Men cannot be feminists. They cannot. Please, please can we put this one to bed. This comes up time and time again both in real life and online where men insist that they are feminists and that I am quite wrong to insist that they are not.
Feminism is the fight against the gendered power structure which justifies the greater exploitation of women’s labour, and feminists are its footsoldiers. This gendered power structure is known as patriarchy. Patriarchy, meaning rule of the fathers, is a structure, comprising of the representation of the world, the regulation of the world and the social norms of the world which advantage men. Only women experience this representation, regulation and normativity from a position of weakness. Men necessarily experience it from a position of strength or at best neutrality. That is not to say that patriarchy always works to advantage men in any given situation, but that as a structure it acts to collectively give more power to men as a group.
There are experiences that only women can have – among them are periods, conception, pregnancy, childbirth, miscarriage, abortion and menopause. Men do not have these experiences. Not all women experience any or all of them, not all women can, but to be classed as “woman” is to accept a gendering which includes the potentiality of those experiences. The potentiality of having these experiences shapes the way society views women. The representation of women, their regulation and the norms which society expects from them are informed by that potentiality. So while there may be no direct experience, there is experience of living with such expectation. Both the experiences and expectations affects the way in which women live their lives. To live female under patriarchy is to be continually exploited under the weight of these expectations and experiences. To live male under patriarchy is to live with the collective benefit of not having these expectations or experiences.
Critiquing patriarchy, or any other power structure for that matter, from a position of dominance is troublesome. When you have relative power, you are more likely to be heard than those with less power; analysis performed from a position of dominance is necessarily different from that performed from a position of weakness and a lack of experience of structural weakness lessens the insight into its manifestation. Challenging the patriarchy (or any other power structure for that matter) from a position of dominence is troublesome. Firstly because you have relative power, your challenges are more likely to be effective than those with less power. Secondly because you do not share the experiences of those fighting from a position of weakness, you will not experience any damage by a ill-conceived challenge. Thirdly because you benefit from patriarchy, the most productive challenge that you can make is to stop benefiting as much as you personally can.
Men’s relationship to gendered power is completely different. Theory on gendered relations which is developed by men does not come from the experience of being systematically disadvantaged by it; and the experience men gain from a successful challenge to patriarchy is to lessen their relative power. This is why both theory and leadership must come from women. Feminist praxis must be developed in relation to experience, with theory growing from the lived experiences and challenge emerging on that basis. To adhere to feminist philosophy is to acknowledge and assert the role of women as the agents of their liberation. Claiming to be an agent of liberation while male is to deny women that role. It is not feminist, and it is not even pro-feminist.
Amongst the feminist community, there is a perception of men who call themselves feminists to be creepy sexual predators, which in my opinion is only partially justified. Men who call themselves feminists tend to be associated with the radical activist community where feminists also congregate. Patriarchy is a universal system which affects all gendered experience, including individual interactions. Within communities where males are allowed to be considered feminist and to shape discourses of women’s liberation, all too frequently those discourses get co-opted to individual male advantage. The analysis of how gendered power is manifested becomes distorted, women are exploited and fear to complain lest they be seen as “bad feminists”.
Men who support feminism are pro-feminists. They recognise the gendered structures of power which advantages them, and work to support those fighting against it and the central agency of women on the basis of their collective lived experience, accepting the leadership and thought of women while challenging the personal benefit they obtain from living under patriarchy. We can challenge patriarchy without pro-feminists, but they make it a great deal easier for us to do so. If you are male and wish to support the feminist movement, consider becoming a pro-feminist for they are our allies and comrades in the struggle.
By definition, men cannot be feminists – and those who call themselves such part of the problem we are trying to solve.