Ask a Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. This week, author of the Nononsense Guide to Feminism and director of Gender Justice and Women’s Rights for Oxfam, Nikki van der Gaag, explains why it is vital men join in the fight for gender equality.
We need more male feminists. It’s time men become part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
Women are currently facing a real danger of a reversal of many of the rights that we’ve won, from the global gag rule restricting US funding for family-planning services, to the rise of right-wing fundamentalism and populism, to weaker laws on domestic violence in Russia, and a global increase in the gap between women’s and men’s pay and prospects.
It is still men who are in the position of power and with the potential to bring about real change
Women have done, and continue to do, so much. But despite advances in women’s rights in the past decades, in many countries and places it is still men who are in the position of power, thus having the strongest opportunity to bring about real change, whether they are fathers or husbands or community leaders or imams or presidents.
And of course, in some sense for men to support gender equality it will involve them relinquishing some of the power they currently wield – which is perhaps why there’s been such a reluctance from some men to join the feminist fight so far. But these experiences of power are contradictory, explains Michael Kaufmann, co-founder of the global White Ribbon campaign, a movement of men and boys working to end violence against women.
Not just because we are all defined not just by our gender but by geography, race, class, age, sexuality and disability, but because many of the traditional stereotypes of what it means to be a man are destructive for men as well as women. Phrases like ’big boys don’t cry’, ‘real men are strong’, and the image of a man as a provider not a carer convey power – but they also lead to pain, anger and violence.
“Not only does feminism give women a voice, but it also clears the way for men to free themselves from the stranglehold of traditional masculinity. When we hurt the women in our lives, we hurt ourselves, and we hurt our community, too,” says Byron Hurt, anti-sexist activist and filmmaker.
So what do men need to do?
They need to call out other men when they see them being violent, or sexist or abusive. For example, forming male student groups like the Good Lad Workshop which work with men to challenge harassment and rape in colleges and universities. They need to attend feminist meetings and rallies and refuse to sit on all-male (or all white) panels.
Men need to step up and share the housework and childcare equally
They need to ensure that we build a different understanding of relations between the sexes from early on by teaching boys about gender equality; joining or supporting programmes like the Great Initiative here in the UK or The Equal Community Foundation in India which works with boys and young men to challenge traditional stereotypes of what it means to be a man.
They need to step up and share the housework and childcare equally. A recent study of almost 30,000 people in 27 European countries found that women in the UK still spend more than 15.7 hours a week doing housework compared with 6.3 hours for men – and that changed very little even if their male partner was unemployed.
They need to push for flexible working practices, shared parental leave (Scandinavia found that giving men a ‘take or it lose it’ parental leave and paying it properly made all the difference), and quality funded childcare.
They need to join global campaigns like Men Care, which encourages men to share housework and childcare, and worldwide networks like Men Engage which are working with men and boys to make the world a better and a fairer place for everyone.
We need to stop seeing gender equality as just a women’s issue
And men and women both need to stop seeing gender equality only as a ‘women’s issue’ – though spaces and resources for women also need to be preserved with men supporting feminism rather than trying to take it over.
None of this will happen overnight.
But nor did the many things achieved by the women’s movement. Or earlier still the end of slavery. But when those in power finally stand alongside those who have none, things really can start to change. The final end of slavery, for example, took many years of struggle and was boosted when men like James Oglethorpe and William Wilberforce added their voice and weight to the movement started by former slaves such as Harriet Tubman and Toussaint Louverture.
While they are still a minority, there are now increasing numbers of men all over the world who are joining women to call for gender justice. They might be men in India protesting against rape, or those in South Africa marching against for gender equality and against xenophobia, or men in Brazil campaigning for the legalization of abortion, or those at the Women’s Marches in 70 countries around the world in January this year.
The United Nations has predicted that it will take another 80 years to achieve gender equality. In the face of rising misogyny, and the potential rollback of women’s rights – not to mention the rights of minorities, refugees, and the poor – it could take even longer. It is now an urgent priority for men all over the world to stand alongside women to say that these things are unacceptable. The sisters are still doing it for ourselves. But we also need more male feminists. And we need them now.