Feminism has become something of a dirty word of late. But I have to say that I feel no shame whatsoever in telling the world, “I’m a feminist” when asked about the subject.
Some feminists would mock me for saying so, as would anyone who doesn’t use that label. “How can you support man hating?” “How can you really be in favour of women’s rights? You’re a man! You don’t understand” “Surely as a man you can see that men suffer discrimination too?”
For me, “feminism” labels the principle of wanting men and women (and all other genders for that matter) to be treated equally in society. I think that both men and women suffer discrimination because of their gender, but I think women suffer the larger proportion of that discrimination. I cannot understand how my gender precludes the possibility of me coming to these conclusions and wanting solutions to these problems. Non-binary people are an interesting question with regards to this issue and I think they are also discriminated against but because of their sex. People make the assumption that because you have the male or female sex, you must have a male or female gender to match that sex and so they discriminate against you on that basis. Society tends to find ways to pigeonhole people into either men or women and thus we all are affected to some extent by the issues that the brand of feminism I support attempts to address.
The feminist movement is a broad church so to speak, and more extreme factions would decry men rising to prominence in advocating equality. I fundamentally believe that the best way to achieve the aims of the feminism I support is by engaging all people, including men, within the discourse and the activism of the movement. For better or worse people who end up being prominent in such movements are often those who are loud, persuasive, and charismatic. Men can possess these qualities just as much as women. Though not all prominent voices may have first-hand experience of particular kinds of discrimination that parts of the movement seek to work against, we need different kinds of figures to persuade different groups of people to support our ultimate aim of gender equality.
I like to think that we should be persuaded primarily by the quality of a person’s argument, but in practice we all know this isn’t quite true (but that’s a separate issue). I think that by men successfully engaging with feminism at the highest levels of discourse, it will serve to weaken the poisonous fear of the word “feminism” that grips swathes of media and culture.
I do believe, however, that men cannot and should not be leaders in this movement. Nor should women. Or anyone else for that matter. I think it is fundamentally flawed to view feminism in terms of leaders and followers. Feminism is not a religion, a government, or a business. It is an academic and social movement. It doesn’t need a matriarchy to lead it, or a patriarchy. To be applicable in the widest range of cultural contexts in which problems of gender inequality occur, the movement needs to be to some extent anarchic. Particularly in places like the Middle East it would not help local feminists to appear to be doing the bidding of some white educated academic in far off Britain or America.
Feminism needs to rely on local tangible figures that give the movement in those places enough credibility to further the ultimate aims of gender equality. They might be men and they might not. Moreover, relying on a few individuals for the production of a narrative to support the movement is dangerous if we want feminism not to be seen as elitist and exclusive. It cannot simply be the extension of the views of a few prominent academics. The campaign for equality should be something that we can all take part in. Though feminism has made great gains over the past few decades, to continue that momentum it must address a whole raft of issues ranging from wearing the burqa in public to pornography and the expectations it raises about body image and sexual practice.
Whatever the responses that are needed, and whatever the form that feminism will develop into over my lifetime and beyond, for it to progress rather than recede it must engage everyone – including those who don’t identify as women.
Tom Meadows studies Linguistics at the University of Cambridge.