The following post was originally published on Men Advocating Real Change (MARC), an online community for men committed to achieving gender equality in the workplace. MARC is an initiative of Catalyst, the leading nonprofit organization expanding opportunities for women in business. Find out more and join the conversation at onthemarc.org.
By Cliff Leek.
The United Nations (UN) marked the launch of its new campaign for gender equality on Saturday, September 20th with a special event at the UN Headquarters in New York. This new HeForShe campaign, dubbed the “UN Women Solidarity Movement for Gender Equality,” specifically aims to engage men in feminist efforts for gender equality and is a part of a growing global movement to involve men in gender justice work. So far nearly 200,000 men from all over the world have pledged “to take action against all forms of violence and discrimination faced by women and girls” as a part of the HeForShe campaign.
In addition to hundreds of thousands of men committing to do this work through HeForShe, the past month has felt like a parade male celebrities and other powerful men taking public stances on feminist issues (Aziz Ansari,President Obama, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and numerous others). As Slate writer Amanda Hess put it, “male allies are having a moment.”
In the midst of this “moment,” my social media feeds have been inundated by editorials and blog posts discussing every possible angle of men’s involvement in struggles for gender justice. Many writers have taken this moment to point to the various ways in which men can sometimes undermine our own good intentions and end up hindering the work we intend to support. Here are just a few:
Why I’m Not Really Here For Emma Watson’s Feminism Speech at the U.N. – Mia McKenzie
So You Want to be a Male Feminist? Maybe Don’t. – Kat Stoeffel
Male Allies Are Important, Except When They’re The Worst – Amanda Hess
#HeForShe, Domestic Violence, and Privileging Male Allies – Kenneth Kolb
If we are truly invested in changing the status quo by standing alongside women we need to take these concerns seriously. We need not only to show up, but also to think critically about how we show up. A few writers in recent weeks have provided fuel for that critical thought:
So You Want to be a Male Feminist? Here Are 11 Simple Rules to Follow – Derrick Clifton
How to be a (Male) Feminist Ally – Elizabeth Pickett
After considering both the critiques of men’s involvement in feminism and the suggestions for how we can do/be better, I sat down to think about the lessons that I have learned in my efforts to support gender justice. What follows are the lessons that have been the most helpful in my own development as man involved in this work.
Do your homework.
What do I mean when I say “do your homework?” Well, I mean it quite literally.
As Elizabeth Pickett argued, “it’s your work, not the work of feminists, to educate yourself.” Too often we expect women to educate us on even the most basic feminist concepts when we could, just as easily, do our homework. We live in an era when trainings on-line and in-person are readily accessible for people who are inclined to educate themselves on issues of power and privilege. Seek out those trainings.
Learn on your own time. We should strive to make sure that our learning doesn’t come at the expense of the time and energy of women involved in other aspects of the work. Our education shouldn’t be a distraction from the movement.
See beyond self-interest.
Emma Watson, in her speech at the HeForShe launch event, argued that men should be involved in feminist work, at least in part, because gender norms are harmful to men too. In response, Mia McKenzie, of Black Girl Dangerous, wrote a scathing commentary arguing that “Telling men that they should care about gender inequality because of how much it hurts them, centralizes men and their well-being in a movement built by women for our survival in a world that degrades and dehumanizes us daily.” As she describes, not only does over-emphasizing men’s self-interest in feminist work displace women from a movement that is, at its core, about ensuring women’s well-being, but it also obscures the myriad ways in which men benefit from patriarchy.
Watson wasn’t wrong. Gender norms do have negative effects on men and feminist work to challenge those norms can go a long way in changing men’s lives for the better. That is one reason why men should strive to be feminists.
But, it shouldn’t be the sole reason. While it is important to recognize that feminism is good for men too, that doesn’t mean we should put men’s issues first as we join feminist work. Being in solidarity with feminist women does not mean we only show up when we stand to benefit from the conversation.
Don’t forget to look inward.
Finally, we have reached the toughest lesson of all.
Learning to examine and challenge patriarchy and gender inequality in the world around us is easy compared to seeing it and changing it in ourselves and in our own relationships.
Men who don’t turn their feminist analytical lens inward may miss the ways in which we can also be a part of the problem. Simply understanding feminism does not make us exempt from dominating conversations, taking charge when we shouldn’t, perpetrating microaggressions, or otherwise utilizing our privilege inappropriately. Failing to examine and address these issues and behaviors in ourselves can not only make us hypocrites, but also position us as roadblocks or hindrances to the work we care deeply about.
Looking inward can be difficult. Sometimes we don’t want to acknowledge, or simply don’t see the same things in ourselves that we so readily notice elsewhere. Because it can be so difficult, part of the process of looking inward can be setting up a system of mutual accountability with a friend or ally. It can help to develop a relationship with someone that you trust to be honest with you when they notice problematic behaviors.
Now, I don’t expect these lessons to be a panacea for men’s involvement in feminism. We will continue to struggle, we will continue to make mistakes, and we will continue to be less than perfect allies. But, perhaps by learning from the missteps of our brothers in this work we can learn to do/be better.
Cliff Leek is a founding editor of Masculinities101 and the Research Fellow / Community Manager for Men Advocating Real Change (MARC).