Men And Feminism: A Personal Essay on Finding a Common Ground

November 19, 2012


The word “feminist” is a loaded one. For some, the word is associated with hairy legs, burning bras, and aggressively intolerant women who march through the streets crying out for the end of men. For others, feminism is a part of their everyday life; it is the lens through which they see the world. It is the answer to gender discrimination in society and a way to reach gender equality. Some react instantly to the word “feminism,” and others need time to sift through the conversation surrounding feminism to come to any understanding of the term at all.

I am among the latter. For most of my life, I took strong, independent women for granted. Of course women were equal to men; in my life, many of the adult women I knew were imminently more capable than their husbands. My default was to think about women as more emotionally capable, more socially responsible, and more able to deal with tragedy. I thought of strength in gendered terms, attributing the strength of survival and endurance to women and the strength of physical aggression to men. Feminism was never explicitly stated in my family. Instead, my mother (a partner in a law farm) and aunts (whose professions included ER nurse and kindergarten teacher) simply lived as if they deserved to be treated equally, which taught me to live the same way.

I came into contact with feminism the way most people come into contact with drugs–through my close friends. When I came to college and made friends who were conscious of gender issues, I began to understand a dimension of gender equality that had never before occurred to me. I was familiar with the effects of sexism on women, but what about the effects of sexism on men? How had the sexual revolution changed how men viewed their role in society? Were men forced to negotiate their masculinity in the same way that women were forced to negotiate their femininity?

One of the most influential voices in this discovery of a new facet of gender equality was a dear friend by the name of Daniel Jones. We met in our freshman year at Emerson College, the school that I attended before I transferred to Boston University. Currently, Daniel is a senior at Emerson double majoring in Theater Studies and Writing, Literature and Publishing. He has written for the Good Men Project, a website that focuses on exploring what masculinity means in today’s world. I spoke to him recently about his own understanding of masculinity and why he does not consider himself a feminist, despite the fact that he supports gender equity.

Daniel first experienced gender discrimination when he was going through middle and high school. Because his interests did not echo those of the teenage boys around him, his masculinity was constantly challenged. This made him curious about how masculinity is constructed. Daniel is one of the most ardent believers in gender equity that I know. He takes an intensely personal view of gender equity, applying it to both his personal relationships and to macro concepts such as wage disparity.

“If you’re applying for a job, or in a platonic relationship, your sex should not matter. I don’t believe in saying, ‘I can’t do this with someone because they are of a specific gender,'” he said in a telephone interview earlier tonight. If feminism is defined as gender equality, and Daniel supports gender equality, does it follow that he is a male feminist? Daniel doesn’t believe so. “I have been told several times that my interest in masculinity is a feminist interest. It isn’t a feminist interest– it’s the opposite of that.”

A few months ago, I read an essay online that changed the way I view men and their interaction with feminism. The Good Men Project, mentioned above, is an online blog that focuses on providing a full and nuanced picture of masculinity. They take on pretty much any issue that touches men’s lives; sex, family, work, war, and politics are all fair game. This June, one of the original founders of The Good Men Project, Tom Matlack, wrote an article entitled “Why Being a Good Man is Not a Feminist Issue.”

In it, he talks about his history as a recovering alcoholic and how he got the idea for The Good Men Project in the first place. He writes, “My original motivation in founding the Good Men Project had little to do with what I thought men should do and more in realizing what we were lacking…. My goal was not to proselytize in any way, shape or form. It was simply to bring individual stories of manhood to the surface in hopes of inspiring others to share their stories and, while doing so, become better men.”

He goes on to write what becomes the center of the piece–why he believes that feminism is not central to being a good man. “My fundamental view,” he writes, ” is that there is a male experience that is too often squashed in our society by a culture that perpetuates a deeply flawed view of manhood.” He argues in favor of man-to-man discussions, and expresses frustration at the idea that feminism and gender theory have influenced the writing on The Good Men Project’s website.

While he believes that a conversation about feminism is important, he also thinks that, so far as The Good Men Project is concerned, it’s besides the point. The reader he wants to reach is, for lack of a better term, the common man– “not the guy at any extreme but the non-famous father, husband, and worker trying to figure out what the heck is important to him whether he is a venture capitalist (like me) or a stay-at-home dad or an inmate or a soldier coming back from Afghanistan.” He goes on to say that he has trouble “seeing how debates over gender theory advance the ball in that guy’s thinking.”

This was a transformative article for me to read. Thinking back on my own experience learning how to be a strong, independent woman, I tried to imagine what it would be like to have a man phoning in on those experiences. To have a man tell me the importance of treating men a certain way. Honestly, I probably could have used some enlightening– I still cringe remembering the time that I made fun of my first boyfriend for crying–but would it have had the same effect that my conversations with my mother and my sister did?

Obviously, I am not saying that different genders have nothing to learn from each other. My own introduction to gender studies came from a male friend. And I am not saying that feminism is not important, or that it does not represent causes worth fighting for. I am saying that if the goal is gender equality, who cares how we get there? Who cares what label we call ourselves, as long as we can understand that it is no less valid for a man to stay home and be the primary caregiver than it is for women to go into the workplace? Who cares, as long as we’re fighting for a world where both boys and girls get to wear what they want, where girls can play sports and guys can dance, where women can occupy the office and a vulnerable teenage guy can cry without a snide teenage girl calling him less than a man because everyone knows men don’t cry?

The truth is, we need each other. If women want to move into the workplace and have families, we need men to take on more childcare than they have in the past. If men want to be more emotionally open with their partners or pursue activities that are classically feminine, they need partners who are willing to renegotiate the definition of masculinity that society handed to them.

There are people who argue that the issues that both genders face are two sides of the same coin; that men only experience sexism because women are seen as less than. Therefore, if women are seen as equal, men won’t be judged for engaging in feminine pursuits, because being feminine will no longer be a bad thing. So far as I’m concerned, the best way to get to that day where gender is no longer a basis for discrimination is to let everyone take their own road, no matter what term they use to describe it.