Men and boys experience inequality but don’t know how to fight it says our International Men’s Movement editor Glen Poole.
It can be a difficult thing to define what the unifying purpose of an international men’s movement should be. Is it about helping men and boys to grow and develop? Is it about advocating and fighting for our rights? Is it about tackling the problems we face as men or dealing with the problems that men cause?
The reality is that any movement that seeks to represent half the planet will need to allow space for people to have different motivations. And for those of us motivated to build this movement the question remains — what is it that unites us as men and boys beyond our sex and gender?
For my part I tend to focus on the problems men and boys face as a unifying factor. People will have different solutions to these problems but it’s hard to argue with the fact that men die younger, more men commit suicide, boys struggle in education, men experience more crime and violence and fathers face unique and distinct challenges as parents.
One way to highlight these problems is through good old fashioned statistics which show, in lots of different ways, that men and boys on average are unequal in these areas when compared with women and girls. So we can look at life expectancy, for example, and see that men and boys are generally destined to live shorter lives and ask ourselves how might we take action to address this inequality?
Some might say men’s lives aren’t valued by our society and if we address this problem then men’s health will improve. Others will say it’s all about men’s behaviour and say we need to change that behaviour if we want to improve men’s health. People will see different causes and different solutions, but we can all see the statistics and agree that men die unnecessarily young and we can do something about this if we want to.
This is no different from the women’s movement highlighting that women around the world are under-represented in positions of political power and then seeking to take action to address that unequal representation. People will argue over the cause of this political imbalance and will have different solutions, but for those who agree this is a problem, it has become a unifying theme.
Three of the most common themes of the women’s movement globally are power, wealth and violence—all of which can be statistically shown to be areas of inequality. We can measure the percentage of women in power, the average earnings of women compared to men and the number of women subject to specific kinds of violence (notably domestic violence and sexual violence) and show women and girls on average to be unequal in these areas. We may disagree on the validity and veracity of these measures of equality, but cold hard facts about the number of women in parliament, the amount of money that women earn and the number of women killed by their partners highlight a clear global trend.
Similarly with issues like life expectancy, risk of suicide, boys’ education and violence against men and boys (in particular non-domestic violence and state-sanctioned violence)—men and boys on average can be shown to be unequal in these areas all over the globe.
What’s notably different is how much more women’s inequalities are a motivator for the women’s movement, compared with the inequalities that men and boys clearly face. Part of the problem we face in growing our global men’s movement is that men , in general, don’t seem to get equality because we’ve never had to fight for it as men. As a distinct group with a common identity men and boys do not have a shared experience of fighting for equality and so the personal has never been sufficiently political to motivate us to act as men en masse and fight for equality together.
To understand why this is we need to understand how concepts of equality have evolved over the centuries and consider how men and boys’ relationship to equality has evolved compared with other groups.
In terms of political equality the ancient Greeks are considered to be the founding fathers of democracy. The Greeks built a society where men occupied the public sphere and women occupied the private sphere. Within the public sphere, all men who were citizens had a relationship with the state whereby they had an equal right to vote and also, were expected to contribute to and defend the state as and when the state required.
This approach set up a familiar pattern of sex inequality where women couldn’t vote and were expected do the unpaid work of childcare and housework. Meanwhile, men were responsible for the burden of paid labour and taxation and risked being conscripted to fight for their country.
Greek equality in the public/political sphere wasn’t universal but limited to men who were citizens and excluded women, slaves and foreigners. Christian concepts of equality went further by introducing the idea of universality—the idea that all of us are worthy of love and equal in the eyes of God. Under this concept of divine equality, the role of the individual was to accept inequality in terms of our earthly power, status and wealth —i.e. to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s”—and await our heavenly reward where each of us is equal in God’s eyes. This reliance on gaining eternal equality in the afterlife did little to challenge the gendered nature of public/private roles within religion; with many of the most powerful jobs still remaining the sole preserve of men to this very day.
Those who weren’t prepared to hold out for equality in heaven, began to develop the idea of natural law which is a view that there are certain rights or values that are universal in human nature and should be afforded to everyone equally—although initially this thinking didn’t challenge the “natural” division of men’s and women’s distinct roles in public and private spheres.
The philosophy of natural law led us to the development of natural rights and justice which ultimately led to movements for universal suffrage and the abolishment of slavery, with the right to vote or the right to freedom being considered a natural, universal right that all humans should be granted.
While the idea that all citizens should have a vote dates back thousands of years, the idea that all humans can be citizens is relatively modern. However, the fact that our ancestors initially restricted political participation to men has had a long lasting impact on the way that we relate to men and boys as a distinct group capable of experiencing inequality.
While different groups of men fought for an equal right to vote, men fought for this right as public citizens not as private individuals—we didn’t fight as men. For men denied the vote, the battle wasn’t a battle of sex equality but a battle of equality for all within the existing gendered confines of the public/private spheres—though many men did fight for women’s suffrage too.
As women had generally been restricted to roles in the private sphere, their fight has a different flavour. They fought together, as individual women, for equality in the public sphere and made the personal political for women in the process. As such, women’s fight for the vote has developed a mythology that still carries an archetypal potency for individual women which has no male equivalent for modern men and boys to draw upon.
Yet it is just over 200 years since France became the first modern country to give all men the vote. As the modern world followed suit, women were generally given the vote within 10 to 20 years of universal male suffrage being introduced. In fact countries like New Zealand, Australia and those across Scandinavia gave all women the vote before all men had the vote in places like the United Kingdom and the U.S.A.
Both men and women fought for equality for future generations and yet only women and girls are raised to believe that the fight for sex equality is uniquely theirs. Although men in most modern economies have had the vote for less than a century, the difference is that men fought to be given equality with other citizens, while women fought for equality with the opposite sex.
For women and girls, fighting for sex equality is fully established as part of their shared female history. For men, fighting for male sex equality is a very new concept that most of us don’t understand, let alone have personal experience of—so it is little wonder that men don’t get equality as we have had very little practice at winning equality as men.
We are further challenged by the fact that while men and boys as a distinct group have yet to learn through experience the basic rules of equality for ourselves, the game of equality has evolved at a great pace and become increasingly more complex.
As equality for all in the eyes of the law has come to be expected as a universal norm, people have developed new concepts of equality, first considering how to deliver real equality of opportunity to all and then becoming interested in whether societies that deliver unequal outcomes can be considered to be truly fair and equal. If we ask ourselves honestly whether every individual no matter what background has equal autonomy to ensure real equality in all areas of life then the answer is clearly ‘no’. A boy or girl born to rich parents in a modern economy is clearly more likely to live a healthy and wealthy life than a girl or boy born in poverty anywhere in the world—they may be equal in the eyes of the law but in reality they have an unequal opportunity when it comes to securing equal outcomes in key areas of life.
An additional layer of equality thinking has also emerged through the global focus on human rights which not only asks how we can ensure people get equal treatment in the eyes of the law but also considers how we can ensure that all groups of society are treated equally in every area of life.
These increasingly complex ways of thinking about equality have much to offer men and boys.
There are still some legal inequalities that discriminate against men and boys — the laws on conscription, parental rights and genital mutilation in many countries being three notable examples. But the inequality that men and boys face is usually more complex than legal inequality. Issues like male homelessness, male suicide, violence against men and boys, health inequalities, educational underperformance and the parental struggles that are unique to fathers cannot simply be resolved by equal treatment in the eyes of the law—anymore than the under-representation of women in politics can be resolved by giving women an equal right to vote and be a politician.
Men and boys around the world face many different inequalities but we haven’t yet learned how to work together to fight for sex equality. One of the aims of an international men’s movement as far as I am concerned is simply to make men and boys aware that we are a distinct group and we do face inequality and until we start to talk about our personal perspectives and experiences of inequality we can’t hope to find ways of fighting together for the benefit of all men and boys all over the world.
One of the stereotypical characteristics attributed to men is that we have a tendency to want to fix things and offer solutions. What better way to harness this masculine trait than to collectively apply it to resolving the many inequalities than men and boys face? The first step is for us men to begin to acquaint ourselves with the many different ways of thinking about equality and start to consider how we could apply this thinking to men and boys.
—Photo credit: flickr/warmsleepy