On Egalitarianism and Male Feminists

So, this is something that comes up over and over. I think pretty much all of us have met at least one person who has said something like, “I believe in equality but I am not a feminist”. A lot of feminists tend to balk at this, because frankly, it tends to represent a fundamental misunderstanding of feminism and a belief in hackneyed feminazi stereotypes. It also represents a fear of the ‘F-word’, and the negative labeling that that tends to bring to the fore.

Having said that, I have a bit of a confession to make. The confession is that despite my strong views on gender equality and patriarchy, I’ve become increasingly wary of using the feminist tag in public forums myself. This is certainly not because I’m afraid that people will label me for that; it’s not that. This change has happened largely because of my recent interaction with a bunch of people who subscribe to a growing point of view within the feminist movement: the idea that men cannot and should not call themselves feminists. As far as I know, there are two main arguments generally put forward in support of this:

  1. A man cannot possibly relate to a woman’s perspective on the patriarchal system, because he has simply not experienced the same kind of discrimination that a woman has. You cannot be a feminist until and unless you suffer to the same degree under that system. Therefore, men cannot be feminists in the true sense.
  2. Feminism is a movement by women and for women. Men have much greater access to various spaces in the public view; the feminist space is something that should be woman-only

I don’t agree with the first stance, and I sympathize with the second only on an emotional, not logical level. BUT, I do get it. Feminism is one movement that women should have control over. If a woman comes along and tells me that she’s not comfortable with me calling myself a feminist, that’s fine by me. I don’t insist on the label.

To be honest, I don’t give a rat’s fart about what other MEN  (i.e, non feminist men) think about this aspect of my value system. What I definitely do care about is being labeled as a self-serving White Knight by people whose issues I actually SYMPATHIZE with, for reasons that are frankly very selfish. I don’t support feminism purely out of altruistic interests; patriarchy hurts me personally, and I have a vested interest in seeing it die. It’s that simple.

And in the face of that, a degree of marginalization from a movement that I relate very strongly to is, well, not very pleasant.

I mean, don’t get me wrong here. I’m definitely not expecting any medals for holding the views I do. BUT, I’m also not expecting brickbats from the people whose ideology I share. I understand that women have it bad, and I understand that I’m treading on sensitive ground here, but the fact remains that is that it does feel unfair to be mistrusted to that extent purely for being male.

Therefore, as a defense mechanism, I’ve started to shy away from calling myself a feminist, and have begun stating my views a bit more elaborately. Usually something like, “I generally believe in social egalitarianism, but have a heightened interest in gender equality”. This approach has several advantages over calling myself a feminist. For one, it conveys my sociopolitical viewpoint much more unambiguously. More importantly, it is a ‘safe’ statement, in the sense that it tends to offend far fewer women who identify as feminists. However, I can’t get rid of the nagging feeling that it’s not the same thing. Why? Well largely because they really AREN’T the same thing.

Egalitarianism is a worldview. Feminism can be described as a worldview, but it is also much more than that. It is a movement. It is a whole school of thought focused exclusively on women’s rights and the damage caused by patriarchal systems. An egalitarian says, “I believe everyone should have equal opportunities and rights in life”. A feminist says, “I believe in equality of the sexes and I’ll be damned before I stop fighting for that”.

The overwhelming majority of feminists I know are unflinchingly egalitarian, and care a great deal about all sorts of things apart from women’s rights. So why even bother to call yourself a feminist? Well, because no one can focus on everything at the same time! I care about disabled people, I care about genocides in Africa, I care about illegal wars, I care about political repression, I care about LGBT rights, I care about censorship… but I can’t talk about all of them at the same time. There’s a lot wrong with the world today, but when I say I’m a feminist or profeminist or whatever, I’m choosing to focus my energies on that one aspect of the world that I find the most wrong, the one that I also feel I have the greatest understanding of and the greatest power of change.

And that’s why, no matter what I label myself in public, when it comes to my internal thought process, I most definitely consider myself a feminist – not just an egalitarian with an interest in gender equality.

There is a difference there, and that difference is important. Because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?


27 thoughts on “On Egalitarianism and Male Feminists

  1. Be my guest and be a feminist. Without the help of well meaning men, women would never have got a toe hold on the movement in the first place, so I don’t see the point of shutting out men. If you make feminism exclusive to women, it won’t be a movement any longer.

    • Cheers, fem. I think some of the opposition stems from the fact that male voices are heard a lot more seriously in patriarchal societies. That’s not the fault of feminist men, but it’s not a healthy situation either; the message of feminism should not need to be repeated by men just to be heard. If women cannot be heard on their own terms without male support, we’re kind of missing the point of feminism, aren’t we?

      On the hand, I agree that male support is imperative for any change to actually occur. So it’s kind of a catch-22.

      When you look at the big picture, of course, the labels really don’t matter. Call me by what name you will, my ideology isn’t going to change.

  2. Isn’t the word ‘feminism’ in itself discriminatory? Egalitarian sounds right but as you said misses the point. Maybe the word is humanism that you are looking for, as it is inclusive unlike feminism which is exclusive.

    • It’s not discriminatory in itself. Is being a gay rights supporter discriminatory to heterosexual couples?

      The point I’m trying to make is that while it’s all very well to want equality in all spheres of life, you do have to focus on a particular area if you’re going to be making a change, or even learning more about the inequality itself. Therefore, a humanist may be a feminist as well; those are really two aspects of the same person’s ideological convictions.

    • That’s a classic slogan, cluelesschick and while it’s very witty, it doesn’t really describe who a feminist is except in very vague terms. Feminism, as I see it is not just the idea that women are people, it is the advocacy of the idea that women should, specifically, have the same rights and opportunities as men.

      It’s when you get into the advocacy part that you start having trouble.

      Like I said in an earlier comment; it doesn’t matter what I proclaim. I’d love to proclaim that I’m a feminist, but even if I don’t, it doesn’t make my ideology any different. 🙂

      • I would have to disagree. It exactly describes what a feminist is. A person who believes that everyone has the same rights. It is just as simple. The reason they are called feminists is because it so happens that women are the ones who are being short changed. The advocacy that specifically women should have the same rights comes because of it and not on it own. For example, being a feminist is very different from being and advocating atheism. Atheism does not exist because religions exists. It is an independent line of though that just happens to be different from religion.

        Feminism solely exists because women are specifically denied these rights. Feminism’s greatest achievement will be rendering itself unnecessary. In that sense, I should have no issues about who is advocating. I don’t think any feminist would either.

        • It exactly describes what a feminist is

          It describes what feminism is, and rather vaguely at that (Do all non-feminists not think of women as people? Not likely) . Everything beyond that is extrapolation, which is, of course, subjective to the person doing the extrapolation.

          I don’t think any feminist would either.

          Except they do. I didn’t think so either, until I met real-life ones who told me so. It’s not limited to real-life feminists, Google for “men and feminism” or something similar, and you’ll get a perspective on why people feel the way they do.

          I think the real problem here is that even feminists don’t agree on the definitions of feminism. :/

  3. The idea that men should not call themselves feminists because they’ve no real idea of the issues involved, OR that men should keep out of the feminist movement and let the women fight it out themselves, is silly, pompous and counter-productive. The truth is that feminism and all that it stands for will remain a pipe-dream forever if men are not brought on board. The bunch of women who advocate this exclusivist version of feminism are hurting the cause–thankfully the majority do not share their views.

  4. (Came here from IHM’s blog) Why do you disagree with the first point, which you described as:
    “A man cannot possibly relate to a woman’s perspective on the patriarchal system, because he has simply not experienced the same kind of discrimination that a woman has. You cannot be a feminist until and unless you suffer to the same degree under that system. Therefore, men cannot be feminists in the true sense.”

    I believe this is absolutely true, because of male privilege. While I try to understand and own up to my own privilege, I will always have blind spots. And while I agree with the reasons you stated, for me this is the primary reason why I don’t call myself a male feminist.

    • I don’t disagree that men cannot experience the same kind of discrimination.

      I disagree that this necessarily means that men cannot be feminists. The privilege point is really a moot one. The vast majority of feminists are privileged in one way or another. Simply being in the middle-class or upper-class grants you a massive degree of privilege that you cannot let go of.
      Using the same logic as point one, I could argue that middle-class feminists should confine their advocacy only to their own class, and should not deign to speak as feminists for the millions of women who do not have that same socio-economic privilege as them. In my mind, at least, that’s absurd.

      The fallacy here is seeing ‘women’ as a unified oppressed class, and granting a commonality to their oppression. The argument is that while men may be oppressed by patriarchy, they cannot be oppressed the same way as women. This is true. What is also true is that different women are also oppressed in very different ways by patriarchal systems. The oppression faced by a woman in rural Haryana is very different from the kind of oppression faced by a middle-class woman in Delhi which is in turn different from the far more benign oppression that someone in Canada might face. Feminists do not advocate against a shared negative experience, they advocate against a shared negative mechanism that causes those experiences in different forms. Since patriarchy affects men too, it does not make sense to invalidate THEIR experiences as ‘different’ just because they are male.

      The problem is in the crux of the argument itself. The fact that you haven’t experienced the same oppression does not necessarily blind you to the oppression itself. I’ve never been in Guantanamo bay and yet I’m completely against it and I’d like those prisoners to be released. Why? A large number of psychologists have never been depressed themselves, yet they help out depressed people effectively on a regular basis. Why? Do women not have privilege? A female gender studies professor with a PhD and a tenured position probably has a massive amount of privilege she needs to be owning up to as well. In all likelihood, she has never experienced the oppression that most Indian women have. She is extrapolating from empathy, as are you and I, and yet, she can call herself a feminist while we can’t? Why does that even make sense? Because she has a vagina? How does that make her experiences more similar to the other women in the world?

      Experience helps, but it is not absolutely vital, because there is such a mechanism as empathy. As long as you are owning up to your privilege, I can see no good reason that you cannot consider yourself a feminist.

      That is my point of view, and as I’ve said, some people disagree with that. That is their prerogative, of course, and I don’t insist on the label (why should I?). As long as people understand my ideals here, I have no issues with what you label me. If people are okay with it, I’ll label myself a feminist, and proudly at that, and if they aren’t, well call me what you like. A rose by any other name smells as sweet. 🙂

      Welcome to the blog, Bangalore Dude.

      • Precisely and to the point. The concept of men being inherently privileged over every woman is a fallacy and so is the idea that every woman is an oppressed creature who shouldn’t and never be criticised for her (bad) behaviour by any being with a penis.
        I also agree with your rebuttal to point number two. Apart from the warped idea of male privilege, this is another of the reasons I avoid identifying myself as a feminist, even though as a liberal humanist, I am all for gender equality (and not just when I have an axe to grind).
        Apart from that, there is also a tendency of (some) women feminists to try to goad you into misandry and self-hate if you identify yourself as a male feminist. If you refuse to fall for that, you will of course be blamed for being misogynist in feminist clkothing. In such cases, it is easier to idenityf yourself as a humanist – someone who is about equality, and not about women being more equal than men.

  5. There are women who are not feminists, in fact plenty of women are misogynists, and there are men who are feminists, and like you said Patriarchy affects you too, so I see no reason why you have to not be a part of a movements that benefits you along with many other men and women.

  6. “The overwhelming majority of feminists I know are unflinchingly egalitarian, and care a great deal about all sorts of things apart from women’s rights. So why even bother to call yourself a feminist?”

    The reason being that things are tremendously, lopsidedly, frustratingly unfair towards women. Feminism is a recognition of this phenomenon as a problem, and voicing that to create awareness, and influence thought. It is a movement that strives to change that for the benefit of both men and women.

    We can start calling this Humanism (like another commentor said above) the day we are in a level playing field. Until then, I think whether we should let men call themselves feminists or not seems like a debate we cannot afford (and is moot in my opinion) because we need all the sane voices, regardless of gender, to bring in the change.

    Welcome back.

  7. I think we need more men like you in this world to make sure everyone is treated equally . It is sad that people need a label to be normal these days. All I have to say is keep up ur great views and do share 🙂

  8. Pingback: [link] The male feminist: a contemporary player in the fight for women’s liberation « slendermeans

  9. Now I see your point CE, and I agree with you. One is not a feminist unless they identify themselves as one.

    I just love what my friend(and a fellow blogger) DewDropDream said on this as a comment to Chandni’s post
    “The thing about Feminism is, there are as many definitions of it as the sea and sky have shades of blue — as ideologies go, that is the best kind because it allows everyone who adopts it to have a variation that works for them, it is not rigid, it is constantly evolving and really a thing of beauty for these very reasons. And so you have feminists who consider all men who sleep with women as rapists, feminists who think all women should be lesbians, feminists who want to do away with patriarchal traditions of giving away a bride, changing names post getting-married, and feminists who really do love their high-heels, short skirts and having their bodies hair-free. The only thing (ideally) common to all of them is that they shouldn’t try and ram their opinions down someone else’s throat. I guess what we should all remember foremost is that we’re all on the same side and fighting the same war. If anything, it’s a war that requires us all to mount attacks from various sides and to remember that no one faction is greater than the other for its efforts.
    But the option to not be a feminist is out. Even for the men. Because personally, I am fighting for their rights too. I am fighting for their right to be considered equal to us women.”

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