Time for a pop quiz, everyone!
1) What is feminism?
A) A global conspiracy against men with the goal of making them sperm/cash machines only. B) A bunch of unattractive women angry because they can’t get laid. C) An umbrella term for a series of movements dating back hundreds of years devoted to the equality of women.
2) Which of these is NOT a feminist goal?
A) Equality of pay between men and women to better strengthen the economy and to make a woman equally capable of being the breadwinner for her family. B) Control over reproduction so that every child is a wanted child. C) Ensuring that men have no rights to their children in custody battles, only financial obligations.
3) Feminism is good for:
A) All women. B) Hairy lesbians only. C) Everybody!
If you picked all C’s, congratulations, you pass!
Many people who are diametrically opposed to the feminist movement believe that it is a ‘war between the sexes,’ and that feminists are campaigning for their rights at the expense of men’s rights. This is what has led to the rise of a men’s rights movement. However, this movement is unnecessary. Feminism is not about hurting men, but about empowering women to be equal to them in all areas of society. I admit that there are a few valid concerns typically championed by men–mostly in the family law area. However–and I will speak more to this later–when we break down the valid concerns about gender assumptions in custody battles, it turns out that feminism’s focus on freeing everyone from traditional gender roles means that the feminist movement and the legitimate father’s rights advocates are working toward the same goal.
But first: what the hell is feminism, anyway?
It’s an easy umbrella term for any pro-women’s rights movement, but feminism is not a monolith and never has been. It takes different forms in different countries, being closely intertwined with local culture. Feminism is currently widely accepted to have three “waves,” although there is a staggering diversity in ideology even among the waves. The first wave is generally defined as being focused on the legal discrimination against women–for example, the suffragettes were first-wave feminists. The second wave arose during the 1960s, and broadened the debate to questions of inequality in sexuality, workplaces and the family. The third wave came in response to the second wave, and is widely believed to have risen in response to the “Feminist Sex Wars,” a series of debates in the late 1970s and early 1980s between feminists about pornography, sex work, the role of trans women and kink, among other issues. The third wave also shifted the discussion to how the feminist movement excluded women of color, and began considering the idea of intersectionality.
There’s no such thing as one feminist ideology. There have been many feminist activists who were deeply flawed, who furthered the cause while also supporting some dodgy things. (Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood and the woman who coined the term ‘birth control,’ supported eugenics.) She and I are tied together by our desire to create a world where women have equal rights and opportunities, and are considered human beings worthy of respect. So, when I talk about how feminism benefits men just as it benefits women, I’m talking in the most general terms possible. I respect what Margaret Sanger did for women, but just because we are both feminists does not mean her ideology speaks for me.
So, just how does feminism–a women’s movement–benefit men? And how can men be a part of it?
I am going to focus on three things: 1) the breaking down of traditional gender roles benefits men as much as women, 2) economic empowerment of women is good for men, and 3) control over reproduction is good for men, too.
Breaking down of traditional gender roles benefits men as much as women.
There are expectations of what a man should be and what a woman should be in society. They differ from country to country, but one common thread is the man as the provider and the woman as the caregiver. You’re not a man if you can’t provide for your family, right? If you’re a “pussy” (feminine), that’s bad, but if you have “balls” (masculine), that’s a compliment. Men are socialized from birth to fear being womanly. If a man shows emotions, he is not a man. If he doesn’t like to play or watch sports, he’s not a man. If he would rather stay home with his children, he’s not a man.
Feminism, in general, is not okay with that. We tend to dislike the association of our gender with weakness and frivolity and less prestige, and we often try to have “women’s work”–nursing, teaching, tending to children–be given the same value as “men’s work.” If a man wants to be a nurse, we should consider that an honorable path for him. Men should be free to be themselves, regardless of how close or far that is from the gender stereotype of a man. Same for women.
Photo courtesy of Nirmukta
Now I’m going to bring up men’s rights activists. I want to link to this essay on men’s movements by Michael Flood, Ph.D., which breaks down just what they are and why they’re problematic. By blaming feminists and explicitly endorsing sexism, the valid point–that the family court system relies too much on the gender stereotype of woman as caregiver/man as provider–is lost. If feminism succeeds in its goal of breaking down traditional gender roles, then the legal system will have to consider each case on an individual level of what’s best for the children. Maybe it is best if the mother is the primary caregiver while the father pays. Maybe it’s the other way around. In this case, father’s rights advocates should actually team up with feminists to create a legal system that is free of gender stereotyping.
I don’t want to get into a detailed discussion of gay men and how gender roles hurt them, simply because it is something that deserves its own article, but I do think it’s important to mention that homophobia against gay men is often rooted in the degradation of the feminine and disgust over the (false) idea that a man is somehow becoming a woman.
Economic empowerment of women helps men.
First of all, it is a myth that women only recently started holding down jobs. Throughout history, most women had to work. (When I say work, I mean work at a paying job as convenient shorthand, this is not to imply that I think that housewives did not work.) The difference is that now women are demanding to be paid equally.
Economic empowerment of women is good for economies as a whole. Women make up one-half of the pool of potential talent, and one of the biggest factors in whether an economy grows is having a wide pool of talent.
In the past decades, the health and education levels of women and girls in developing countries have improved a great deal–in many cases they are catching up to men and boys. But no such progress has been seen in economic opportunity: women continue to consistently trail men in formal labor force participation, access to credit, entrepreneurship rates, income levels, and inheritance and ownership rights. This is neither fair nor smart economics: Under-investing in women limits development, slows down poverty reduction and economic growth.
In developed countries, it also frees men from the burden of being the sole provider. The cost of living has increased dramatically–to see that this is true, we just have to look at the cost of living in 1960 and compare it to today. Many people might blame feminism and the rise of the two-working-parent family for this, but that shows a weak understanding of economics–there’s no one cause for it. In addition, many households throughout history, especially among poorer families, had a woman who worked.
Let’s say you are a young man with a wife and a baby. The three of you have to eat, have to buy diapers, etc. Lets say your dream is to be an artist of some kind. If your wife can work and bring in a salary comparable to what a man in a similar field brings in, the financial burden on you is eased. You are not forced to be a lawyer or a banker simply because there is no other way to support your family. Let’s say you later on get divorced. If you’re opposed to alimony in principle, the best way to avoid paying it is to have a wife who does not need it because she is not reliant on you for financial stability. All you have to do, as a man, is be able to accept women into the workplace and treat them like equals.
Reproductive control benefits everyone involved in heterosexual relationships.
This one should be a no-brainer. Feminism has played a huge role in making birth control acceptable. Do you know that birth control used to be illegal in the United States? It wasn’t until 1965 that a landmark Supreme Court case, Griswold v. Connecticut, enshrined the right to conception. Feminism was hugely instrumental in making birth control widely accepted. So, if you are a heterosexual male who has ever had sex for any reason besides procreation, if you’ve ever been able to relax post-coital knowing that your sex partner was on the pill, you have benefited from feminism. In the United States, birth control is under attack. If you as a man want to be able to have control over procreation, you should be a feminist.
This all ignores a fundamental fact: if you are a man who has any women in his life–a mother, a sister, a girlfriend, a wife, a cousin, a friend–and you care about this woman, you should be a feminist or a feminist ally. How can you claim to love someone or care about someone and at the same time advocate against a movement dedicated to giving them human rights? President Obama (who I believe has been a strong friend to women) often talks about how, when it comes to women’s issues, he thinks about his daughters, and what he wants for them. During the Sandra Fluke-Rush Limbaugh incident–when Ms. Fluke was viciously attacked by Rush Limbaugh for daring to participate in public discourse on birth control, President Obama called Ms. Fluke to offer support. When asked why he did that, he said:
I thought about Malia and Sasha, and one of the things I want them to do as they get older is to engage in issues they care about, even ones I may not agree with them on. I want them to be able to speak their mind in a civil and thoughtful way, and I don’t want them attacked or called horrible names because they’re being good citizens.
For women, feminism and women’s issues are real and personal. This is about our day-to-day lives. For many men, it’s an intellectual exercise that they can leave at the door. The way to bridge this gap is for men to frame feminist issues by thinking about them in relation to the women they care about.
So, is there room for men in the feminist movement? I believe so. I would say that the rules men should go by is that often, you will need to take a back seat. Don’t come into a women’s rights movement and try to impose your will. Understand that your knowledge of sexism is second-hand, and most women experience it first-hand. You will never know what it’s like to experience sexism first-hand, so take into account what women are saying. Don’t try to invalidate a woman’s experience. If I am talking about street harassment, you can’t tell me that it shouldn’t bother me or it’s not a big deal–it does bother me and it is a big deal. I know this because of my experiences with it. I also ask men who want to be involved in gender equality not to get defensive. Understand that ‘men’ as an institution is different from you as an individual.
I don’t think any woman has an obligation to educate a man, or to not get emotional. While Todd Akin saying incredibly dumb things about rape might be so absurd that it’s funny to you, for us, it’s deeply scary. The rhetoric in the United States right now perpetuates lies about our bodies, and it has terrifying ramifications for us. Sometimes, we’re going to get upset about it, and about how hard it is for you to truly get what it’s like to be a victim of sexism. Understand that while there are several deeply alarming societal ills that affect men, feminism is dominated by the issues that primarily affect women. That does not mean that we think the other problems aren’t real. I’m talking about things like homelessness, suicide, high rates of incarceration, and men being raped and abused. These are absolutely things that society needs to address, but it’s not a flaw of feminism that we focus on women’s issues. I can be an advocate for prison reform and also a feminist. We need to work together to better humanity.
If it upsets you to think that your ideas and help might be dismissed because of your gender, remember this: women experience that every day, everywhere they go. If the very thought of that makes you upset, you should be identifying as a feminist/feminist ally.
However, I do think that if we choose to be feminist educators and activists, we should do our best to engage calmly with well-intentioned men. I don’t think there’s any moral imperative to do so, but I do think it’s more realistic to think that we can get further by doing our best to treat these men with intellectual respect. However, I will have no sympathy for men who a) come at me with obviously entrenched sexist ideas and talk over me and b) men who don’t give me that same respect back. I simply mean that there is room for male allies, and we should understand that these male allies might not have the most complete understanding.
In conclusion, I’d like to link to a study done by Rutgers University that challenged the idea that feminism is incompatible with romance. The study determined:
Using self-reported feminism and perceived partners’ feminism as predictors of relationship health, results revealed that having a feminist partner was linked to healthier relationships for women. Additionally, men with feminist partners reported greater relationship stability and sexual satisfaction in the online survey.
There you have it: feminists and male allies of feminism have better sex and are happier in relationships overall.
Do you think men have benefited from feminism? Is there a place in the feminist movement for men? Join the discussion below!
Written by Jess Mary Aloe
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Opinions stated in our editorials do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Feminspire and its staff as a whole, but instead reflect the opinions of the writer.