Catering to Men's Rights Is Not the Point of Feminism

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national day of actionto defend women's rights

Protestors rally for National Day of Action to Defend Women's Rights in Dallas. Credit: Creative Commons/ Steve Rainwater

Faced with increasing opposition from “men’s rights activists,” some feminists are responding by inviting men’s rights proponents into the feminist sphere, arguing that feminism can help men. For example, feminists such as actor Emma Watson to bloggers on Feminspire, Huffington Post, Mic, and Bustle are replying back to men’s rights activists with something along the lines of: We do care about the high rate of homelessness with men, male survivors, and all those men’s issues, and we want you to join us in the fight to address it all. But this response to the backlash misses an entirely crucial point: that the men’s rights movement has an opposing worldview to feminism and that to become part of a feminist movement, these men’s rights activists would need to change their perspective.

Feminism is not about fighting for men’s rights and focusing on men’s issues. Yes, we do need equality for all and to end gender stereotypes, but the feminist movement at its core is centered on women’s rights and liberating women from the restrictions of society and male dominance. When we tell straight, white, cisgender men that they should join the feminist movement because it benefits them and achieves their goals, it discredits what it means to be a male feminist ally. We all need to take a stand against all injustice, even forms of injustice that create power dynamics that benefit us. Feminists should not be convincing men’s rights activists how feminism can solve all the qualms they have about men in society. Rather, our focus should be on the fact that women (and particularly women who occupy multiple oppressed identity groups at once, such as women of color and transgender women) face greater threats and that men are not the oppressed group in this discussion. What needs to happen is a change in a worldview, from one that seeks to suppress feminist organizing to one that understands that we must end injustice for the sake of ending injustice—not for the sake of personal gain.

The Resurgence of “Men’s Rights” Organizing

Feminist analysts on the rise of men’s rights generally agree that the men’s rights movement constitutes a dramatic shift away from pro-feminist male liberation goals into feminist-blaming counter activism.

The idea of “men’s liberation” originated in the 1970s. At that time, many “male liberation” proponents described their work as sympathetic to the feminist movement: they shared a critique of patriarchy and sought to emancipate men from patriarchy as well. Their movement focused on rethinking masculinity and figuring how men can fit into a more egalitarian society and evolve into new domestic roles.

men's rights india

Men's Rights Activists protesting in India. Credit: Creative Commons/ Peter Wright

Since that time, however, “male liberation” activism has given way to a resurgent “men’s rights” movement with a fundamentally anti-feminist message: the idea that feminism is to blame for the problems men face—problems such as men’s reluctance in coming forward about sexual abuse or the frequency with which men are denied primary child custody. They miss the point that these realities are not the fault of feminists but rather are the fault of our patriarchal system (which feminism is trying to dismantle) that coerces men and women into damaging and prescribed gender roles.

This summer, over a hundred men and just a few women huddled together inside a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Detroit for the first International Conference on Men’s Issues.

Warren Farrell, a keynote speaker, told the crowd, “It’s happening here. It’s happening now. It’s happening with us.” He was referring to the men’s rights movement, which centers on problems men and boys face.

Farrell is considered to be the leading voice in the movement. Strangely enough, though, he was once an active figure in feminism, but drifted from the movement to advocate for men’s rights instead. For him feminism was lessening equality between the sexes. But how are putting men’s issues above women’s strengthening equality when men are already in charge? Movements that put power in the hands of society’s powerless are necessary in providing social change.

“We need to know not only why are our sons committing suicide, but also why are our sons much more likely to be the ones to shoot up schools?” he said in an NPR interview later.  “We’re all in jeopardy if we don’t pay attention to the cries of pain and isolation and alienation that are happening among our sons.”

In truth, feminism does take seriously many topics framed as “men’s issues,” such as high suicide rates among men, the conflation of masculinity and violence, a lack of support for men who express their emotions, and the normative requirement for men to be masculine as has been so repeatedly hashed out within the feminist dialogue. These men’s rights activists’ plea that feminism is fighting for women’s rights at the expense of men is an unfair portrayal of feminism—one based on stereotypes about men-hating feminists rather than on the reality of feminist thought and action.

A Misguided Response: Emma Watson’s HeForShe Campaign

As men’s rights continues to gain traction and acknowledgement, feminist writers and activists are increasingly responding directly to the movement and its claims. While I am happy to see more feminist discourse, I’m concerned that there is a lack of radical thought in the most visible and mainstream areas of feminist discussion on this topic.

Take, for example, the most recent case in which feminism broke through the mainstream barrier and entered the wider discussion: the moment when actor Emma Watson proudly declared herself a feminist at the UN as she announced her HeForShe campaign.

Her declaration sparked a nationwide conversation on feminism and brought mainstream media attention to this critical issue. In an attempt to make feminism as inviting as possible, however, Watson catered too much to a men’s rights mentality instead of defending feminism’s core focus. During her speech Watson said:

But what stood out for me the most was that only 30 percent of [Hillary Clinton’s] audience were male. How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation? Men—I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too.

Emma Watson

Emma Watson at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. Credit: Creative Commons/ David Shankbone

In her speech, she’s addressing men—asking them to sign on to a “feminism for men” campaign because the issue is their issue too. Forget the one in five women sexually assaulted in their lifetime, the almost impossible beauty standards women are pressured to live up to, and the prejudice women experience daily without end. This is about our boys. The feminist focus on women’s rights is being gradually co-opted into a focus on men’s rights.

Watson’s whole campaign focuses on the importance of men as leaders, garnering their support for feminism. She asks men to “take up this mantle … so their daughters, sisters, and mothers can be free from prejudice but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too—reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned and in doing so be a more true and complete version of themselves.”

Watson’s rhetoric relies on familiar tropes of men stepping up as the defenders of women. Since when do I need a man to save me? Isn’t feminism supposed to be about empowering women, not portraying us as damsels in distress?

I’ve watched feminists I know praise Watson and initiate discussions of men’s issues and male leadership in their blogs. I’ve seen my ex-boyfriends try to take center stage in advocating for women’s rights. I’m frustrated that, by focusing on men as advocates and campaigns driven by male support, mainstream feminism is pushing women out of the conversation, pushing women out of their own movement.

Watson’s feminist campaign is gaining swarms of support and attention not because it is changing the mainstream feminist narrative from the focus on privileged white women’s issues to intersectional issues of race, class, and sexuality, but instead because it is male-oriented. Men showing their solidarity with a hashtag doesn’t accomplish much more than plastering men’s names all over a movement that is not their own.

What the buzz around Watson’s campaign reflects is not so much male support for women’s rights, but rather that many men can deem feminism to be cool and worth accepting when a privileged white woman invites male voices to be heard.

How can men really show their support? Step aside. Yes, we need male allies and men to be actively working against sexism and misogyny, but it is not their turn to lead. Creating campaigns around that notion naturalizes male leadership and portrays it as necessary in combating gender inequality, as noted in the men-only meeting in Iceland for women’s rights—a direct response to the HeForShe campaign. Men have been handed the microphone for ages and women told to shut up. The whole point of feminist struggle is that men sometimes need to learn how to be on the sidelines and listen.

I am never going to feel comfortable going to a feminist activist meeting if the men outnumber the women and are the ones leading that discussion. It just doesn’t make sense. Simply and hypocritically it is reinforcing the patriarchy I am trying to break down.

Men can participate and men can rally for change, but they have to understand this movement isn’t for them. Men’s liberation is a quiet bonus, not the motivator for change. Millennial men feel trapped by masculinity and are affected by gender policing too, but these issues pale in comparison to the challenges women face. Saying “men too” is subtly dismissing the fact that women suffer more deeply under patriarchy than men do.

Somehow mainstream feminism has started embracing male dominance and consequently in this moment feminism is being taken seriously by the world. We need to resist this dynamic and refuse to let men’s rights activists shift the feminist discussion from women to men.

Jessica Renae Buxbaum is a Web Editorial Intern at Tikkun Magazine. Her work can be found on Peaceful Dumpling and Feminist Wednesday. You can follow her on Twitter @jessa_renae.