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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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories