Emily Heist Moss believes that creating a culture where women are complete members of every facet of society means enabling men to be complete members of every facet of society as well.
Feminism is a tricky word to nail down. As frequently as I find myself aligning my beliefs with men and women who eschew the label, I find myself meeting self-identified feminists with whom I share very little ideological ground. It’s a big, problematic, often contradictory tent.
Given the online company I keep, in the last few weeks I’ve read many a piece on whether or not there is a place for men in the leadership circles of the “Feminist Movement” (as if it were such a monolithic thing). Some very smart people think the answer is no. The extremists among them believe allowing men to affect the trajectory of feminist activism is nothing short of fraternizing with the enemy. Among the more moderate bunch, there is a very strong belief that the progress of women needs to be controlled exclusively by women; supportive men are welcome as foot soldiers, but should not exert influence. Ceding leadership positions that could be filled by females to even the most progressive men is viewed as fundamentally problematic for the upward mobility of women. On this issue, I disagree with both cohorts.
There is a commonly cited comparison between men leading feminist battles on behalf of women, and white supporters leading Civil Rights battles on behalf of African Americans. Men and white people, respectively, are viewed as patronizing influences that undermine the very people they’re trying to assist. When it comes to race, I see the merit in this worldview. In the Civil Rights movement, white people are not advocating for their own advancement, so they inevitably end up having to speak for someone else, which leads to accusations of condescension.
To me, this is where the comparison falls apart. I don’t want men speaking for me, because I would find it patronizing if they assumed to know my experience. But, I do believe men have their own very real, very significant stake in equality between the sexes. They don’t have to speak on behalf of women to be involved; they can just speak for themselves.
My feminism (and like I said, it’s a big tent and I don’t speak for anyone but myself) is about abolishing heteronormative and sexist gender assumptions to allow people to reach their full potential, both inside and outside the workplace, as diversely talented, multi-faceted human beings. By my definition, men and women can both benefit from a feminist agenda.
I believe our current societal structure oppresses women. I believe it’s significantly worse in other parts of the world, but even in the United States, I believe that women are often viewed and treated as emotionally ill-equipped people that require protection, prizes to be coveted, or objects to be used.
I do not believe our society oppresses men, but I do believe it restricts them. We see these restrictive views in commercials that portray fathers as inept idiots or emotionally stunted cavemen. We see them in laws that all but automatically grant custody to mothers, even when fathers are present and involved. We see them in pornography that shows teenaged boys that being manly means being aggressively and exclusively heterosexual. The Good Men Project attempts to expand our definitions of goodness and of masculinity, and the fact that we need such a forum only emphasizes how unfairly pigeonholed men really are.
The dichotomy that man equals provider and woman equals caregiver is damaging to both men and women. Historically, this dichotomy has done more and greater damage to women, since the sphere of female influence has been smaller and more tightly monitored than that of men. But, if we feminists want more and more equal access to the world beyond the home (which we do), part of that means breaking down the barriers to men’s involvement in the home. Some of those barriers are cultural relics (the emasculation of stay-at-home dads), and some of them are legal (how do we expect men to take an equal role in infant care when most companies don’t offer paternity leave?).
Progress towards creating a culture where women are full and complete members of every facet of society means enabling men to be full and complete members of every facet of society as well. I don’t want men standing up in feminist circles and beginning sentences with “Women feel like… “or “Women should always….” But I do want them in those circles speaking for themselves. I, for one, am very interested in what they have to say.
photo montage: centralasian and stephen sheffield