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What Is Male-Identifying People’s Place in Feminisms?

August 26, 2009

This week from me, a set of questions hoping to start a discussion. I recently came across a “lesbian zine”(the title page was ripped off, but this was the masthead) from 1979 which contained an editorial claiming male-identifying people could never be feminists, and this identification was another form of domination. I do not believe this, but it seemed like an invitation to ask two honest questions about my personal ability to contribute to feminisms, as well as hear opinions about male-identifying people in general. I will continue to write about this next week.

1. It is hard to talk about one feminism. Which feminisms are well-suited for contribution from male-identifying people’s? Which are not?

2. What politics of power occur when male-identifying feminists join in discourse? Do they retain the privileged status present in the patriarchy when involved in this discourse?

3. If Male-Identifying people are feminists, are they working for liberation too? I remember a Feminist Philosophy professor asking, “What would liberation look like?” What would liberation look like for male-identifying feminists? They certainly do not leave patriarchy by entering into a feminist way of thought/life/etc., but are they somehow transformed through a liberation process?

17 Comments
  1. August 27, 2009 8:11 am

    I just wrote a post yesterday about how I believe men cannot identify as feminists, but rather as feminist allies, pro-feminist, feminist-minded, etc. This post got some really interesting responses on both ends of the spectrum. My personal opinion is that because male-identifying people have male privilege, they can’t experience the oppression that women face, no matter how much they can try. I encourage men to discuss feminism, promote feminist goals, and be aware of their male privilege. But even being aware of the privilege doesn’t make it go away. I really think that the feminist movement needs men, but I don’t think that men can identify as feminists.

    Here’s the link to my post if you are interested in reading more: http://youngfeministadventures.blogspot.com/2009/08/retraction-men-can-not-be-feminists.html

    • Emily permalink*
      August 27, 2009 12:18 pm

      Laura, I understand what you mean in that “My personal opinion is that because male-identifying people have male privilege, they can’t experience the oppression that women face, no matter how much they can try.” I totally agree with you.

      You may disagree with me, because I think each person has her/his own definition of feminism, but I believe feminism is not only about equality and fighting against all sorts of privileges, but it is also about inclusion. How can we, as parts of the feminist movement, not include feminist-identified men? That just seems silly to leave them out.

      • August 27, 2009 12:26 pm

        I don’t think we should not include men in the feminist movement, I just think that the feminist movement can include feminists and feminist allies. Feminists being women who have feminist values and feminist allies being men who have feminist values. I know it’s kind of a silly differentiation, but I do think that feminism is about how different kinds of oppression intersect on women’s bodies. And as much as men learn about, discuss, and fight these forms of oppression, they will never experience how these oppressions affect women personally.

    • August 27, 2009 12:32 pm

      Hmmm, as much as I can understand the point that we – as male – somehow take part in “male privilege” whether we want to or not, and thus can’t understand how a woman truly experience the oppression, I am not sure I agree with you. Feminism for me was never only about what effect the oppression has on women, but on everyone and how men and women alike suffer from the power structure.

      I’d love to hear your comments on how I define feminism in this post over on my blog. Just skim through the parts about virtual worlds if you’re not interested.

  2. Matt Yoho permalink
    August 27, 2009 12:38 pm

    Laura: That would seem to define feminism in terms of victimization; it implies that the essence of being a feminist is to be and feel oppressed due to one’s (female) gender. I think that’s a poor place to come from, though that definition does in fact exclude men. I think it’s much more productive, and probably more accurate, to consider feminism as a spectrum of views that assert that the fundamental value of any woman is no less than that of any man, and that society, culture, and individuals should acknowledge this and act accordingly. IMO, and all that. In any case, I would consider myself your ally as a human being, regardless of our respective genders or particular agendas.

  3. August 27, 2009 12:40 pm

    This is particularly intended for Laura

    I think these questions assume alot of essentializing notions about what it means to be a man. I have spent the past three years of my life developing my own feminist identity as a gay man, and I find it a tad bit offensive for someone to assume that men will never experience the kinds of oppression that women do under patriarchy. Try telling that to a male rape victims, or a young gay man who is brutally beaten by a group of strait men for acting outside his normal gender roles.

    Don’t get me wrong — there is definitely a level of privilege that we are all constantly struggling with. For me, it’s because of my male privilege. For a lot of women it’s because of their class and race privilege. That doesn’t make us any less capable of feminist ethics — and I think even the question assumes a lot of fucked generalizations about men and women that make you equally responsible for a type of privilege that excludes non-normalized gender perspectives like trans and queer people.

    It also isn’t really all that beneficial for the feminist movement to attach to this “feminism is feminine and for women” ideology that you are clearly perpetuating in your statements here. There is absolutely no reason that a male-identified person cannot have ethical values that make them a feminist.

    I am a feminist, and I don’t think I need to justify myself why to you simply because you are a women and I am a man. You do not have divine rights over a movement because of your identified gender, and assuming so only seeks to condition a type of power relationship that is inherent to patriarchy’s existence.

  4. Matt Yoho permalink
    August 27, 2009 1:40 pm

    I would like to state that, at the time I replied, I hadn’t considered the piling-on from male readers Laura was likely to receive, and I didn’t mean to antagonize you or gang up. I disagree with the point of view that men cannot be outright feminists (even if I myself am not always certain whether I’d take the label, myself) but I acknowledge your, or anyone’s, right to hold that view.

  5. August 27, 2009 2:04 pm

    When my co-blogger, Emily, and I started our blog “Feminist Looking Glass” in June, I posted that I believed strongly that a man can be a feminist but that only women should have high-level leadership positions in feminist organizations. That belief is because, since feminist organizations make high-level decisions that impact women, it is appropriate that those decisions are ultimately informed by the experiences of the women leaders of the organization. Emily did a separate post saying that she agreed with me and that she considered me not just an ally but an active part of the feminist movement. Perhaps that reasoning will ease some of the concern of Laura and the other commenters.

  6. August 27, 2009 3:51 pm

    I don’t really care whether men call themselves feminists or feminist allies or just say they believe in feminism. Generally speaking, I don’t think that being an ally to an underprivileged group can be an identity, only a set of actions, though there certainly can be times when it is useful for a man to call himself a feminist (it makes a good disruption when other guys start talking about “feminazis” for instance). Outside such situations, why should a guy need to call himself anything in order to act as an ally?

  7. Erik permalink
    August 27, 2009 5:23 pm

    Wow. A debate spawned by a 30 year old op-ed. How bout that…

    This entire debate is tied up in language and the misunderstanding of its function and use. As far as men not being able to be feminists because they haven’t ‘experienced female oppression’ – there’s about a million things wrong with this, not the least of which is that any given individual female can no more identify with the oppressive experience of another individual female than a man can with a female. That’s pretty basic hermeneutics, I think.

    That being said, there’s a modicum of understanding that does take place (and even then it falls apart when you start discussing the language of experience across contexts). c.f. Wittgenstein’s so-called ‘private pain’ argument for this one. It goes something like – when you tell a doctor you have a pain in your back, even though he has never had THAT pain, he understands, at least enough, what your pain is. To say men can’t be feminists, while meaningless, is just as oppressive and mistaken as men assuming women don’t understand x.

    All of that being said, these sorts of -ism labels do absolutely nothing in the way of understanding. In fact, they give most people who sort knowledge in such a sense a quite distorted view of any number of concepts and issues. And as for debating different ‘feminisms’ – or whatever – on this sort of meta-level is equally absurd, as there are of course as many different ‘feminisms’ as there are ‘feminists.’ The above has been an awful lot of talking and very little saying anything.

    Now, all of that aside, let us not forget that some of the great “feminists” in the general sense I take it you mean have been men: Plato, Plotinus, J.S. Mill…

    There are many varieties of privilege, inherited power, oppression, and so forth. Please think more deeply before pontificating on the that mantra of American teenager, “you don’t understand! you’ll never understand!”

    • August 27, 2009 6:20 pm

      If you’re going to suggest that other people think more deeply, perhaps it would be best not to be dismissive of a stance on the ground that it is thirty years old (really, I would expect someone who references Plato not to regard that as particularly outdated) or because it can (on a surface level) be compared to adolescent angst.

  8. thomasmurphymusic permalink
    August 27, 2009 7:40 pm

    Wow! I greatly appreciate everyone’s thoughts. A couple things…

    1) While all of the responses have been wonderful, few have answered the questions I posed. I would value commentary on these questions to continue this debate in next weeks entry.

    2) We are assuming the experience of oppression to be rooted in being identified (or identifying?) as the gender woman, no? Also, being part of patriarchy is rotted in being identified/identifying with male.(Are women part of patriarchy too? Are we talking about a holistic societal system or an exertion of power?) I think it is uncontroversial to claim that feminism from those in the “woman” identifier is an act of transgressing/subverting oppression. Here is a more controversial claim: Those in the “man” role are involved in a similar transgressive/subversive action towards patriarchy.

    3) @Laura (but also @all). I have a deep desire to be a feminist, the reasons I am trying to articulate. Does it make sense when I say that this is a bodily desire?

    Continued responses, please!

  9. August 28, 2009 9:45 am

    I think a lot of this comes down to how someone personally defines feminism, which no doubt changes from person to person. The feminism that I practice focuses on the intersection of oppression on women’s bodies. These forms of oppression no doubt have negative effects on men as well, I’m not denying that. But I think the experiences are different. I’m not saying that the patriarchy, gender norms, and sexism only affect women, because they don’t. I’m going to kind of go off what Mike said…in the feminist movement, men have to take lead from women and the experiences that women have. Mike was saying this in reference to women’s/feminist organizations, but I, personally, think that it applies to the feminist movement as well. But I’m not going to deny anyone’s feminist beliefs. The feminism that I believe in/practice makes me think that men can be feminist allies. But because feminism is differently interpreted by a variety of people, I will discuss my beliefs with a man who identifies as a feminist, but if his feminism says that he is a feminist, then I’m not going to chastise him for it. I think that it’s just important to have an honest and respectful discussion about each of our beliefs. I encourage you to read through the comments on my original post (http://youngfeministadventures.blogspot.com/2009/08/retraction-men-can-not-be-feminists.html). There are some elegantly written responses that both agree and disagree with me.

    @thomasmurphymusic – Sorry to derail your questions. Here are my answers:
    1. I think that feminism varies from person to person. Of course there are commonalities between many of these feminisms, but I think that there will be some sort of variation from person to person. Male-identifying persons have to decide for themselves what the feminism that they believe in says for them.

    2. I think that men still have male privilege (and therefore there is a differentiation in power) when they enter feminist discourse. Even in Women’s Studies classrooms that I have been in where only one male is present, that male is in the minority in the classroom and can sometimes feel ganged up on, but I think that he still has a privileged status. You can’t erase your male privilege, just like I can’t erase my white, heterosexual, cis, class, etc. privilege.

    3. Because patriarchy also negatively affects men, men can still work for liberation from the patriarchy (in fact, even if the patriarchy didn’t negatively affect men, they could still work for liberation). What would liberation look like for male-identifying feminists? I think that depends on what his feminist values are. What does the feminism that he believes in/practices say about liberation. There are definitely different meanings for liberation and this changes from a person’s definition of feminism.

    I hope these address your questions well. Again, sorry for derailing the conversation away from your questions.

    • thomasmurphymusic permalink
      August 28, 2009 2:28 pm

      No need for apology! My desire for responses wasn’t meant to be a snarky criticism of you, I love the discussion you are generating.

      I only need material to keep running with! Thanks for reading and responding.

  10. August 28, 2009 8:13 pm

    There are certainly many types of feminism, but when I see male feminists, I assume that they join in the general movement toward ending oppression for all people, regardless of (specifically) gender, sexual identification, race, or class (I would like to add religion, but have not found this to always be true). Feminism should not be about exclusivity; indeed, in my opinion, it should be the antithesis of exclusivity. Feminism should be about equality for all people. It should be about dismantling patriarchal models, not only because such models limit rights and vitality based on gender, but also because such models limit rights and vitality period.

    Patriarchy is not perpetuated solely by men. And to limit its reach based on gender misses the depth and breadth of its insidious infiltration in societies (where it is quite as often perpetuated by women). I welcome all people who identify with feminism, seeking to end injustice and oppression. In the feminist movement, no individuals are privileged based on their status (gender, color, class); neither should any individuals be limited.

    (I should note that I am a woman; my name often leads to confusion.)

  11. August 30, 2009 12:13 am

    Male-identifying persons do retain their privilege except to the extent that there is a concerted effort by those participating in the discourse to change that. In some settings this may require artificial rules to govern turn-taking in conversation, for example. Even after the most successful efforts to undo this privilege, even if you were able to uproot every bit of unconscious detritus that the patriarchy (or kyriarchy) has left in the minds of the participants (unlikely), the males involved would continue to have the privilege of being able to leave the space or discourse and, with little effort, enter discourses in which (to the extent that they are gender conforming) their gender gives them privileges.

    In other words, men have the possibility of reclaiming any privilege, power, or space they may have given up. This possibility is sometimes used as a threat when men believe that they are not being treated kindly by female-identified feminists: don’t speak harshly to me or I’ll leave and you won’t have any allies.

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