Recently at the UN meeting on Gender Equality, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said “I am going to keep saying loud and clear that I am a feminist until it is met with a shrug.”
His declaration was greeted with enthusiastic applause. And I confess that as I watched the video I may have let out a couple of whoops too. However, his unequivocal identification with the movement that fights for equal rights for women got me thinking; can a man actually be a feminist?
This is a controversial question among feminists. Many believe that while men can be feminist allies and fighters against sexism and misogyny, they cannot actually be feminists themselves. The argument goes that because they have not directly experienced discrimination based on their gender they cannot really do more than cheer feminism from the sidelines. There is logic to this, after all gay activists are gay and black activists are black. The rest of us can fight the good fight by their side but we cannot claim to know and understand what they know and understand. To try to do so is generally considered a form of oppression in itself and defined as cultural appropriation. Many feminists I very much admire, including Dale Spender, are firmly of the view that only women can be feminists.
I take their point but I have thought long and hard about this and I don’t agree. I believe men can be feminists. In fact one of the world’s most famous feminists was a man – the philosopher John Stuart Mill. His celebrated essay ‘Subjection of Women’ written in 1869 directly influenced improvements in the legal situation of women in Britain. I think the reason that men can be feminists is that feminism is primarily a point of view. If you embrace the point of view, if you believe in feminism then you are a feminist. I have always believed that feminism is a broad church (not a broad’s church) and if it can include all sorts of political perspectives and philosophies, why not all sorts of people? For me, the only thing that is non-negotiable is the belief that women have the right to control their own bodies, including the right to choose abortion.
Beyond the philosophical, however, just from a pragmatic perspective we need men to identify as feminists because men remain more likely to wield actual power than women. If we want to change things we are going to have to have the powerful on our side. That doesn’t mean they should lead feminism but we need them to be more than a supportive cheer-squad. Moreover, men (sadly) are still more likely to listen to other men and while that remains true we need men like Trudeau to loudly declare their feminism. Had he merely said “I support feminism” I think his words would have been greeted with a shrug but not in a good way.
And men should be feminists because feminism directly benefits them. It liberates both genders from the straightjacket of stereotypes. Today’s fathers are much more likely to directly parent their own children, even when they are tiny newborns than my father’s generation ever was and that is gift that has come directly from feminism. I think feminism’s slow but persistent undermining of patriarchy has helped to expose and call to account such things as child sex abuse. All our children - boys as well as girls - are a little safer as a result. We need men to talk about the benefits of feminism for men as often as possible.
Whether men can be the same kind of feminists as women I do not know but as there are no perfect feminists – regardless of the gender they identify with – then I don’t see why that should disqualify men who believe passionately in equal rights claiming the title. Frankly, if I hear a man identify as a feminist I am immediately interested in hearing more from him. He has just singled himself out as someone with a mind of his own.
I also think more male feminists are (thankfully) inevitable. Justin Trudeau credits his mother with bringing him up as a firm feminist. As more women embrace feminism, more mothers will do as Margaret Trudeau has done – bring both their sons and their daughters up as feminists. I am about to have a grandson and let me tell you, if his mother and I (and his father and grandfather) have anything to do with it he will be a feminist. In fact, I’d be bloody horrified if anyone told him that just because of his gender he cannot be one.
After all, when it comes down to it, isn’t that what we are fighting against?