Male feminists. Oxymoron? What does it actually mean?
What does being a feminist actually mean? Why does this sound like a blog post from Jezebel?
In the last few years I’ve started participating a lot more in a range of feminist oriented activities such as conferences, forums and rallies. I’ll get into the detail of those experiences a bit later, but as one of the very few men who attended some of those events it’s not really surprising that the issue that has arisen most of the time, in my experience, has been around the role of men in the feminist movement.
The debate, particularly over the term “male feminists”, is incredibly nuanced and hundreds, if not thousands, of articles have been written about it in journals, magazines and online. I don’t have the space in this article to go into all the different arguments but I can try and summarise the two major views.
In its simplest form, the pro-male feminist argument is about a broader definition of feminism that includes anyone who believes in social, political and economic equality between the sexes. Under this definition, men can, and should, study feminist theory and participate fully in the movement, as the inclusion of men is necessary for the campaign for women’s equality.
The alternate view is that while men shouldn’t be excluded from participating in feminist structures and learning feminist theory, they haven’t had the same lived experiences as women. Under this analysis, men can be seen as “allies” of the feminist movement and should identify as pro-feminist rather than “male feminists”.
In my own experience there is a tendency for some men to use the label because they think it is “cool” and will help them meet women (the hypocrisy is clearly lost on them).
Some feminists would argue that men shouldn’t engage in critiques of feminist theory because their perspective runs counter to the experiences of women. I acknowledge that position and want to clarify that this article isn’t a critique of feminism, or even the debate around men and feminism, but about my own journey and interaction with the movement.
My first direct experience with feminism was actually through student politics. When I first got involved with the University of New South Wales Student Representative Council (SRC) I knew that there was a Women’s Department and a Women’s Room but didn’t fully understand the history behind them. I owe a lot to the SRC’s Women’s Officer with whom I worked with, firstly as a councillor and then as President of the SRC, including Lucy Geddes, Jessica Mobbs and Kimberley Lowe, who introduced me to feminist theory and explained to me how women students in campuses across Australia had fought hard for representation and resources to run women’s equality campaigns.
Attending National Union of Student’s (NUS) conferences expanded my knowledge of the contemporary feminist movement. Most of the major political factions in NUS have a strong thread of feminism running through them and I learnt a lot simply by observing incredibly intelligent women activists debating women’s policy. One of my closest friends and comrade during my time with NUS was the 2010 National Women’s Officer, Keelia Fitzpatrick. Through Keelia I was directly exposed to some of the best and most thought-provoking campaigns I’ve seen.
In 2010 I also attended my first feminist conference – “F Con”. “F Con”, organised by the F Collective, was the first feminist conference held in Sydney in more than 10 years. It was a pretty eye-opening experience. Seeing the reinvigoration of the feminist movement was incredibly inspiring, as was the attendance of many young people, so often described as politically lazy and apathetic. As one of the very men attending the conference I was very conscious of being an observer and didn’t really participate. I learnt about the current debates in feminism on topics like sex work, abortion, equal pay and how to interact with other social justice movements.
The next year I travelled to Melbourne to attend the “Feminist Futures” conference, organised by the Melbourne Feminist Collective. One of the first things I noticed was the significantly larger number of men involved in organising the conference. Despite being less hesitant in participating this time around, I felt as though I missing a lot of background knowledge into the issues being discussed.
As an engineering student I didn’t really have the opportunity to learn feminist theory from an academic perspective. The next semester I enrolled in a course called “Sex, Human Rights & Justice” – my first gender studies course. Despite now having direct involvement in the feminist movement I found it incredibly useful to understand the theory that underpins so many of the debates and campaigns I saw.
It’s incredibly upsetting that at UNSW, and other campuses across Australia, gender studies courses are being slashed and departments are being dismantled. Learning about one of the biggest and most important social movements in human history is something everyone should have the ability to experience.
The most tangible example of how my relatively new understanding of feminist theory applied to the real world was my trip to the Australia Defence Force Academy (ADFA) in Canberra last year. Following the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s report into ADFA, after some much publicised allegations of sexual harassment, I wrote an article for ABC’s The Drum about the changes I thought ADFA needed to make to become a safer campus for women students.
The article caught the attention of the military leadership at ADFA, and they invited me down to advise them on how to improve the culture there. A number of my recommendations were adopted, and even though it is an ongoing project, I’m proud that what I learnt about feminist approaches has helped shape views in the military – a notoriously male-centric organisation.
So having participated within the feminist movement (and continuing to do so) what do I think about the debate over male feminism? As someone who has self-identified as a male feminist and been both applauded and politely criticised, I actually don’t really mind how I’m referred too.
I acknowledge that labels can be important but I also think that too often we debate the use of the words and not the meaning. If I’m around women who are comfortable to think of me as a “male feminist”, I’m fine with that. If others prefer to call me an “ally” or a “pro-feminist” that’s fine too. I don’t have a problem even if I’m referred to as “someone who isn’t a total dickhead”. I don’t really understand men who get upset about not being allowed to call themselves “male feminists”. For me, the point of participating in the movement has always been about learning and assisting wherever I can, not about going through the motions so I can give myself a label afterwards.
I strongly believe that educating men about the history and theory behind feminism is an important part of building the movement. But men should also respect that the knowledge we’re receiving has come from the experiences of women who have lived entirely different lives to us and we shouldn’t use it to show off how apparently awesome we are, but to support them in whatever way they ask.
In addition to the women named in this article I would like to thank the other women who have helped shape my perspective on feminist issues for the better – Renee Jones, Melissa Brooks and Simone Morrissey. I could not have written this article without your support and patient teaching.