Raoul Wieland examines the history of feminism and men’s rights, and wonders how valid men’s backlash politics really are.
Backlash politics, as a response to the work and philosophy of feminism and many of its steadfast champions, can be understood as a ‘mobilization of men’s interests against change’. This, at least, is how author R.W. Connell perceives it in her book ‘Masculinities‘.
Early advocates of women’s liberation, Connell writes, ‘simply defined men as the ruling class in patriarchy, and expected men to oppose women’s advancement on all fronts’. Any revolution of cultural, economic or social quality, if led by and dominated by men was thus perceived as ‘another coup d’état among men’ and widely regarded with suspicion.
In the 70’s, nonetheless, a men’s liberation movement emerged running in parallel with women’s liberation, which initially recognized and was rooted in the belief that women’s liberation would benefit men also; a shared interest was articulated for joint emancipation from unjust, restricting and hurtful social roles. Tentative alliances around anti-sexist mobilization were formed.
By the early 80’s, the climate had changed and men’s rights groups stood in general opposition to feminism; men’s rights groups began to take on anti-feminist ideology and feminists distanced themselves, focusing more strongly on the origin and impact of male violence. A sense of ‘opposite sites’ and ‘incompatible interests’ took hold. Gender equality reform was slowed and experienced a backlash from men’s groups who felt attacked by the demands made upon them by feminists.
The believe that men were resisting change because they were an entrenched interest group and benefited from patriarchy was common amongst feminists. Connell defines this benefit as men drawing a patriarchal dividend collectively: a dividend arising from ‘higher incomes, higher labour force participation, unequal property ownership, greater access to institutional power, as well as cultural and sexual privilege’.
Men’s rights movements, on the other hand, challenged feminism and argued that men too were increasingly suffering as women gained prominence and influence in both the domestic and public arena. Men too, they argued, were now the victims of sexism. Affirmative action, for example, was seen as an affront to a culture where individual grit and merit were highly prized. The narrative that women were stealing men’s jobs was gaining ground. A hostile and uncertain economic environment, accompanied by the increasing presence of women in the workforce left many men feeling vulnerable, displaced and angry. At the same time, Connell writes, boys seemed to be falling behind in higher education and men were the main victims of many forms of injury, some disease, some forms of violence, and imprisonment. Depression also seems to be rampant amongst boys and men.
Finally, there was a sense that men were losing their cultural centrality and relevance as they were increasingly being uprooted from a conventional social gender order. Their role and identity as provider and protector and their embodiment of highly valorized masculine traits of courage, reason, leadership, strength, competitiveness, entrepreneurship, adventurism, etc came under ‘attack’ as feminists questioned, criticised and pointed out that none of these roles/qualities were inherently, naturally, male or masculine.
On a different and seemingly more objective level one saw the emergence of statistics and big data that traced, analyzed and described gender inequalities on a national and international level. An index of women’s social progress, as part of the United Nations Human Development Report, is one such example. These are, however, often quite misleading and can lead to logical fallacies. ‘There are a number of dimensions in gender relations, and the patterns of inequality in these different dimensions may be qualitatively different’ writes Connell. Also, statistical exercises often treat ‘men’ and ‘women’ as undifferentiated categories. Drawing up collective balance sheets showing both the gains and losses of women, as compared to men, is thus problematic. Connell nevertheless identifies four major dimensions in gender relations, which I believe are helpful when trying to understand the state of gender equality.
Advantages: Men hold predominant authority in business and the state, with a near-monopoly of top positions. Men and boys tend to control public spaces such as streets and playgrounds. Men hold authority in many families and institutions of civil society. Men have near total control of coercive institutions (military, police) and control of the means of violence (weapons, military training). Men are, when compared to women, less likely to be victims of rape and of serious domestic violence.
Disadvantages: Men are the overwhelming majority of people arrested and imprisoned, including those executed, and face considerable abuse, violence and rape during incarceration. Men are the main targets of military violence – including rape as a weapon of war in many conflicts – and criminal assault. Men are more likely to be the targets of economic competition and organizational rivalry.
Division of labour:
Advantages: Men, on average, receive a significantly higher income than women, and control most of the major concentrations of wealth. Men have higher levels of economic participation, and better access to future opportunities e.g. promotions. Men, especially husbands, receive benefits from the unpaid labour of women. Men control most of the machinery (e.g. transport, power generation, computers) that is the basis of a modern economy and specifically multiplies the economic value of labour.
Disadvantages: Men predominate in dangerous and highly toxic occupations. Men include a higher proportion of sole earners with social compulsion to remain employed. Because of the occupational division of labour, men’s skills are subject to rapid obsolescence. Men pay a higher average rate of taxation, with income disproportionately redistributed to women, through the welfare state.
Advantages: Men receive much emotional support from women without social obligation to reciprocate. Heterosexuality is socially organized to prioritize men’s pleasure, in personal relationships as well as sexualized mass media. A double standard legitimates men’s sexual freedom and commercial sex industry serves it.
Disadvantages: Men’s sexuality is more alienated, and more sharply constrained by homophobia. A taboo on free expression of emotions, especially vulnerability, continues and cultural norms negatively influence and limit the relationships that men have with very young children.
Advantages: Men control most cultural institutions (churches, universities, media). Religion generally, and sometimes specifically, defines men as superordinate to women. Men have higher levels of recognition i.e. they and their activities are regarded as more important, newsworthy, and appropriate to resource. (e.g. sport.) Boys and men predominate in higher-return and highly resourced areas of education (e.g. MBA, biotechnology, IT)
Disadvantages: Boys and men are losing ground in general education. They are under-represented in important learning experiences, e.g. humanistic studies. Mother’s legitimacy in childcare tends to over-ride fathers’ interest in marital separation disputes and stigma remains around stay at home dads. Men that have experienced violence and abuse often lack support and face stigma. Finally, when it comes to war, the media seems to be more concerned with the impact on women and children and often ignores male casualties; men are often considered the expandable gender and become invisible as collateral damage or as those that do war and thus die from it.
Connell, I believe, makes a great point when she adds that ‘the disadvantages listed above are, broadly speaking, the conditions of the advantages. Men cannot hold state power without having become, collectively, the agents of violence. Men cannot be the beneficiaries of domestic labour and emotion work without losing intimate connections… Men cannot predominate in the capitalist economy without being subject to economic stress and paying for most of the social services. And so on.’
We cannot, however, ignore the diversity and complexity in the category “men”. Connell points out that those men who benefit the most and those that are disadvantaged the most, are not necessarily the same people. In fact, they probably are not. Class, race, ability, generational differences, ethnicity, etc have important impacts.
Each subgroup within the category of ‘men’ has a different experience with masculinity and the practices of gender. This is important to keep in mind. One of Connell’s anecdotes, however, clarifies why this often does not matter that much, when it comes to the pervasive impact of patriarchy. ‘Teenagers who engage in violence against girlfriends, writes Connell, are, predominantly, at the bottom of the economic order. Often they have suffered the toxicity of the gender order directly, by violence at the hands of fathers or stepfathers. Yet they too think of themselves as defending the legitimate rights of men and putting women in their proper place’.
What I find frustrating in reading this anecdote is that economic/class stratification i.e. high rates of poverty existing parallel to affluence, is a result of structure. With structure, I mean that wealth is not shared equally and it is not shared equally because society largely decides not to do so. It is based on attitudes of individualism and leads to social safety nets not being supported politically. This shows a lack of empathy, compassion and solidarity with one’s fellow people. Patriarchy, by directly or implicitly supporting masculinities that are competitive, aggressive and value strength in independence and a lack of emotion, undermines empathy. Consequently one hears opinions such as: the poor are poor because they don’t work hard enough and are to blame for their own conditions; why should the rich pay for their laziness. Again, disadvantages are the conditions of advantages. Unfortunately, the hand of patriarchy and particular approaches to ‘doing’ masculinity, in shaping such social conditions, largely remains invisible. Men therefore often do not realize that their biggest impediment to a better life is what they are indirectly or directly supporting day after day.
Backlash politics, as righteous as some men may believe it is, leaves much to ask for. Personally, after reading Connell’s book, I believe it has no foundation to stand on. In fact, heterosexual ‘white’ men in particular, when compared to other social groups, seem to have caught a break and have it rather easy. As a man that values feminist principles and supports their goals, I found reading her book very helpful to formulate a response when backlash politics does raise its angry head.
Photo: Flickr/Kevin Dooley