Should Male Feminists Know Their Place?

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How do white, straight, progressive men in Australia fight racism, sexism and homophobia without hijacking the movement from historically oppressed groups? Dr Benjamin T. Jones examines the role of the male feminist.

Being a straight, white, middle-class, male in Australia can be tricky if you happen to also be progressive, liberal and generally left-leaning.

Intellectually, you are aware of your own privilege and the historic subjection faced by women, Indigenous Australians, racial and religious minorities, and the LGBTIQ community.

It is natural to want to help the campaigns for greater equality but when dealing with groups who have faced centuries of oppression, do these men need to know their place?

This issue came to the fore when Jack Kilbride penned an article for New Matilda arguing that popular feminist writer Clementine Ford was counterproductive in her approach to dealing with online misogynistic abuse. Kilbride’s article received hundreds of negative comments from women (and men) who saw no small irony in having a male university student explain to a seasoned veteran like Ford what the 'mission of feminism' is all about.

New Matilda quickly published an erudite, if stinging, rebuttal from Ellena Savage only to quickly follow that with an apologia from Tanya Levin.

While Savage rejected Kilbride’s argument (that Ford’s 'vitriolic writing style' did more harm than good), Levin contested that the real reason he was attacked was simply for being

'a male, daring to speak about gender issues.'

Still receiving a torrent of angry emails, tweets, comments, and article submissions, New Matilda editor, Chris Graham has said he will issue an apology (albeit in a brief statement titled, 'Still Not Sorry, But …').

Aicha Marhfour’s article informed New Matilda readers that men cannot be feminists and if they call themselves that it is only for personal gain. This really caused me to check my motives. Like Kilbride, I do identify as a male feminist. Indeed, I also published an article on Ford and online abuse of women. Where Kilbride and I differ is on how male feminists can best show their support. In short, I believe on this issue, it would not kill men to know their place for a change.  

As a gender, men are not used to being told to stay in their place. Every sphere of human endeavour has been a man’s place. It is women who have had to fight for a place in the political sphere and Julia Gillard can tell you how hostile it still is. It is women who have had to fight for respect on the sporting field and the Matildas illustrate far from equality we still are.

From the Suffragettes to the Second-Wavers, women have endured threats, intimidation, ridicule, and violence to earn their place at the table of equals. Their tenacity has been victorious in modern liberal democracies where it is (at least theoretically) accepted that a woman’s place is in the voting booth, the science lab, the corporate boardroom, the football stadium, the prime minister’s chair, and any other place her talents take her.

Progressive, white males generally support the noble national goal of reconciliation but would not presume to speak for – or over  First Australians. Progressive, straight males generally support marriage equality but are sensitive to the fact that they have not personally suffered the brutal effects of homophobia. As such, they tread with caution, offering support without hijacking the movement.

Yet, when it comes to feminism, progressive feminist men are perhaps a little too eager to offer constructive criticism, even leadership, rather than genuine support.

As Simone De Beauvoir reminds us in her classic text Le Deuxième Sexe, even

'the most sympathetic of men never fully comprehend woman’s concrete situation.'

However impressive a man’s feminist credentials may be, he can only ever understand misogyny at a theoretical level. He can never actually experience the gendered abuse faced by women and to that extent, is disqualified from telling women how they ought to respond.

I passionately believe in the cause of feminism. I support it for the women in my life, especially my four beautiful nieces. But the main reason I support feminism is simply because it is right. Women possess half the world’s supply of natural talents and should be empowered to pursue their dreams without prejudice or sexism.

As long as misogyny and patriarchy continue, it will always be up to individual women to determine how they respond. Whether they choose confrontation or to ignore abuse or something else, it is their prerogative and theirs alone. Of course, male feminists should support the broader movement but they should ask women how they can help, rather than how they can lead.

Feminism is home to a dynamic range of female views on how to achieve meaningful equality. For genuine male feminists, if indeed we accept there is such a thing, the greatest badge of honour is simply that the women you encounter consider you an ally in this worthy project. That, progressive gents, is your place, and you should be proud to stay in it.

Dr Benjamin T. Jones is an adjunct fellow at the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at the University of Western Sydney. You can follow Dr Jones on Twitter @BenjaminTJones1 or on his blog, Thematic Musings.

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