Why aren’t more men feminists?

In March, I was fortunate enough to interview Catherine Mayer twice about her new book, Attack of the 50ft Women, once for “Talks at Google” (video coming soon, hopefully) and once at Waterstones in Reading.

While chatting before the first event, we got onto the subject of feminist men, and how few there are. This is clearly something that bothers Catherine (and me) – for example, she mentioned how several men at events had asked her to sign a copy of the book, which turned out to be for their wives rather than themselves. I think Catherine may have hoped I’d have some insight into the issue, as a man myself. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say I had “insight” but I’ve been giving it a bit of thought and reflecting on my own experiences.

Privilege and empathy

I’ve previously written about being (somewhat) aware that I’m privileged. That awareness came through a lot of reading and contemplation. To some extent, this was only possible because of the privilege I enjoy. I’m not working two jobs, I don’t face micro-aggressions when I walk down the street, I don’t have to deal with racist abuse, and so on. I have time and space to read and think in peace.

On the other hand, not having faced significant prejudice, whether blatant or subtle, I can’t look at the problems many others face through the lens of related experiences. My good intentions will always have an aspect of patronizing voluntourism – I don’t have skin in the game in an obvious way. That puts me at bigger risk of messing up in both thought and speech – it’s all too easy to try to read an article and think “What would I do in that situation?” rather than trying hard to understand the people who are in that situation. I’m not alone in this – the most common examples seem to be people telling others how they “should” behave or feel after being raped or finding themselves in an abusive relationship.

So we end up with yet another problem: those who are possibly in the best place to understand the inequality of privilege are those who face it every day, but they’re simultaneously those who don’t have the luxury of reflecting on it and trying to understand (and counter) aspects of privilege over others they may enjoy. Catherine talks about this in the first chapter of Attack of the 50ft Women from various perspectives, including the continuing efforts to ensure the Women’s Equality Party reflect diverse experiences rather than being a club for white middle-class feminist women.

In a nutshell: empathy is hard. But it’s that empathy that I think we’re so badly missing, and I don’t know what to do about it. It’s an issue that extends in multiple directions, and not always the ones that liberals are happy to think about. For example, I voted Remain in the UK EU referendum, and I still find it hard to empathize with those who voted Leave. It’s easy to pigeon-hole people and make lazy assumptions, but that just leads to divisions along different lines. When those assumptions are then given voice, the feeling of “us” and “them” intensifies even further. It’s hard to stand up for your own beliefs while trying to understand the motives of those who oppose those beliefs. I hope we’ll make progress on this front in the next decade, or I dread to think where politics will go.

Better for everyone?

Beyond not understanding the inequalities of others, there may be selfish reasons for not trying to counter them. If men are in a position of privilege, don’t they stand to lose by campaigning against that privilege?

The idea that gender inequality is a problem for everyone is baked into the heart of the Women’s Equality Party – the “about” page for the party is very clear:

Equality for women isn’t a women’s issue. When women fulfil their potential, everyone benefits.

I believe this, wholeheartedly – but I can see arguments against it. If you’re a man already struggling to keep up in an industry which is male-dominated, I think you have some immediate reasons to fear women being given equal opportunities. You may phrase this to yourself as disliking the idea of women being “boosted up the career ladder solely for political correctness” or similar terminology assuming you’ll be discriminated against, and we can disagree about that – but I can certainly agree that for women to take an equal share of political and industrial power, some men will lose out in that specific aspect. To give one practical example: a male MP campaigning for more equal political representation needs to understand that they may lose their job if they’re successful.

The moral counter-argument is that just because something works out well for you doesn’t make it fair. But that’s not the case the Women’s Equality Party is trying to make, and it’s not the case I want to make either. (Just to be absolutely clear on this, I’m an enthusiastic member of the party, but not a spokesperson. Please don’t attribute any of my badly-thought-out arguments as being WE arguments.) Appealing to fairness is laudable, but an appeal to self-interest is likely to be more effective.

So if I may find myself further down the career ladder in a fairer world, what’s in it for me? In a nutshell, I want to live in a world with a thriving economy, the best politicians making the best arguments, the best journalism, and so on. My personal position in society and industry is only one part of what contributes to my well-being. I’m affected by how society harnesses the skills of everyone else, in every aspect of life. When we discriminate against sections of society (not just by gender, of course) their skills aren’t used as effectively.

At a more personal, household level, it’s easy to see why men might not want to consciously acknowledge all the extra household work women typically do: the obvious next step is trying to share that work more equally. I’m hypocritical here. Holly still does the bulk of the housework, particularly cooking and childcare. (There are other aspects where I’m more involved, such as organizing our finances, driving kids around, and laundry – but they don’t add up to as much as Holly does.) Again though, I think there are plenty of benefits to more equal parenting and general housework-sharing. Better father-child relationships, better partner relationships, more time to enjoy together, etc. And yes, I need to walk the walk here.

So yes, I can see that addressing inequalities will lead to localized downsides for men, but against a bigger picture of generally increased prosperity. In short, I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game.

Feminism and happiness

This is a topic I’d meant to write about for a while, but I think it makes sense to include it here. When I read about other people’s experiences of becoming feminists, they often contain a mixture of the sadness of being more aware of the inequality of the world and a feeling of empowerment and self-worth. There’s also a sense of community, of sisterhood. That’s entirely natural when most of those accounts are written by women. (I briefly brought this up with Catherine before the interview at Google, and she mentioned that feminism doesn’t make as many women happy as she’d expect or want. I’d like to hear more about that, and what can be done about it.)

Being a feminist doesn’t make me happy. There’s the same sadness of being more aware of inequality, along with the horror at having been the benefactor of that inequality. There’s the concern about complicity in patriarchal structures. There’s a feeling of impotence as you try to empathize and know that you’ll never really “get it”, along with the “pushing a boulder up a large hill” feeling of trying to be a tiny part of changing things. I don’t expect to feel like part of the sisterhood, although I will say that I’ve been warmly welcomed in general.

As Aaminah Khan wrote:

And once you start doing this, you can’t just stop, because even if you want to, you won’t be able to shut your eyes to reality once you’ve had them opened.

So it’s not like I wish I were back in a bubble where inequality seemed more abstract, far removed and over-stated. I’m not calling for feminist cookies to try to appeal to more men. We (men) just need to accept that sometimes doing the right thing – even doing something that will ultimately be beneficial to us – may not feel fun or empowering.

(It’s also worth noting that although some trolls will attack male feminists online, it’s generally nothing compared with the abuse women receive for posting feminist views. Fear of being such attacks may be stated as a reason for not being a vocal male feminist, but I don’t think it’s a good one, personally.)

Feminism as a term with many meanings

For a while I rejected the word “feminist” as one I’d apply to myself. I preferred the term “equalist”. This was a long time before I started deliberately trying to find out what feminism really entailed. I know that others have suggested that the Women’s Equality Party shouldn’t be as explicitly about gender equality, and more about equality of all forms.

For some people, the word “feminist” will conjure images of women who would rather men didn’t exist at all, or believe that all men are inherently awful. I can see how if that’s your idea of feminism, you wouldn’t want to be part of it.

There are feminists who believe men simply can’t be feminists – being a woman is part of their definition of being a feminist. If that’s the definition you work with and you’re a man, being a feminist isn’t even an option.

Language is important, and has been used to devalue people for a long time, so the meaning of the word “feminism” is important too… but I’m personally comfortable with different people using it in different ways. If a consensus starts to coalesce around a meaning that either excludes me or that I wouldn’t feel comfortable with, I’ll stop referring to myself as a feminist. Until then, I’ll keep using it, aware that in some contexts some more clarification (or even different word) may be needed.


So to summarize a few reasons men might not declare themselves to be feminists:

  • Lots of men don’t feel they have an easy life either, and they don’t want to “waste” their time learning about the inequalities women face. (If their societal experiences have all been around claiming how there are no such inequalities anyway, why would they bother to even try?)

  • Fear that it’s against our self-interest. I can understand that fear, because it’s easy to see small-picture, concrete downsides compared with big-picture, abstract promises of a better world. (Again, it’s easier for me to not worry too much about the downsides as part of a comfortably-off family.)

  • Seeing that it doesn’t give the same person empowerment or self-worth boost that it can give women. (This isn’t so much of a reason not to be a feminist as the lack of an enticing reason to be a feminist.)

  • Some men may understand the word “feminist” as having negative or exclusionary connotations for men. Unfortunately I suspect that in some cases that may be enough to stop them from finding out more.

This post has just looked at some simplified aspects of a complex topic. It’s very much “armchair quarterbacking” – for a more nuanced, thoroughly-researched set of thoughts, I’d recommend Nikki van der Gaag’s “Feminism and Men”.

Finally, when Catherine signed my copy of Attack of the 50ft Women, she ended with “Now can you do more?” I’m not sure whether Catherine deliberately loads each conversation full of challenge as well as food for much thought, but it seems to have been the case so far when I’ve talked with her. I’m sure my answer to her question is “yes” but that doesn’t mean I know what it’ll look like. Maybe it will be something to do with making more men aware of feminism and gender inequality – only time will tell. I promise I’ll try.