The American women’s movement is at a turning point. Roughly 45 years into feminism’s “second wave,” after decades of social change work dedicated to leveling the playing field for women, activists are coming back around to an old idea that’s been with us since the 1970s: the frequently cited maxim that “feminism is for everybody,” men and women alike.
Feminists long maintained that the rigidity of traditional sex roles was harmful to men too, but the harm done was often harder to discern. While it was easy to see what women were denied by being strictly confined to the conventionally female roles of wife, homemaker or mother, it was more difficult to pinpoint what men were giving up in a social order they seemed to dominate in every way.
So until now, feminism has kept its main focus on women. In the ’70s and ’80s there was so much work to do to secure women’s basic rights as citizens – yes, it really was that bad – that the “everybody” part remained mostly hypothetical. Since the ’90s, the culture wars and backlash against reproductive rights and workplace protections have kept activists busy just trying not to lose the ground they’d previously gained.
But all the while feminist ideology, as distinct from its activist strategies, has been evolving. Recently, thought leaders have begun to seriously grapple with the ways feminism can address the problems traditional masculinity creates not just for women, but for men. Marianne Schnall, author and founder of the website Feminist.com, says she’s been working to include men since her website launched in 1995.
“It was very important to me to use the site to show the many manifestations of feminism and debunk common misconceptions,” she said. “One of the most damaging was that somehow feminism was anti-male or man-hating. That could not be further from my own concept of feminism.”
For most feminist thinkers, feminism as a philosophy is concerned with helping all people, regardless of gender, to reach their full human potential. As I see it, the question isn’t whether men belong in the feminist movement but how to get them there, how to show people that everyone has a stake in these political struggles that can too easily, and falsely, be framed as a matter of women vs. men.
Getting men more involved in feminism is a two-part problem – one part is logistical and the other is theoretical. The logistics are a matter of getting them there physically, to the organizations, demonstrations and educational events that are the backbone of the movement.
Schnall says she’s addressed the logistics of men’s participation by creating a column at her site specifically for men’s writing, and partnering with the group Men Can Stop Rape to launch an online initiative called Men & Women as Allies. She also makes a conscious effort to integrate men’s voices in her own work, as in her recent book “What Will It Take to Make a Woman President?” which features interviews with a number of high-profile men on the subject of women and power.
Alongside the logistical challenges of getting men to the feminist movement, there’s also the theoretical problem of what feminism has to offer them once they get there. So much of the feminist conversation revolves around women as a demographic group – women’s health, women’s wages – that it’s easy to see how even sympathetic men could conclude that feminism just isn’t built to address their needs.
But that woman-centered conversation has been expanding, as feminists come to understand that there’s no way to fully liberate women without giving serious consideration to what’s been holding men back, too. Jennifer Siebel Newsom, filmmaker and founder of The Representation Project, says that her efforts to understand society’s damaging messages about femininity naturally led her to questions about how men are being socialized.
Her latest film project, “The Mask You Live In,” examines this in depth.
“We’re trying to understand the narrative that boys and men are fed, and then point out the damage, and provide solutions,” she said. “Ultimately this is not a women’s issue or a men’s issue, it’s a human rights issue. When we demean so-called “feminine” traits like compassion, what we’re telling our boys and men is that caring isn’t for them – that emotions aren’t for them. We are failing our boys, and it’s time we started exploring that.”
There’s much work to be done to make mainstream feminism more inclusive of men, but it’s the kind of work that will make the movement stronger. When we broaden our thinking to include questions about how gender hierarchy affects not just women, but men and LGBTQ people, it leads us toward a clearer understanding of how to change society so everyone has a better chance of realizing their human potential.
Camille Hayes, a Sacramento writer, is a domestic violence advocate who works for the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. The views expressed here do not represent those of the partnership or its member agencies. Read her blog, Lady Troubles, about politics and women’s issues, at www.ladytroubles.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.