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 reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.