Men & feminism: take three

May 3, 2008 at 10:41 am | Posted in Feminisms | Leave a comment

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 less than a cradle of eloquence, adds his own criticisms. It’s an excellent post that I’d encourage you to read in its entirety, and it reminded me of an argument I’d forgotten to include in either of my two posts.

I think the main difference between us is summed-up by this paragraph towards the end:

My conclusion is that definitions of feminism cannot be based simply on the subjectivity of direct experience. This is not to deny how important that can be in shaping the political and feminist consciousnesses of women, it is simply to say that there is a greater, more universally available, objective reality. It is to say that this objective reality serves just as well to condition men in such a way as to render them feminists. When engaged in real struggle, feminism finds itself subsumed into other issues and we all become feminists.

But definitions of feminism are inevitably formed on the subjectivity of direct experience, not least by women who call themselves feminists. Sure, there are many easily-available objective truths about women’s oppression (forced marriages, genital mutilation, the idiocy of ‘abstinence only’, unequal pay etc) and those truths can inspire a rallying cry for change voiced by people of both genders that becomes larger than the movement from whence it came. At the same time, objective reality is still received, understood and interpreted subjectively and with an infinite number outcomes.

As I’ve said previously, there are many different feminisms. Feminism is far from a monolithic movement, and when we move beyond the rather basic no-brainer issues cited earlier, we find debates in which there are many competing arguments: the question of whether a feminist should abide by pornography, legal prostitution or strip clubs, how far they should oppose clothing like the hijab, whether state-endorsed mysogeny was a strong enough reason to support the war in Afghanistan, whether women should campaign for a ban on Page 3 or mysogenistic video games. On all of these issues you’ll find women who hold different points of view as part of a feminism which is often deeply personal, subjective and drawn from experiences men can’t claim equally. On these issues, at least, interjecting into debates by ‘speaking as a male feminist’ isn’t particularly helpful.

What I think this boils down to, and what my posts didn’t clearly articulate, is probably a squabble over semantics. In the sense of political activism – a movement with a clearly-defined and universally agreed-upon set of objective goals and principles – men can be feminists in the same sense as white people can be anti-racist. But as a means of understanding the world that inevitably leads to an infinite number of subjective interpretations, I think we’re much better off as pro-feminists; deferent supporters of women whose experiences play a role in forming their feminism, and from whom we can learn a great deal.

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