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12 January 2012updated 27 Sep 2015 1:31am

Can men be feminists?

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

By Nicky Woolf

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.

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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?