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Why Men Can Be Good for Feminism

Men who dare to call themselves feminists have taken a lot of heat. Could things be changing?

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Feminism is a dirty word. It conjures images of whiny, bitchy women with sanctimonious complaints about men. And the men who call themselves “feminist”? If they aren’t simply whipped, then supposedly it’s a label they invoke as a cheap ploy at getting laid. Or so the story goes.

But that’s an old version of the story of feminism, and like so many of us, I’m convinced we’re in the midst of change.

That said, recent media maneuvers and blogosphere blowups have put this confidence to the test. For those outside the feminist bubble, here is the nutshell version: Eliot Spitzer recently announced to Chris Hayes on MSNBC that he is a feminist — an identification few major politicians would make. Despite his record of championing reproductive rights, challenging workplace discrimination, and advocating women's healthcare, given Spitzer’s record of hiring prostitutes, the reaction on Twitter was swift.

Another self-identified feminist man with a history of confused intent and mental illness recently hijacked an extraordinary amount of attention. Hugo Schwyzer, a community college instructor with training in Scottish history, was assigned to teach courses in gender studies, pornography or feminism, which some argue were not his areas of expertise. Internet sites such as Jezebel and xoJane published his work, but graphic sexual discussion always garners copious page views, so that's no surprise. The conflict he hath wrought, however, has created a feminist tempest in a digital teapot.

The divisiveness and sheer exhaustion that emerged from the Schwyzer mess is both personally and politically painful to witness. Instead of burning out on conflict, however, there are plenty of opportunities to redirect attention to constructive solutions and positive perspectives on men's roles in working for gender justice.

Can men be feminists? Absolutely. As I write in my book Men and Feminism, feminists are committed to addressing problems that happen every day. Some of these are issues that take place behind the privacy of closed doors; others are matters that confront us in the public arena. These problems include things like domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, racism, homophobia, unequal pay, job segregation, sexual objectification, restrictions on reproductive choices, and unattainable standards of gender, beauty, and behavior.

The examples of men doing this work are many and growing. Men for Women’s Choice supports reproductive rights. Voice Male Magazine and Masculinity U encourage rethinking stereotypes about masculinity and feminism. There is the awesome collection of men speaking out against street harassment. Award-winning filmmaker Byron Hurt’s documentary about hip-hop continues to inform. Tom Keith’s recent video The Bro Code investigates the toxic mix of men and sexist media. Filming is underway for Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s new film on masculinity, The Mask You Live In. Every day, it seems, more men are getting on board with creating constructive solutions and positive change.

On an individual level, feminism makes room for each of us to explore who we are, separate from gender constraints. Too often, the social rules and regulations for men and women are restrictive. They don’t really describe us well. Feminism questions rigid binary categories of masculinity and femininity, looks at the political consequences of assumptions about gender, and helps us search for better models and greater freedom.

Guys have lots of opportunities to get involved with everyday practices like engaged parenting, pay equity and consensual sex. Changing diapers might not seem like a political act, but it definitely has political meaning. There’s certainly nothing wrong with doing domestic, caring work. In fact, feminism is about the right to freely choose our life activities. But if women are doing the majority of the housework and caring for the babies, it means they’re doing these unpaid jobs in addition to other paid work or it means they’re not doing something else (like earning money, writing the great novel, etc.).