on international women’s day, let’s remember what feminism is really about: women
Why making our politics palatable to the ruling class should not be a priority in a radical movement towards social change. The feminist movement is about women, and it’s time to stop apologising for that.
We are told over and over again that feminism is for everybody. That "feminism" isn't a scary word - all it means is "equality." But they're wrong. Feminism isn't for everybody and perhaps those who are scared of the word are frightened for good reason. Feminism is about women. And if you don't like that, you probably aren't going to like feminism much.
Last week, allegations that so-called "male feminist" Jamie Kilstein had behaved in a predatory, abusive way towards women came out in the press. The comedian and (now ex-) co-host of Citizen Radio, a popular political podcast, has long been embraced by American liberal feminists who pointed to Kilstein as an example of a true "male feminist". In Mic, Lauren Rankin writes: "Male feminist comedians like Jamie Kilstein and John Knefel help make feminism relatable and cool for younger men who may not understand it. Male feminist allies can get through to younger men in a way to which women may not be able."
While I do believe that men should challenge and mentor other men away from things like masculinity and male violence, Rankin's key concern - one that has been repeated by other liberals many times over - is troubling: "How do we increase the number of male feminist allies?"
It's an odd question to ask. Not necessarily because I don't want men to support the eradication of patriarchy (I mean, that would be nice, sure), but because this is a women's movement. I'm having a hard time imagining Black Lives Matter sitting around wondering how they can possibly make white people like them better. In other words, making our politics palatable to the ruling class should not be a priority in a radical movement towards social change. Ensuring that feminism appears "relatable and cool" to men necessarily means tweaking our message to appeal to them - a self-defeating measure if I ever saw one.
A video and transcript published on Everyday Feminism (which has now been removed from the site) shows Kilstein explaining that, for "men who aren't afraid to call themselves feminists," being a feminist means: "Don't be a dick! Listen to women. Don't be a dick to women." Kilstein concludes by saying, "Say it with me. I'm a man. I'm not a dick. I don't hate women. I'm a feminist."
Ironically, his words epitomise the problem with a feminism that includes men. Encouraging men to adopt the feminist label has been a very successful endeavour, but it's backfired. Now, any man who believes he is "not a dick" feels entitled to claim his feminist card. But when feminism is treated as a badge, rather than an ideology and form of political action, we end up with a feminism that is meaningless.
The thing is, most men believe they don't hate women. They have mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters who they claim to love. They are attracted to women. (I mean, they masturbate to female bodies all the time!) But misogyny doesn't always manifest itself in obvious ways. A man can love his mother but also believe that some women are "sluts." He can believe rape is bad, but also think that he is entitled to sex. He can say that he supports reproductive rights, but also believe women are natural nurturers. We live in a world that says objectifying women and loving women is the same thing and that teaches men their voices, desires, and thoughts are more valid than women's.
When feminism addresses these issues - when we say, for example, "Actually, the male gaze is dehumanising" or, "No, sex is not a right" - men react angrily. Announcing that the things they have been taught since birth and have been told their whole lives are "normal" are, in fact, harmful to women makes men uncomfortable. And so it should.
There is nothing wrong with men supporting the feminist movement. Indeed, I know many men have been good allies to feminism. But the kind of feminism men support and the way they show their support is relevant and revealing.
There is a particular type of man who fancies himself a "feminist" but who uses slurs to describe radical feminists, who trashes women who name male violence as such, who pits women against one another, and who feels entitled to deride feminists who centre women in their work. These men have found a home in third wave, liberal feminism -- a kind of "feminism" that dismisses and smears second wave, radical feminists. That allows - even encourages - the hatred of other women. That says women who speak out against pornography and prostitution are evil prudes and that feminists who support woman-only space are bigoted. That rejects its foremothers with ageist remarks about being "out of touch", "irrelevant", "dinosaurs." (Can you imagine a male leftist calling Marx "out of touch" and "irrelevant?") It is a kind of feminism that uses misogynist language to attack women they take issue with. It is a "sex positive" feminism, which means it doesn't challenge male-centred sex, and indeed says it's perfectly ok for men to buy consent. It is a feminism that accuses women who want the justice system to hold men to account for their violence of being "carceral." It is a feminism that has manipulated the term "intersectional" to mean "inclusive of men." It is a feminism that, at its core, prefers male comfort over female solidarity. This is the kind of feminism that is appealing to men like Jamie Kilstein and will always be vulnerable to the kind of hypocrisy exemplified by men of his ilk.
It is inevitable, when you paint feminists who centre women and refuse to cater to men as the "bad" ones, that your movement will embrace misogynists. And when, by contrast, you name those who welcome men into the movement, make them feel comfortable, and refuse to criticise the things they like as the "good" ones. It's ok boys, you can keep your porn - we'll even watch it with you! Come on down to our march, you can stand right out in front, holding our banner. Of course you're invited to our meeting - we're inclusive!
When Andrea Dworkin said, "I'm a radical feminist, not the fun kind," this is what she meant: That no matter what, her feminism was about women's liberation and nothing less. Dworkin refused to mince her words - her feminism was scary. She was the kind of feminist men didn't like, because she refused to try to make them comfortable with their position in a patriarchy. She refused to deny the harm men do to women, daily, around the globe. She refused to do things on their terms.
While women can't be expected to always know who is abusive and who is not, there is an easy way to avoid letting misogynist men position themselves as leaders in the feminist movement: centre women in your feminism. Stop letting men define the movement in a way that caters to their privilege and desires. Stop seeking male approval. Stop letting men set the boundaries of discussion and debate. Stop supporting and enabling men in their hatred of and attacks on "not fun" feminists. (That, if anything, should be a red flag.)
The issue of ensuring we keep predators out of the feminist movement is a much-discussed one. Every time it is discovered that a "male feminist" is actually an abuser, liberals take their shock and awe to social media, insisting that #NotAllMen are like this and we #BelieveWomen. They wring their hands and wonder what can be done about all these faux-feminist men in our midst, who continue to take on the label and use it to their advantage, without actually believing in the project of women's liberation.
Making feminist politics about women, without apology, is the only solution. Forget about what men want and like. Ensure that your feminism is so unapologetic, so uncomfortable, so unfriendly that men who don't truly believe in women's liberation don't want any part of it. A real male ally should be there because he wants to support the movement - not because he wants attention or control. He should be there, having already felt uncomfortable for some time, having examined his own role in male domination, having had challenging conversations with friends who buy sex, and having rejected pornography. He should respect women's boundaries and spaces. He should understand that feminism is a women's movement - not a movement towards the vague notion of "equality." He should understand that feminism is not only a good thing if it helps him, personally.
International Women's Day exists because we understand that women and girls experience discrimination, exploitation, and abuse every day, simply because they were born female. And until that is no longer a reality, we cannot waver in our goals. The feminist movement is about women, and it's time to stop apologising for that.
Text Meghan Murphy
Photography Holly Falconer