In this episode:
- My definition of intersectional feminism
- How we can create true equality
- What men need to do in order to be feminists
Can men be feminists? No, seriously, is there really a space for men in the feminist world? This is a conversation that usually leaves some of us passionately against men being feminists, while some of us advocate that they can be. Others are left completely undecided. There’s a lot to unpack in this conversation. Today, Meaghan Lamm discusses men and feminism—whether it’s possible that men can be true feminists, or just female allies.
Listen to the podcast here:
Can Men Be Feminists?
Can men be feminists? My friends and I tackle this question a couple of times a year. These conversations usually leave some of us passionately against men being feminists—some of us advocating that, “Of course, they can be,” and some of us are left completely undecided.
There’s a lot to unpack in this conversation. Today, we’re going to talk about men, feminism, and whether it’s possible that men can be true feminists or just female allies. Ready? Let’s get started.
I’ve had this topic on my list for a long time—since well before starting the podcast—and I’ve been hesitant to tackle it. Some days, on the days I see men who self-identify as feminists, being decidedly unfeminist, I roll my eyes and think, “No, of course, men can’t be feminists.”
Then there are other days where I see true male advocates for equality between genders and races, and I think, “Okay, maybe this is real.” There are so many facets to this discussion and I am going to do my best to speak to as many of those facets as possible. We’re definitely going to hit the high points of my definition of feminism, toxic masculinity, and misogyny. My goal is to do the nuances of this topic justice in the time we have provided.
I would also love to have discussions on this topic with others. If you are an expert in toxic masculinity or misogyny or something along those lines, I would really love to hear from you.
I’m also going to be referencing Liz Plank’s book, For the Love Of Men. She’s the person who got me rolling this all around in my head. I read it almost exactly a year ago now, on a road trip. I started listening to the audiobook. Liz, if you’re listening. I’d love to have you on here to talk about this book, or this topic in general, or other topics if you want. Just call me!
Let’s jump right in with my definition of feminism. I think it’s important to start here because while the basic tenet of feminism is generally the same, which is equality between genders, the devil is in the details, as they say.
I personally define feminism as intersectionality. This is actually a word that has been used as far back as the 19th century and was originally used by Black activists. I think it’s a word that has essentially been revived by modern day Black activists. In modern times, it has come to mean the intersection between any form of discrimination like gender, race, sexual orientation, class, religion, physical ability, etc.
So when I speak of intersectional feminism, and when I identify as that kind of feminist, what I really mean is that we are not equal until everyone is equal: Until Black women have the same rights as white women, they receive the same medical care, have the same wages, and the same opportunities; until trans people are protected under the law; until people who are poor are given equal opportunity; until people with disabilities don’t have to justify their existence or their need for help. We’re not equal until everyone is treated the way that a wealthy white man is treated. That’s the easiest way to sum that up.
To me, feminism is about equality for everyone and not just between women and men. I think that when it comes to feminism, men—and particularly white men—have a lot of unlearning to do in order to join us on this feminism train. In order to join us on this journey and in this fight, they have a lot of unlearning to do which can be really uncomfortable.
Can Men Be Feminists?
The thing I think that always gives me pause on the “Can men be feminists?” question is when men speak from a place of male privilege in the way that white people often speak from a place of white privilege when it comes to the problem being “fixed.” It feels like men often see the slightest bit of progress and they think that their job is done and they pat themselves on the back: “Yay, I’m a feminist.” They then call it a day.
This is simply because they don’t experience discrimination like this on a daily basis in the way that white people say, “Well, we passed this one law so everything must be fine,” because they don’t experience racism. Watching men grappling with toxic masculinity and male privilege is essentially like watching white people grappling with white privilege for the first time.
White people think they’re inherently good because they don’t see all the nuanced ways that white privilege shows up for them. They don’t see how they’re propping up racism with certain actions, microaggressions, thoughts, belief systems, and things like that. Men who identify as feminists think that they are inherently good, because they don’t see all the ways in which they benefit from the misogyny that they both created and perpetuate through similar microaggressions, thoughts, beliefs, and things like that.
We all have socially conditioned biases that show up in a myriad of ways that are so small that we hardly notice them—and that’s what makes rooting this out difficult. First, you have to recognize the ways in which this is showing up that you didn’t really realize it was misogyny or racism—first, you have to identify the behavior, and then you have to unlearn it.
I’ve actually seen a couple of discussions recently, before RBG’s passing. Men engaged in conversations where, they think feminism is great and they personally identify as feminists—a lot of the time, it’s because they had a mom who worked outside the home, or maybe they were raised by single mothers, which I think is interesting. It’s something to explore for another time, but interesting nonetheless.
The conversation is usually structured around the fact that more women are serving in Congress—even though we’re still barely at a quarter. It’s like 25% of Congress is women. Or they voted for somebody who’s a female, or they see a female CEO or a woman in a boardroom or whatever. They’re like, “We did it. Good for us. We’re ready to pack it up and stop talking now.”
We’re a long way even from your basic women–versus–men feminism. I feel like we’re certainly nowhere close to achieving the equality of intersectional feminism. Feminism is about equality for everyone, not just between women and men. Click To Tweet
There’s this common phrase or this common thought pattern from men, even men who identify as feminists, that women who are still pushing for actual equality just want to be placed above men. You see white people say this all the time. I think the correlation between discovering and dismantling your white privilege is very similar—if not identical—to discovering and dismantling male privilege.
My friend Paula said it best in our most recent discussion about this topic when she said, “Equity to those with privilege feels like oppression, which is why men say they are in favor of feminism—however, rarely when it comes down to it, they’re actually in favor.” You can guess which camp she falls into on this topic!
This is where I say that men have to learn to lean into the biases that pop up. This is when men have to listen when they’re being called out and think critically and examine their behaviors, then decide if they’re helping or hurting the situation—instead of getting defensive. They get defensive really quickly if they’re called out, or they have a bias pointed out.
But I also feel like just because men have these implicit biases that they’re socially conditioned with like the rest of us, it doesn’t mean that they can’t do the work to actively unlearn and confront them, much in the same way that white allies do for their own white privilege. It takes a lot of work, and it’s not perfect, and you fuck up sometimes—but if you’re willing to do the work, I think that it is possible for you to get to that place.
When you’re doing this work, as I do on a daily basis with my own white privilege, you have to be able to sit with the uncomfortableness of being called out, and examine it, and learn from it, and do better going forward. I think that’s what we need from men who claim to be feminists on this issue: “You are not the expert on the female experience so you need to defer to women in this situation, in these conversations, certainly, and you need to basically ask us what bothers us and educate yourself and listen to women when they talk.”
And, I think it’s important for men to remember that getting past the big stuff is easy. They’re the big sort of splashy, everybody knows about these principles when it comes to feminism. So getting through the beliefs that women should be paid as much as men, for instance, and they should have the same job opportunities and the same advancement opportunities, and the same amount of bodily autonomy as men—those are big, broad, easy concepts to get behind. They’re very mainstream.
I think it’s the details typically that are difficult, because it’s like calling out sexism. It’s calling out microaggressions. It’s checking how you speak about rape victims—the way that we talk about rape victims and sexual assault victims, if I never have to read the phrase “underage woman” ever again, I’ll be a happy camper. An underage woman is a child and I hate that we use that phrase.
It’s how you react to women at the bar who don’t want to give you their phone number, how you think about women who dress modestly versus not-modestly. These are the situations in which you have the ability to examine how you react, and to change your perception of people based on how you’ve been conditioned by society. It’s easy to miss these tiny little ways when you don’t have to experience them every day—when you’re not the person on the other end of a guy getting aggressive and insulting you when you don’t want to give him your phone number, it’s easy to think that it doesn’t really happen that much, or that it’s not something you have to look out for.
When I talk about true equality, I don’t just mean women getting access to all the opportunities that men enjoy—although that is absolutely part of it. I think we definitely need to continue to do that work. But I do think that if we truly want full, real equality, then we have to eradicate all of our societal norms and not just societal norms for women.
Feminism in the ‘80s and ‘90s was all about women becoming more like men—I think that’s, what, third-wave feminism? I feel like ‘80s and ‘90s feminism missed the mark because the goal here is not for women to be more like men, the goal is for there to be no such thing as “women’s work“ and “men’s work”. It is to eradicate completely the gendered stereotypes that exist within society so that people can literally be whatever the fuck they want.
That means that we need to normalize men like enjoying or participating in what we would consider traditionally feminine things. As much as we’re telling women that they can go out and do and be whatever they want, we have to tell men the same thing.
In order to achieve true equality between not just genders—but races, classes, abilities, and sexual orientations—we have to dismantle toxic masculinity as a society and as a result, dismantle misogyny.
We tend to think of misogyny as like a hatred of women, and I guess in its ugliest, purest form, that’s what it is. Julia Serano in her book, Whipping Girl offers a more encompassing definition of misogyny that I really resonate with. She says it’s “The tendency to dismiss and deride femaleness and femininity.” This opens up the world of toxic masculinity, because if misogyny is the derision of all things female and feminine, then it incentivizes men to be as manly as possible. It’s like that drive to be as manly as possible in order to be as far from the horrific consequences of femininity as you can—and that’s what gives us toxic masculinity.If we truly want full real equality, then we have to eradicate all of our societal norms, not just societal norms for women. Click To Tweet
The culture of toxic masculinity has these far-reaching applications including against gay men, against trans women, against men who exude too many female-only traits, or habits, or roles. Remember the rise of like the Metrosexual in the early 2000s? We had to give straight men who liked fashion, manicures, and typically “girly” things—we had to give them a name, they couldn’t just be straight men! They needed their own special designation. I remember thinking it was ridiculous, then. I still think it’s ridiculous now.
For The Love Of Men
This whole theme of eradicating gender stereotypes from both directions is the topic of Liz Plank’s book For the Love of Men. I picked up her book about a year ago because I follow her on Facebook. I rarely, if ever disagree with her philosophies. At the time, she was talking about how a lot of publishers had told her that this book wouldn’t be very successful because no one wanted to read a book like this. I was like, “Who doesn’t want to root for an underdog like that?”
I will admit: When I first started reading it, I rolled my eyes. I was thinking, “Sure, Liz. Definitely, the problem with female equality is that we have to focus on men.” But I made myself pause and reminded myself to take this book in with an open mind. When I did, her point became abundantly clear.
There’s so much information in this book that feeds into this problem as a whole. She talks about violence with men—and not just violence against women—but male-to-male violence and how prevalent that is.
If you’ve never read this book, I highly recommend that you pick up a copy and read it, because it is phenomenal. I really think it’ll open your eyes and shift the conversation here a little bit. She talks about that we can’t achieve true equality of the sexes until we de-stigmatize feminine things for men. After reading this book and doing a lot of thinking on it, I really agree with her.
We’ve spent decades telling women that they can be anything they want to be, they can do anything that men can do. But if you look at it and you step back and you look at both genders, we have not really sent the same very clear message to boys and men: that they can do anything they want.
We have not expressly told men that they can be whatever they want, like nurses, or stay-at-home parents, or nurturers, or caregivers. We haven’t given them permission to show emotion, to enjoy their kids, to drink pink drinks with the little umbrellas on them.
They keep doing those “Stranger” photo shoots. It was two straight men who were friends with each other who are doing a fun photo shoot. They were holding hands, and hugging, and being close. We stigmatize that so much for men—they need permission to have deep emotional relationships outside of their romantic partnerships. Liz goes in-depth with this in her book. I think it’s so true. Men get into romantic relationships—straight men, specifically with women—and they cling to that woman as their only source of emotional release.
That’s not healthy. Women have friends outside of their romantic relationships, and they can get that release, and men often don’t. We desperately need to normalize that, not just for all the women out there who are dating straight men, but for men themselves.
It’s difficult to dislodge women from the caretaker role, until we can also dislodge men from the provider role. If we wanted men to view women as equals—and hopefully we do—we have to eradicate the idea that men cannot do traditionally feminine things without having their “man card” taken away, or the idea that showing emotion makes men weak, or that doing housework without being asked is deserving of some special praise.
We have to make sure that we give our boys permission to cry, and to be scared, and do chores. Girls do way more chores than boys when they’re younger. We have to give boys permission to play with dolls, and talk about their feelings, and talk about their problems. And we need to give men permission to hug their guy friends, and also talk about their feelings, and to be a stay at home dad, and make less money than their partner, or not like sports.
We have to eliminate the gender stereotypes in both directions if we want to make progress. I think that’s the hard part—especially if you’re a man who identifies as a feminist—because we’ve put a lot of focus on vocally giving women and girls permission to be things that it’s not socially “normal” for them to be. I think we need to give the same permission and then allow it to catch up, hopefully faster than it has for women.
Liz includes a lot of anecdotal stories in her books as well. That was one of my favorite parts, because it’s nice to listen to someone who’s presenting facts and research—she does both of those things. It’s also nice to hear those stories from lived experiences. There was a story from one man who said that while he considered himself a strong feminist and a strong advocate for women, he still would find these kneejerk reactions to his son doing “girly things,” like holding flowers.
In the end, I’ll admit that I do think that men can be feminists, just like I think that white people can be anti-racist. But, I think a male feminist has a lot more work to do to be an active feminist than women do, because they need to actively listen to women and believe us when we tell them about our lived experiences, and not devolve into mansplaining and dismissals, and “good enough progress is good enough.”
Men need to check their own male privilege instead of getting defensive when they get called out; be open to listening and educating themselves. They need to be willing to call out their male friends and family. I have a lot of friends with husbands who get upset if their wives, sisters, or mothers are directly targeted—but they don’t call out men at work when they say really shitty things about women in general—and that’s a problem.
“Yes, we like it that you stick up for us if you love us, but all women deserve to be stood up for, whether you know them or not. Period. If you can do that, it’s important that you do that. If you can do that, that’s what we need you for.”We can't achieve true equality of the sexes until we de-stigmatize feminine things for men. Click To Tweet
Like white people, dealing with our white privilege, men need to be constantly recognizing, learning about, and correcting their own biases. This is not one-and-done work—not for any of us! When you’re used to a certain level of privilege, you’re just used to plain not seeing the problems that exist because you don’t live them, which means you need to be hypervigilant about seeing them, listening, learning, and then doing better.
So what do you think? I really want to hear your opinions on this, because this conversation is always so fascinating to me. Tell me what you think! Can men be feminists?
I want you to let me know your thoughts by emailing me at Podcast@FeministVisionaries.com. I will reply to every email—I promise. And again, if you are an expert on this topic or you’d like to come on here and discuss it with me about it, please shoot me an email.
That is it for me today. Bye y’all!
Send me a message if you’d love to chat more about what partnering together would look like!