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Can men be feminists?



As a white cis woman, I know that I don't have the lived experience required to speak on behalf of anyone other than myself and, at a stretch, other white cis women. I could never imagine being anything more than an ally and supporting people with different lived experiences.

Man has multiple masks, some kind, some cruel. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonI recently attended a discussion evening during study abroad at the University of Edinburgh. The evening was run by the Marxist Society and the Feminist Society on the topic of Feminism and Women's Liberation. At this event some incredible women spoke and we had discussions about issues I hadn't even thought of. Namely, can men be feminists?

Can someone who has no lived experience of being a woman, be a feminist? When men say they are feminists, does that simply mean they are announcing their allyship, or are they taking seats at the table that should be reserved solely for people with lived experience?

In an article titled 'Beware These 10 Types of Feminist Men' at The Body is Not An Apology, Melissa A. Fabello and Aaminah Khan open with the line 'Never is a man so potentially dangerous to a female person as when he claims to be a feminist.' Elsewhere, Stuart McGurk at GQ magazine suggests that 'the crimes of "Mr Nice Guy" can be more insidious' than 'the damage done by Weinstein and co'. He explains that the Mr Nice Guy types proclaim their feminism when women are around but this surface level image hides their true feelings, thoughts and behaviours that are contradictory to the front they advertise.

So when men, specifically white cis men, proclaim they are a feminist, are they speaking on behalf of women? Shouldn't everyone be a feminist, or does being a feminist require lived experience? Either way, why should we be proud of men for being feminists?

Of course everyone should support women and be actively working towards equity and equality for all. But perhaps we need to find an alternative term for male feminists, so they don't feel they have the right and the opportunity to speak for women.

The International Women's Development Agency describes feminism as equal rights and opportunities for all genders, and they see this being achieved through respecting a diverse range of women's experiences, identities, strengths and knowledge, and striving to empower all women. They suggest it is simply about levelling the playing field so girls and boys, women and men can have the same opportunities.


"Men cannot speak for women on women's issues and this is why the idea of male feminists makes me incredibly uncomfortable."


An Australian organisation, Rosie, defines feminism as 'a social movement and ideology that fights for the political, economic and social rights for women'. This seems pretty simple right: men and women should be equal, and the change in society that will achieve this needs to be led by women. Sadly, this isn't always the case and it isn't always this easy to interpret.

The #metoo movement has seen a rise in men coming forward and proclaiming themselves as feminists. But are they doing this to avoid being criticised and lumped with the 'bad' men, or are they doing it to encourage and support the women around them? It would appear at least some men are loudly voicing their pro-equality opinions in order to avoid suspicion and criticism and stay out of the spotlight.

Jill Filipovic at the New York Times cites the case of Eric Schneiderman, who was a champion of women's rights at work, but, she says, a 'sexual sadist and manipulative misogynist at home'. In this case, it appears as though Schneiderman simply used his status as a feminist to promote and further his career while using his image as one of the good guys to abuse and control women when out of the spotlight.

There's an entire website dedicated to promoting and supporting men to generate resources about feminism to ease other 'skittish' men into feminism, by enabling them to read about it from a male perspective.

Feminism is all about female empowerment and any man who can't learn about feminism from a female perspective needs to seriously reconsider their values and outlook. Men cannot speak for women on women's issues and this is why the idea of male feminists makes me incredibly uncomfortable.

But it's not all bad, and men are not to be feared and hated. That's not what feminism is about. Being a feminist means supporting your sisters and educating your brothers on how they too can support other women. Being a feminist means seeing the faults in men and the society they have created and knowing that we can change that, especially when we are boosted by our male allies — but only when their energy is directed towards giving women a voice and a space to be heard.



Brenna DempseyBrenna Dempsey is a freelance writer, involved in various areas of activism while studying at University.

Topic tags: Brenna Dempsey, feminism



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Existing comments

The first paragraph is intriguing and therefore led nicely into the rest of the article. We read plenty of articles in newspapers and other media about bad-boy behaviour, most especially in the arena of sport. Plenty of marriages fail because of male dominance gone haywire. And there are plenty of workplaces where females continue to be paid lower wages than male counterparts. There is certainly a need for feminism to be active in the lives of women and men. However, an important point to remember is that relationships between men and women do not always fit someone else's blueprint. Life is more often than not a bit messy and working through the mess should be a (sort of) equal enterprise.

Pam | 15 February 2019  

In my approach to research, I use feminist standpoint theory (there are different types) because one day, I was given an article by Alison Wylie which just made so much sense, especially for my area of study - clergy sexual misconduct against adults in the Catholic Church. What appealed was not that it was feminist but that it believed that the people who know most about an injustice are those that have suffered that injustice. Feminist standpoint theory applied this predominantly to women; I have applied it to any abuse survivor female or male. Some feminists will reject me, others applaud. Personally, I don’t really care - I do not believe in putting theory before or above people and reality. We make a big mistake when we identify our being with an ism or an agenda - woe betide anyone who begs to differ from it if you 'join'. Theories, isms are tools, not an end in themselves. So, can men be feminists is a worrying question for me. Can we be honest and true to ourselves whoever we are, that's more important. I was told by a radical lesbian feminist that I was the most feminist man she's met - She meant it as a great compliment, but it doesn't at all define me and doesn't really mean a lot.

Stephen de Weger | 16 February 2019  

Yet further confirmation that the world has gone mad!!

john frawley | 17 February 2019  

This article assumes that "man" and "woman" are settled, distinct categories. That's a wee bit passé. Nowadays, someone with a penis and testicles can say they are a woman and get away with it. In fact in many jurisdictions you're legally liable if you respond to them “That's bollocks!” (pardon the pun). Feminism is in crisis. Either it needs to acknowledge there is a real difference between a man and a woman, which in essential properties goes down to physical levels such as - shock, horror – genitalia - in which case it bows to the loathsome Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics from which Feminism has always sought to liberate itself. Or it must succumb to the Enlightenment/post-Enlightenment momentum on which it has traded, and assert that the difference between men and women is a purely subjective construct - in which case, ultimately, so is Feminism itself.

HH | 17 February 2019  

Can men be feminists? That’s a question that only feminists can answer because the descriptor is theirs by creation and theirs to bestow.

Ginger Meggs | 18 February 2019  

HH, this has nothing to do with anatomy unless you want to it to be thus. Please go read Elizabeth Farralley’s excelent pièce in The Age this week : < https://www.theage.com.au/national/what-the-planet-needs-from-men-20190214-p50xrq.html >

Ginger Meggs | 18 February 2019  

Men - whatever their colour and sexuality - aren't the only ones who can hold strong general positions while failing to consistently practise them personally. We all do it at times. Brenna rightly points out that there are many different definitions of feminism. Surely the honest attempt to hold to one of them qualifies a man to be called a feminist? And - with all due respect for the opinion expressed in Brenna's opening sentence, I'm far from believing it to be true in all cases. Sometimes people of one ethnicity can and must speak for the experience of people of another, simply because the former can and the latter can't. Sometimes being human is enough.

Joan Seymour | 18 February 2019  

"Sometimes being human is enough". Absolutely. Words of deep wisdom and experience, Joan, not just theory.

Stephen de Weger | 18 February 2019  

The question "Can men be feminists?" has NOTHING to do with whether there are objective differences between men and women? Enlighten me, G.M.

HH | 18 February 2019  

The current wave of "Feminists" seems to succumb to the modern heresy of "identity victimhood" as a way of categorising themselves and pushing their barrel. I would prefer to start from the realisation over the past 1-2 hundred years, at least in Western Christian civilisation, that women are morally and ethically equal to men, are loved by God just as much, and have as much inherent dignity. They are of necessity biologically a bit different, and that needs to be taken into account (as my father used to say from personal experience "who is his right mind would actually want to be and infantry soldier"), but in almost all sensible ways should have the same social, occupational and educational rights and opportunities as men. They should also have their rights to motherhood, as they individually wish to express that, fully protected.

Eugene | 18 February 2019  

As a man can I be pro immigrants, anti slavery or pro refugees?

Gerard | 18 February 2019  

Thanks Eugene for your perspective. The modern heresy of "identity victimhood". Is it a heresy that women are often denied their own sexuality? Is it a heresy that male sexuality is forced upon women (by means of rape, wife beating)? Is it a heresy that men command or exploit women's labor to control their produce? I could go on.

Pam | 19 February 2019  

A new term needed for male feminists, so they don't have the right and opportunity to speak for women? Men cannot speak for women on women's issues? The key word hear is FOR- are you saying you don't believe men should have the right and opportunity to speak IN SUPPORT of women? Isn't it true, however it may grate on ultra-feminists, or however much others may deny it, that much of the gains that have been made by women (with still more needed) would not have been made without the vocal and active support of a significant number of men?

Dennis | 19 February 2019  

Feminism is not about genitalia HH. Have you read the article by Farrelly yet?

Ginger Meggs | 20 February 2019  

Dear Pam, I appreciate you point. But the heresy is picking out women as a particular victim group rather than putting them into solidarity with all those who suffer from exploitation, violence and so many other abuses of power. It is also to focus only on the dark side and not enough on the positive striving for opportunity and achievement, in the way that the Pankhursts, or indeed Mary Ward, May McKillop and even Hildegard of Bingen did. Best regards

Eugene | 20 February 2019  

Thanks GM. To repeat: feminism assumes real objective differences between men and women, including genitalia. I agree with feminists here. But feminists have largely joined the post-enlightenment mob that say men can choose to identify as women and vice versa. This is utter rubbish and makes a nonsense of feminism to boot. Which brings me to Elizabeth Farrelly’s piece (thanks for the link, though!) Men snore and their women go off to sleep in other rooms. Apparently the opposite doesn’t happen. Except that just about everyone knows it does, including one of the commentators to her post. An inauspicious opening gambit. But who am I to have an opinion? I differ from Farrelly when she goes on to claim (but sadly not supply) “insurmountable” evidence that the consequences of the 1 degree C of global warming since 270 years ago are, inter alia, the floods in Nth Qld and bushfires in Tassie, and from her opinion that stopping the boats, as opposed to letting more come and add to the 1200 drownings under Labor, was a manifestation of masculine cruelty. I’m doomed G.M.: I’m a fearful raging control freak!

HH | 20 February 2019  

I am disturbed by the views of people who want to divide humans and who have no empathy for the other sex and even see them as enemies. I am not a feminist but a Personist upholding the rights of all and denigrating none.

Mary Samara-Wickrama | 18 March 2019  

I cant follow or support a movement that wants to disadvantage and hurt me economically , the earth is a closed system of resources and economy ie a zero sum game , feminists want to take from men so can have more superiority

Frank | 16 July 2019  

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