Ariel Chesler, son of a noted second-wave feminist, explores the role male allies should take in the feminist movement.
In the wake of the misogyny-inspired mass shooting in Isla Vista, California, last week, millions have turned to Twitter to share their experiences of harassment, violence and sexual assault under the hashtag #YesAllWomen. While the majority of these tweets have been from women, men – including feminist men – have also joined in the conversation. And some don’t like that at all.
Twitter sensation, activist, and frequent hashtag creator Suey Park claimed that the #YesAllWomen hashtag had been co-opted by white feminists and male feminists and instructed them to “fall back.” This led to debates about whether men can be feminist leaders or even feminists at all, with some preferring to call them allies or pro-feminist.
Of course, we should remember that many abolitionist leaders were White. Men have always been part of the women’s movement. And, our collective goal should be for our legislators, our judges, our police officers, and our teachers, among others, whether they are men or women, to be feminists. After all, not all women are feminists.
This debate has been further complicated by the fact that Charles Clymer, a contributor at Policy Mic, and loud feminist voice on Twitter, has been accused in recent days of being abusive to women, using feminism for personal gain and using his feminist Facebook page to meet women. This has spawned another hashtag – #StopClymer.
This leaves us with three queries: Who owns a hashtag? Who owns a movement? And, how can men who identify as feminists or who support feminists best navigate the waters of Twitter and the feminist movement?
In the case of #YesAllWomen, the idea was to give a platform to women to discuss their common experiences with misogyny, sexism and violence. But, since this was taking place on Twitter, it was inevitable that supportive men would chime in, such as Neil Gaiman who tweeted: “The #yesallwomen hashtag is filled with hard, true, sad and angry things. I can empathise & try to understand & know I never entirely will.”
While I believe that men, including myself, are and can be feminists, we must also walk a careful line. On Twitter, as with any public space, male voices are often heard the loudest. And, sadly, for some to hear important messages, the messenger must be a man. It is crucial to remember that sometimes the best way for men to support women and feminism is by listening or amplifying women’s voices.
However, it is not realistic to expect silence from any large population on social media, as social media by its nature encourages wide participation. Twitter is also simultaneously about community dialogue and individual self-promotion. This presents a problem because while it equalizes voices (a good thing) it encourages each voice to view itself as equally important. This makes it hard for men who are dedicated to being feminist activists and writers to know when to “fall back.”
One thing is clear, however. Male feminists should never attempt to silence women’s voices. They should also be aware of their status and privilege as they engage with others, and know that they will never face the level of threats and harassment faced by women online. But, why should we care if it is not our voice delivering the message if it moves us all forward?
Unfortunately, the motives of male feminists, like men in general, are often suspect, and even more unfortunate, individuals in the past have proven that power can be abused. Of course, men can abuse power whether or not they are feminists. Women too.
At the same time, men, especially those with a wide audience, should be talking to other men about feminism, toxic masculinity, and male violence. As many have been discussing this past week, and as is evident from the men killed in Isla Vista, misogyny kills men too.
Some, like Bonnie Erbe of PBS’s To the Contrary, believe that men are the final phase of feminism and I tend to agree. In the end, it is on men to change themselves and other men to understand the matrix of oppression and the ways in which it harms them too.
As with all movements, the only way to effect change is for everyone to be moving it forward. If we are ever to defeat the systems of oppression we are all subject to, men must be involved and men and women must work on these issues together. This is because, as the recently departed Maya Angelou taught us, “no one of us can be free until everybody is free.”