By accepting the apt words of academic and activist bell hooks, we are invited to ask a broader question: what does it mean for a man to be a feminist? From an experiential perspective, can a man ever understand what it means to be a woman? What do we even mean when we talk about some universal or fixed category of “woman”?
Talking about feminism or feminists, often in the political or media sphere, raises the spectre of some man-hating, unattractive, unmarried female, with a penchant for whining. Therefore, as a man, the assumption is that I should be terrified rather than inspired by such a concept. The fact that this cultural stereotype has such universal currency highlights the ways in which feminism is often spoken of as the “f-word”- a dirty word.
Why? What are the anxieties men have over feminism? It is important to stress there are multiple answers to this question. Perhaps it is the popular culture antagonism to the word? Or, maybe feminism has become conflated with man hating? Just as the singular word ‘feminism’ itself can be misleading, as I think the parochial image we have of feminism as homogeneous or static is what provokes much anxiety.
So what does feminism, or rather “feminisms”, mean to me? I do not identify as a woman, I identify as a man.
Rather than eclipse my identity, feminism allows me to interrogate my position of privilege, as a man, and enables me to find ways of negotiating it.
Former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, opined:
“We are in the post-feminist stage of the debate…I find that for the under-30s woman the feminist battle has been won.”
Really? Is that why women today continue to earn, on average, 17 cents less per dollar, than their male counterparts in similar employment? Is this the same woman who is denied reproductive justice because criminal laws continue to limit access to safe abortions? Are these the same women who are sexually assaulted, often by people they know, only to be discredited at trial for being sexually active?
While Mr. Howard is certainly not alone in believing that we living are in a post-feminist age, I, for one, still think feminism still has much political and social relevance.
Feminism provides a space for the discussion of differences and how to reflect on gendered experience to consider issues of diversity and social justice – and that is not confined to those who identify as women.
For men, feminism manifest in a number of ways: responding to the prevailing silence on mental health; challenging hegemonic ideas of masculinity as being aggressive, assertive or public; or delinking gender from cultural assumptions about parenting.
In this way, feminism is not simply an anchor to mobilise activism and social change in a public sense, but also assists us in the most intimate or banal dimensions of our lives.
From the division of household labour to political leadership, the reach of feminism is undeniably broad.
Can men, therefore, speak as feminists? There is no easy answer to this question. Some suggest that men can be “pro-feminist” if they have well-developed feminist values/consciousness but lack the experience to identify as a feminist. Others, however, suggest that men can be feminist if they subscribe to a language of gender equality.
While there is no simple answer to this question, we need to think about the different languages of feminism, and whether the category of “woman” or even that of “man” is a fixed category to make a political claim.
Let’s not forget that not everyone fits into the neat male/female dichotomy.
Feminism invites a critical dialogue with various social and bodily identities: sexuality, race, class, religion, disability and age just to name a few. No one is ever just a man or a woman. For a female refugee who is seeking asylum in Australia, a feminist politic may revolve around appropriate status determination procedures and durable protection. For an Aboriginal lesbian elder, feminism may manifest in being able to access non-discriminatory aged care or housing services without having to “closet” her relationship.
What I find exciting about feminism then is its capacity to facilitate dialogues about cultural differences without erasing marginalised voices.
Sometimes tensions do not detract from politics. Debates can strengthen the foundation of a political struggle. Thinking through these complex questions in the pursuit of social change, feminism, for me, is about engaging politics and activism across our intersecting communities.
As a man, I am, and many others are, deeply indebted to feminism. Whether we choose to identify as a feminist, or pro-feminist, or nothing at all, we must recognise that feminism has progressed important dialogues about intimacy, education, politics, religion, health, law and culture. Instead of repudiating feminist labels then, we should embrace feminist dialogues to help build more inclusive politics and communities.