Can Men be Feminists?

Professor Brian Klocke on feminism and how men can best support the movement.

(Source: Nation of Change) (Source: Nation of Change)

Over a decade ago, Brian Klocke published an article considering men’s roles in the feminist movement. Since its original publication, the article has been picked up by The Guardian, Huffington Post Live, the Telegraph, the New Zealand Herald, and Sri Lanka’s Daily News. Last semester, it even garnered him an invitation to speak at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, at the oldest debating society in the world.

The College Historical Society, which was founded in 1770 by Edmund Burke, has been addressed by renowned figures such as Winston Churchill, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky, and Oscar Wilde. In November, the Society—also known as the Hist—brought Klocke to Dublin to speak as part of their motion, “This House Believes Men Cannot be Feminists.”

“In the debate, even though people were arguing from slightly different perspectives or different sides of a statement, the one thing that both sides had in common was the idea that they didn’t want men co-opting or taking over the feminist movements,” says Klocke, a visiting assistant professor of critical media and cultural studies at Rollins. “A lot of them were talking from personal experience of having men either shut them down or have a claim to feminism that disagreed with the women’s own personal experience.”

After he returned, we sat down with Klocke, who is a long-time member of NOMAS, to talk to him about labels, privilege, and where men fit in the feminist movement.

Visiting Assistant Professor Brian Klocke (center) with participants of the College Historical Society at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Visiting Assistant Professor Brian Klocke (center) with participants of the College Historical Society at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

LJC: How did you become involved with NOMAS and what is it exactly?

BK: NOMAS stands for the National Organization for Men Against Sexism. It was started by men who were involved in the feminist movement [in the 1970s]. It is pro-feminist, gay affirmative, anti-racist, and male-positive, [… and] it approaches feminism from an intersectional perspective.

I got involved in it when I was in graduate school at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where I was working on my PhD in sociology.

LJC:  What made you start thinking about the question: Can men be feminists?

BK: I was very interested in it—both from an academic standpoint and from an activist standpoint—[because I …] was interested in how best to think about the role of men in the feminist movement.

LJC: And what did you conclude?

BK: For me, the important question is not about labels—of whether or not can men be feminists—but how men can best be allies in supporting feminism.

It’s more about action. Feminism is not just a belief that we hold, but how you live your life. Supporting feminism is not just about beliefs or an identity but about action. Not just individual action, hopefully, but about political action.

Feminists have engaged in collective action to confront patriarchy and to make things such as women being able to vote, women being able to go to college, and the idea of equal work for equal pay accepted to varying degrees—not only in the U.S. but elsewhere.

LJC: At what point does the label itself become problematic—or does it? For example, Time magazine recently included “feminist” as one of the words to ban in 2015 and received backlash for doing so. Should we continue to have conversations about what it means to be a feminist and who can use that label?

BK: Yeah, I think it’s always important to have conversations about the meaning of words and political action and of social change. I think what’s important about conversations about that label is that it should be feminist women to decide. They are the ones who created that identity, that label, these ideas, these practices—so it should be them to decide. One of the points of this article and the debate is that men can’t really remove themselves from the cultural and structural privilege that we receive in society—both in the U.S. and in most countries around the world, if not all of them.

I think it’s great to have a debate about this but again, I’m not so hung up on how people choose to self-identify. I want people to see that being anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-classist, etc. is more than about just a label or an identity. It’s more than about just a lifestyle or things we choose to do or choose not to do. We need to understand how oppression operates within the structures of society and within the systems of culture. We need to act upon those labels, not just to consume or display the labels—that’s not what’s quite as important. So in some ways, I think it’s good that this debate happens because it gets into deeper issues, but for me I don’t want to spend too much time debating about whether or not men can be feminists.

I want to see what the result is. Are we getting men to confront the system of patriarchy? Are we getting men to confront misogyny? Are we getting men to continue to be reflective about confronting misogyny—not only in themselves but in others around them? How can we do more to give men the tools to overcome patriarchal socialization and the tools to be able to try and figure out how better to disrupt, intervene, and transform all the things that come before a physical act of gender violence?

LJC: Can you elaborate a little bit more about what you mean in terms of privilege?

BK: When a lot of people hear “privilege,” they tend to think of it individually—rather than of something that’s a part of a social system of oppression. Privilege is sort of the companion piece to oppression. Here in the U.S in particular, we are taught to think in very individualistic ways when it comes to inequalities or social problems. We’re socialized to privatize public issues, individualize structural issues of inequalities. So when people hear the word “privilege,” often times they think that “Oh, well, I’m not privileged” or “I get discriminated against too.” They get a little bit hung up on it rather than understanding that it is not about individual merit or about what you do, but it’s about these systems of power and privilege that you were born into. Whether you choose to be a part of that or not, you are. So we can’t erase white or light skin privilege, gender privilege, and male privilege until society changes systemically. And that’s going to take a long time—some people argue that it will never happen.

LJC: How can men best be allies?

BK: We’re not asking men to sit on the sidelines. We’re just asking them to not take over. We can even see this in classrooms around college campuses, where we oftentimes have men dominating the conversations because of gender role socialization. There’s also a flip side to this too—women being socialized to collude with patriarchy to some degree, to be in supportive roles of men, to be emotional caretakers of men’s feelings rather than challenging men to be their own emotional caretakers, and not to over rely on women and burden them with that. I think everyone should take care of each other, but [… it’s] a matter of proportion and reciprocity.

Men are socialized without thinking about it to dominate the spaces we occupy on a daily basis, to dominate the conversations especially in an academic realm, business realm, realms that are sort of identified as masculine—the idea of authority. So most of my presentation in the debate was asking questions rather than making statements.

LJC: What were some of the questions that you asked?

BK: Can men be feminists? In today’s world, can men really remove themselves from the power and privilege in relation to women? How can we get men and boys to reject patriarchal socialization and to confront all forms of oppression in themselves, in others, and within the social institutions that they collectively as a group dominate?

LJC: Do you have any answers for these questions?

BK: I don’t think having an individual discussion about how “Oh, here’s what I think people should do” [is the answer]. I think part of it is just trying to get people to think about what needs to be done. But as a human being, the very least I would say is that if we can get men to stop oppressing women and others or if we can get men to stop raping, assaulting, murdering, abusing women, girls, and others—that’s what people should do.

How do we get that to happen? is the more complicated question but at the very least, just like any other issue, people should educate themselves about it. They should be more introspective and reflective about it, to be able to look at their actions and the actions of others.

LJC: What are some ways people can educate themselves?

BK: There’s the Internet and they could go to any one of the numerous feminist organizations and blogs that are out there. They could look at the reading lists that are suggested and start reading. There’s Feminism Is for Everybody by bell hooks. It’s a shorter accessible read. Again, I’m not a feminist expert on campus, so there are other faculty members who could contribute suggestions as well. Michael Kimmel has written a lot from a pro-feminist perspective about masculinity. One of his most recent books is Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. There are other titles like Against the Tide: Pro-Feminist Men in the United States, 1776-1990, a Documentary History .

[There’s sociologist] Allan Johnson. One of his older books is called The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy. He has some newer books that are more intersectional: Privilege, Power and Difference. [He uses] a metaphor of a tree in order to get at more of the social structure of patriarchy and other forms of power and privilege. So with the tree, the leaves represent individuals, the branches represent organizations, and the trunk of the tree represents institutions. Leaves fall and get replaced in the spring with new ones so the individuals are not so important to the social structure or the reproduction of that social structure. You come down to the branches—the more solid support for that structure—which are the organizations, that are more on a local or a micro-level, such as schools, for example, and what they teach us about gender and inequality, or not. Then the trunk would be institutions at the macro level, education as a national system, for example, and the institution of government, among others.

What Johnson says that feeds this system are the principles and values of patriarchy. It is a system primarily based on domination. He talks about society being male-identified, male-dominated, and male-centered. The male dominated is probably the easiest to understand. Look at who is overrepresented in positions of power, at those [who are] heads of institutions or have decision-making powers that impact other people’s lives. We can look at how many Presidents have been women. We can look at what percentage of judges have been women. We can look at law enforcement and the percentage of women that are in those positions. Most of our educational institutions including higher education started out with white, wealthy, land-owning men as being the only ones to go to those institutions. A lot of the ideals and traditions, some of which are still carried on today, were started by and centered around the experiences and lives of those particular types of men. Male identified, according to Johnson, means that the cultural values of dominant masculinity come to resemble the core values of society and what is seen as “natural.”

LJC: If I’m understanding you correctly, being a feminist ally means learning to identify and recognize systems of privilege and then to act to address them.

BK: Right. And to use your own privilege to confront discrimination and oppression, and to not just expect others to do it but to work in conjunction with others that have been doing it—to be an ally. So you can continue to not just be supporting an individualistic agenda but the collective agenda of the groups that are most impacted by it.

So, whether or not whites choose to be anti-racist, whether or not men choose to be anti-sexist or feminist, whites still receive racial dividends, men still receive patriarchal dividends whether or not they choose to adopt a certain label or whether or not they choose to confront the sexism in their male counterparts, for example. A lot of times what happens in the feminist movement is when a man speaks up and says the same thing that a women has said, they get more accolades, more positive affirmation for doing that: “Oh, well, isn’t this great! We have this one talking male.” Maybe because it’s not expected, but also because of the socialization of supporting and acknowledging that idea of men’s works over supporting the idea of women’s works. It’s not that pro-feminist men shouldn’t be recognized but not to the exclusion of women who have been doing much more work around [the issue].