In considering “a man’s place” in feminism, we must remember that the movement is not just a fight for one, it is a fight for all.
TW: mentions of suicide and self-harm
The image of ‘The Feminist’ is one that has been hotly contested for years. In the early days of modern feminism, the movement was deemed one of a radical minority of cis-gender women seeking to establish female superiority and rip apart the very fabric of society. At this turning point in history, it was deemed impossible for men to be feminists, and anti-feminist activists closely associated the movement with ‘man hating’. Decades later, shadows of this stereotype still linger, and there are still those who believe that men have no space in feminism, some of those who believe this being self-proclaimed feminists themselves. However, in considering where men fight into the image of this fight, it is important to remember the fundamentals of feminism, to strip back the layers and return to the basics of the ideology: feminism rallies in the face of adversity regardless of gender, and is a battle we can all get behind.
There are various definitions of feminism, all dealing with different specifics of the movement, however they are all united by a key notion: equality between the sexes. Be it in the political, social, economic or personal sphere, complete equality between the sexes is the end goal of feminism. There has been a lot of misunderstanding about these aims, and the strive for equality is often associated by opponents for feminism as an attempt to attack men and to establish women as dominant in society. It is for this reason that it is important to remember the fundamental beliefs of feminism as no coherent ideology that advocates for equality between individuals can then establish the dominance of one over the other.
Confusion also arises in the feminist aim to tackle the patriarchy, the social system which favours male dominance over women. The fight to dismantle this structure is what is most often associated with the supposed ‘anti-maleness’ of feminism. However it is important to note that many feminists see the patriarchy as an oppressive force that impacts the sexes equally. Patriarchal notions of identity and society promote misogynistic tropes that harm all. Men are expected to be tough, ‘manly’, and to not show emotion; those who break away from these characteristics are told to stop ‘acting like a girl’. The danger in this is the way it causes countless men to internalise their feelings and emotions rather than address them in a healthy manner. It leads to countless people feeling out of place or afraid to be themselves for fear of challenging the status quo, having a severe impact on mental health.
We have already seen the effects of this in society: the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) estimates that roughly 125 people in the UK take their lives every week, and that 75% of all UK suicides are male. Furthermore, a study by the World Health Organisation found that in 2016, roughly 40% of countries around the world had more than 15 suicide deaths per 100,000 men; only 1.5% of countries had the same rate but for women. Male suicide and mental health have long been taboo topics, for the reason mentioned above – societal norms pushed the view that men could not be vulnerable and talk about their mental health because it was not characteristic of a ‘man’. Toxic masculinity, as it is known, has meant that men are caged to these specific notions of what a man should be. Dismantling these unhealthy notions of gender are key in the fight against the patriarchy, and thus are important to feminists across the board.
Further important in tackling gender roles is making feminism more accessible to all genders. Many feminists see gender as a construct of the patriarchy, and thus seek to expand the barriers of feminism to encompass those who do not identify as cisgender and to tackle gender roles that seek to put people into boxes. Unfortunately, there are groups of feminists who do believe that trans rights and feminism cannot exist under the same umbrella in the fight against bigotry. This raises an important point that returns to the initial conundrum of what a feminist really looks like.
In the early days of feminism, the movement was almost exclusively associated with cisgender middle-class white women. The extension of suffrage to women in the US in 1920 is widely celebrated but we forget that it was barred for Black women for another 45 years until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Prominent feminist thinker Betty Friedan laid much of the groundwork for the second wave of feminism in the United States in the mid-20th century, however Freidan herself described lesbians within the feminism as the “lavender menace” who would undermine the movement. For an ideology that promoted equality and acceptance, feminism was unfortunately not very accessible to all. There have always been Black feminists, trans feminists, gay feminists, Muslim feminists, but they were pushed to the sidelines of the mainstream movement and not provided with the same platform as their peers.
However, recent developments and the rise of intersectionality within feminism means that the image of the movement is rapidly changing. The majority of feminists support this idea that there are a range of issues to be tackled, including when it comes to the way men are suffering under patriarchy too. Recent activity within the movement has sought to raise awareness for male suicide and also to tackle the issue of domestic violence against men, as well as women. The majority of feminists are also proponents of trans rights and rally against bigotry towards the LGBTQI+ community.
So, when we consider the image of ‘The Feminist’ today, it is important to note how far we have come. Feminism is no longer the exclusive club for cisgender white women that it was in the past, but is now a diverse movement that encompasses a range of identities. Feminism is working to distance itself from the stereotype of misandry associated with it, and is showing itself to be an ideology that embraces the struggles and plights of all. In remembering what feminism is about, and the way it seeks to fight bigotry in all its forms, we have to remember, anyone can be a feminist.
“Feminist politics aims to end domination, to free us to be who we are – to live lives where we love justice, where we can live in peace. Feminism is for everybody” – bell hooks.