What You Can Do to Support Women’s Rights, Part III: Men in the Women’s Movement

As both a male peer educator and a radical feminist activist, one of the most common questions I hear from men about feminism is, What can I do? It is true that many men are openly hostile towards women and towards feminism, and most men (in my experience) are at best ambivalent and somewhat suspicious of feminism and feminist groups. But most men that I talk to at least pay lip service to the fundamental doctrine of feminism, that women deserve the same rights as men and that any just society must include an end to gender oppression. These men, mostly political liberals, agree that the oppression of women, where it exists, is an injustice that must be stopped. However, they rarely know where and how they can act to help the cause of women’s rights. In this series of articles I will present a few suggestions on how to help fight for gender justice. They are intended to be very broad but nonetheless have clear and practical implementations. Many of them will apply equally to men and women, but because men have a unique lack of information about women’s oppression and strategies for fighting it, most of the suggestions will be primarily addressed to men. In other articles I hope to present more specific strategies for both women and men, but before any of that, we need to understand the basic things, the simple things that, if understood, make so much difference.

This article continues Part I and Part II of What You Can Do to Support Women’s Rights, which dealt with three fundamental points of feminist activism — believing and supporting women, getting involved, and educating yourself — and three ways to bring the public fight home into your private life — refusing to abuse women, calling out other men, and acknowledging feminism. It builds on Part I and Part II with four concerns which deal specifically with the issues raised by men — no matter how committed those men are — within what is fundamentally the women’s movement. All of them have a common thread running through them: allowing women to own feminism. It is certainly nothing new for progressive men to deign to sweep in to solve all of women’s problems, and while it’s better than men simply not caring about male privilege, it rarely accomplishes much that is genuinely pro-woman either. Men can make a difference within the women’s movement. But they cannot pretend to be concerned about women’s rights while attempting to reserve control over the movement for men. Nor can men pretend that we have the daily, personal understanding of the meaning and importance of women’s subjugation that women have. Therefore, we must respect women’s-only space, avoid co-opting, and be willing to step aside.

  • Respect women’s-only space - There will be times in feminist activism when you are not wanted. Women’s-only space — whether at Take Back the Night marches, consciousness-raising sessions, NOW chapter meetings, or University classes, is often one the hardest parts of feminist action for male feminists to accept. At the extreme, lesbian separatist feminists call for more or less complete separation from men, economically, politically, and sexually. Certainly if one has taken the painstaking effort to separate himself from the psychological and social structures of patriarchy, it is hard to accept being put back into the class of Men and excluded. Many male feminists experience it as a sort of reverse discrimination and feel that that sort of exclusion is just what feminists ought to be fighting against.

    However, the exclusion of men by women and the exclusion of women by men are certainly not the same thing in the first place. In an excellent analogy that I owe to Marilyn Frye, it is nothing extraordinary for a master to bar his slaves from the manor, but it is a revolutionary act for slaves to bar their master from their hut. The attempt to classify women’s separatism under the same rubric of sexism or discrimination neglects the reality of power differences between the sexes as classes. In short, it ignores the reality of male privilege.

    The male feminist, of course, is not — or ought not to be — himself a master, and feminist women are certainly not slaves. But despite all of their politics, they are still operating within a culture pervaded with patriarchy and misogyny, and necessarily are put into those positions to some degree, both when taking public action and even when interacting in private. When our campus group was planning the Take Back the Night march this year, one of the decisions we faced was whether to make the march portion of the event women-only. Certainly there are lots of men who have suffered sexual abuse (about one in thirty-three adult men has suffered violent rape; many more are survivors of childhood sexual abuse), and many more who support the survivors of sexual violence. However, we decided to make the march women-only. It is a far more powerful statement for women to be marching, without any men to protect them, through the streets at night. And it is more powerful not only for those who see the march from the outside, but also for those who are in it, the women who take back a power that they have been denied, without any need for men or male privilege. That assumption of power without the need for men also lies behind the women-only space in private speak-outs, consciousness-raising, and so on. Again, the problems caused by men’s presence — as a class, not just as individual men — can only be missed by ignoring the very reality of male privilege.

    Beyond the politics, there is also simply a practical element: speak-outs and consciousness-raising simply do not work in the presence of men. No matter how committed the men may be to feminism, no matter how much the women may accept them as feminists, decades of pervasive psychological conditioning will still cause women to react defensively to the presence of men. It is well-known that women will not speak about their experiences of sexual and physical violation with anywhere near the honesty that they do in women’s-only groups, as in groups with both women and men (the same is true of men speaking about how they interact with women, in men’s-only and mixed groups).

    What all this means is that there are times for feminist activism in which it is absolutely crucial to maintain women’s-only spaces. Committed male feminists must learn to overcome the personal feeling of rejection or discrimination that may come along with women’s-only spaces, and they must learn to respect women’s decisions to create those spaces where necessary. It also means calling out other men who do not respect these spaces (a perpetual problem with women’s-only meetings is that whenever they are advertised, men invariably try to sneak in or find a way to gain access), and making a committed public stand in favor of women’s right to create women’s-only spaces. They are profoundly not sexist; they are a radical strategy in the fight for justice.

  • Avoid co-opting — Perhaps one of the most irritating responses I hear from progressives when I talk about women’s rights is something to the effect of That’s a human rights issue. Other than the apparent implication that women’s rights are not obviously included within human rights (because women are not fully human?), this sort of response is also troubling because it represents co-opting of feminism by other progressive movements. The attempt to swallow up feminism into an allegedly broader movement, whether international socialism, anarchism, Leftist counterculture, international human rights, or ecological activism is certainly nothing new. Indeed, women have a long history of having the struggle against their oppression shelved in favor of or redirected into a truly impressive roster of fights for the social concerns of men, from the French Revolution to nineteenth century abolitionism and prohibitionism to twentieth century Marxist revolt and activism for black civil rights, against the Vietnam war, for gay men’s liberation, for international human rights, and for the preservation of the environment. Most of these are certainly worthy causes for social justice, but the simple truth is that women have spent a very long time fighting like hell to liberate certain classes of men, being promised that with that liberation a sea change would occur in society which would also liberate women. Invariably they found themselves in the same place, being told not to make trouble for the newly-liberated men; after all, that would undermine the Revolution.

    The issue of women’s subjugation certainly cannot be addressed without also considering the intimately connected factors of race, class, sexuality, international imperialism, and so on. But when fighting for women’s rights, it is high time that we acknowledged that we are fighting for women’s rights against a system that specifically targets women for oppression. Co-opting feminism into human rights or class struggle may well be intellectually justified (although similar co-optations into, say, Deep Ecology, strike me as somewhat more tenuous). However, until real progress is seen in women’s rights through these movements, their motives remain somewhat suspect. And it is not too surprising that they have not made much progress: in cultures where women are made invisible by their absorption into allegedly generic humanity (remember that a generic person in English is a he), their suffering will also be made invisible when absorbed into allegedly generic struggles against domination. Further, the attempt to universalize the struggle into a general sort of attack on domination or suffering ignores the crucial reality: that domination and suffering are not distributed equally, that across all class boundaries men dominate women and women suffer at the hands of men. Women’s rights are human rights. But their rights are not being violated because women are humans. They are being violated because women are women.

    This means that, as a male progressive, it is crucial that you not try to chain feminism to other fights for social justice, no matter how important or universal they may be. Moreover, if you are a member of other progressive causes, bring a strong feminist voice to those movements and demand that they address feminist concerns. This does not mean subverting, say, your Amnesty International chapter into a feminist activist group, any more than feminist groups should be subverted into international human rights campaigns. It does mean making sure that the groups you belong to are informed by the special ways in which women’s human rights are violated, and the subjugation of women within the groups for which you are fighting (whether black women, working women, gay women, or what have you). It also means encouraging the other groups with which you are involved to form broad coalitions with feminist groups. Most importantly, allow women’s rights to stand on their own. Accept feminism as end in itself, not as a hyphenated cause (socialist-feminism, anarcho-feminism, eco-feminism, etc.), nor as a side goal that will be accomplished along the way to the Revolution. And fight with feminist activists for women’s rights, independent of any other cause.

  • Step aside - Perhaps one of the hardest things for feminist men to accept — certainly the hardest for myself to accept — is the critical need to step aside. Support of justice for women is all well and good, but fundamentally such a movement must be owned and directed by women if it is to have any serious weight. Women’s rights can never hold a lasting and serious place in social organization unless the people on the front lines are women, organized as a class.

    What this means for male feminists is that we must be willing to work within the feminist movement, and contribute as much as we can to it, but not to try to become Knights in Shining Armor, sworn to ride in and solve all of women’s problems for them. Not only is this an inherently paternalistic and insulting way of trying to solve a problem of social justice; it is also doomed to failure, as men simply do not have the requisite daily experience of being a woman in a patriarchal culture and therefore cannot effectively understand the urgency of the fight or the most pressing problems in the way that women can. This is a perpetual problem of men’s groups devoted to ending gender violence, which helps to explain their tendency towards being rather ephemeral and accomplishing relatively little compared to women’s groups. The only real solution is that men’s groups must be in constant communication and cooperation with women’s groups, and preferably maintaining liasons who are active in both groups.

    Stepping aside may very well at times leave men to do the "grunt work" of the women’s movement, but in the end is this bad or unjust? After all, the most pressing need of women’s groups, in my experience, is basic grunt work of distributing signs, talking to officials to secure the appropriate resources, preparing budgets, and so on. And it is certainly true that in Leftist political movements (and everywhere else) it has been women who are invariably left to do this kind of menial work. It’s about time that men picked up a bit of the slack. Indeed, we must also come to terms with how much our fear of doing such menial labor is really tied to our fear of being put into a historically female position.

Men constitute nearly half of the population, and the fundamental fact of living in a deeply patriarchal society is that men happen to enjoy a great deal of power. The active presence of men in the fight for women’s rights can be extraordinarily powerful in achieving its goals. But we must also be aware that as men in a patriarchal culture, our participation in the women’s movement is inherently problematic. We must be willing to accept the irreducible tensions that this creates, and to be willing to sacrifice the pride and control that we have been brought up (as males) to believe are our birthrights. This does not mean a sort of passive, wishy-washy well-wishing, nor does it mean withdrawal from the movement. What it does mean is letting women own feminism, by respecting women’s only space, refusing to make women’s rights conditional on any other movement (no matter how dear to our hearts), and stepping aside to let women control the direction of feminist action. Women have fought their way, tooth and nail, from abject slavery to a position of citizenship during the First and Second Waves with virtually no help from men, and the power of women organized will always be the heart and soul of feminism as it fights to make women equal citizens rather than second-class citizens. As much as I exhort men to support the fight for women’s rights, we must never lose sight of the fact that women are competant to organize and defend themselves and that men operating on the premise that women need the help of men to take back justice are operating on a paternalistic idea which will undermine any personal and political commitment they have to women’s rights.

I began this series of articles in attempt to educate, but in the process of developing and clarifying these principles I find that my progress through the articles has been as much of a learning experience as anything. In particular, attempting to clarify and grapple with the principles related to men’s participation in the women’s movement has been a painstaking process of articulating and challenging my own deep premises about how I relate to feminist activism. Ultimately, such an activity is far more important than any bullet-listed set of fixed principles. What I hope men take away from these articles, more than anything, is an appreciation that you can support women’s rights, but that it takes a willingness to commit yourself and make changes, and at times these changes can be very hard to accept. But we must be willing to make those changes: the oppression of women is brutal, and it is systematic; the other theme running through these suggestions is that the war against women is fought on all grounds, and that therefore those of us who wish to fight against the oppression of women must be willing to take direct action on all grounds, whether in our own psyches, in our personal relationships, in our communities, in the media, in national politics, and everywhere else. It is an injustice which lies at the roots of our society, and therefore demands a radical vision and radical tactics to be undone.

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2 replies to What You Can Do to Support Women’s Rights, Part III: Men in the Women’s Movement Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Liz Henry

    This is beautiful! Thanks so much! Just what I was looking for.

— 2008 —

  1. valiantvillains.blogspot.com

    This is fantastic — thank you. I’m trying to support my feminist wife and to help her raise our daughters to be strong and to fight for their rights, and sometimes I don’t know exactly how to go about it without overstepping bounds. This is just what I needed.

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