After reading the article “From MenEngaged to Men—and Women—Being Enraged” (Fall 2014), by Gary Barker, White Ribbon Campaign cofounder and longtime profeminist activist Michael Kaufman was moved to write a response. Barker, cochair of MenEngage, the global alliance of men’s organizations advancing women’s equality and the transformation of manhood, had cautioned his colleagues not to indulge in premature self-congratulation (as Michael Kimmel puts it) by uncritically applauding the movement’s successes. “We should celebrate only when we see true and sustainable progress toward gender equality…” Barker wrote. “Until then MenEngage[d] must be MenEnRaged.” With sobering data from around the world to bolster his contention, Barker warned against the movement cheering too loudly both the impact and the growing interest in engaging men. While he doesn’t disagree with his colleague and frequent writing partner—the pair are coauthors of the new antiwar novel The Afghan Vampires Book Club (appearing in May)—Kaufman does believe a little celebrating is in order.

Back in the 1980s, only a handful of activists and scholars believed that men could be allies for gender equality and that men’s lives could be enhanced by ending our dominant practices of manhood. Right into the 2000s, to raise these issues in UN agencies, for example, was to often be met with skepticism or hostility.

 Nowadays, there are programs and campaigns, activists and professionals in nearly every country in the world. Governments, UN agencies, women’s rights groups, international NGOs, researchers, and funders are all interested. Large international conferences and some truly impressive NGOs are focusing on this work. Tens of thousands of service providers, policymakers, activists and researchers have at least some explicit focus on engaging men and boys.

 But wait, Gary cautions. Yes, these are gains, but so long as men’s violence against women remains rampant, so long as gender-based income equality is with us, so long as women continue to do a disproportionate amount of domestic work and remain so underrepresented in governments, so long as girls still face massive barriers in many countries to education and women face barriers in health care (in particular concerning sexual and reproductive rights and health), we should contain our optimism about our successes to engage men who, after all, still enjoy disproportionate power and privilege.

I Agree and I Disagree

My agreement is simple. All those grim realities of gender inequality, destructive versions and manhood, and the oppression of women and girls are still very much with us. Right-wingers and religious bigots of all faiths employ massive resources, intimidation, and at times outright terrorism to turn back the gains women have made. Many of the equality programs are small scale and reach relatively small numbers. And, as Gary notes, there is often a gap between campaigns and actual changes in institutions and laws.

 But here’s where I disagree with his polemic: I actually believe it’s worth celebrating the gains societies are making in transforming ideals of manhood and engaging men to support gender equality. Here are but three examples.

  • Twenty-five years ago it was rare for men to speak out against men’s violence against women and to actively support changes in policies and laws. Now, because of the impact of women’s organizations plus a growing number of efforts to engage men, there virtually isn’t a country in the world where changes aren’t taking place. For example, lawmakers (still chiefly men) are passing better laws; police forces (also predominantly male) are training officers to implement those laws. Men are more likely to speak out in their places of worship, in the media, or to their friends.
  • We have made tremendous gains (led by LGBTQ-rights campaigns and organizations which many of us have either been members of or actively support) in challenging homophobia and heterosexism. Although progress is uneven around the world, these shifts in attitudes and laws will not easily be reversed. Among other things, they represents a successful challenge to hegemonic masculinities (homophobia being a major constituent of such ideals and practices).
  • Consider the major change in the role of fathers that is beginning to sweep the world. This development represents a major change in gender relations in the family, in turn a major contributor both to gender equality and to redefining manhood.

Forward Motion

One might argue that these are not our accomplishments. But few of us ever claimed we’re a men’s movement in the same sense as the women’s rights or anti-racism/civil-rights movements where we can draw a straight line between determined and diverse activism and ensuing social changes. Rather, we as activists, practitioners, educators, and researchers have contributed to shifting a social discourse, pushing for new policies, developing new institutions that have accelerated changes occasioned by the broader trajectory of gender relations.

“The very idea of engaging men and boys to be allies with women represents a major shift over the past three decades.”

“The very idea of engaging men and boys to be allies with women represents a
major shift over the past three decades.”

Furthermore, who is the “we” anyway? “We” include many who have been active or at least outspoken in fighting for LGBTQ rights and all that follows in terms of our discourse on masculinities and gender. “We” include many who have been active in women’s rights organizations and campaigns. “We” now include international NGOs, government departments, and UN agencies devoting considerable resources to engaging men—for example, the brilliant UNFPA-initiated cascading training of police officers in Turkey to uphold laws on women’s rights and violence against women that has reached more than 45,000 officers(!), training that started with a year-long training for a core group of police.

As well, some men-initiated organizations have, indeed, had a large impact. To cite but one example, the White Ribbon Australia Workplace Accreditation Program assists organizations to make a commitment and develop leadership capacity to prevent men’s violence against women and to respond to violence against women in the workplace. It takes 14 months to complete the program and receive accreditation. In its first 18 months, 64 organizations have been accredited or are in the process of being accredited and 200,000 staff, primarily male, have been reached.

Why Celebrate, and the Challenges Ahead

The very idea of engaging men and boys, the very notion that men in our majority can be allies with women, the idea that we need to challenge destructive and self-destructive practices among men—and the realization that we can actually do these things— represents a major shift over the past three decades. That so many governments and institutions are grappling with these questions also signals a major shift. That we have international discussions on fatherhood policies, or the role of men in ending men’s violence against women, indicates a substantial transformation is under way.

“Sweeping changes in the role of fathers represents a major shift in gender relations in the family, a major contributor both to gender equality and to redefining manhood.”

“Sweeping changes in the role of fathers represents a major shift in gender
relations in the family, a major contributor both to gender equality and to
redefining manhood.”

People mobilize in large numbers and support substantive change not only when there’s a problem and not only when they can imagine a solution. They do so when they feel that change is possible. So, it is important to celebrate our successes and those of women’s rights and other human rights movements. The celebration of accomplishments is part of the mobilizing process and of stimulating change.

But what should that celebration look like? I agree with Gary that we must avoid self-congratulatory postures or overstatement of our accomplishments. We must always remind ourselves of the challenges that remain. For those of us who enjoy relative privileges by virtue of our sex, sexual orientation or gender identification, our skin color, religion, or socioeconomic class, we must continue to confront this privilege.

My prescription for the best way to celebrate —which I think Gary would agree with—is to continue to push into the mainstream, to continue to scale up our efforts, to continue to broaden and diversify our partnership base, and to continue to push to embed the changes we envision in policies and institutions.

Why celebrate our accomplishments? Because they are signposts of the even greater societal transformation that lies ahead.


   Michael KaufmanAuthor-activist Michael Kaufman is a Voice Male contributing editor and a senior fellow at Instituto Promundo. @genderEQ