Friday, March 31, 2006

Can men be feminists?

What follows is not so much a coherent post, but a preview and necessary background for a post I want to get to once I've articulated my ideas well enough for my tastes. (I'm a slow writer. Sometimes I wonder what on earth I was thinking entering the blogosphere!)

A couple of days ago, in response to a blog commenting brouhaha elsewhere, Chris Clarke wrote a blog post called "Why I am not a feminist." If you know Chris's blog, his writing, his commenting elsewhere, and his general blogospheric persona, then, like me, your first reaction to such a post title was "Wha?" Intrigued and a little alarmed, I kept reading. Ultimately the post was a pretty passionate statement of why he could advocate feminist positions but could not, ultimately, claim the mantle of "feminist." As he concluded:

My goal is to be the best ally to feminists I can be, in the political realm and in the much more difficult personal realm.

But I cannot call myself a feminist: the label is not mine to claim. [emphasis his]
You really must go read the whole piece; like all of Chris's writing, it's really worth it. And it really struck a nerve in me or something, because I wrote a really long response, which I haven't generally had the time or energy to do lately. It's the fifth one down, so you don't have to go far for it. It's so long it could be its own blog post, but its most salient point was this, I think:
Feminism is a political position that can be held by anyone. “Woman” is (perhaps) an identity that only some can claim. You are not a woman, but you are a feminist, given your political claims above.
(I was addressing Chris, of course. And the "perhaps" is a nod to debates and theories of the constructedness of gender categories.) After a while the comments got really rich and interesting, with a range of opinions about whether or not men could call themselves feminists. Chris pointed out somewhere in there that there may have been a generational shift (and that may be true) as the feminists he'd known were adamant that a man could not call himself a feminist. Then someone else (Ampersand, I think) suggested that the difference might lie between radical feminists and liberal feminists. Well, I'm both a Gen Xer and a liberal feminist, so my own acceptance of male feminists might be influenced by either context. I don't know which is the more powerful influence.

And then Ampersand at Alas, A Blog took up the discussion (and, in fact, may have been at the beginning of it, before Chris took it up, but I missed that part). And I'm not just linking to him because he called me eloquent (*blush* -- thanks!). Mainly I'm linking to Ampersand's post because of the powerful personal story he tells of why he's a feminist and how feminism liberated him, someone who, in his words:
could not - really, really could not - "do" masculinity. And because of this, my peers (aided by too many adults who should have known better) taught me to hate myself. It took years, but I was an eager student, and I learned. I used to stand in front of mirrors interrogating my reflection, asking why I couldn't just be "normal," beating myself as hard as I could with my tiny balled fists (in retrospect, thank goodness I was a weakling!).
You really have to go read the whole thing. It's heartbreaking and powerful. And it makes a whole lot of sense to me. According to Ampersand, "Feminism is the only movement in the world that has anything at all sensible to say about how gender roles are used as a whip to keep people in their place." As a female who identified not quite as a boy but with boys when I was young (and Mom claims she raised me like she raised my brother and not as she raised my sisters -- this after reading Friedan and de Beauvoir), and as an academic feminist who works on masculinity, I get this both personally and intellectually. This makes sense to me. But I need to think some more to articulate in better detail why I think feminist men can and should claim their feminism.

In the meantime, feel free to take up the discussion (again or anew) here in the comments. Can men be feminists?


Anonymous said...

Okay, this is getting a little bit away from the topic of your post, but I was just completely struck by your comments about growing up identifying with boys and studying masculinity; I was one of two girls, but my dad had a son from his first marriage, and I think he treated us like he did his son, in the sense that he thought we could grow up and do anything we wanted, and I've always felt like I've sort of socialized male in terms of things like work and education. And I work on masculinity quite a bit, too. Huh.

To your actual point: yes, that's a wonderful, beautiful, sad post at Alas, a Blog. And I understand why Chris Clarke (and certain feminists) feel that one has to be a woman to be a feminist, but I completely agree with your position. I'm not going to claim that men understand women's experiences, any more that I can understand the experiences of black women, in that visceral sense of really knowing what it feels like to occupy that identity. But I don't think that means that you can't take on the political position of feminism, or be an advocate for civil rights. I, or a man, might have to work harder at it, but I don't think it's impossible.

I think partly, as a historian, I have to think this way: it boils down to believing that it's possible to learn about, understand, and sympathize/empathize with a position/experience other than your own, and if I believe that this is fundamentally impossible, then I'm also saying that I can never understand people in the past (whose experiences I can never share), and then there's no point in doing what I do for a living.

Anonymous said...

Aren't you glad I brought those books back from my freshman seminar on social movenments, so Mom could read them! We definitely had different experiences at home and in the times we lived in. I came to feminism during the hay days, and even called myself a radical feminist, but I do believe that men can be feminists. The radical movements of my era were pretty sexist, which may have influenced many early feminists. Experience, though, has shown me that younger men, either raised well, or shaped by experience, are great allies.

Dr. Virago said...

New Kid -- You read my mind! Or at least anticipated things I want to work out in a follow-up post. Actually, the bit about being raised like a boy isn't totally off topic, although now I think it doesn't completely make sense as I wrote it (I blame the Robitussin). But the reason I mentioned it is because I think it's one of the reasons why I'm a liberal feminist and not a radical feminist. And I think the fact that most of what I've always done has been intellectual work (from being a student -- excelling in school was heavily emphasized in my family -- to my entire work and career life) also made it easier for me to believe that men and women were equals from an early stage. It might have been different had I grown up working class, perhaps.

And in the back of my head I was also thinking like you about the connections between working on subjects of the past and being able to understand intellectually and imaginatively what you haven't experienced personally. I get worried when people talk about using students experience to teach them or when students want only to read things they identify with. Experience is limiting, narrowing -- I don't want to discount it, but it's not enough. That is, after all, the core irony of the Wife of Bath. Though "she" speaks convincingly of her "experience," she is the imaginative creation of a man, and the male-authored texts that were his sources. In the end imagination and empathy ("pity" in the Middle English sense) trump authority and experience. And then, in the political sphere, identity politics can serve to create just another system of segregation and hierarchy -- women work on women's issues; blacks on black issues, etc. (I see this in academia, too, where, for example, Margery Kempe studies has become a women's ghetto.)

And Virgo Sis -- so *that's* why she started reading feminist writing. I thought maybe some radical librarian had done a feature display or something and Mom decided she had to read the "important" feminist books. You know how she was about always wanting to read what everyone was talking about or what was considered classic. And yeah, I've read/heard about the sexism of other radical movements -- over at Chris Clarke's the end of the thread brought up Stokley Carmichael's infamous quote: "The only position for a woman in SNCC is prone." Plus so many movements then were about separatism -- Blacks, Chicanos, and Native Americans were all forming separatist groups, so why not women.

I wonder if the biggest difference between my generation of feminists and all the other before them is Title IX, the AYSO, and co-ed soccer. Seriously! I think the androgynous 70s in general did a lot of ungendering -- we were all running around in t-shirts and jeans -- but co-ed soccer put us all *literally* on the same playing field. OK, I have to think about that some more.

You know, soccer is becoming a multi-purpose social metaphor.

Dr. Crazy said...

Dr. V. -

Not only do I think that men CAN be feminists, I think we NEED men to be feminists.

That said, I think one of the problems continues to be that the definition of "feminist" is still one that is continually under contestation, and I think part of the problem is that some feminisms are very, very limiting (and this is where the stereotype of the feminazi comes from) and some are more expansive.

My personal definition of feminism is one that would basically say that feminists believe that all people should be autonomous and to think and act and be treated independently of gender norms, but many feminists would probably disagree with or expand/limit that definition. The problem then becomes one of what feminism is supposed to be and who it speaks for, and I don't believe that all feminisms speak for all women - at the very least all "feminist" voices certainly don't speak for me.

Do we need a new language for what we're talking about here? Is the problem that the identity politics of second-wave feminism have actually closed off the potential for feminism to be inclusive?

I'm thinking out loud and I'm not sure what I think exactly - I think I'll respond and post over on my blog about this in the coming days....

Dr. Virago said...

Dr. Crazy, this reminds me of a cover of Ms. about 10 years ago that said "No, we DON'T all think alike." It's both a blessing and, sometimes, an obstacle that there are many feminisms. It's unlikely that a male feminist would be a radical feminist, but I agree with you that feminism in general and especially liberal feminism NEEDS men to be feminists. There's a place for every kind of feminist, I think, including the men.

air said...

Dr V--

I'm really glad you posted your thoughts on this topic as its something that's been on my mind ever since, several years ago, I, a gay man, first started to self-identify as a feminist. I think the question, at least in part, boils down to the contradictions of identity politics, which you alluded to in your post. I continue to believe in the necessity of "identity" as a unifying and empowering category, that has the potential to not only build strong communities, but to encourge individuals to move beyond the kind of selfish thinking our form of capitalism so encourages. The need for female space, for gay space, for Black space, I think, remains.

But the politics of such identities does not necessarily exclude others from participating. What feminist politics boils down to, to be overlly simplistic, is a willingness to critique the way gender categories are enforced. Such a position certainly doesn't depend on whichever gender a person is forced to perform. The combination of identity and politics, however, makes it seem that way.

I think it's about time for a very clear formulation of feminist (and queer, for that matter) politics that accounts for the multiple identity positionings, that allows for them, and takes pride in the fact that each form of politics can encompass people of a variety of sexualities, genders, races, classes, what have you. Rather than a denial of identity, like some queer theorists and feminists would demand, I'd like to see a way to reconcile the need for empowering communities with an acknowledgment of the differentials in experience.

Does that make sense? (I think that's my standard ending to my rambles).


P.S. I'm glad you're back to blogging!

MT said...

This is a question so ambiguous that I imagine there must be several good answers. I'd like to note the intersection with arch-PC identity politics, according to which you have to be a Native American to credibly criticize Custer and, of course, have to be a woman to credibly speak to women's roles in society. Besides urging us to scorn potentially wise contributions to the public discourse, I think it also tends to foster low expectations, disincentivize reflection and exclude people we really want to include...especially to the extent we want to change the world and not just populate university departments.

Bardiac said...

Glad to see you're blogging again, Dr. V!

I'm in the yes camp, here.

I also think that whites can be anti-racist, straights can be pro-queer (homophile?), whatever.

I have to say, trying to write that last sentence made me think: why do we have a positive (and many negative) terms for feminist / misogynist, sexist, etc, but only negative terms for racist and homophobes? I can't think of broad positive terms, anti-racist seems double negative, and doesn't have quite the positive feel that feminist has?

Anyway, I'm blathering, and need to hop on some work.

medieval woman said...

I too think that men can and should be feminists and I particularly liked air's post about the need to formulate a feminist (and queer) politics that allows for multiple identity formations. Do you think that the reason why feminism has (especially in its early days) been so resistant to men taking part is because (among many things) it was an issue of trust? We simply haven't/don't trust men to participate in feminist politics in a way that won't be "oppressive" or at least ignorant of women. Also, I think one of the reasons why many (at least straight) men have been resistant to identify as feminists or to be active in feminist politics is because they've never questioned the notion of how gender categories are constructed. They think that to identify as a feminist is to identify as a woman - as though that's all feminist politics is - everyone affirming their womanhood.

I'll second the caveat of many other comments: I might not be expressing myself very well here!

Cats & Dogma said...

I don't have time to post a long comment, or even post something over at my place right now, but I'll stand up and be counted: I am a white male anti-racist, pro-queer feminist.

Heo said...

Boys have cooties! And some of them weirdly encourage great tufts of fur to grow on their faces, which freaks me out. OK, that's out of my system now. (I really have to speak to someone about my desire to regress to grade-school.) Of course men can and should be feminists. I agree with medieval woman's assessment that trust issues in early second-wave feminism probably played a large part in excluding men from feminism. (I also *heart* MW's super-fab cat icon!) As for men who are willing to explore the ways in which masculine and feminine are constructed identities, and to consider that a new construction is needed now, those guys ARE feminists.

Dr. Virago said...

MT said (in reference to identity politics): I think it also tends to foster low expectations, disincentivize reflection and exclude people we really want to include...especially to the extent we want to change the world and not just populate university departments.

Heh. Yes and it also, imho, undoes part of the point of feminism by re-essentializing gender. But as Air pointed out, there is a positive necessity to claiming identity. And as Medieval Woman and Heo Cwaeth added, and as my sister said above, there are/were trust issues involved in that exclusivity -- plus a need for power in numbers and networks. I think that's the feminism that Chris Clarke most often experienced -- as he later said in his comments -- and so he feels it presumptuous and invasive to claim he's a feminist.

In fact, maybe my question in my title and at the end of my post should have been "Does a man have a right to call himself a feminist?" Chris thought the answer was no, that he could only claim to be pro-feminist or a supporter of feminism. But as many people pointed out in the comments, there are greater stakes in saying you're feminist than in saying you're pro-feminist (whether man or woman).

But as Dr. Crazy asked rhetorically (I think): Do we need a new language for what we're talking about here? Is the problem that the identity politics of second-wave feminism have actually closed off the potential for feminism to be inclusive? If the question wasn't rhetorical, then I think the answer may well be yes, and as Air suggested, we need a new language and a new formulation of a gender politics that accounts for the multiple identity positionings.

I'm also starting to think from the discussion here and at the other two sites that the difference between those who think men can't proclaim themselves feminist and those who think they can and should is definitely generational. I know this is a small sample, but of those hear whose ages I know or I've estimated from reading your blogs, most of us are 30-somethings. I think that's what I'll post about when I follow up on this.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I don't see how I can reasonably expect my two year old daughter to self identify as a feminist someday if I can't do the same right now.

Dr. Virago said...

Well, I identified early as a feminist despite (or perhaps because of) having a sexist patriarchal father!

But seriously, I share the implicit point of your comment that the answer to the question of this post is "well, duh, of course!" So I was surprised that there were men -- largely straight men over 40, I should say -- in the discussions who thought it wasn't so simple for them.

Anonymous said...

This is just a half-thought, really, but Chris' meditation seemed apt and a nice way to counter what i think might be a growing trend in the academia, i.e. of white men who claim to be post-feminist, or, who feel entitled to state openly that they are "over" gender as a useful category of analysis. Which is not to say that women scholars don't say the same thing, but when dudes do it, the post part seems to suggest a movement through feminism that's rarely there.