as feminist. There is a line here which one must tread carefully.

This is only a short overview of some of my thoughts on the subject. It is not a manifesto or even a set of tips for aspiring pro-feminist males. I hope it might be the beginning of a conversation.


From → Gender

  1. Rob Casey permalink

    I’m very much with you on the point of talking to women (or men for that matter) who don’t accept the label ‘feminist’. I’ve often tried the following investigation with classes of my students: First of all, hands up if you regard yourself to be a feminist – no responses, or sometimes one or two; hands up if you think women should have the right to be treated equally to men – everyone’s hands go up, occasionally with exceptions. It’s an intriguing phenomenon.

  2. Thank you. That’s a lot more empirical than my own experience in informal conversations. Do you get the normal responses when you question this, i.e. I don’t think women should rule over men, or variations on that?

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