This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

March-April 2015

Allied forces

Hillary Di Menna

Illustration by Mariah Burton

Illustration by Mariah Burton

Where do men belong in feminism? Hillary Di Menna tackles the thorny question of what it means to be a strong male ally—and whether women really need them

SOMETIMES I CAN’T DECIDE where men fit into feminism. On the surface, it seems like such a simple, yes-or-no question: they either belong or they don’t. But whenever I confront the question, I always end up surrounded by books with my feet propped up against the cat-scratched arm of my should-be-trash couch. This is what happens when my emotions get in the way of understanding feminism. Or, maybe understanding feminism is meant to be a journey. Something I know as fact one day is an enigma the next. On the subject of feminism, my brain is constantly turning, my thoughts are jumping all over, rushing ahead, sometimes so fast that I can’t keep up.

Recently, I wanted to post a quote by Michael Kimmel, author of Angry White Men, as a Facebook status. Kimmel is a sociologist and author who eloquently describes feminist concepts—even those unfamiliar with feminist jargon dig him. But I let my fingers pause, hovering over the keyboard. I just couldn’t shake the tiny, but persistent, voice inside me demanding to know why I was quoting a man. Was I trying to hush personal insecurities by proving men can be feminists too? Did I just want to prove we feminists aren’t man-haters? Or was I using a man’s words to appeal to other men? Why did I even want to appeal to men? And, if I did quote Kimmel, would I be furthering the awful belief that a man’s words have more validity?

In the end, my questions crushed me into inaction. I continue to read Kimmel’s work, but I’ve never shared his direct quotes. I can’t stand the knowledge that his words would be heard over a female feminist’s. But that’s not to say there isn’t a place for men in feminism. I mean. I think. Right?

It’s like this inside my head whenever I tackle this tough question: How do men and feminism fit together? Or do they? Can they? I was 24 when I went to school for journalism. At the time, I was in the court system fighting for custody of my daughter. I was also getting a restraining order against her father, as well as navigating the mental health system. I felt trapped in these institutions of a patriarchal system: I was victim blamed; I wasn’t taken seriously; people would suggest I was hysterical and incapable. I decided I’d use journalism to spread messages of social justice. I’d had enough. I figured if I was so shocked by how the system actually works, others would be too.

It was through my writing that I started to identify so strongly as a feminist. Financially, the year after graduation was hard. Single moms have a stigma attached to them that prevents them from finding something as important as an apartment to live in, and limited affordable child care resources can prevent finding steady employment—especially when those child care hours don’t mimic the same hours as the shift work women are prone to getting. In September 2014, I decided to go back to school and enrolled in the Gender and Women’s Studies program at York University. I wanted to better understand a system that seems to hate me, and all women, so much. I wanted the tools to change it—or at least something that would give me more information to share with others.

I quickly learned, though, that there is no clear answer—only more questions. I’m now thinking even more critically about what I’ve learned about gender in the first place. As a white cis-gendered woman in a certain place of privilege, there are things I knew about, but didn’t fully comprehend: the ways in which trans people can be doubly silenced, the complexities involved with socially-constructed races, the ways in which women of colour may not identify with the feminist movement I, as a white woman, have access to. As my list of questions grows, I find it even harder to pinpoint exactly where men fit into all of this.

I know there are, of course, feminist issues that people of all genders care about: national child care programs, legal protection for sex workers and their clients, addressing rape culture—I could go on. “Feminism doesn’t mean advocating only for women any more than the word ‘human’ only refers to men,” says Dr. Kristine Klement, one of my professors at York. “Feminism means recognizing that we live in a world where sexism and inequality exists and deciding to take responsibility for changing it.”

And, it’s not as if only women understand or experience oppression—this essential piece of humanity, I know, is what can make men good allies in the movement. It could even make them good leaders. “The different layers of who I am come into play,” says Jeff Perera, explaining how he strives to be a strong ally to women-identified people. Perera is the community engagement manager for the White Ribbon Campaign, a movement of men and boys that works to end violence against women and girls. “I am a man of colour, I grew up around domestic violence, I am someone who has always been more tuned into seeing what experiences are like that women have to deal with.”

Perera certainly possesses a quality that makes him empathize and listen. During one of our first conversations I mentioned how much harassment I face while taking public transportation (getting pushed around, cat-called, having my ass grabbed). He didn’t play the macho role, as so many men do when women relay these experiences (see: letting us know if they were there they would beat up our harassers). He didn’t try to avoid the potential awkwardness my revelations could lead to, nor did he make it obvious he was just waiting for his turn to speak. Instead, he asked me what I had to go through, and how it made me feel. He genuinely wanted to know. This can be such an uncommon experience, I was actually taken aback.

“Women are leaders in articulating their struggle, lived experiences, and empowering themselves,” Perera says. His campaign focuses on men, and the harmful ideas out there in regards to masculinity and how it can result in violence against women. This is how Perera is a good ally. “I feel for men and young men,” he adds. “It’s more about embracing the roles they can play to take on harmful masculinity in spaces we, as men, work, love, play, hang out, and worship in.”

In summer 2014, Perera spoke at SlutWalk Toronto. My best friend and I were holding the walk’s official banner behind the speakers as a backdrop. Already feeling emotional and empowered, I was elated to hear a man who “gets it.” I frequently cried “Yes!” and cheered as he spoke. After getting to know Perera, I know my feelings and enthusiasm for his words were genuine, because I know he is genuine with his intentions of being a strong male ally. Still, after the event, I asked myself: “Why did it matter so much to me that a man said those words, when so many woman have been screaming them for decades?”

SlutWalk co-founder Heather Jarvis says the event usually has one male speaker to acknowledge male victims of sexual abuse. In fact, the walk has always been gender inclusive and Jarvis believes there is room for male-identified people within the feminist movement. “With any form of oppression,” she says, “one side can’t do all the work.”

Certainly, I have male friends, family acquaintances, and colleagues who identify as feminists. One of those men is Matt, who lives in Toronto (and asked I not use his last name). As a gay man, Matt faced traumatic homophobic bullying throughout high school. “I was called a ‘faggot’ daily,” he says, “and this was especially true during PE class where I failed miserably.” Matt believes a fundamental component to feminism is recognizing that life is regulated by oppressive gender norms, but that oppression is not identical in all groups. At the same time, he says he still benefits from male privilege—in more ways than one. “So, when I call myself a feminist I am striving to understand gender oppression and challenge it,” he adds. “This is also why I am an ally.”

Wanting to learn more about feminism, Matt decided to sit on a committee focusing on feminist issues. In 2011 he joined the Feminist Action Committee of the Greater Toronto Worker’s Assembly, an anti-capitalist, worker-based organization. The committee primarily sought to apply a feminist analysis to the assembly’s organizing, but was open to all genders. Matt was the only man. “I had a vague identity as a feminist but was completely naïve to what that actually meant in practice,” he says. “The committee helped me to understand.” He—rightly—stood back from the spotlight, during meetings opting for tasks such as minute-taking, allowing the women in the committee to focus completely on what they wanted to accomplish. At a similar meeting I attended, a man provided child care for my six-year-old daughter. Both of these tasks, child care and minute-taking, have been traditionally assigned to women. When men alleviate the pressure to do this work, they are allowing us to have a distraction-free space to discuss issues and prepare solutions.

Tracy Ashenden, front woman of feminist punk band Cross Dog, agrees men can be productive allies, and uses the example of stepping in when seeing street harassment. “If you witness this, as a male, say something,” she says. “Put a stop to it. Do work by putting yourself in the position women are likely unsafe to put ourselves in.” Feminism is about equality, Ashenden adds, but it’s also important to remember social justice is about empowering the marginalized group—in this case women. When men speak for women or take the lead of feminist groups, they are enforcing their power and their dominant position; they are not providing any productive support. It is more important for a man to behave like a feminist than to identify as one. As Ashenden quips: “Hero cookies will not be given out here.”

If anything, we need men as allies, if only to promote feminism to other men. It is frustrating and emotionally draining for a member of any oppressed group to explain the oppression they feel to the dominant group. My own experiences never seem to be enough. It isn’t enough, for instance, when I share that I have been emotionally, physically, and sexually abused by men since childhood. I have to eloquently explain how these things affect my life (things I haven’t even fully figured out). I have to prove how, statistically, my experiences are actually common. And I often have to explain these experiences to people who often cannot fathom them as part of their own lives. A man may dismiss a cat-call—but he doesn’t know how many of us women have learned they can be signs of violence to come. Some men may not understand how the system fails, shames and blames us for our own sexual trauma. Feminist activism is already hard work, and I simply don’t have the stamina needed to prove injustice exists in the first place. When a man takes on the role to educate other men, it helps women conserve their energy to focus and progress on their own terms.

In many ways, it seems natural to be open to male allies and men who identify as feminists, whether they are marching side-by-side with us during the SlutWalk or respectfully staying to the side in solidarity at a Take Back the Night march. But I also have some worries. Some men have mansplained feminism to me. Others—men close to me who claimed to be feminists—have assaulted women. And, what about Hugo Schwyzer, a male feminist-identified writer who turned out to be abusive and racist toward women of colour? Ally is a wily word. It sounds friendly enough. It communicates the message efficiently enough: someone who is supporting an oppressed group. But like the title feminist, it can be abused. A male friend of mine won’t use the word. “I don’t like the term ‘ally’ because I think it implies an ability of those who are allies to wash their hands of their position of privilege,” he says. So he identifies as a feminist, “I see it as one way to hold men accountable,” he adds, “so they can’t just wash their hands of it once they get uncomfortable.” And as Perera says of privilege, we need to get comfortable with the discomfort: “We need to do that initial gut check, address the ugly things we find, and continue to own up to mistakes.”

That includes my privilege. As I examine how men fit into feminism, I feel compelled to confront my own cis-privilege and the dangers of binary thinking. There is a broad spectrum of gender —making it near impossible to look at the question of allyship in the simple terms of men versus women. And, to that point, if we’re talking about what makes a good ally, shouldn’t we also ask: What about women feminists? The white women who ignore women of colour? Or women-only groups that are not trans inclusive? Many female feminists don’t know how to be good allies either—and they aren’t feminists I want to align myself with.

In my feminist advocacy work, I’ve often heard that the word feminism should be pluralized. There are so many branches: social feminism, radical feminism, ecofeminism, and on. As Jarvis told me, no individual can own language, just as no singular group can claim feminism. Language can serve as a bridge and a barrier. If more people—men, women, and trans—identified openly as feminist, perhaps it wouldn’t be seen as such a dirty word. And, the pressing issues women face today won’t be solved with me running around making sure everyone identifies properly as a “feminist” or “ally.”

After all this is done—when a system that favours one gender over others is abolished—we won’t need to focus on whether men should be in the feminist movement. But until then, we all need to sit on our own versions of our should-be-trash couches, get out there, and constantly ask questions, continually evaluate our goals, and act toward progress in gender equality. What’s truly important is that women obtain not just a voice, but an influential one. I want us to be seen as people the way men are. And if men can help play a role in this, I want them on the women’s rights team—knowing it is a women’s team.

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