Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Men and Feminism: Kind of Complicated

Isabelle Allonso interviewed John Stoltenberg for her blog, and Feminist Current was kind enough to publish an english translation.  It's an illuminating interview that is definitely a worthwhile read for feminist allies. When asked about men's place in relationship to feminist work, Stoltenberg said this: 
First of all I don’t think any man of conscience—whether self-identified as pro-feminist or not—can or should presume to speak in women’s place or “decide what feminism should be about.” That’s just a baseline principle. Many women have justifiable grievances about individual men who have disregarded it. Those “me too” men ought to know better, and they should not require scolding and hand-holding from women to figure it out, because exemplary life lessons abound: Individuals from the dominant class in other struggles have found countless meaningful ways to be of use while analogously abiding by that principle—for example, whites in the black civil-rights movement in the US, sons and daughters born to wealth in the movement for economic justice, non-Jews in the movements against antisemitism. Such sincerely committed allies always recognize and acknowledge the privilege that stems from their membership in the dominant class. And often such allies have found that their usefulness lies in deconstructing, disrupting, interrupting, exposing, protesting, and defying such systems of oppression from the inside. Same holds for any man of conscience who wishes to be of use on behalf of feminist revolution. It’s not complicated.--john-stoltenberg 
As with much that Stoltenberg has written, I find myself agreeing with the central points here, but disagreeing in important ways about how the execution of this stuff works; often my disagreements boil down to "but it's more complicated than that," something that one can almost always say and be correct about; still given that in this case Stoltenberg says "It's not complicated," I feel like I should chime in, because I think it can be complicated in important ways that we should acknowledge.

I think presuming to speak for women is something that allies constantly have to guard against doing--male privilege runs deep. But when Stoltenberg says pro-feminist men shouldn't decide what feminism should be about, we have to be careful to not equivocate: I agree that pro-feminist men shouldn't simply put out there what they think feminism should be about as if they are some sort of final arbiters of the definition of feminism.  However, pro-feminist men not only need to decide what feminism(s) make sense (to them), an argument can be made that they need to voice their views on this decision, perhaps even in the face of disagreeing with other feminists, regardless of the genders of those feminists.

Feminism isn't a monolith.  When folks of any gender first run into feminist concepts, we all begin to learn the conceptual frameworks involved.  Some find these concepts in academia, some through communities they are involved in, some even from pop culture.  To be clear: We all encounter what sexism is far earlier than that--but the conceptual frameworks around feminism come later.  Indeed, that is part of what feels so empowering for many of us--we finally have different ways of talking about (and hopefully changing) how fucked up sexism (and homophobia, and class issues, etc.) are, when we discover feminist frameworks, or lenses. Thing is, depending upon our own experiences, and upon how we first start understanding how we might work against sexism and the like, we almost immediately have to choose which feminism(s) seem to make sense to us. People of all genders do this, though of course they do it from different perspectives because of their gender (and for other reasons).  

So-called "radfem" folks, in the opinion of many feminists, are wrong about trans folks in important ways. "Mainstream" feminists are wrong about what feminism is about, according to many "radfems". Pro-sex feminists are wrong about sex work, according to folks like Gail dines (as well as the folks at Feminist Current, and Stoltenberg himself!) Womanists and other women of color call out feminists for racism underlying much of modern feminism. And these are just a few of the major disputes--there are myriad disputes around all sorts of issues. Where female feminists disagree, pro-feminist men may/must also disagree with at least some female feminists!

Now, because of various complexities, I also don't think that pro-feminist men need to be chiming in on every issue in every feminist space; even in spaces that welcome men explicitly (and there are many), I think Stoltenberg's general ideas here are true: There are so many ways that men can be of use to "feminist movement" (to use bell hooks' phrasing), and given male privilege, we ought to do much more listening than talking, more assisting and less leading. But I don't think it's "just that simple".  Men also may need to support the feminism(s) that we think make the most sense--and to do that we may need to also engage other men, women and folks of other genders in conversation about what we think makes the most sense.  That may mean (for me) mindfully talking about why I think some anti-pornography stances are wrong, or why I find the racism underlying much of modern feminism problematic. It might mean calling out other men on their sexism. It also means helping to create some feminist spaces that include men consciously and consistently in the movement--all the while acknowledging that some spaces will not and should not include men. 

And much of this work is complicated.  I think there is some harm that can come from the "it's just that simple" ways of thinking about men and feminism, because it can encourage folks to tend to ignore that feminism itself isn't a monolith, and to ignore that men, too, must understand, engage within and choose what feminism(s) make sense.  It's a good rule of thumb to defer to women in general as regards what feminism is, but because not all women agree on what feminism is, we're going to sometimes disagree with some female feminists--this may be read as "trying to define feminism," but if we back up what we're saying by acknowledging female feminists who agree with us, this is something valuable to do, if sometimes complexities abound. 

In that spirit, here's bell hooks:
 “A male who has divested of male privilege, who has embraced feminist politics, is a worthy comrade in struggle, in no way a threat to feminism, whereas a female who remains wedded to sexist thinking and behavior infiltrating feminist movement is a dangerous threat.”—  bell hooks, Feminism Is For Everybody.


 
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