Can men be feminists?

Amy Gray

Who gets to call themselves a feminist? It’s a question that despite its simplicity wrenches open questions of gender, power and participation and forces us to consider our motives.

It’s also something that provokes a lot of emotions that we should consider, something I realised after a Melbourne Writers’ Festival event when I was asked if I was actually sexist for declaring men can’t be called feminists.

Before we dig into the answer, let’s look at the motivations that lie underneath.

Political ideologies and activism live and die with community; that sense of belonging to can be achieved through work and resistance. This community is defined by that work – those who do the work, those who take on the work and those who are liberated by the work. Often the more successful the activist community, the more attractive and vital it appears to others, encouraging them to take on the work.

However, this can sometimes mean people believe there is an exchange for helping an activist campaign or political ideology. Surround yourself with the community, do any amount of work (or not) and, in return, you will be recognised as a member of that community.

The more popular it becomes, the more power there is in associating with the ideology. Tell someone you identify with a particular political ideology or activist campaign and it acts as a personality type – something people tap into the minute they buy a “this is what a feminist looks like” tshirt and eagerly wait someone to comment on it.

Normally, this is why I reject whether men can be called feminists. Where is their work? Is it more than a tshirt and not being aggressively sexist? I once met a man who said “I’m a feminist” and extended his hand out for a fist bump – I asked him “what do you do to help women?” only to watch his fist fall.

I had done something incredibly rude: I had asked a man to prove his membership credentials before I would accept his title. But is it that rude when we consider how the most basic moves – such as not being actively sexist – elevate a man above the concentrated specialist work women do?

It also goes to an even more primal question when it comes to a question of equality – how much skin to men have in the game to earn the feminist title? Men suffer under Patriarchy, sure, but is it at the same level as women? Will men, like women, lose jobs, friendships, money or legal protection based on their gender? Will they face as much social repercussions as women for stating their beliefs? Or will they be celebrated for rudimentary steps, like the empty joyous applause that happens whenever a man is announced as a White Ribbon Ambassador?

This equation becomes even more crucial when you consider how the trans and gender non-binary communities can and are explicitly feminist. They have active, often painful, experience of how the Patriarchy seeks to control and constrict. They live with the vulnerability and resistance of that. Again, it’s at a higher level and at greater stakes than faced by other men. Even then, making space for transfeminists has been negatively fraught, which makes working on that a far higher priority than handing a slogan-friendly t-shirt and title to some other man.

I do know men who do the work, who actively research and reflect on the inequality on display. Men like Dr Michael Salter who research and discuss gender and violence. Would I call him a feminist? No. Instead, I refer to him by the work he does and the authority he has accrued: a wonderful academic who specialises in gender and violence. There’s a difference – what he does is recognised, rather than divvying up a term that he hasn’t applied to himself. It’s the work that brings actual community recognition and a seat at the table, not the demand to be at the table.

The question isn’t whether men can be called feminists; it’s why they want to be called feminists. If we’re going to make this exchange, we need to question what we’re getting in return.

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Amy Gray is a Melbourne writer whose work focuses on feminism, culture and parenting. She tweets via @_amygray_

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