Chris at Creek Running North has written a post entitled “why I am not a feminist.” Chris (who is male) begins by expressing irritation with a statement Hugo made in comments on Feministe (I think), during a recent discussion of privilege in the blogoverse:
One of the bloggers at the center of the storm opined that perhaps the reason he and one other male writer were taking such heat … some of which I delivered … was that there are so few male feminist bloggers, and thus he and the other were the subjects of rather high expectations.
This irritated me for a couple of reasons, one of which I spoke up about in response to his statement. That was this: there are quite a few male bloggers who write thoughtful stuff about feminist issues, on non-single-issue blogs.
I remember wincing when I read Hugo’s statement, for exactly that reason. (Although under the circumstances I’d definitely cut Hugo some slack; no one is at their best when they’re at “the center of the storm,” and I’ve read enough of Hugo’s work to feel sure he wouldn’t intentionally exclude anyone.) (Full disclosure: In case anyone is unaware, the other person at the center of that particular blogstorm was me).
Chris goes on to write (and this is just a bit from a longer argument, so you should go read the whole thing):
I read Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua’s This Bridge Called My Back the year it was published, and found it invaluable in understanding a part of American culture I had until then missed. Were I to call myself a Chicana as a result of my poltical support, I would be laughed out of the planning meeting. I have been marching in Pride Parades for a quarter century, and had mainly gay friends in college for a decade before that. Even with broadening definition of the term, calling myself a “Queer activist” would almost certainly raise eyebrows. I cut my political eyeteeth working on the defense of the Attica prison riot defendants. That does not make me a Black Power activist.
My goal is to be the best ally to feminists I can be, in the political realm and in the much more difficult personal realm.
But I cannot call myself a feminist: the label is not mine to claim.
The discussion in Chris’ comments – and also on Feministe and Reclusive Leftist – is fascinating (although the comments at Feministe are unfortunately ruined by an anti-feminist who won’t shut up). Interestingly, most of the folks agreeing with Chris are men (including Hugo), while most who disagree are women. For example, Dr. Virago eloquently responded to Chris’ argument:
Leaving aside the whole “gender and sex are culturally contructed” argument, and assuming that there are definable identities such as “man” and “woman,” and accepting your claim that you are indeed a “man,” I still think you’re a feminist. There were white people who were abolitionists and civil rights activist, despite being neither slaves nor black; there are white collar labor activists (and indeed, lawyers especially are pretty necessary to the modern labor movement); there are straight people working tirelessly for gay rights; and so on. These political activities don’t make these activists black, working class, or gay, but they’re still activists.
Feminism is a political position that can be held by anyone. “Woman” is (perhaps) an identity that only some can claim. You are not a woman, but you are a feminist, given your political claims above.
And from Jill, in the comments at Feministe:
Personally, the idea of a feminist man makes sense to me, since I see feminism as working against a system that hurts everyone (it hurts women substantially more, of course). The person I dated all through college never shied away from calling himself a feminist, but also recognized that there were some things that he just didn’t understand. I identify as an ally to the queer community and an anti-racist, but I also recognize that there are a lot of things that, being white and heterosexual, I just don’t get. I find greater solidarity in men feeling like they have a place in the feminist movement … in being committed activists in the feminist movement … than I do in men saying, “I support feminism, but I’m not a feminist.” I suppose this comes from so often hearing the word “feminist” used as if it’s dirty, with people asserting feminist positions and then following with, “…but I’m not a feminist.” I think we need as many feminists associating themselves with feminism as possible, and not being afraid to define themselves as active members of the community, not tacit supporters.
I agree with Dr. Virago and Jill. But it’s not a debate I’m usually inclined to get into myself, and I respect the view that it’s better for men to be called “pro-feminist.”
Years ago, I used to get into arguments about the “feminist” versus “pro-feminist” question, but then I began to wonder: Why am I spending time arguing with feminists? Is it my job as an ally to care about what these people I want to support choose to call me? If I get into long debates about what I should be called – or if I’m a feminist at all – aren’t I both wasting the time of feminists who might have better things to do, and making myself the center of feminist debate? (For that reason, I’ve more-or-less stopped going to female feminists’ spaces to argue about feminism – if I have to argue with someone, it’s better that it be an anti-feminist, or at least that the argument take place on my own space rather than appropriating someone else’s.)
I still call myself a feminist – frankly, I think more men should be calling themselves feminists, especially in public. But at the same time, I call myself pro-feminist if I sense that’s what most feminists in a room would prefer. It’s not helpful to feminism if I get into women’s faces and make demands about what I’d like to be called. In the end, I think the content matters more than the label. (Of course, there are feminists who argue that my content sucks, too).
Hissy Cat made what I think was a similar point in Chris’ comments:
Having thought about this a bit more, I think part of being a feminist, for a man, includes knowing when to shut up– or at least take a passive role. I think that, as a a reflective thought activity, there is value in a man thinking of himself as a feminist– in consciously looking at the world through a feminist lens– that there is not in just being some guy who is pro-feminism. This is not unreconciliable with Chris’s experience of refraining from self-identifying as a feminist in radical feminist spaces where, for any reason, that stance would taken as unwelcome or possibly as threatening: in that situation, to defer to the judgements of radical women feminists on whether or not Chris should call himself a feminist is the feminist decision: for a man to be a feminist in an ethical (as opposed to political) sense, if it means anything, means respecting women when they tell him to stop, to leave them alone, to back off, to go away. Period. There are most definately times when it is inappropriate for the most committed man (or woman, really; so much of this, when it plays out in the world, comes down to ugly shows of ego) to make claims about his feminism (for starters, “I’m a feminist” constitutes neither an argument nor a legitimate defense of one). But there are also many, many situations I can think of where the (ethical) feminist thing to do is (if it is asked, if it comes up, if it is appropriate) to say “I am a feminist.”
* * *
Finally, since this is my own blog, a point about why I’m a feminist. Partly it’s because I want gender justice. But partly it’s because I don’t think men and boys can ever be free until women and girls are. (This next bit, atypically for me, gets a little personal, so if you don’t want to read that shit this is your exit).
When I was a kid, I could not – really, really could not – “do” masculinity. And because of this, my peers (aided by too many adults who should have known better) taught me to hate myself. It took years, but I was an eager student, and I learned. I used to stand in front of mirrors interrogating my reflection, asking why I couldn’t just be “normal,” beating myself as hard as I could with my tiny balled fists (in retrospect, thank goodness I was a weakling!).
Can you punch yourself, as hard as you’re physically able to do, on your face? I can’t now – I reflexively stop myself. But I did it back then, many times. That’s how well I was taught to hate myself.
I wonder if it’s ridiculous, in my thirties, that I’m still stuck on stuff that happened to me over a quarter-century ago. It often seems ridiculous, to me. But I am stuck there. I’ve often said that I have no memories of my childhood, and to a great extent that’s true. But the truth is, I do remember – vividly, with immediacy, far more clearly than I can remember conversations I had just yesterday – isolated moments of shocking humiliation and self-hatred. Those moments are my primary childhood memories.
I’ve recovered, to a great degree. I’ve come to realize – largely thanks to feminism – that the self-hatred I was taught back then is sexist bullshit. But at another level, I’m not free of it. The self-hatred is still with me, lurking below the surface, at times astounding me with its immensity and urgency. I really don’t know if I’ll ever be free of it.
I’m not saying this to throw a pity-party for myself. Nor am I saying that my experience is worse than what happens to many women in a male-centric society – on the contrary, I realize that my experience of being bullied is negligible compared to the far more extreme abuses so many girls and women survive.
I am just trying to explain that, for me, feminism is not only the movement to liberate women. Feminism for me is not charity work, and is only partly ally work. Feminism is also, selfishly, the movement to liberate myself, the boy that I was, and boys like me who are going through similar experiences all over the world.
I am not a feminist because I was bullied. I am a feminist because I’ve spent years thinking about the issues and examining the evidence, and I’ve become convinced that being a feminist is the only position that makes any damn sense. Feminism is the only movement in the world that has anything at all sensible to say about how gender roles are used as a whip to keep people in their place. But I do think my childhood is one reason that I was drawn to examining these issues in the first place, and one reason I was open to feminism.
There’s an expression so well-worn it’s in danger of becoming a cliche: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound with mine, then let’s work together.” Cliche or not, that quote encompasses a lot of why I’m a feminist.