by Keith E. Edwards
I don’t call myself a feminist. It’s not because I don’t value, support, and aspire to feminist aims and goals; I do. I don’t call myself a feminist for two reasons. First, I’m mindful of a history of men appropriating feminist and women’s movements for their own benefit and credit. Second, I am troubled by those from dominant groups who self-identify as allies in general and feminists specifically. As a man, my privilege blinds me to so much of my own socialized and internalized sexism that in spite of my best intentions, I can never be sure if I’m effective in my efforts to support feminist aims. I’d rather individuals who experience sexism and identify as feminists determine who is (and if I am) an effective ally. In the meantime, I aspire to be an ally and feminist. When those who experience systemic sexism call me a feminist, I take it as an enormous compliment.
Feminism is not anti-man, rather it is anti-patriarchy (hooks, 2004). That is a BIG difference. Battle of the Sexes was a crappy show on MTV, not a solution to the very real problems facing people of all genders. We need to be careful as we work toward feminist aims to not fall into this trap. Gender equity work is not a zero sum game (Davis & Wagner, 2005)We don’t need to send men back to move women forward. And, this says nothing about the progress desperately needed for those who don’t identify on either side of the gender binary. Binary thinking is itself a part of the patriarchal and other dominative narratives (Wagner, 2011).
We should all be anti-patriarchy. Patriarchy’s traditional hegemonic definition of masculinity serves to oppress women, place some men above other men, and limit all men in several tangible ways (Edwards & Jones, 2009). In spite of the very real privileges men have in a society designed by and for us, men still die younger, experience greater violence other than sexual violence, experience greater rates of depression and seek help for it less, and have a significantly higher rate of suicide (Kimmel & Messner, 2004) The system that grants men privilege is simultaneously diminishing men’s lives and literally killing us (Brod, 1987). This is not to equate the way men are hurt by a system that benefits them with the way women are oppressed – it’s not even close. But we men do have a stake in this game too – not just indirectly but directly.
But we men do have a stake in this game too – not just indirectly but directly.
Men’s lives are certainly diminished through the oppression of women and transgender folks in our families, our workplaces, and our communities. Our lives are limited by the boundaries and obstacles to authentic relationships that sexism places between men and people of other genders. Men are also limited by the ways that patriarchy’s rigid gender roles limit our relationships with other men, for instance our fathers, father-figures, and our friends who are men (Edwards & Jones, 2009). When I have asked other men if they hug or say, “I love you” to their fathers, and you often get powerful stories of love, distance, fear, connection, and homophobia, even from men without father figures in their lives. These rigid gender norms are also the reason that college men I speak with share stories of unconsciously anesthetizing themselves through alcohol, sleep deprivation, avoiding eye contact, and playing violent videos games (to prop up their “manhood”) before they will open up with their authentic selves sharing their fears and vulnerability even with their best friend in the world about their family pet passing or their parents newly announced divorce. Rigid gender roles also limit men’s relationships with ourselves. Men sacrifice our authenticity when we pretend to be someone we are not in order to comply with our gender role socialization. Pretending I know how to fix a car when it breaks down, rather than just asking for help, is an example of this. As men we limit our humanity when we deny aspects of ourselves that don’t fit within those same impossible expectations of us as men. I deny my own humanity, when I pretend that I’m not tearing up full of emotion at the end of every episode of Friday Night Lights.
When men realize that working to ally with feminist aims is not only about benefiting women but it is also about helping to improve our lives in real and tangible ways, we become more consistent, more effective, and more sustainable partners in action (Edwards, 2006). And realizing this outcome would make all of our lives better.
Brod, H. (1987). A case for men’s studies. In M. S. Kimmel (Ed.), Changing men: New directions in research on men and masculinity (pp. 263-277). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Davis, T. L., & Wagner, R. (2005). Increasing men’s development of social justice ally attitudes and actions. In R. D. Reason, E. M. Broido, T. L. Davis & N. J. Evans (Eds.), Developing social justice allies (pp. 29-41). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Edwards, K. E. (2006). Aspiring social justice ally identity development. NASPA Journal, 43(4), 39-60.
Edwards, K. E., & Jones, S. R. (2009). “Putting my man face on”: A grounded theory of college men’s gender identity development. Journal of College Student Development, 50, 210-228.
hooks, b. (2004). Men: Comrades in struggle. In M. S. Kimmel & M. A. Messner (Eds.), Men’s lives (6th ed., pp. 555-563). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Kimmel, M. S., & Messner, M. A. (Eds.). (2004). Men’s lives (6th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Wagner, R. (2011). Embracing liberatory practice: Promoting men’s development as a feminist act. In J. R. Laker & T. Davis (Eds.), Masculinities in higher education: Theoretical and practical considerations (pp. 210-223). New York: Routledge.
Keith Edwards is Director of Campus Life at Macalester College. He has spoken and consulted at more than 70 colleges and universities, presented more than 80 programs at national conferences, and published more than 15 articles or book chapters on engaging college men in sexual assault prevention, social justice education, ally development, college men’s development, and student affairs leadership. You can connect with Keith at keithedwards.com or on Twitter @edwardsk14