What is the role of men in feminism? – CIDSE

What is the role of men in feminism?

By Sandy Ruxton, Honorary Research Fellow,  Department of Sociology, Durham University, UK 

At school, I learnt how to kill a man. As we lay there in line with our Lee Enfield rifles, firing at life-size cardboard targets, I remember thinking how bizarre it was that we should be taught such a thing.  

But in the cadet force, I learnt much about masculinity, and about what is expected of young men. The unwritten rules: ‘be tough’, ‘be hard’, and if need be, ‘use violence’. Mentally, I added these prescriptions to others that I (and my peers) had already assimilated on playgrounds, on sports fields, and in the classroom: ‘boys don’t cry’, ‘don’t be weak’, ‘don’t act like a girl’. 

These unhealthy and unsafe gender norms continue to shape the lives of men and boys today[1]. Crucially, these norms provide the scaffolding for a gender order which privileges men – especially powerful elites. Male privilege is so engrained in social relations and structures that it appears normal and natural, and remains free from scrutiny. But if men are still the prime beneficiaries of gender inequality, then dismantling male privilege is, at least in part, men’s work.

The Dutch activist Jens van Tricht argues in his recent book ‘Why Feminism is Good for Men’[2] that feminism is not just about improving the position and status of women, but also about freeing men (and women) from the restrictive codes that hold them back. For men, feminism can provide the inspiration for shifting towards more co-operative and equal relationships and friendships, greater sharing of care and work responsibilities, and working to reduce organised and individual violence. 

Many men don’t routinely exhibit sexist behaviour or enact violence. But we all need to consider how we can play an active part in promoting change and in encouraging other men to do so. Fundamentally, this involves examining our own motivations and assumptions. As Australian sociologist, Michael Flood, has written: “The most important thing is that we have a responsibility to be introspective”.  

Men’s participation in gender justice movements could strengthen feminist efforts. Some forms of participation could include taking action online to defend women’s rights; supporting national and local campaigns opposing violence against women; raising awareness about sexism, for example in local sports teams or music venues; educating young people in schools and universities; and joining organisations working for gender justice. In particular, men can play an important role in challenging other men over their sexism, misogyny, and violence by calling it out, supporting victims, or bearing witness. 

However, there is often concern among women and women’s organisations about men’s involvement.  Some fear that attempts to engage men will distract from the primary task of empowering women, or that ‘men will take over’ women-led actions and campaigns. 

There is also a risk of diverting resources away from support for women, in a context where such resources (e.g. for rape crisis centres) are already under threat. Clearly, engaging men in gender equality should not involve abandoning support for projects and strategies that focus on supporting women. There are still compelling arguments too for preserving separate ‘women’s spaces’ for all women who want or need them. 

But if it is accepted that, despite the risks, men can and should play a role in feminism, how do they come to understand and support feminist goals in the first place? This is the focus of a forthcoming book to be published later in 2020 by researchers at Durham University in the UK and colleagues in Sweden and Spain[3]. The book aims to develop an understanding of the factors that enable men to take an active stance against men’s violence against women, and to explore how more men can be encouraged to do so.  

In line with previous research, our findings across the three locations show that in nearly all cases, men became aware and active through a process rather than a particular epiphany (with some exceptions where men were ‘catapulted’ into the work following a family tragedy). Those we interviewed were able to trace their involvement through various influences and pathways in their child and adult lives. Most often it was a general awareness and activism around anti-sexism that came first, sometimes alongside an increasing involvement in left politics.  

Many of the men talked about a lack of positive male influences when growing up, often because of absent or disengaged male family members. Sometimes men felt they didn’t ‘fit in’ while growing up, generally either because they didn’t like sports or were gay. Positive experiences with men were a minority. Women, either as ‘strong women’ within the family, as friends, within political movements, as lecturers, or as intimate partners emerged as far more influential in terms of shaping the men within our research into pro-feminist men.  

For men, engaging with feminism and anti-violence work is not straightforward, and there are significant obstacles for them in doing so. Personal challenges may include: lack of awareness of the issues; resistance or hostility from other men; and difficulties in finding like-minded, supportive men. More broadly, there may be: a lack of opportunities for men to get involved; criticism and suspicion from some women’s organisations; cultural and faith-based constraints; and lack of funding for relevant projects. 

There are some possible avenues to explore for organisations working with men. Men may be motivated by hearing women’s experiences or at ‘turning points’ in their own lives (e.g. becoming a parent or recovering from illness). Certain groups of men – such as environmentalists, animal rights activists, and trade unionists – are more likely to be sympathetic to equality and feminism already, and could be worthwhile groups to engage.

[1]Stephen Burrell, Sandy Ruxton, Nicole Westmarland, (2020, forthcoming), Changing gender norms: engaging with men and boys, London: Government Equalities Office

[2] Published in Dutch and German, and forthcoming in Arabic and English in 2020.

[3] Nicole Westmarland, Anna-Lena Almqvist, Linn Egeberg Holmgren, Sandy Ruxton, Stephen Burrell, Custodio Delgado-Valbuena (2020, forthcoming), Men’s Activism to End Violence Against Women: Voices from Spain, Sweden and the UK, Policy Press

Sandy Ruxton is an Honorary Research Fellow at Durham University, and a member of the Steering Committee of MenEngage Europe. He is also an independent policy advisor and researcher, specialising in men and masculinity issues. He has undertaken freelance commissions for a wide range of organisations, including the EU Presidency, European Commission, UNICEF, Save the Children, Oxfam, Promundo, and various universities. A trained teacher, he has worked with boys and young men in schools, in the community and in prisons. He lives and works in Oxford, UK.  

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