Can men be feminists?

Men have to be part of feminism, but that doesn't mean they have to run the show.

A couple of days ago on Twitter, the hashtag "MenAgainstRape" started to trend. Some people found this a positive and heartening response to a week where the hashtag "RapeApologist" also got some traction. A week where Todd Akin coined the phrase "legitimate rape", which we must suppose somehow stands in opposition to "illegitimate rape"; a week where Akin’s emergence onto the world stage reminded us that the GOP’s VP candidate actually thinks that the tautologous "forcible rape" is distinct from "rape" (which, unless it’s modified by "forcible" is, what, consensual?); a week where George Galloway, in direct contradiction to English law, claimed that, even if guilty, Assange engaged in nothing worse than "bad sexual etiquette".

Others, however, saw the hashtag as problematic. A typical response was that men being "against rape" should be considered the default position: the need for a hashtag was in itself disheartening. They also felt it demeaned the majority of men, who were, of course "against rape" – who wouldn’t be? It would be like coming out in favour of kicking puppies. Or murder. Of course as a society we are, by default, "against rape".

A more significant problem with this hashtag was that, as was demonstrated by Akin’s desperate back-pedalling, even these new hate-figures are "against rape"; they just reserve the right to dictate, in defiance of law and science, what actually constitutes rape. Since Galloway denied that Assange’s actions fitted in with what "most people" understand by the term "rape", he could also join the "MenAgainstRape" Twitter-fest – why not? He’s surely against rape too – whatever it is he considers that to be.

There was, however, another concern. One that had more far-reaching implications for the feminist movement than that of the hashtag’s assumptions about men or how helpful it was at effecting change against rape apologists. And it could be summed up by quoting the following tweet: "Way to make it about you".

The objection in this case was that men were seeking to cast themselves as the heroes of the piece; the archetypal white knight brigade, sweeping in to save women from the dastardly, and equally mythical, pro-rape army. As far as I’m aware, even MRAs wouldn’t go that far – mostly.

The idea that what the feminist movement needs is men is clearly problematic; as a brilliant Onion piece has demonstrated, there is potential for men’s involvement in feminism to be taken as a sign that women can’t "manage their own movement"; that all we ladies need are some "balls" and we’ll get what we want.  And let’s face it, the situation isn’t helped by articles such as this one which promotes male feminists to the extent that it elevates John Lennon above such inspirational women, and yes, feminists, as Hildegard, Christine de Pizan, and even Mary Wollstonecraft. While the historical ignorance displayed by this piece is such that it exclusively uses examples of men who were born after these aforementioned women died to illustrate its bizarre claim that "men were actually the first feminists in history", it is nevertheless a telling example of a tedious tendency that assumes women lack the wherewithal to initiate their own emancipation.

So perhaps it’s little wonder that certain sections of the feminist movement react negatively towards the concept of men calling themselves feminists, and want them instead to be "feminist allies" or "supporters of feminism"; perhaps it is fair enough to want one place where women are indubitably in charge. Perhaps.

But while this stance is understandable, it is nevertheless problematic. And it does a disservice to the over-arching aims of the feminist movement.

To return to balls (I’m a woman; I’m envious of them), the idea that that’s what feminists need, to "grow a pair", is of course in itself problematic: feminism isn’t about turning us into chicks with dicks; feminism rather seeks to counteract a patriarchal system whereby the bullish behaviour implicated in "having balls" is seen to have a higher value than behaviour which might suggest that terrible "castration complex" that Freud lovingly thought caused us ladies such problems. And this is before we even address the issue that having "balls" in itself should dictate any one type of behaviour. In fact, that tired old phrase, trotted out with such unthinking regularity by so many in the face of someone’s less than "ballsiness", actually serves to exemplify why we as women should not semantically exclude men from the feminist movement.

Rebecca West once famously said that "feminism is the radical notion that women are people". And her choice of the word "people" is crucial. The implication of her statement is that "people" is an over-arching term, encompassing both men and women. That being the case, what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander; or, to put it another way, society should serve "people" rather than genders.

But of course society doesn’t. It serves an elite. And this elite does not include most women – but neither does it include many men. Patriarchy is what makes us think that "balls" are symbols for aggressive go-getting behaviour; patriarchy also makes us thinks that this is the type of behaviour that should be rewarded above all others. And patriarchy also means that any man who doesn’t "live up" to this stereotype is thereby considered a lesser man – perhaps even, horror of horrors, "a girl". Those men who don’t easily fit into the alpha male category have the choice of being taunted as "pussies", or learning to behave in an acceptably "ballsy" way that enables them to keep up with their peers.

This type of attitude, which manifests itself both in David Cameron’s tendency towards intellectual belittlement, or this example of outright aggression, can be seen in its earliest stages in the typical gender bullying that takes place in schools and which moderates so many young girls. I still remember the very school lunchtime where, age 11, I realised that I had to start toning myself down, because the boys weren’t reacting positively to my atypical attitude; it was a demoralising moment that many girls who grew up in a boisterous household with two older brothers will recognise. So I learnt to soften myself, just as many of the boys who objected to my angles no doubt had to toughen themselves up.

This kind of damaging stereotype doesn’t stop at the playground gates. It follows us, men and women, up through school, and out into the office, where men are told to be forthright, to wow with words, while women are told to manipulate these powerful men through flirtation. This attitude rehearses the stereotypical roles that both men and women are expected to play – and too bad for women who lack the desire or ability to flirt. And good luck to men seeking promotion who never learnt to throw their genitally-inflected weight around.

Men have to be part of feminism. They have to be part of feminism because societal gender stereotypes affect them as well as us. They have to be part of feminism because the stereotypes that delimit male behaviour act to further quash female potential. And they have to be part of feminism because, through its narrow worldview that segregates us into two opposing sectors of humanity, patriarchy demeans and diminishes us all.

Those men capable of seeing the damage caused by the current system of patriarchy should be welcomed as feminists. But this doesn’t mean they have to run the show: surely it would be buying into sexist assumptions about male power to assume that they would.

Caroline Criado-Perez has just completed at degree in English Language & Literature at Oxford as a mature student, and is about to start a Masters in Gender at LSE. She is also the founder of the Week Woman blog and tweets as @WeekWoman. This post first appeared on her blog here

Galloway claimed that Assange engaged in nothing worse than "bad sexual etiquette". Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war