Jacob Engelberg argues for men’s role in feminism, highlighting the importance of recognising male privilege and tackling oppressive masculinity
This is a guest post by Jacob Engelberg. Jacob is a student from London. He is currently studying English Literature and Film at the University of Sussex. He tweets here.
Half a century ago, the idea of a male feminist would have been seen as laughable. The conflation of the words ‘male’ and ‘feminist’ was an oxymoron, why would a man concern himself with feminism? Isn’t it a women’s struggle? Today however, growing numbers of men are taking on the appellation and I am one of them. Whilst male feminists cannot share female experience, we can join women in the fight for justice and women’s liberation, as in fact every well-informed person should. I hope that the presence of male feminists will soon be as unsurprising as the white person fighting racism or the heterosexual opposing homophobia.
My engagement with feminism began around the age of sixteen. I slowly began to realise the myriad ways in which women are oppressed. In the demands women are expected to live up to in terms of their appearance, the misogynistic rhetoric which pervades everyday interaction, the offensive female archetypes which saturate our media and the statistics which demonstrate women’s repression in the workforce and lack of representation in positions of power. When a man undergoes all these realisations and sees that this condition is inherently wrong, he must recognise that which is often most difficult to come to terms with: his own male privilege. The privilege to not be ubiquitously judged in terms of our appearance, the privilege to be sexually autonomous, the privilege to speak our minds freely without being cast off as garrulous. The list goes on and on.
Alongside these are the slightly more easy-to-stomach realisations that patriarchy’s normative expectations are not good for men either. For example, with the idealisation of women as virginal, sexually uninterested beings comes the assertion that men should be libidinous creatures, constantly seeking sex in all its forms – a lack of sexual interest in a man is seen as laughable. In a patriarchal society, a man must uphold his position of oppressor in order to adhere to the rules of normality and ‘naturalness’. Masculinity and femininity are essentially patriarchal social constructs. In the same way feminists have attacked the notion of femininity as natural, we must too acknowledge that there is nothing natural about masculinity and its demands. To be a male feminist is to eschew the masculine mores that oppress women and seek a different path in our interaction with the opposite sex.
This being said, I do believe there are areas of feminism where it is unwise for a male feminist to concern himself: these are the issues of women’s personal choices. It is not a male feminist’s place to say, “A woman should not wear make up” or “Women should not shave their armpits”. This is frankly paternalistic tosh. It is counter-productive as one of the main issues behind the oppression of women is men’s interference with what are women’s own personal choices. When it comes to these issues, men must listen and learn from women about their variety of female experience. A male feminist advocates a woman’s own personal choice, he does not make those choices for her.
Feminism still has a long way to go in its efforts to emancipate women. It also has progress to be made as a movement which is inclusive of people of colour, the working class and transgender communities. The emergence of male feminists has the potential to be a landmark in the feminist movement in which men cast off the oppressive garb they have once worn in the name of masculinity and support women in their quest for justice. We must understand that if a female politician seeks to restrict women’s reproductive rights for example, this is not a triumph for feminism – she is a woman perpetuating patriarchal dogma. In the world we live in today, patriarchy consists of men and women and so does its feminist adversary. I envisage a future in which your position in the struggle will no longer be determined by your gender but by the way you think.
Photo of two men holding a banner that reads “Men against violence towards women”, supporting women marching at Take Back The Night, Ontario, Canada, by Toban Black, shared under a Creative Commons licence.