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Do Men Belong in the Women's Movement?

What role do men have in fighting for gender equality?
 
 
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When Dan Wald, 24, began his matriculation at Ithaca College, he wasn’t thinking much about women’s issues. But then the biochemistry major from greater Boston began to hear stories about sexual assault from friends and something clicked. 

His big realization was that he should work with campus groups on sexual assault prevention not in spite of the fact that he is a guy, but precisely because he is one. Wald spent the rest of college bringing men in on the discussion of sexual violence and harassment and today he sits on the board of Students Active for Ending Rape.

“My whole life, rape had been framed as something you talk to your daughters about, and not your sons, but it is a men’s issue too,” Wald said.

After decades of feminism that was by women and for women, more and more men, like Wald, are coming around to the idea that men and feminism might just be good for one another.

Today there are more men than ever immersed in women’s issues and fighting for gender equality. They are taking women’s studies classes, contributing to feminist publications, attending conferences dedicated to men working on women’s issues, and advocating against sexual violence and for reproductive choice. And they are working with women who are realizing that gender equality might be better achieved with the participation of both sexes.

“We are now seeing that men can be allies to women, that they are being allies to women, and that men should be allies to women because it is in our own interest,” said Michael Kimmel, sociologist and co-author of the recently released The Guy’s Guide to Feminism from Seal Press.

The book, written with educator and writer Michael Kaufman, is a primer for young men curious as to why gender equality should matter to them. It provides accessible descriptions of things like sex, body image and birth control, and pithily explains how they affect men’s lives as well.

Masculinity Crisis?

Some of the interest in feminism from men is a result of the perceived "masculinity crisis." The success of women in certain academic and professional spheres has led some guys to the proverbial, and retrograde, man cave, while others have seen it as an opportunity to do a little soul searching about masculinity.

The rise of gay activism over the past decade has also drawn more men to the women’s movement, due to the overlap of issues and objectives. Then there are those, in a direct manifestation of the personal is the political, who were raised by feminist mothers or are dating feminist women. And even if they don’t hear about it in their personal lives, the changing face of women over the past four decades has changed the way men think.

Tomas Matlack started The Good Men Project because he found himself dissatisfied in his late 40s after spending decades as a breadwinner. He knew that women had gone through a communal soul-searching about work-life balance and thought men in similar circumstances would benefit from a similar discussion. His web magazine tackles “a lot of 'feminist' issues,” even though it is within the framework of a conversation on masculinity. The magazine, which aims to provide an alternative vision of masculinity from the alpha version found in glossy magazines, features pieces on topics like pornography, fatherhood, race, and aging. 

“We had women trying to get out of the house, and now we have men trying to get back in the house, and the whole world is trying to figure it out, and it is kind of a mess,” Matlack said.

Concern and Controversy

Hugo Schwyzer, who recently had a heated debate about feminism at the Good Men Project with Matlack, is one of the male voices that has appeared on feminist blogs. He has a column on the feminist-leaning women’s blog Jezebel, in which he covers hot topics like male desire and slut-shaming. Schwyzer's over 20 years teaching and writing as a male feminist has not been without its hiccups and polarizing controversies; the most recent one calling into question whether men have a right to be "authorities" on anything feminist. 

Last month a heated, painful debate ensued in the online feminist community when details about Schwyzer’s personal history surfaced that they found unsavory, misogynistic and perhaps worse: when he was younger and an alcoholic, he turned the gas on himself and his girlfriend in an attempted act of violence.

Several blogs distanced themselves from his work, a Facebook account was set up to protest Schwyzer’s presence in feminist circles, and some began to question whether men should be included in the movement overall. 

In his response, which he posted to his blog, Schwyzer announced that he would continue to write and teach about gender, though not in "explicitly feminist spaces." Instead, he will be focusing on feminism's applications for men. He will keep writing for Jezebel (which is not an explicitly feminist blog).

Shira Tarrant, associate professor in women’s and gender studies and author of two books on men and feminism, says that she finds the online response to Schwyzer unfortunate because it detracts from good work being done by other men.

“This was more a reflection of the [online] take-down culture than the challenges of men getting involved [in feminism],” Tarrant said. “There is not enough focus on all the great work being done across the country by our male allies.”

On the other hand, at Campus Progress, Naina Ramos-Chapman writes that the Schwyzer controversy is an object lesson in what it means to be a member of a privileged group helping to end oppression -- and the vital importance of stepping back when it's needed. Schwyzer made things worse, she said, by centering on himself instead of the issues. Time will tell if he is truly listening, she wrote: "A true ally participates in the movement and, more importantly, listens when told they’re doing it wrong. Schwyzer should consider this recent backlash as a personal 'mic check'."

Who Gets to Speak For and About Feminism?

When Bryan Lowder applied for a blogging position at DoubleX, Slate’s women’s interest blog, he didn’t view the fact that he is a man as much of a big deal. He saw a lot of overlap between the purview of the blog and matters of sexuality and gender he often contemplated within the LGBT movement. 

“As a gay man who believes that a part of that identity is inherently political, I don't see how feminism could not be important in my life,” Lowder said in an email. “It's clear from the history of civil rights movements that LGBT thought owes a great debt to feminism, if not a total lineage. To even think that one's body and what one does with it sexually or otherwise might be a political issue worth debating is surely a feminist innovation.”

For some editors, like Jezebel editor Jessica Coen, the inclusion of male writers feels intuitive and logical.

“Jezebel is not some secret clubhouse where the menfolk aren't allowed,” Coen said. “Plenty of guys have sent me good pitches; why wouldn't I want to see some of them through? If I like the idea and the writing, I don't particularly care about the author's sex or gender.”

For others, like Feministing executive editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay, there is still some hesitation. She said that while she and her editorial staff have noticed more and more men joining their cause, they are still reluctant to feature male voices on the blog.

“We fully recognize the need to incorporate male voices, and recognize the value of male voices,” Mukhopadhyay said. “But we still need to figure out how to feature male voices without re-creating the problem [of sexism].”

She said that currently comments from men receive a lot more attention than comments from women, and they want to make sure the same doesn’t happen with blog posts.

Mukhopadhyay’s concerns about including male voices in feminism go back to the second wave. In the 1970s, women found allies in men, including writer and activist John Stoltenberg, but there was still a reluctance to include them in the overall movement. For one, there was a fear on both sides that a man might steal the spotlight from women; a practical concern in a time when women’s voices were often unheard. There was also the understanding that men could never truly understand the plight of women, so therefore had no business calling themselves feminists. 

Letty Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. magazine, said there was no official position against publishing men at Ms., but they did not actively seek out their views.

“There was a real fear that they would become the spokesmen for the women’s movement,” Pogrebin said. “We were there to be the voice for the voiceless.”

But today, both men and women are starting to see the added value of including men’s voices in the movement. 

Men's Best Role: Speaking to Other Men

The organizers of Slutwalk encouraged men to attend their rallies, and the men showed up. They also featured male speakers on the topic of victim-blaming.

“I thought it was amazing that they were inviting a man to speak, but the students who organized it thought, of course, this is about sexual assault, we got to get a man to talk. This is a really big change,” said Michael Kaufman, co-author of The Guy’s Guide to Feminism

David Benzaquen, a political and legislative action coordinator for NARAL Pro-Choice New York, said that while he is always careful not to speak for women, he is aware of the fact that his being a man helps him get through to other men when discussing reproductive issues. Benzaquen said that his feminist awakening happened when he campaigned for a female politician in high school and was met with frequent sexist slurs.

“While I’d like to think that my value to any organization comes in the form of professional skills and not in my sex or gender identity, the ugly truth is that there are some people who are more likely to listen to those whom they resemble,” said Benzaquen in an email. “Seeing me being so involved in the fight for reproductive justice might help other men realize that reproductive health and rights are not only women’s issues, and that we need men to speak out about them.”

The organization Men Can Stop Rape has a male-first approach to the issue of sexual assault. Its mission is to end violence toward women by working with middle-school through college-aged students, and through public awareness campaigns. Joeseph Vess, now director of training and technical assistance at the organization, began volunteering for Men Can Stop Rape after a female friend and his girlfriend confided in him about their experience with harassment and assault.

“I had no idea this is happening. I thought I had no personal connection,” Vess said.

He said Men Can Stop Rape’s approach to ending violence is allowing young men to explore ideas about masculinity in Men of Strength (MOST) clubs. Through these discussions, they begin to see how the ways they are taught to speak and act might offend, and even harm, women.

“It starts from there...once you start talking about how to be a better man you also start to think about what is going on for women as well.” 

Elissa Strauss is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Salon, the Village Voice and the Forward, where she is also a contributing editor to the Sisterhood blog.
 
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