Can men be feminists?

Male supporters of women's rights risk looking like "white knights" riding to the rescue.

When Nick Cohen recently spoke out to defend Laurie Penny from attacks online, attacks that are an all-too-common experience for female writers, he began trending on Twitter. It became a rallying cry -- despite the point having been made extremely cogently already by female writers.

One of these writers, Ellie Mae O'Hagan, was a little put out by Cohen's intervention:

Don't get me wrong: there are feminist reasons to praise Nick Cohen's article. After all, we'll never smash the patriarchy until men start brandishing metaphorical hammers as well. But the congratulations he received weren't simply a result of him dipping his toe in the feminist water. It was relief: because now a man has condemned misogyny online, we women can be confident it's actually real.

Is that true? Is a man who writes a piece defending women making a patronising, patriarchal move -- dipping his toe in the feminist water -- even before he's begun? It sounds a little unfair, but of course the response when a male writer makes this case is going to be very different than when a female writer makes it. Professor Michael Kimmel, of the University of New York, is due to give a lecture at the LSE next Monday called "Gendering the Social Sciences", in which he will take as his starting point the assertion that "Women's Studies" as an academic subject can often discriminate against men.

Online, a male writer making the same point as a female one gets none of the same misogynistic abuse. Cohen's piece was treated differently from pieces on the same subject by women -- especially those by Penny herself. Given that two theoretical writers, male and female, are operating in such demonstrably different atmospheres, can the male writer really call himself a "feminist"?

Perhaps it's because while the word "feminist" can be a pejorative when wielded against a woman writer -- dismissive, even condemnatory, this weapon is to all intents and purposes impossible to turn on a man. There are certain derogatory tropes which get affixed to a women talking about feminism which simply don't exist for men.

Anyone struggles for legitimacy when talking about issues that don't directly affect them. I found myself starting a sentence with "from an immigrant's perspective" recently, even though it was my grandparents and great-grandparents, not me, who emigrated from Europe. Writing about feminism and misogyny is always going to be difficult for men who have never experienced - and can perhaps never properly imagine - being a member of a subjugated sex.

Most people I know, men and women, hold the door open for everyone passing, men and women, as a matter of principle. It's just simple politeness. But this innocuous gesture in some eyes can be patriarchal. Is a man implying, by holding a door open for a woman, that she is unable to open it herself?

What about all-women short-lists in politics? Now this is truly affirmative action, imposed by (currently) all-male party leaders to address an imbalance. Is this a feminist act, or a patronising gesture? Does it imply that the party appreciates the contribution that the female 50 per cent of the population deeply needs to be making in the political sphere -- or does it imply that it feels that women are in some way inferior, that they couldn't compete in a mixed-sex environment, that they need to be protected, coddled, looked-after?

The feminist movement itself tends to refer to men who support it as "pro-feminist" rather than directly as feminist, which I think neatly encapsulates the difference between support and membership. The distinction is that in order to be a member of a movement for freedom and rights -- and at its heart this is what feminism is - one has to understand what it is like to not have those rights themselves.

Men are capable of believing in sexual equality, of course. But it isn't the same thing. It is patronising, even anti-feminist, to bludgeon through and ignore gender and experiential difference. More: it feels like a uniquely male thing to do. Doesn't it?

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.