Thursday, June 01, 2006

Ye Olde "Can Men Be Feminists" Debate

I had the opportunity to hit the "Fundamentals of Feminism" panel at Wiscon, consisting of four women and Sam Delany. Delany's opening comments touched on men's interests in the equality of women throughout history.

"What do these men have to do with feminism?" he asked. "Absolutely nothing. Men cannot be feminists. Feminism is about women."

My buddy Patrick happened to be sitting in the front row of this panel, and I cut a look at him to see how offended he was. I know *I* was offended.

Do I believe that a feminist conversation should be controlled by women?


Do I believe feminist issues should be determined by women?


Do I believe that excluding half the population from the conversation forwards the goals of feminism?


For a lot of people, it's the *wording* that seems to be the problem. As a white woman, can I call myself a member of the Black Power movement? There are a lot of wording gymnastics: pro feminist men, allies, etc. For the record, I don't mind a guy calling himself a feminist. The guys I'm leery of are the ones who feel they need to remind you that they're a feminist at every opportunity.

Delany said that in 10 of the 12 years he's taught creative writing, he's received a story from a female student about a woman who was breaking up with her "feminist" boyfriend who turned out not to be feminist at all the longer the relationship went on (or when they moved in together). When he approached these women, they admitted the stories were autobiographical.

"Your first clue that things weren't right should have been when he called himself a feminist," Delany said.

Or, as another blogger put it:

As a matter of fact, it's caused me to realize that most of the men I've personally known who have made a huge hairy point of identifying as feminists have been either date rapists, mom fetishists, porn addicts, or bear daddies inflicting their frustrated pseudopaternal tendencies on women. They are some of the most passive-aggressive, patronizing, out-dishing without it-taking twerps on the planet, and they are poisoning the women's movement from the inside by sapping the hell out of everyone's goddamn energy.

I was offended by Delany's comment on behalf of my guy friends: the ones who live feminism. The guys I've known who make a Big Deal about how "woman-friendly" they are usually do so because they're trying to mask their misogyny (One guy I knew went on and on and on about what a feminist he was and - in the same breath - talked about how much feminism oppressed him. We're no longer friends). It's like running around saying you're not a racist and have tons of black friends. Or not a homophobe and have tons of gay friends.

I used to be one of the biggest misogynists I knew (as a woman, you can convince yourself of this by taking yourself out of the "other" category and declaring yourself an "honorary man" ie a "real person" because you don't wear makeup or skirts). It's stupid, and I still catch myself thinking horribly anti-woman things on occasion. I write stereotypes and have to go back and fix them whenever I catch them.

I grew up in and am constantly immersed in a society that still denigrates women and forces men into monstrous-masulinity roles. I'm going to think these things. The best way to combat it is to read as widely as I can, talk to as many people as I can, and be aware of why and how I'm thinking and what images I put onto a page; what thinking goes on behind it. It's no easier for me, I think, than it is for a man to twist at my internalized misogyny. I'll be one of the first people to admit that stupidly racist thoughts go through my head at the oddest moments. But I'm aware of them, aware of where the racism comes from, and I fight it tooth and nail whenever I respond that way.

Does that mean I can't argue against racism and misogyny?


The Abolitionist movement and the Suffrage movement would not have succeeded without support from a variety of camps. A great number of Abolitionists were pale people, and the deciding vote in the deciding state that ratified the amendment granting women suffrage was cast by a man (who did it because his mother told him to. Raise feminist men, women!).

I'm always leery of casting the feminist movement as a separatist movement that eliminates half the population from the conversation.

12 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

That Girl said...

Here Here!

Patrick said...

Yeah, I was a little ticked at Delany's comment. :)

What it comes down to for me is that he's drawing a sloppy conclusion. The conclusion he's drawing is "Men cannot be feminists." An equally valid conclusion from his story is "When men say they're feminists and then act like assholes, women will be hurt enough by it to turn it into a story." Of course, that's not as inflammatory as the conclusion Delany drew, so I'll just hold onto my tiger-repelling rock and warn my son that eating ice cream causes drowning.

I remember something you posted, possibly based on something Nick M. posted, about how actual nice guys don't have to claim that they're nice guys. I think that applies here. The people who go around claiming a given identity are less credible than the ones who, you know, actually do something to live out that identity. Part of the modern problem, though, is that with internet discourse, you don't automatically know the person you're talking to, and they don't know you, so you sometimes have to explain yourself a little so that people know where you're coming from.

So if I want to make a comment about women's rights, I often feel like I have to make the obligatory "I do the cooking and dishwashing, and my wife assembles the furniture and does auto repair" comment to show that I'm an evolved man. That risks making me sound like the self-declared feminist who isn't, really, but if I don't do it, we get comments like your friend from a few months back who decided that all the guys on your blog were sexist pigs, and you were a pseudofeminist who was pandering to them. (On the other hand, maybe she was gonna believe that no matter what anyone said.)

I can see the point that women need to be the ones holding the reins in the conversation. It's a good point, and I agree with it wholeheartedly. But if someone can't see a difference between allowing men to participate in the conversation and allowing men total control of the conversation, that doesn't speak well for that someone.

lori said...

I don't understand why you think men are cut out of the conversation. I don't have to *be* something to talk about it (and work for change around it).

Patrick said...

Lori: To answer your question:

1) I think men are cut out of the conversation because I have been explicitly told by women claiming to be feminists that as a man, I should not take part in the conversation. That was my first clue.

2) You don't have to be a voter to have conversations about politics, but I don't recall the "women vote by convincing their husbands to vote correctly" argument going over really well as an anti-suffragist argument. At least, not with women.

3) If being part of the conversation and working for change doesn't make me a feminist, then what exactly DOES make someone a feminist? Is "Feminist" just a cool sticker to wear on your T-shirt, or does it mean that the person is actually trying to do something? If it means that you're trying to make things better, then I don't see why differentiating between men and women in that regard is helpful. And if it DOESN'T mean that you're trying to make things better, then what's the point of declaring yourself one?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps he was reflecting through the common phenomenon of liberal white folks, working on a black-issues project run by blacks, trying to tell the more experienced black activists what to do, based on an assumption that they have a better education in theory, and that it trumps street smarts, political horse sense, organizing experience.

It is true that in an extremity, I wouldn't count on the loyalty of the male feminist. Allyship often goes by the wayside when interests directly conflict, ie, when it costs to be an ally. And again Delany might just be projecting the real experience of being a gay man in the early days of AIDS when non-religious-extremist, perfectly ordinary, heterosexual white folks talked about "quarantine camps" out of sight of the rest of society. There was a time when gays had noone to count on but themselves, and when the rhetoric was, fine, let them die.

But then again, maybe none of these are the reason Delany made the statement.


Amayita said...

I used to be one of the biggest misogynists I knew (as a woman, you can convince yourself of this by taking yourself out of the "other" category and declaring yourself an "honorary man" ie a "real person" because you don't wear makeup or skirts). It's stupid, and I still catch myself thinking horribly anti-woman things on occasion.

Reading this was like reading myself a couple of years ago. I am so glad I could identfy what this feelings came from, and put a name to them: patriarchy was what i loathed, not women.

David Moles said...

Delany, he is a provoker. Also he is a sharp guy, so I’m sure that men can’t be feminists for whatever definition of feminist he was using when he said that.

Thing is (and if I can figure out how to articulate it, I really want to propose a panel about this), there’s an important broader sense of the word feminism that I think describes a process, not a product.

Something like what Belle Waring talks about when she talks about how “the awesome thing about feminism is that it’s also opposed to sexual violence against men, be it on the bus or in our poorly-run jails.”

Something like what makes the World’s Leading Feminist Science Fiction Convention the perfect place to present the Tiptree Award even though the word woman and the word feminist appear nowhere in the phrase “explores and expands gender.”

Something that encompasses not just the Battle of the as-defined-by-the-dominant-culture Sexes but also queer issues and transgender issues and, maybe, even, straight male masculunity issues.

Maybe “feminism” isn’t the best word for that, but if Delany’s got a better one, I want to hear it.

David Moles said...

P.S. Oh God can we not have a “Can men be feminists?” panel next year?

Kameron Hurley said...

re: panel

Oh, no, let's NOT do that. I brought this one up because I thought it was an interesting thing for Delany to say, and had a strong reaction to it (it was also a topic floating around the feminist blogosphere again).

This would be like having another one of those lame "Can women be warriors?" panels where people sit around arguing about how upper body strength is the be all and end all of physical worth, and how small women are (only in comparison to men - usually men of the same race - of course), and how women aren't as "naturally" violent as men, while completely ignorning every historical (and current) instance of female fighters... let's not do that either.

Alec Austin said...


One thing which troubled me about Delany's statement, though, was the fact that he was resorting to a definition of feminism... which is something he consistently avoids in his own criticism, deriding hard definitions as misleading and generally counterproductive in the soft sciences. I tend to agree with him on that, which is why his "Men can't be feminists because feminists are women by definition" bothered me so much. And yes, there are definitely arguments to be made for why women tend to be more consistent feminists than men... but given how "feminism" has been framed in modern discourse, stating outright that men. can't. be. feminists. seems remarkably boneheaded. It might be "correct" in a narrow, definition-based sense, but it plays directly into the rhetoric of man-hating feminists that the gender reactionaries have deployed, and so on a larger level it's completely the wrong thing to say if you want people to realize that sexual privilege and ossified gender roles are bad for both genders instead of having a knee-jerk "feminism is exclusionary!" reaction.

(Not to mention that that definition is exclusionary. Which just strengthens the reactionaries' position.)

Posted by Alec Austin

lori s. said...

Patrick, you seem to have missed my point entirely.

*Really* nonfeminist men (and women) discuss feminism all the time. Why do you (or anyone else) need to be called feminist in order to be included in the conversation? They don't. What's stopping you?

It seems to me it's more a plea for recognition as an ally, which is fine, but it's not the same thing.

Still, in the end, actions speak louder than words, which is what *I* saw Mr. Delany as getting at.

Anonymous said...

Its very interesting that of all the very interesting things said in this panel only that one statement by Chip Delany was deemed worthy of discussion. Wasn't anything else helpful of interesting to you. 

Posted by dminor