Feminism is going to make it possible for the first time for men to be free.
—Floyd Dell, 1914
For two generations a growing number of men of all races and ethnicities in the U.S. and around the world have followed women’s lead in working not only to prevent domestic and sexual violence but in redefining and transforming traditional ideas about manhood, fatherhood, and brotherhood. We’ve been called all kinds of names, but many of us describe ourselves as members of the profeminist or anti-sexist men’s movement.
Even though it has been nearly half a century since antisexist men began to redefine manhood, embracing many of the ideas (if not always the label) of profeminism, Voice Male, over three decades, has been publishing a wide-ranging collection of articles, essays, and commentaries that, taken as a whole, reveal the breadth and depth of the profeminist men’s movement: from boys to men and fathering; to male survivors and men of color; GBTQI+ men and men overcoming violence; to men’s health and men and feminism. Woven together, they create a multilayered tapestry revealing a wide, rich swath of one of the most important social change movements many people still today never heard of.
Profeminist men hold the simple “radical” belief that feminism means women and men should each have the same rights and opportunities. Although marginalized and largely absent from the national conversation about gender (and media coverage of same), modern-day profeminist men have been engaged in a sweeping critique of manhood and masculinity since the 1970s. In describing its origins, the National Organization for Changing Men—now known as the National Organization of Men Against Sexism (NOMAS)—uses the phrase “a looseknit spontaneous social movement.”
In 1975 a group of male students in a women’s studies class at the University of Tennessee, organized “The First National Conference on Men and Masculinity,” not in Boston, New York or San Francisco but in Knoxville. Since that time, groups and organizations have sprung up across North America and in dozens of countries around the world following in the footsteps of idealistic men in their twenties and thirties inspired by the women’s movement. Many of those early profeminist advocates made important contributions to the burgeoning movement through books including: Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice, and The End of Manhood: A Book for Men of Conscience (John Stoltenberg) and The Making of Masculinities and A Mensch Among Men (Dr. Harry Brod). What may have begun as a kind of “gentlemen’s auxiliary”—providing childcare so mothers could participate in gender equality demonstrations— soon became an inquiry into a panoply of men’s experiences, reluctantly in many cases addressing the elephant in the room: male privilege.
Learning to Speak “Emotionalese”
Despite media messages that lag behind on-the-ground truth, a progressive transformation of men’s lives is well under way. Men’s inclination to become involved in antisexist activism grew out of a sense of justness and fairness heightened for many by men’s involvement in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s. Those feelings were easily carried over to women’s call for liberation, itself nothing less than a social justice imperative of obvious historical importance.
Still, many men simultaneously felt threatened and envious of women’s groups, women’s politics—the whole women’s movement. Most of us couldn’t keep up. Women’s bilingual fluency—speaking both “Emotionalese” and “Politicalese”—certainly made it challenging, but not impossible, for men to understand what was happening in those dizzying times, especially once we relinquished our heretofore unquestioned belief that in the world of gender there was only one official language: “Manspeak” and its evil twin, “Mansplaining.” In those early days, some of us were confused and angry; some tuned out, choosing to ignore multiracial women’s marches toward liberation. Still, a small number of men began tuning in.
Acknowledging women’s fluency in Emotion- al-ese, haltingly some of us began to talk about our struggles, our feelings, our inner lives. Trouble was, we were primarily doing so with the people we believed could hear and understand us best—women. Slowly, over time, more of us realized (often with a firm push from our partners, wives, or women-identified friends) that who we really needed to be talking to were…other men.
Despite the modest number of men involved, chinks in the armor of conventional manhood are visible and, as our numbers grow, the chinks grow larger, threatening to crack open. Since the late 1970s, besides activities in the U.S. and Canada, profeminist men’s work has been ongoing in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Mexico, and across many countries in South and Central America. In more recent years India and Nepal have joined the growing list, as have some 20 African nations. The roots of profeminist men’s work are deep.
In North America, antiviolence men’s centers and men’s programs have offered general issue support programs for men, as well as groups for young men of color and GBTQI+ men. Fathers’ groups, and a variety of programs for boys on the journey to manhood also are on the rise, as are programs addressing men’s health, including male survivors of child sexual abuse. (Groups for men acting abusively, known as batterers’ intervention, began in the mid-1970s and now operate in most U.S. states and in a number of Canadian provinces, often overseen by their departments of public health.) There are numerous educational initiatives engaging men in gender violence prevention efforts on college and high school campuses, sports culture and through a variety of community-based organizations.
Profeminist men’s activities have ranged from advocacy campaigns, rallies and demonstrations to op-eds and letters to the editor, newspaper and online signature campaigns, books, films and theatre works— all aimed at offering an alternative to conventional masculinities. As time and technology marched on, listservs were created, websites launched, digital publications introduced. (One of the most wide-ranging and comprehensive, XYonline: Men, Masculinities and Gender Politics, has long been maintained by profeminist scholar-activist Michael Flood.) As a sign of the growth of the movement, there are today ongoing collaborations with long-established women’s programs across North America and internationally, often through women’s initiatives at the United Nations like HeforShe. (V, the activist-playwright and author—formerly known as Eve Ensler—made sure there was a “V-Men” page when she launched her organization’s V-Day website.) Today, men are active in One Billion Rising, a global campaign V founded a decade ago to end rape and sexual violence against women.
In 2009, nearly 500 men and women allies from 80 countries met for four days in Rio de Janeiro at a symposium, “Engaging Men and Boys in Gender Equality.” Five years later, at a second symposium in New Delhi, the delegates swelled to 1200. (A third gathering in 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, was held mostly online, with some live events in Kigali, Rwanda.)
The growing international movement for social transformation, united under the MenEngage Alliance, now operates on nearly every continent with hundreds of organizational members. Major conferences on related themes of men and women collaborating to prevent violence against women and promoting healthy masculinity for boys and men have been held in recent years across the globe. In North America there are now several each year from coast to coast, in our largest cities and at many of our most prestigious colleges and universities.
Some men found their way into the fledgling movement after perusing the eye-opening 1977 anthology For Men Against Sexism: A Book of Readings, edited by Jon Snodgrass. In the book’s introduction, “Men and the Feminist Movement,” Snodgrass, a working-class man who attended college on the GI Bill, earned a Ph.D., and moved to California to teach sociology, wrote: “While…aspects of women’s liberation… appealed to me, on the whole, my reaction was typical of men. I was threatened by the movement and responded with anger and ridicule. I believed men and women were oppressed by capitalism, but not that women were oppressed by men…I was unable to recognize a hierarchy of inequality between men and women…nor to attribute it to male domination. My blindness to patriarchy, I now think, was a function of my male privilege.”
Essays in the anthology include: “How Pornography Shackles Men and Oppresses Women”; “Men Doing Childcare for Feminists”; “Homophobia in the Left”; “The Socialized Penis”; and “Black Manliness: Some Fatal Aspects.” Publication of the book marked a critical moment in the chronicling of the evolving movement.
That chronicling was also found in the pages of early profeminist magazines from Great Britain, the U.S., and Australia. Achilles Heel, published in London, began in 1978. M: Gentle Men for Gender Justice, in Madison, Wisconsin (later renamed as Changing Men), released its first issue in 1979. XY: The Magazine for and about Men, came out of Canberra, Australia beginning in 1990. Brother: A Forum of Men Against Sexism, was published by the National Organization of Men Against Sexism.
Although no longer publishing, their contributions to the movement remain invaluable. XY continues as the leading online space for exploring issues of gender and sexuality in men’s and women’s lives.
Reading these publications today one can see the magazines were recording profeminist history as its practitioners were simultaneously defining the parameters of the emerging movement. Articles ranged from “ERA: What’s in It for Men? (M/Changing Men’s inaugural issue, Winter 1979-80); “Rethinking Men’s Power” (Achilles Heel, Summer 1997); and “Young Men: From Emptiness to Life,” (XY, Winter, 1995). Voice Male—which published its first issue 40 years ago as a typewritten newsletter called Valley Men in 1983—situated itself as a brother chronicler of the profeminist men’s movement.
A movement that continues to grow stronger.