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That Feminist Boy Thing

Trish Wilson has pointed out that this seems to be happening regularly about once every three months: some liberal boy blogger or another suddenly discovers sexism in the blogging world (call it Quasi-feminist Male Syndrome, or QMS) and feels compelled to put out some musings on the musical question:

Q: Where are all the female political bloggers?

A: On the Internet, dummy. Try reading some of them:

Where does QMS come from? Like the e-mail promising that Bill Gates will pay you $200 for everyone you forward it to, it keeps going around and around in cyberspace; for better or for worse, though, it is starting to raise some important discussions about Leftist boys and the nature of feminism. Wicked Muse, for example, took the fracas as an opportunity to put up a great post on Male Feminists and, among many other things, whether men who support the feminist movement should identify as feminists or pro-feminists (along with the corresponding question of what boys’ role in the movement should be):

Matt Stoller, over in the comments of the post listed above, says:

More to the point, feminism doesn’t belong to women, and until you realize that we’re in this together, the more marginalized you will continue to be.

Well, I disagree. I almost wrote, I’m sorry, I disagree, but the fact is I am NOT sorry for my viewpoint. (I have to stop that.) Feminism DOES belong to women, though it will take both women and men to get things to where they need to be. Part of me can’t help but get a little irritated at the whole thing and wonder why women can’t just have one thing that men aren’t sticking their noses into or trying to take over. I realize how immature that may sound, but the issues feminism deals with, as Mr. Ripley says in his comment, are sometimes life-and-death for women and men can avail themselves of priviledges that make it much less so for them. Many women are feminists because they HAVE to be, so the whole movement is nearer and dearer to our hearts.

I think men who truly support the movement by trying to do something beyond offering lip-service (perhaps in an attempt to ingratiate themselves and/or feel less guilty) are wonderful and I welcome them with open arms. Things are only going to get better by working together, which is one point I agree with Matt on. However, in a society where labels are all important, as much as we eschew them at times, I think the feminist label needs to be left for women to grasp, either to help keep them afloat or to hold high in defiance. If you’re a man and support the cause, I daresay we love you. Men like you are rare… much too rare. The support is appreciated, no doubt, but I, for one, would feel much more comfortable if at least the symbol of the movement was left to us rather than it being yet one more thing co-opted, which is just one step from having it taken away.

Well, I am a Leftist boy and I agree completely with Wicked Muse that feminism belongs to women (I was, quite honestly, astonished that Matt Stoller could get that sentence out of his mouth without the cognitive dissonance making his head explode). And while I think that men have a responsibility to get involved and to seriously work with feminist efforts to undermine male supremacy, we have to be aware of the fact that we are men in the women’s movement, that feminist women have been doing fine without us for the past 150 years, and that it is their movement to own, direct, and lead. Not ours.

Not mine. This is something I have to tell myself a lot. What I hope I can do is listen to women and take what they say seriously. Not get into ideological arguments and tell them what their organization needs or what I can do to save them. If I end up doing nothing at a meeting other than volunteering to put some flyers or baking some brownies, that’s quite alright. Shit work needs to be done by somebody, and why shouldn’t a boy be the one to do it every now and again?

I understand and I sympathize with the reasons that some feminists give for wanting men to refer to themselves as pro-feminist rather than feminist. No matter how important feminism is to my life, it can’t mean to me what it means to a woman who lives it; no matter how much I know about sexism, I can’t know as much as a woman knows who faces it everyday. That’s hard for me to swallow sometimes–feminism is the most important political commitment in my life, by a very long shot. To explain the reasons behind that would involve delving into a lot of personal details about my life, my family, and my dearest friends, which is more than a bit beyond the scope of this post. But that’s just it: it takes a lot of telling why it matters so damn much to me. Were I a woman, it would be easy to say why it does, because I’d have to put up with a bunch of shit every day that, as a man, I don’t have to. And, whether I like or not, that puts me in a very different situation when I go around talking about the feminist movement.

That said, I do want to mention a bit about why I do usually describe myself as a feminist and not as a pro-feminist man. I think that all the concerns Wicked Muse raises are legitimate, and important. If I’m in a space where women would rather I don’t refer to myself as a feminist, I don’t. As I said, I understand the reasons, and it’s not my place to get into a fight over it. But I do just say feminist in most circumstances. My reason for worrying is this: pro-feminist suggests a distance from the movement. Not surprising; that’s what the phrase was intended to do, to point out the importance of men being willing to step back, if they’re serious about it, let women have their say, and listen to them, and follow their lead. But for all too many men who identify as pro-feminist the distance has ended up being cashed out in a much worse way: a sort of wishy-washy non-politic, in which the distance from the movement is taken to mean distance from taking action. Calling out other men on sexism, or moping about your own sexism, rather than doing what you can to help end it. Forming groups of men to talk about women’s liberation (?!), which becomes talking about “sexism”, which becomes talking about men and how they feel in a sexist society, which becomes dithering around and trying to change how men touch and feel each other rather than making a serious political commitment to ending male supremacy and violence against women. Maybe it comes down to the likelihood that boys who genuinely want to do some good, but who feel guilty and don’t necessarily know just what to make of it, will do what a lot of boys do: think in terms of ourselves, and take the pro- in pro-feminism to mean a psychological attitude (say, warm fuzzy feelings towards feminism) instead of a political and moral commitment (say, taking feminism seriously and acting like mean it). I don’t think that’s what pro-feminism has to mean, but I do think that given a lot of the pitfalls that have shown up in boys trying to get involved in feminism, it’s unfortunately likely. I worry that this it’s what has happened to all too many–maybe almost all–large-scale efforts by sympathetic men to get involved in feminism. (Andrea Dworkin’s speech, I Want A Twenty-Four Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape, has been really influential in how I think about these things.)

Now I don’t think that it’s a huge loss for feminism if men’s efforts end up being lame. Feminism doesn’t need boys to win. But it is too bad for the boys involved: we can do better, and we ought to do better. What I hope is that I am living my life, being accountable instead of defensive, listening to women and changing the way I act and think based on what I hear, in such a way that I can live up to a commitment to the feminist movement. So I call myself a feminist in many contexts. I understand the worries around it, and I can’t say I blame Astarte or Wicked Muse at all for finding the phrase a bit creepy and worrying about co-optation. But I do hope that some of the worries that I’ve raised here make sense, and maybe even that they might help continue the conversation. It’s a conversation that’s well worth having, and I’m glad that some of the posts floating around at the moment have brought it up.

What do y’all think?

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11 replies to That Feminist Boy Thing Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Victoria Marinelli

    The cognitive dissonance making the guy’s head explode… now that was a marvelous image. Thank you. Incidentally, I found your site a long time ago from an oob listserv link, and have been meaning to put up a link to Rad Geek on my site… finally that’s done. Best regards — Victoria Marinelli (Link to my site here, FYI)

  2. L.B.

    As a female feminist (a bit of a mouthful, there), I don’t have a problem with males who call themselves feminists. The white people who helped crusade against slavery were called abolitionists along with the blacks (note: I am not attempting to compare sexism and racism. That’s a whole other post.)In order for any societal changes to be brought about, all members of the society need to be involved. Splitting into fragments battling, or at best excluding, one another seems to be counterproductive.

  3. SamHaque

    “The white people who helped crusade against slavery were called abolitionists along with the blacks.”

    Yes, but they weren’t called Africanists.

· November 2004 ·

  1. Discussed at www.radgeek.com

    Geekery Today:

    Whereof one ought not speak

    Mark Dilley recently passed along a link to a good open letter by Dan Spalding with some great advice for boys in social justice movements:…

  2. Ann

    “Feminism doesn’t need boys to win”–depends on your definition of winning. If we want to live with men, there has to be some level of conversion.

· December 2004 ·

  1. Discussed at culturecat.net

    CultureCat:

    The Link Portal on Gender in the Blogosphere

    As I’m in the midst of writing a dissertation which is a feminist rhetorical analysis of gender and blogging practices, I’ve been assembling all the links I can find on the debates about gender in the blogosphere. Given the recent …

— 2005 —

  1. srl

    All the talk about “male feminists” and “female feminists” misses the fact that much of organized feminism speaks as if those are the only two genders there are.

    As someone who was raised a girl and now passes for a guy, I have to deal, all the time, every day, with a society that wants me to fit into one of two boxes which will then, supposedly, determine which set of arbitrary gender rules I get enforced against me. That’s why I’m still a feminist. I want gender to no longer matter to people’s economic and political well-being.

  2. PG

    Why do these men have to be called “boys”? Did I come to the conversation too late or are we talking about males who are not yet of voting age?

— 2007 —

  1. Rad Geek

    PG, calling my fellow adult males “boys” is a deliberate rhetorical choice on my part. Besides inverting the old pattern of calling adult females “girls,” more particularly I use it in contexts like this because many of my fellow boys, and especially the boys in question, are indulging in all kinds of ignorance, unearned entitlement, and petulance. When more of us start acting, or even making a minimal effort to act, like responsible grown-ups, I’ll reconsider my terminology.

  2. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2005-03-06 – Friday Random Ten: subversive lazy linking edition:

    […] Ph.D. 2005-02-22: The Washington Monthly points out that it’s that time of the three months again: Kevin Drum has come down with a nasty case of QMS, and it’s made him impulsive and […]

— 2008 —

  1. Discussed at victoriamarinelli.com

    Anachroclysmic » Anti-war bloggers rawk:

    […] and whose Rad Geek People’s Daily has been regular reading for me for years now. (This was the first post with which he earned my respect.) I might not have run across this blog if he […]

Anticopyright. This was written 2004–2007 by Rad Geek. Feel free to reprint if you like it. This machine kills intellectual monopolists.