Michael. 65. Birthplace: Brooklyn, New York. Currently: Brooklyn, New York. Jewish. Family/Cooking/Social Justice. University Professor: SUNY Stony Brook.
What does the concept/word “feminism” mean to you? What does the concept of equality mean to you?
Michael: Feminism to me is very simple. Feminism means two things – one: that you make an observation about the world. And the second: that you take a moral position based on that observation. So here’s the observation: “Women and men aren’t equal…”. Here’s the moral position: “…and they should be”. That’s really all it means. The rest is window dressing. The core of feminism is that women and men are not equal and they should be. There’s no reasonable reason why they shouldn’t be. To me the idea of feminism or gender equality is eliminating those obstacles that are in women’s way toward equality, eliminating the overt discrimination and the violence that many women experience so that they can make the same choices with the same amount of freedom as men.
Zachary: Yes, I agree with everything that he said. I also think that there is a lot of work that needs to be done and is already being done around changing what society perceives a feminist to look like or to act like. I think often (and this is the work that my father does and the work that I’ve started to do on my own), there’s an image of what a feminist looks like; how they speak and how they interact. Oftentimes men get left out of that conversation, men don’t always think they can be feminists. So a lot of the work around gender equality that we both try to do, where my Dad really leads the way, is to bring men to the conversation and help them understand that these issues affect them in really really important ways and that men also have an important stake in the lives of their mothers, their sisters, their partners, their daughters. By bringing them into that conversation and helping them realize that they do have a stake, there is common ground to be found in this movement.
What do you think is the most pressing struggle for women today? What is the most crucial aspect in your eyes?
Michael: I agree with Jimmy Carter; I think the biggest global obstacle to women’s advancement is violence against women and girls. It constrains women’s choices, it keeps women afraid to move forward, it keeps them dependent on men (sometimes for protection whether it’s fathers or husbands), and if women are going to be fully autonomous economically, they first have to be safe.
Zachary: I agree. I’m going to be a college freshman next year so I’ve specifically been thinking a lot about sexual assault moving forward into a university campus where it’s a huge problem. On the topic of going to college, I would say that in addition to preventing violence against women and girls, education matters. I agree completely that keeping women safe in their bodies and their communities is the first step. Once we have worked on that, I think particularly in the Global South the educational opportunities for women need to be addressed. If we really want women to be economically independent or pursue positions of power in government or any social sector, there has to be better access to women’s education, there have to be more resources given towards educating young women and girls and there has to be social acceptance of women pursuing an education. In some sense you also need education to end violence.
Michael: And vice versa. You can’t have education without women being able to go to school without having acid thrown in their face.
Is feminism a subject you think about? Have you ever read a book or seen a documentary about feminist issues?
Zachary: Yes. As long as I’ve been conscious of these issues, feminism has been a really important part of my thinking about social justice issues. Growing up in this house has a lot to do with that. In addition to the work that he does that I’ve seen, I also think there’s a lot of gender equality in our family structure. When I was growing up it was just as common for my Mom to bring me to soccer practice and do ‘Dad stuff’ as I would see him doing laundry or washing dishes. Growing up in an environment like that taught me a lot and so I do think about gender equality even when I leave my house and go to school and interact in the world. I’ve seen a lot of documentaries and read a lot of books just because of my Dad really. I think of “The Mask You Live In”, which is a feminist movie about the societal forces that affect men in a negative way and keep men from engaging in gender equality work. Also, “Guyland” the film. Most of the stuff that I’ve consumed because of him being my Dad has actually been around men’s roles in the movement.
Michael: I was in the film “The Mask You Live In” and it’s actually very good because it’s a feminist movie about boys that’s quite compassionate toward boys. I’ve been in other movies. Then they made a movie of my book “Guyland”. Most of the books I’ve written in the past twenty years have been feminist-inspired books about how to engage men. I also do a lot of work with companies about how to engage men to support gender equality in the workplace. But Zach, let me ask you this: Is there a particular thing that you read that grabbed you and you said: “Wow I have to really think about this a little more”?
Zachary: I’m not totally sure. I think “The Mask You Live In” and “The Hunting Ground” both were films that really caught my attention and grabbed me. I also remember a film we watched in sophomore year history class two years ago called “Half The Sky”. It was about human sex trafficking particularly in Southeast Asia and I remember a bunch of my friends and I were really moved and affected by that film. We actually organized a conference at our high school about international human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking, but that movie for sure really stands out as a moment where I thought: This stuff is real, it’s everywhere, I have a part to play and I need to take a moral stand.
Michael: “Half The Sky” is a good book. It’s well written, it’s smart, it’s a good global overview. I remember when I was in college and I read a couple of things that really changed things for me. I remember reading Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook” and feeling like that was life-changing; just the different experiences of women in the 1950’s and early 60’s in England. Then I went to a college that had been, until I arrived, all female. So I was in the first class that had men at Vassar College, and I think one of the things that was really striking was a story I read while I was there of the president of Vassar during the suffrage era. I read that he was very very pro-suffrage (of course Vassar women were very pro-suffrage), and I remember reading that he used to charter a train at his expense. He would pay for all the Vassar women who wanted to go from Poughkeepsie to New York to march in the suffrage parades and I always found that really inspiring. There were all these men who supported women’s suffrage and I never forgot the idea that there were men involved in this and that was important.
Why do you identify as a feminist and how/when did you learn about it? What were you taught about women growing up?
Zachary: As a young man learning about feminism meant that there were two narratives I was being given. There was the ‘home narrative’: all the stuff that my parents study which were dinner table conversations from a very early age for me so I was really well-versed in this stuff pretty early on I think. At home it was always: “Women can do anything that a man can do and there should be no reason why it should be surprising that a man does the dishes or that a father has a really intimate relationship with his children.” Then when I would leave and go to school it was a different tale, especially when I was younger. Gendered friendships were very very rigid. There were the boys and they only hung out with boys and then there were the girls. Growing up I always had a lot of female friends, my close friends were always female. Then as we got older and hit puberty there were a lot of narratives about using women for sex and not really respecting the women in our lives or talking really badly about them. As we got older and entered locker rooms post-puberty, I heard a lot of misogyny from a lot of my guy friends and that was hard to deal with. I think I’ve identified as a feminist ever since I entered high school. I’ve always been involved in women’s equality groups at school and now I’m starting to do more outside work with other organizations. I worked for the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch over the summer and I also worked at UN Women trying to research strategies to effectively engage adolescent boys my age.
Michael: Listening to you say that I’m struck by both how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. How far we’ve come is that I have such a very different story – I was part of that second narrative. That was the only narrative when I was growing up. I started my college career at an all-male college because people told me: “Listen, you don’t want to have the distraction of women during the week. You want to work and then see women on the weekend.” They were basically just a sexual distraction. So I went to an all-male school and that was normal for most of the guys I know. We all started at all-male schools and then the schools in my era became co-ed. So obviously there was something in the air that was changing. But I have to say I was very typical, my story is much more typical of an older generation. I was active politically in resisting the draft and opposing the war in Vietnam and my girlfriend typed my speeches. That seemed perfectly reasonable to me – she was a student too but I was the ‘big deal activist’ and she typed my speeches. Then she got kind of pissed off about it and I couldn’t figure out why. The big revelation to me wasn’t that men do this thing and that women were angry, but that they also saw me as doing those things. I would say things like: “Oh that guy’s such a jerk”, and they would say: “You do that. Not with us, but you do that.”
It took me some years before understanding that those statements had to do with me. Feminism was an opportunity to rethink what I had been taught. In a funny way, the continuity that Zach felt coming out of this house into his world, for me it was a big rupture. There’s what I was taught, then there was this feeling of: “Oh wow this was kind of wrong. What women are saying is kind of what black people said and that would be wrong”. So feminism was an opportunity to rethink everything. Feminism was a real requirement for me to rethink what I had been taught. That’s very uncomfortable sometimes but it made me feel like I was aligning my personal behavior with my morals. There wasn’t that gap of cognitive dissonance.
So it predominantly happened for you when you were at Vassar?
Michael: Yeah, kind of. There were a couple of moments at Vassar. I have to say, I had grown up being reasonably smart hanging around with reasonably smart people, but suddenly when I got to Vassar I realized: “There are women here who are light years smarter than me”. You’d sit in a seminar and everyone would talk about the same book and I remember sitting there one time listening to this woman talk about the book we had all read and I was just thinking to myself: “If I read this book five more times I wouldn’t have gotten what she got out of it, how did she do that?” That was a real wake-up call; that the things I had been told like “women just worked hard but they weren’t as smart as us” that was just wrong. That was just empirically sitting right in front of me. In college I remained politically active around the war in Vietnam and I think it began to turn while I was in college towards graduate school that gender issues began to emerge more centrally for me.
Did you have siblings?
Michael: I have a younger sister who is three and a half years younger than me. I suppose she identifies as a feminist but politics is not her passion. Music and spirituality are her passions.
Some men I’ve interviewed grew up with sisters and that seemed to have made a big impact on them.
Michael: I think for many people it has. Especially for guys to have an older sister.
Zachary: In the research I did over the summer and in a lot of the work my Dad has done, it’s almost always most effective to try to engage men where they are rather than where you want them to be. I was slightly dissatisfied with a lot of the work I saw at UN Women because it sort of said: “You men are doing this and it’s bad and you shouldn’t be doing this. Gender equality is right and it’s just and it’s fair.” All those things are true but it didn’t resonate because a lot of men can sit back and say: “This has nothing to do with me, I don’t have to worry about this.” My take is that while it should resonate because it is fair, is just, is right, it doesn’t always click and so you have to address it in modes and mediums that men will understand.
Ask your Mom if she’s ever experienced any discrimination in the workplace, ask your sister or your girlfriend if they’ve ever been sexually harassed on the street. When you get that personal connection it can be more impactful. I found that there were a lot of organizations that tried to engage men through modes of communication that they were used to, like through sports. Especially in the Global South and several sub-Saharan African countries, there were a ton of groups teaching feminism through soccer. I’m a soccer player so that was really amazing for me. Or even feminism through rap music. Tupac Shakur who was this very famous gangster rap artist wrote a lot about how we treat women, how the African-American community treats women, he also wrote a song for his mother. I think that those can be the most effective ways to engage men. To go back to people you’ve interviewed having sisters; that’s the most effective way to bring them into the game.
Michael: Yes I think that that’s the door most people go through. I would say that if you want to meet an instant feminist man, talk to a guy whose daughter just hit puberty and he’s going to come and say: “There are boys out there who are looking at my daughter the way I was taught to look at girls. This has got to stop.” Suddenly they see it through different eyes. I’m not opposed to this sort of personal approach – we should support women’s equality because it’s right. Period. But most men can give a nod or lip service to that but it doesn’t commit them. As Zach says, it doesn’t make them feel like they’re stakeholders in this, it’s the personal connection that does that.
There are also some men who sell themselves as feminists to appeal to women even if they don’t inherently hold those values – another dangerous lip service.
Michael: There are two suspicions that I have always faced in my work: one is that I’m gay – because any man who supports women’s equality can’t want to have sex with them. Go figure. And the second one is that I must just be trying to get over on women and get them to want to get with me. So what’s interesting about that is in both cases it’s about sex; that I couldn’t want to have sex with women or all I wanted to do is have sex with women. It’s a very very strange set of suspicions.
Is feminism empowering for men? If so, how?
Michael: I think if you ask men what they want in their lives, most guys want to have really great careers and they want to be awesome parents. They want to be able to balance both, which is exactly the same thing that women want. I don’t think men want anything particularly different than women in that respect. If I were a reasonable, rational person, I would say: Who out there is interested in being able to live this kind of life? Of course it’s women. So I would say: I’ll join up with them because together we can do this. I think I wouldn’t use the word “empowering”. I would say that the reforms in policies that have been proposed by feminist women, are the very reforms and policies that men need to live the lives that men say they want to live. That I would say. I would say that gender equality is a win-win, that it enhances men’s lives as well as women’s, that it enriches our relationships with our children, it really energizes our relationships with our partners, it transforms our relationships at work to teamwork and colleagueship in ways that we were never trained for. In that respect it’s a good thing for men. But I’m not so sure I would use the word “empowering”.
I’ve had an issue with that word throughout all these interviews because I’m constantly trying to find the right word for what I mean. I don’t mean it in the sense of power.
Zachary: I think it’s enriching. Just a better quality of experience in all aspects of life.
Michael: It’s enriching. Enlarging our opportunities. Enhancing. By supporting gender equality, the evidence suggests that for example that men pay more attention to their own health. They’re more likely to go to doctors for routine screenings because they’re more anchored in family life and family relationships so they care more about that.
Why do you think the word “feminist” is associated with a negative stigma? What do you think it connotes? How do you think it could change?
Zachary: I’ll speak about my male friends here and I think this goes back to something you said earlier; a lot of them at its core understand that gender equality is the right thing to do, it is fair, it is just, they believe in it and think it’s true, it’s right. But almost all of my male friends will hesitate to use the word feminist to describe themselves because I think the word “feminist” has two really driving connotations. I don’t really know where these came from to be honest. Obviously perpetuated by what we see in the media but for men it’s the “gay man narrative” which my Dad talked about; like how could you possibly support gender equality and still want to have sex with them – the idea that those things are mutually exclusive. And then there’s also the idea that feminist women are women with short hair, burning bras and yelling at you, hating you for being male. For a lot of my guy friends who identify as heterosexual, those two narratives are very alienating. They don’t feel like they have any place to be a part of it and don’t really want to be associated with those two narratives. So a lot of the stuff that I’ve tried to do in my personal life has been sort of: “I’m a guy, I play video games, I’m the soccer captain and I’m a feminist”.
Despite all of it’s issues, the UN “He for She” movement has been effective in that way. Obviously there’s more work that’s needed around “He for She” for follow-through once a man goes on the website and signs the pledge, they have to stay involved. But I think having famous figures like Usain Bolt come out and say: “I am He for She, I am a gender equality advocate, I am a feminist”, that’s really important. Visibility that you can do the things you’re interested in, be an athlete, play video games, drink beer and still be a feminist, I think that’s really important. That’s really the work that I’m interested in doing; the visibility that those two worlds for men are not mutually exclusive, you can do both and it’s the most enriching path that you can take.
Michael: Being a feminist is normal. Not being a feminist is weird, it seems to me. I mean look; ever since the word “feminist” was uttered, ever since the turn of the last century when women were trying to get the vote, we were saying that women who wanted to do men’s things were “manly, they were ugly, they couldn’t get a man, they probably were lesbians”. All of this stuff has surrounded the idea of feminist women and it’s all a distraction from the basic idea that this is what equality means. Equality means that there should be no obstacles or discrimination based on gender. Period. And that women should have the same choices that men do. You want to stay home full time? Do it. You want to work full time? Do it. Whatever you want to do. You want to love women, you want to love men, you want to love both? Who cares.
There should be no obstacles based on gender. Feminism has gotten a bad name because people have been opposed to it and they can’t oppose the idea of equality because that would be un-American so you have to surround it with all of these distractions. For example: women who are feminists couldn’t get a man or they’re unattractive or they don’t care about their appearance or they’re angry or they’re angry at us and hate men – all of this stuff. Look, if I were a woman, I would be ferociously angry about inequality. I don’t think I’d hate men particularly but I would certainly be angry at inequality; there’s a difference. We men misinterpret that. We misinterpret people’s anger and indignation at inequality for being angry at us. That’s how patriarchy works – we think everything is about us.
To my mind there has been a concerted effort ever since women said we really should be equal to discredit that. This is part of what the backlash sounds like. To me feminism is normal, the same way racial equality is normal, the way sexual equality is normal. Of course. There should be no barriers that we set up in front of people based on their race or religion or anything else. It’s utterly arbitrary. It’s whether you have blue eyes or brown eyes or straight hair or curly hair. It’s a non-question. We have this whole discourse out there screaming at us saying feminism is not normal and it’s a very simple response which is: No, no, anti-feminism is un-American.
Another interviewee brought up that feminism is a marketing scheme – Dior sells a “We should all be feminists” T-shirt. It’s a strange time now where people still have issues with the word’s stigma but it’s also being marketed.
Michael: Right. And it probably costs $80 for the shirt. Anything that is rebellious will be taken by the fashion industry, repackaged and then sold back to you. So you can see gangster hip-hop fashion which was a sign of rebellion or punk rock: “we’re going to tear our clothes up” and now you can buy pre-torn clothes. Of course, that’s what capitalism does – it’s a massive sponge and one of the things it’s absorbing is all of those rebellious impulses because that’s where there’s agitation. That gets sold back to you and if you wear this then you will be seen as someone who knows things are happening.
What issues/reservations do you have with feminism today? What do you personally think needs change?
Zachary: I’m not exactly sure. I suppose there are two things that can be done better. First, I think engaging men is really really important – if not an essential part of the success of the movement. And if feminist organizations or the feminist movement tries to engage men where they want them to be it could be more successful. Like I said earlier, if they want to engage men already as feminists with that understanding, they might not get the results they desire. So engaging men where they are currently, that is something that needs to be a focus of the movement going forward. I also think that there are (specifically with engaging men), a lot of wonderful ideas and initiatives out there, but there needs to be more follow-through and follow-up. That goes for any social justice movement, not just the feminist movement. The movement needs to ensure more consistent engagement with the work.
Any man in the world can sign up for “He for She” and say “I’m a “He for She” advocate”, get a little pin and wear it – they have millions of men who signed up. But are there really millions of feminist men out there? Are there really millions of men who are willing to take steps to align their interpersonal behavior with their morals? It’ll take more resources, but there needs to be a greater push for organizations or movements like the feminist movement, Black Lives Matter, all of that, to not only get people involved because that’s just one step; they have to keep them involved, continuing to push the agenda forward. It’s not enough to simply buy a “We should all be feminists” shirt or sign up for “He for She” or post “Black Lives Matter” on Twitter one time. It’s a lot more about follow-through and consistent engagement even when it gets really really hard.
Michael: That’s interesting. When “He for She” first launched I talked with my students the next day and that was exactly the question that they had. Gender equality is not a checklist, you don’t sort of go: “Oh, signed up for “He for She”. Check. Oh, support Black Lives Matter. Check.” That stuff is ongoing and constantly being discussed, constantly being renewed. It seems to me that that’s part of the question about accountability – it’s an ongoing process. With “He for She”, one of my graduate students said: “It’s like on Facebook; it’s easy to “like” something but you have to ‘live your like’“. That was the phrase that I thought really captured the next step here: it’s easy to say yes but you have to say yes over and over constantly. There is something else. Aside from the fact that the attack on feminism has been so vociferous and so systematic for so long, there is something else that has always disturbed or unsettled me.
One other thing that we have to do is make it clearer to the outside that feminism is not a white, middle-class women’s movement. Gloria Steinem was very insistent that if you look at the honest history of the women’s movement in America, it’s women of color in the early 1960’s right there with her at the very beginning. It has never been only a white middle-class movement but it was taken in that way because so many women immediately left the home and went into the workplace so that it looked like that. It gets negatively tarred with that brush but I don’t think that it’s true. We need to do a better job of making it clear that it’s always been intersectional.
The third thing I would say is that if feminism’s impact for men is that we are asked to, and in some cases urged to, rethink our own behavior; rethinking and re-theorizing has to come with a certain element of forgiveness in it. You don’t simply rethink your behavior and then not have some TRC, not enough reconciliation after the truth telling. It’s not that men should be able to do it just because they’re waiting for women to forgive them. There has to be a general atmosphere of understanding: “Here’s what I did, here’s what I thought was normal.” Imagine if you were a white person growing up in South Africa in the 1950’s. Apartheid would feel normal to you. At some point there’s this big rupture and suddenly it doesn’t feel so normal and you start to work against it and you are then part of the solution, so to speak. But the fact that it looked normal to you and you look back at your own behavior when you were younger and you say: “This is what people did, I said those things, I thought those things, I did those things because that’s what everyone did. And I devoted my life to undoing the damage that that did.” Well somebody also has to be able to say: “Yes, move on. We’re not still angry at you for that.” I think this comes out of a question about atonement – what does it mean to confess in Christianity or to atone in Judaism? It means that there has to be some grace, some mercy, some idea of forgiveness.
Is there anything else you’d like to add? Are there any other questions you think I should be asking? Are there any other feminists you recommend who would fit well into this project?
Michael: No, I don’t think so. I know a few activists in this area but what I liked about what I saw from your project was that it was everyday guys. It wasn’t like the leaders of a movement. I can think of a few people that are physical activists but I like the everyday-guy thing because it’s making feminism normal.