This post, authored by Tal Peretz- a regular contributor to Maculinities 101, is a revised take on the authorial appendix in Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women, co-authored with Michael Messner and Max Greenberg
Looking back on my entry into feminism while writing this book, it was very clear to me that I grew up during a period when feminism was less of a public discussion. I don’t remember ever hearing the word “feminism” until taking my first women’s studies class, in my second year of college in 2002. On the one hand, I’m glad I managed to avoid the stereotypes that circulate about feminism and feminists; on the other, I also had very little knowledge or awareness about gender inequality or gender-based violence. I had experienced more than my share of what James Messerschmidt calls “masculinity challenges,” including some male-on-male violence that was clearly about gender policing, but because I receive male, white, cisgendered, straight, and many other forms of privilege, I was effectively shielded from having personal knowledge about structural oppression.
That first women’s studies class, while opening my eyes to structural inequalities and the oppression of women, also helped me better understand my own experiences. I began seeing my own life through a feminist lens, and the feminist maxim “the personal is political” helped me also to develop a sociological analysis. I saw that my own experiences of marginalization and violence were linked to larger structures of oppression, and began to see others who suffered from those structures as my comrades. I also started seeing how those same structures benefitted me, through male privilege, white privilege, straight and cis-gendered privilege, etc., and began thinking about how to be an effective ally while navigating between my own experiences of privilege and marginalization.
Beginning with that women’s studies class, institutionalized forms of feminism led me to more activism and grassroots organizing. My involvement pathway moved through many groups and institutions and was facilitated by some very dear mentors. Marla Jaksch, the teacher of that first women’s studies class, invited me to be her teaching assistant the next semester, helping me to see feminism as a space where I was welcome and could make a contribution. I attended Take Back the Night, Vagina Monologues, and the March for Women’s Lives in Washington D.C., and got involved in different student activist groups for racial, sexual, and gender equality, and in a men’s anti-violence group. I took a feminist theory course with Brian Jara, who began to teach me about accountability and continues to mentor me today, and a class on African-American women with the late Dr. Aaronette White, who invited me to work with her on a study of Black men’s feminist activism.
About this same time I began volunteering at the local sexual assault and domestic violence center, where I continued to benefit from the guidance of women, and from male privilege. As my post-collegiate activism and volunteering continued, I met and became friends with more male feminists. We would talk, and often found that we shared some experiences as men in the movement, such as receiving profuse praise that felt unearned or unequal, or being asked how we got involved and why we cared about “women’s” equality. I did a small, informal study among my friends, and began coming up with questions and concepts (like the “pedestal effect”) that have continued to interest me. Many of the men I’ve interviewed were men I had met or worked alongside in activist groups, nonprofits, or academic settings.
The availability of both men and women as mentors and the fact that my entry pathway moved through multiple institutionalized feminist spaces are both consistent with my moment of engagement as part of what we refer to in “Some Men” as the Professional Cohort. This mentorship served me well throughout graduate school, as did the clear sense that my reason for being there was to become the best ally I could be. I continued of my research with male antiviolence activists, studying a campus-based men’s group and discovering many tensions and contradictions in their work, some of which appear in this book as well. During this research, however, I began to notice that the literature on men’s anti-sexist work frequently overlooks the experiences of men of color, queer men, and other members of marginalized groups. I returned to the research on Black men that I had done with Dr. White, and decided to do a broader intersectional project. My own pathway shaped who I felt accountable to in the research process: feminist academics in both Sociology and Women’s Studies, activists and service professionals working on the ground, and also queer communities and communities of color.
The historical moment clearly shapes some of my own viewpoints: I am concerned about the blunted radicalism that comes with institutionalization, and worry about losing the centrality of women in women’s studies. Much of my thinking is influenced by the Internet, feminist blogs, and articles shared over social networks. This is definitely the “fluoride” feminism that Jo Reger writes about, where feminist consciousness can easily become an everyday, constant presence—but it can just as easily be glossed over in favor of pictures of animals with pithy captions. Feminism is everywhere and nowhere, and since leaving undergrad I’ve had to make conscious efforts to keep a connection to movement-based feminism.
I am definitely still figuring out how to be useful and accountable to feminism, while also using my own skill set to the best advantage and creating a life that can sustain me through future years of engagement. I struggle to maintain a close and accountable connection to the feminist movement, and I’m still learning and developing strategies to do so while also meeting the demands of academic life. While I’m sure I’ll get better at it in the future, I don’t think this struggle is a symptom of being early in my career. I think it’s part of a constant process of learning and navigation required of men who do feminism, and will be for as long as being a man brings unearned privilege. I’m sure I will continue learning and navigating as the field shifts and we see what the next historical moment of men’s engagements looks like.