Men can’t be feminists

May 1, 2008 at 8:29 pm | Posted in Feminisms | 5 Comments
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The road to ridicule is paved with the best of intentions. This week, probably inspired by the collosal number of comments on Cath Elliott’s post about whether men can be feminists, Khaled Diab waded into the row armed with his most potent ‘I feel your pain’ platitudes. His piece was coherent and well-written. Empathetic and urbane. If I was going to write a post arguing why men should be allowed to call themselves feminists without any scoffing or sarcasm from any of the feminist women of the world, this was the article I’d write.

So it shows how futile an exercise it is that despite his best efforts, he still deserved this searing bit of snark:

Moreover, chides the sentimental Diab, chicks can be chauvinist pigs, too! Men “don’t have a monopoly on being domineering.” Seriously. Men wouldn’t dominate “the movement” any more than “obnoxious female feminists” do; remember, men are so remarkably imaginative and empathetic (hey, I know! The men could protect the nice feminists from the obnoxious ones.).

Diab complains that having “direct experience” of sex-based oppression shouldn’t really be the deal-breaker that those 17 or 18 feminists make it out to be. But. If we insist: it turns out men do have direct experience! Which Diab defines as the impact on the dominant class when people of lower status get screwed over. Clearly the male experience of “anger and frustration” on his wife’s behalf is qualitatively identical to enduring the persistent threat of violence that every woman suffers whenever she leaves the house (and often even when she doesn’t), or the fact that white dudes own several of her internal organs, or living in poverty with 3 kids and no healthcare.

As the same artist (yes, the words on this blog will be considered as art) has described, even the most well-meaning male ‘feminists’ can be laughably, cringe-worthily bad at living up to their title. We have a habit of imposing our perceptions on others, of citing anecdotal evidence to prove a tendentious point, of discrediting the feminism of another woman when it doesn’t easily cohabitate with our own views.

In my online voyages, I’ve become wearily familiar with men spewing something along the lines of “I’m a feminist, but…” in their arguments, and every time they do so it cheapens what the word means, what the movement means. You can see it in debates about the sex industry, in questions of whether we ought to allow Hooters into our high streets or topless women on the third page of our tabloids, in debates about gender roles and the role of women in the work place. In so many of these debates, I’ve seen men interjecting and claiming to be equally worthy of the feminist mantle when in every single substantive way we have no fucking clue what it’s like.

So no, fella, you can’t be a feminist, but then John Stuart Mill isn’t considered a Suffragette and no one doubts that his writings played a role in supporting the suffrage movement. Feminism requires inclusivity to be successful and that means persuading as many men as possible, but for men to seek membership of this group reeks a little bit of the Pulp song about the rich girl who wants to live like Common People.

Feminism shouldn’t be a club you seek membership to; it’s a way of responding to the horrors visited upon women. Since we men have no earthly idea of what it’s really like, there’s no shame in prioritising their experiences and cheering from the sideline.



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  1. Can’t is rather a strong proclamation in this context, don’t you think? It would make more sense to say “Most men who claim to be feminists are not” or “I have not yet met a self-proclaimed male feminist who actually is one.”

    After all, if you can judge that men aren’t feminists based on their behavior, doesn’t it follow that a different behavior would mean they could be feminists?

    I don’t want to deign to call myself a feminist here on your blog, since I don’t want to get in a semantics battle over the word feminist. I, too, cringe (whether the speaker is male or female) when I hear people say “I’m a feminist, but…” And I don’t think feminism is a club you should seek membership in, but neither is it a club from which you should exclude people. It isn’t a club at all.

    The one thing I will agree with is that men should cheer women from the sidelines and focus on modeling nonsexist behavior and attitudes for other men. I was vexed, for example, when men insisted at one of my college’s Take Back the Night marches that they be allowed to speak, too. The leaders of the event said it’d be okay as long as the men speaking were survivors themselves. Did it end up that way? No. The men who spoke at that event basically said the equivalent of “Be careful out there. If you get raped, it’s at least partially your fault” instead of “I was raped too.”

    Just as I wouldn’t want white Americans leading an antiracist movement full of people of color, I can understand why women feminists wouldn’t want men being too outspoken and bossy within an antisexism movement. On the other hand, I would never entertain the notion that white Americans cannot be antiracist the way some feminists have tried to say that men cannot be feminists.

  2. […] can’t be feminists: a reader dissents 02May08 Is it too strong to proclaim that men can’t be feminists? A commenter suggests it might: Can’t is rather a strong proclamation in this context, don’t […]

  3. Thanks for this – I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s one of the most interesting rebuttals anyone’s left on this blog. If you’re interested, my response is here. Feel free to follow-up with your own thoughts.

  4. […] men be feminists? This is the question posed by no few authors recently (1, 2, 3, 4). The articles with which I am mostly closely concerning myself are links three and four in the […]

  5. […] Well, it seems I’ve grasped a nettle on this topic. Following my earlier contention that men can’t be feminists and the subsequent rebuttal from a passing commenter, David Semple, whose blog is never anything […]

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