I've come across some debates recently on the relationship between males and feminism that have got me thinking about how feminism should be taught to boys and young men (or old men! But I'm trying to keep somewhat on task with the theme of youth, sexuality, and education).
Some of these arguments, written by men, women, and I'm sure others, have been incredibly sensitive and on-point, except that their conclusion—that men cannot really be feminists—left me feeling uncomfortable. And when something makes me uncomfortable, I know I need to understand it better. These arguments have two main points: 1) accepting men as feminists is a perpetuation of patriarchy because men can't remove themselves from their power and privilege in relation to women, and 2) if you're not politicized by being treated as part of a marginalized category of persons, then you can really only ever be pro-
This race-based comparison that kept cropping up actually raises a lot of questions about the nature of responsible alliance, coalition, and other forms of solidarity work that I'll have to explore in another post. (I often wonder if this kind of thinking doesn't foist the responsibility for problems back onto the oppressed.)
This race analogy also just doesn't fit here. If you're white, you can't choose to identify as black or as a black nationalist because race, being a social construct, functions by the social and material resources that differentially accrue to racialized bodies. The inequalities here have to do with the way your "racial belonging" is perceived. For a white person to claim blackness would be an oppressive act of appropriation. But in my thinking (so far at least), to identify as a feminist is not to identify as a woman. There are a lot of flavors of feminism, for sure, but I've long been under the impression that at its heart, feminism is "the radical notion that women are people" (to trot out that well-worn phrase by Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler) and therefore deserving of all the moral worth belonging to their humanity, and all the opportunities which should enable its full expression. Plus, as Bitch says in its FAQ, "feminism isn't all about women—it's about resisting and creating alternatives to systematic oppression."
It seems to me that for a man to call himself a feminist does not imply a structural equivalence with women, just as calling oneself a woman does not imply there is a structural equivalence between differently racialized and sexualized and abled and classed women in an unequal society. My logic may be faulty here, which is why I think this conversation is useful, but I think Third World feminists and other feminists of color especially have developed a way of thinking about how "the social facts of race, class, gender, and sexuality function in individual lives without either reducing individuals to those social determinants" (Paula M.L. Moya, 1997) or disavowing the link between identity and social location as some postmodern thinkers have done in their quest to avoid essentialism and a politics of exclusion.
I think of bell hooks' important writings on the way that second-wave feminism was sometimes at odds with black women's solidarities, effectively forcing them to choose between their oppression as women (requiring them to critique the men of their communities) and their oppression as black people (which meant a critique of the white feminists whose comparative social power authorized the mainstream women's movement). I think of Cherríe Moraga negotiating white women's feminism, negotiating lesbian identity within Chicana/o communities, and eventually developing a "realist feminism" capable of acknowledging that we all possess justifiable knowledge of the world around us and that we possess it because of our own social location.
For a boy or man to identify as feminist does not mean that he claims women's experiences as a whole or that he claims, for example, queer women's experiences, or Indigenous women's experiences. Ideally, I think it means that he is making a commitment to pursue gender justice, which will always also mean pursuing other anti-oppressive goals in relation to the many identities and practices that interlock to shape the character of different gendered experiences.
If we recognize that people are sexed in particular, culturally specific ways, then we know when they experience the labor market as, say, a woman, it makes sense to organize as women workers and fight for unionization on the basis of this shared discrimination. In such a case, I would agree that it wouldn't make sense for a man to lead this kind of effort. He should listen to what the mobilizing women are asking of him, try to help based on what they've asked, and check with them to make sure his efforts are in line with their goals.
But if we're thinking about "feminism" in terms of the infinite range of possible feminist projects, then if boys and men should be supporting only in particular ways but never defining or leading, I wonder where this leaves men who care about gender politics? Similarly, I wonder where this conception of feminism leaves those whose gendered experiences can't be described by a conception of "what men should do" and "what women should do," such as trans people, genderqueer people, non-gendered people, Two-Spirit people, and so on? I worry about how excluding men from self-defining as feminists can reify gender boundaries, and I admit, I worry about the way it might just flip the gender hegemony on its head, inverting the power imbalance—even if that would only affect small pockets of an otherwise trenchantly patriarchal world. I also worry because I have this gut feeling that male feminists are vital to normalizing feminist ideas among other men, especially the many whose acculturation predisposes them to ignore feminist women's voices because it has misled them to believe that being feminist means being anti-man. (For some discussion on this, check out another Bitch blogger's post and the comment thread).
My position right now is that it's crucial that as we work to produce ourselves and others as people with critical consciousness—especially in schools, and not just in Women's and Gender Studies classes—and that a feminist consciousness is a vital part of that for people of all genders and sexes. But all learning is a process, so I look forward to you challenging or complicating my views!
Also check out this Bitch article about masculinities and anti-sexism by Shira Tarrant: "Guy Trouble"