Men & Feminism

by Michael Kaufman

Giving Up is Hard to Do

I am a strong believer that men gain a huge amount from feminism. It’s been a theme of my writing and public speaking for thirty years (including in my new book, co-written with Michael Kimmel, The Guy’s Guide to Feminism, see page 27).

But, let’s face it, you don’t make omelets without cracking a few eggs. In this case, the eggs are the forms of power and privilege men have traditionally enjoyed:

• In the past, we men only had to compete with half of humanity for most jobs. Now, we have to compete with all of humanity.

• At night, men got to relax, go out with friends, or pursue our careers, sports or hobbies while our wives (even if they worked outside the home) did most childcare and domestic work. Now, we’re expected to do our fair share.

• Some workplaces were straight out of locker rooms. Now, with sexist behavior challenged, for some men, work just isn’t as much fun.

• No matter our personal abilities, society automatically valued us. Some religions said we were closer to God. We were automatically seen as stronger, more rational, and leaders.

• In relationships we got cooked for, shopped for, cleaned up after, and emotionally stroked.

• We could (if we so chose) have power in getting sex. Now, we can get put in jail for things that not long ago were seen as men’s rights.

• In some families and relationships, we were the ultimate decisionmakers. Now, we have to share power and decision-making.

In other words, some men are afraid of feminism because it challenges forms of men’s power and privilege that one-half of our species foisted on the other about 8,000 years ago. Giving up is hard to do.

Being a Man is Hard to Do

Here’s the strange thing: many men also fear feminism because they fear they’re not “real men.” I’ve written a lot about this, what I call “men’s contradictory experiences of power.” What this means is that the ways we set up our male-dominated societies not only bring men power and privilege but, paradoxically, is the source of pain for men.

One source of this pain is that we set up impossible ideals of manhood: You know: always strong, fearless, in control, etc. etc. Of course no man can live up to these ideals. But so long as we had uncontested male-dominated societies, we could pretend to ourselves and each other that we did. Why? Because we could contrast ourselves to the other half that clearly did not.

Now that women are asserting their strength, power, smarts, and sexuality, now that women are saying that anything a man can do, they can do as well, it takes the air out of the sails of many men. If deep down they didn’t feel like real men before, now those feelings are unconsciously multiplied.

Changing Ideas is Hard to Do

In spite of amazing changes that are benefitting most women and most men, the ideas associated with male domination still cling hard:

• Religions and traditional beliefs have a life of their own and a deep staying power. Especially in a time of economic, political and social upheavals when the future seems tenuous, some men (and women) cling to old ideas.

• Old ideas continue to morph and adapt. You might think that rightwingers are against women’s equality. But actually, many of their current ideas would have been seen as crazy feminist ideas forty years ago: A woman can be president or prime minister? Women are as smart and capable as men? Women have as much right as men to pursue careers and education? … In other words, feminism has actually had a big impact even when it seems there is still huge opposition by some men and women to it.

• Parts of the media have continued to do a remarkable hatchet job on feminism. Ask people in many countries about the specific issues associated with gender equality or violence against women. Many (and in some countries, most) will take a feminist stance. But ask if they agree with feminism and they’ll bring out their stereotype of who or what a feminist is and say “No!”

Finally, feminist women and pro-feminist men haven’t done a good enough job of transforming the mainstream. If we truly believe our ideas are just and are right, then everyone should subscribe to them! We should not be afraid of working in the mainstream. We should not be afraid of differences among us, but rather we should find ways to work with those who we don’t see as natural allies, and agree to disagree on specific issues. We should not be afraid to make mistakes or not to be perfect.
Voice Male contributing editor Michael Kaufman is one of the leading profeminist figures promoting gender equality in the world. He is the author/ editor of six books on gender issues, democracy and development studies, and also wrote the award-winning novel Possibility of Dreaming on a Night Without Stars.