There is a great deal of debate in feminist circles regarding the role of men in the feminist movement. Should men be leading feminist organizations? Where should organizations seeking to engage men and boys in gender equity work draw their funding? Should men’s organizations even exist or should men only engage with feminism within the context of women-led organizations? In the end, much of this debate centers on the question of what the perfect male ally to the feminist movement should look like. But, before we get to the question of what that man would look like, or if such a thing is even possible, perhaps we should talk about how male “allies” to the feminist movement come to exist in the first place.***
Over the last three decades scholars have considered how and why members of dominant groups engage in social justice oriented activities that seem counter to their immediate interests. This research has included interrogated the involvement of heterosexual people in LGBTQ rights activism, white people’s involvement in anti-racism, and, of course, men’s involvement in feminism. Many of the scholars studying “ally development” have proposed models for understanding how these individuals come to be involved as activists and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the models presented in these various spheres of activism have a lot in common.
The first commonality between the various ally development models is that they all articulate an early stage in which members of dominant groups become “sensitized” or experience a “revelation.” The notion that a sensitizing experience is needed in order to activate individuals from dominant groups is grounded in both theory and data. Theory suggests that most people in dominant groups are unaware of the system of oppression that they benefit from. And, those who have become allies typically report having experienced some sort of wake-up call that broke their ignorance on the topic.
The second commonality between the ally development models I have read is a requirement that an opportunity for action be presented to the now sensitized individual. One study found that many men who are involved in gender equality work were able to transition from their sensitizing experience to action because they were specifically approached or asked to take part in a group or activity. In another study, allies reported that while they had the willingness and knowledge to become active in anti-racist or feminist struggles, their initial involvement was not self-initiated.
The final commonality between many of the various models of ally development revolves around sustainability. How do allies maintain their investment in these issues? Allies tend to “burn out” or drop out of the work when they perceive the work to be in service of others. An altruistic approach to the work, in which the ally has nothing to gain from the work, is unsustainable. At the opposite pole, there are allies who are involved in the work out of self-interest. For example, there are men who behave as feminist allies because they recognize the negative impact that strict gender roles have had on their own lives but care little about the impact of those same gender roles on others. These self-interested allies often prove to be problematic members of organizations. One study claims that the most effective ally is one whom is both self-interested and altruistic. Their self-interest prevents burnout and their altruism makes them more effective members of organizations and teams.
So, what should we take from all this? I would argue that those of us wishing to engage individuals from dominant groups in social justice activism, or specifically engage men in gender equity work, could take three lessons from this. First, we should strive to create “sensitizing” moments through organizational programming or through education. (Several studies have suggested that such learning moments are best produced through cross-group interaction, but that begs the question of whether folks from dominant groups can only learn the importance of social justice struggles at the cost of subordinated individuals’ emotional labor.) Second, as we create sensitizing moments we must simultaneously offer opportunities for activism. Sensitizing an individual to social inequality and not providing an outlet for action risks a missed opportunity. Finally, as we stress the profound impact that systems of oppression have on people in subordinated groups it may behoove us to educate people from dominant groups on the ways in which their own liberation is also bound to the struggle.
Will these steps necessarily generate the perfect ally? Of course not. We still have little to no agreement on what the perfect ally even is. However, these steps may at least be first steps to generating new and sustained energy in the work.
*** I am using the term “ally” in this context because it is the language of the academic literature. There is a great deal of criticism of the entire “ally” framework and one of my favorite articles summarizing that criticism was written by Mia McKenzie on Black Girl Dangerous.
Alimo, C. J. (2012). From dialogue to action: The impact of cross-race intergroup dialogue on the development of white college students as racial allies. Equity & Excellence in Education, 45(1), 36-59.
Broido, E. M. (2000). The development of social justice allies during college: A phenomenological investigation. Journal of College Student Development, 41(1), 3-18.
Brown, K. T., & Ostrove, J. M. (2013). What does it mean to be an ally?: The perception of allies from the perspective of people of color. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43(11), 2211-2222.
Casey, E., & Smith, T. (2010). “How Can I Not?”: Men’s Pathways to Involvement in Anti-Violence Against Women Work. Violence against women, 16(8), 953-973.
Coulter, R. P. (2003). Boys doing good: Young men and gender equity. Educational Review, 55(2), 135-145.
Edwards, K. E. (2006). Aspiring social justice ally identity development: A conceptual model. NAsPA Journal, 43(4), 39-60.
Picca, L. H., Starks, B., & Gunderson, J. (2013). “It Opened My Eyes” Using Student Journal Writing to Make Visible Race, Class, and Gender in Everyday Life. Teaching Sociology, 41(1), 82-93.
Reason, R. D., & Evans, N. J. (2007). The complicated realities of whiteness: From color blind to racially cognizant. New Directions for Student Services, 2007(120), 67-75.
Cliff Leek is a founder and editor of Masculinities 101. He is also a Phd student in the Department of Sociology at Stony Brook University.