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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.