Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women.

2 Mar

The International Conference on Masculinities is only a few days away! Today, we are excited to provide an excerpt from a new book by three featured speakers: You can hear Michael Messner, Max Greenberg and Tal Peretz on a featured panel on ‘Ally Tensions’ on Saturday March 7th, 11.15am in the Grand Ballroom. The following is an excerpt from their new book “Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women”. The excerpt will also appear in the spring issue of VoiceMaleMagazine

Some Men

What does it mean for men to ally with women to stop gender-based violence?  This is the central question we tackle in our new book Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women.  Based on life history interviews with 52 men anti-violence activists aged 22-70, and twelve women who work with these men, we explore the opportunities as well as the strains and tensions in men’s work to prevent sexual assault and domestic violence.

In Some Men, we analyze the continuities and changes across three cohorts of men.  The “Movement Cohort,” men who engaged with anti-violence work during the height of the women’s movement in the 1970s and early 1980s, includes well-known activists like Michael Kaufman, Allan Creighton, Paul Kivel, Craig Norberg-Bohm and Don Conway-Long, and also less-known pro-feminist pioneers.  The “bridge cohort”—men like Tony Porter, Jackson Katz, David Lee and Gary Barker—engaged during the mid-1980s through the 1990s, when feminism was in decline as a mass movement and was simultaneously becoming more institutionalized in community non-profits and the state.  And the “professional cohort,” an increasingly diverse group of younger men—like Emiliano Dias de Leon, Sean Tate, Robbie Samuels, Jeffrey Buckholtz and Rob Beulow—are engaging today during a time when antiviolence work is increasingly institutionalized, professionalized and marketized.

In the following excerpt, the introduction to the book’s penultimate chapter, we draw from our interview with veteran feminist activist Phyllis Frank to reflect on the big question of what it means for a man to be an accountable feminist ally, and we end with a thoughtful comment on being an ally, from longtime activist Ben Atherton-Zeman.

Earning your ally badge:  Men, feminism, and accountability

Over the past four decades a succession of men have joined with feminist women, seeking to be allies in stopping rape and domestic violence.  From the start, these men were few in number, though in recent years their numbers have grown.  And from the start, men’s “upstream” violence prevention work has been fraught with contradiction.  When men work to prevent sexual assault and domestic violence, they are simultaneously enabled and constrained, rewarded and criticized, given premature star status and critically scrutinized, all due to the fact that they are men who are carving out space as feminist allies, doing work previously assumed to be the province of women.

Feminist activist Phyllis Frank has for decades been a catalyst—mentoring, criticizing and encouraging men who enter the field.  Several of the men we interviewed expressed appreciation to Frank for the energy, intelligence and passion with which she has mentored them.  She was one of the first feminist activists to embrace the importance and necessity of men’s violence prevention work, and more broadly in working with men as feminist allies.  But she is also well aware of the built-in contradictions of men’s ally work.  Once, she told us, she took a phone call from a distraught woman, the partner of a man in her batterers program.  “She was saying to me ‘I need you to fix him, I need you to get him to stop. You gotta’ do something.’”  The woman was crying, Frank recalled, and “my heart was breaking,” but on the spot, Frank drew from her years of experience in talking with women who were in abusive relationships:

And what I said to her, which is the truth as best I know it, is that “I so wish that I could do that, but there is nothing that I can do that will guarantee or even make it most likely that he’s going to stop being abusive to you.  Even if he stops hitting you, he will still likely be assaultive or horrible to you.” She screamed at me, literally at the top of her lungs, and she said, “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it.  You’re taking away my hope!’  And in that moment, I said, “Oh, please, I don’t want to take away your hope.  Even hospice tells us not to stop hoping.  But it is crucial that you make your plans based on the man you know you have, not on the one you hope he someday will become.”

Frank realized that her spontaneous advice—to “make your plans based on the man you have, not on the one you hope he someday will become”—was an “elegant turn of a word” based on her years of experience in shelters and hotlines, taking “hundreds calls from women.”  Subsequently, she taught this statement to everyone in her program, including a man she was mentoring who later went on to become a “famous” violence preventionist.  “[He] worked very closely with me, and actually affirmed what a wonderful statement that was, because I do trainings all the time.  And several years later, I got a newsletter, because he’s now famous and I’m not—he’s far more famous than I am—and he’s quoted in the newsletter with that quote.”  Frank’s feelings were mixed.  It was good to see her idea being widely disseminated.  But it also rankled that the man implicitly took credit for the idea. “It was very painful for him not to say, ‘Phyllis Frank once taught me this.’”

Phyllis Frank told this story not because she is someone who demands praise or fame for coming up with a good idea, but because it served as an example of both the promise and the dangers of men’s growing presence and public stature as anti-violence leaders.  Men, because of their privileged social positions as men, are more likely than women to be listened to when they speak out against violence against women.  And everyone in the field—including especially the women who have labored so long doing the downstream work with survivors of men’s violence—agrees that it’s crucially important for boys and men to hear the anti-violence message conveyed by these male allies.  But men’s growing visibility and status also risks rendering women’s historical roles as activists, institution-builders and mentors less visible, their voices silenced.  Frank described this paradox as a “slippery slope of a problem”:

Men are getting involved in greater numbers.  Many men are getting involved and making money, and I always worry about capitalizing and making money on things that women have been doing and saying for a long time and not making money, so that’s kind of a negative.  Men get more appreciation—listened to better, often credited with what women have said—that happens over and over again.  But the truth is, they are saying something incredibly important for men to say.  So, you kind of [say], “Alright, alright.”

Phyllis Frank’s refrain—“Alright, alright”—captures the collective sense of the women we interviewed, that while men’s growing presence in the anti-violence field can be problematic, their work also plays a crucially important role.  To put it simply, and as many women stated it, “We need men as allies.”

What does it mean to be an ally?  The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition (“a person or group that gives help to another person or group”) tends to imply a symmetry that does not pertain with social movement allies. Sociologist Daniel Myers argues that in social movements there is a built-in asymmetry between beneficiaries (“rank-and-file activists who hail from the population that would expect or wish to benefit from the movement’s activities”) and allies (“movement adherents who are not direct beneficiaries of the movements they support and do not have expectations of such benefits”).  Allies “share a political stance” with movement beneficiaries, and “define problems and solutions similarly,” but they “have a different field to negotiate.”  As “insider-outsiders” in the movement, Myers explains, allies “are members of the activist community but not members of the beneficiary population that underlies the collective activist identity and in fact they are, by definition, part of the enemy.”*

Whites who ally with people of color to stop racism, heterosexuals who ally with GLBTQ people to oppose homophobia and heteronormativity, and men who ally with women against the various manifestations of patriarchy are aware that as movement “insider-outsiders” they are not working on a level playing field.  In particular, such activists are beginning from a position of privilege that, by the very terms of calling themselves “allies,” implies that their actions aim to undermine and end these privileges. **

So even though the identity “ally” might carry some morally positive weight—one is, after all, working to make the world a more peaceful, just and egalitarian place—it also necessarily includes some morally ambiguous baggage that raises critical questions and scrutiny concerning the depth of an ally’s commitments to social change.  Sociologist Matthew Hughey observed, for instance, that white anti-racism activists’ identities are premised on what he calls “stigma allure,” where allies operate from an understanding of “whiteness as racist,” and “manage self-perceptions of stigma by not only accepting a ‘spoiled’ identity…but by embracing stigma in forms of dishonor, pathology, and dysfunction as markings of moral commitment and political authenticity.” ***

We heard some such expressions of “spoiled” and stigmatized “masculinity-as-sexism” from the men in our study, but this was far more common among the men of the Movement Cohort.  Joined at the hip as they were with the highly politicized feminist movements of the 1970s and early 1980s, these men’s self-definitions and their outreach to boys and men in those early years were often couched in terms of male shame.  By the 1990s, men’s anti-violence activism had stretched away (though it never fully disconnected) from this politicized feminism, and from anti-violence strategies that emphasized the refutation of masculinity.  The pathways and actions of the Bridge Cohort and the Professional Cohort were shaped increasingly by medicalized and professionalized discourses and pragmatic strategies premised on creating honorable definitions of “good men” and “healthy masculinity.”  By the late 1990s, with these positive self-definitions built in to curricula (e.g., the bystander approach), men doing anti-violence work could increasingly distance themselves from stigma and male shame.  This had the effect of broadening the appeal of anti-violence work for men, and as we shall see, it also helped to open the gates for a few men to become “stars” in the violence prevention field.

…The men we interviewed took seriously the question of what it means to be an accountable ally.  A common theme in discussing this issue was the acknowledgement that being an ally is an ongoing process, not the outcome of a single action or public proclamation.  Ben Atherton-Zeman said that he learned long ago that being an ally is “a concept and a goal, certainly rather than something I can achieve, like ‘okay, now I’m accountable.’”  Atherton-Zeman was one of two men—Joe Samalin being the other—who said he learned a powerful lesson from an ally statement put out some years ago by The Women of Color Caucus of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Basically it says, “Your ally badge, as whites, as men, you gotta’ give it back at the end of every day.  You give it back, and you earn it the next day.”  So it’s not like I have the badge and I’m done.  It’s the same with accountability.  For me accountability means that if I have this great idea, the local program and the state coalition don’t like it, I don’t do it.  It means that, for most decisions, I run them by someone like a Phyllis Frank or a Suzanne Pharr or a Rose Geary before I actually do it.

For a longtime movement veteran like Atherton-Zeman, the idea that one never fully and finally earns his “ally badge,” that you have to “earn it [again] the next day” serves as a powerful reminder of what it means to be an accountable ally. …But what does this idea of accountability mean and how does it play out when, as is increasingly the case today, “the community” is large-scale organizations like organized sports and the military—still largely male-run hierarchical institutions whose purpose is to train young men to deploy valorized forms of violence?

* Daniel J. Myers 2008.  Ally identity:  The politically gay.  167-187 in Jo Reger, Daniel J. Myers & Rachel L. Einwohner, eds.  Identity work in social movements.  Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, quotes from pp. 167-168.

** For a discussion of how privilege works in men’s anti-violence activism, see Michael Flood 2003.  Men’s collective struggles for gender justice: The case of anti-violence activism. In Michael Kimmel, Jeff Hearn, and R.W. Connell, Eds. The Handbook of Studies on Men and Masculinities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

*** [ Matthew W. Hughey 2012. Stigma allure and white antiracist identity management.  Social Psychology Quarterly 75: 219-241, quote from p. 220.  See also Jennifer L. Eichstedt, 2001.  Problematic white identities and a search for racial justice. Sociological Forum 16: 445–70.]

6 Responses to “Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women.”

  1. mybodymystory March 2, 2015 at 10:42 pm #

    Thanks for giving references they look really interesting. Do you have any recommendations for papers or books to read about men calling themselves allies to the feminist movement in general and not just in anti violence spaces?

    • Tal Peretz March 3, 2015 at 8:53 pm #

      Sure, there is a lot of that out there! If you give me a clearer sense of what your specific interests or questions are I might be able to get more specific, but offhand I’d recommend “Men Speak Out” or “Men and Feminism,” both by Shira Tarrant (full disclosure: I have an article in “Men Speak Out,”), “Politics of Masculinities” by Michael Messner, and VoiceMale (which is a long-standing magazine but was also recently published as a book of selected articles, both edited by Rob Okun; I have an article in there as well); there’s also a whole list of online resources linked at the book’s webpage, , and has a really wonderful collection as well. XYonline is the work of Michael Flood; look for articles by him, Michael Kaufman, Ben Atherton-Zeman, Kris Macomber, etc.

      • mybodymystory March 3, 2015 at 10:12 pm #

        Thanks! Basically, I’ve been seeing this argument online that men should call themselves, or be called, feminist allies instead of feminists and I’m curious about looking into why people should use one term or the other. I can see reasons for both terms being used by men, but I seem to be leaning towards “feminist ally” being a preferred term. But I’ve been talking to my boyfriend about it and he completely disagrees and thinks that “feminist ally” would do more harm than good. So I’m trying to make up my mind but also learn (more in-depth than the internet can always give) *why* one term might be better than the other, and who generally thinks that, and again, why.

      • Tal Peretz March 16, 2015 at 2:56 am #

        Good question, and a common one!

        The question of what to call men who engage in some kind of anti-sexist activism is a fraught one, and has a long history. For a while the question was whether men could use the term feminist at all, or whether they should be called profeminist; there was even argument as to whether it should be pro-feminist (with a hyphen) or profeminist (without). These discussions tended to hinge on whether men could really understand or commit to feminism, since sexism is not a daily part of their experiences; the most complete discussion of this is by Harry Brod in “To Be a Man, or Not to be a Man — That Is the Feminist Question,” in Men Doing Feminism, Tom Digby, ed. (NY: Routledge, 1998), 197-212. It is summarized here (“An Introduction to Masculinities,” by my friend Jack Kahn), to make it a little easier to digest:

        For reasons I won’t get in to here, this question seems to have fallen by the wayside lately, and more recent discussions have centered around the term “ally,” what it means and whether it is useful. Again, part of the discussion centers around who feminism is “for,” and how committed or distant men are or should be. There are added concerns about accountability, about people claiming to be an ally without doing anything positive (sometimes without ceasing or even questioning their own privileged behaviors), about allyship as an ongoing activity rather than a static identity, etc. All of these are important points and have been discussed around the blogosphere (shout-out to,, and, for just a few examples). If we spend too much time debating what terms to use, though, we fall right back into the same trap, and end up wasting time and energy that we could be using to be out there making change happen!

        Tal Peretz Visiting Assistant Professor Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies Seattle University

        Check out my new book: “Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women,” at

        On Tue, Mar 3, 2015 at 7:12 PM, Masculinities 101 wrote:


      • mybodymystory March 21, 2015 at 10:52 pm #



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