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Feminism and Definitions

14 May 2011

As part of a Saturday morning Twitter fest, I posted this to the official TFFP Twitter feed:

Men can be allies of the feminist revolution but it’s disingenuous for us to call ourselves feminists. “Pro-feminist” is preferable I think.

I believe this to be a fairly uncontroversial statement among internet feminism discussions. We’ll get to that in a bit. In a reply to that tweet, UK leftist and all-around amiable chap @RedNaylor asked (edited for de-Twittered grammar):

How would you define feminist? I agree with you mostly, I’m just always torn between men calling themselves feminist or pro-feminist. Although I’m always pretty vocal in making sure that men dont Tim Wise-ify feminist struggle as Wise has done race struggles.

I think these are excellent questions, both the first direct one and the general question about the labels we (men) take on in describing ourselves and our place in these struggles. Some caveats before I jump into this: I’m hardly representative of all feminists, or even pro-feminist men. Also, to me there is no feminism but radical feminism, and this places me into a small, but not insignificant minority among leftists. Even more obvious, I’m a guy, so my viewpoint is tainted by male privilege. That said, I think everyone’s input on revolutionary struggles is valuable in building an all-encompassing framework.

So how would I define feminist, or feminism? I’ve had a quote from Chairman Mao in my head for the past view days that can lend a proper framework for answering this.  Concerning Marxism, he said:

Marxism comprises many principles, but in the final analysis they can all be brought back to a single sentence: it is right to rebel against the reactionaries.[1]

I think a similar statement could be made for feminism. I believe feminism, however multifaceted, however many principles may be included, is simply the struggle for the eradication of the Patriarchy.  The temptation then is to go a step further and define a feminist as anyone who takes up this cause, anyone who dedicates their life to furthering the struggle against the Patriarchy. It would be easy to leave it at that, but I think we–meaning men who wish to advance this cause–would be remiss if we simply slapped on the label as if it were a cheap armband we might wear during a solidarity march.

Revolutionary struggles throughout history have always faced the danger of being co-opted by those who don’t understand, who can never Get It when it comes to experiencing life through the lens of the oppressed group who is now forming a revolutionary body. It doesn’t mean that outsiders can’t help, it just means that you should recognise when you are an outsider, and not try to take the movement away from the people who stand to benefit the most. Malcolm X (peace be upon him) realised, perhaps far too late in his struggles, that white folks could be allies in the movement for black liberation. However, it would not befit the movement to be led by white folks, and understandably so. It’s their revolution, not ours. The same holds true for the American desire to have interventionist escapades throughout the MENA region’s current uprisings. There are ways in which the West could properly assist the people struggling to be free from the tyrannical despotisms created often by the West (chiefly, stop supporting the dictators). But what we should not do is drop bombs on their cities in the name of humanitarian intervention. Men can be allies in the feminist struggle for the freedom of the sex class from the tyranny of the Patriarchy, but men cannot lead this revolution, because it’s not our revolution. The unfortunate and possibly upsetting truth of the struggle is that men, even men who identify as feminists, are part of the class that must be rebelled against.

For further reading:

[1] Tried to find a citation for this, but couldn’t. Possibly from Mao Papers. Apologies.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. 16 May 2011 12:34

    Interesting post. On the one hand, I appreciate it when men call themselves feminists because part of male privilege means that a movement with men in it will be taken more seriously than a movement with “only” women in. For instance, the LGBT rights struggle is gaining a lot of momentum because, I believe, many people within and without the movement see it as consisting almost entirely of white gay men.

    Yet, I do think, as you say, there is the danger of co-optation of the movement by perhaps well-intentioned men with Avatar-syndrome (The White Men Will Be The Big Saviors) or men who simply aren’t recognizing when they’re wielding their privilege like a weapon to assume their “god-given” Authoritative Leader role within the movement.

    Kind of like how Tim Wise gets to have a career as an Anti-Racist Visionary for saying stuff that, like, lots of black people say all the time to little or no fanfare.

    • 16 May 2011 12:59

      Welcome fannie! So nice to have you drop by, especially about this issue.

      I think you’re absolutely right, that men lending their voices to the movement gives it more mainstream credibility, and actually I see that as part of men’s job in all this: to go out and proselytize to other men about how feminism will work out great for everyone (and tell each other to stop consuming women as objects, stop raping, stop street harassment, etc). I think in that situation, when in the company of people who really need to hear the 101 of it all, men calling themselves “feminist” is less troublesome. It’s the same way when I’m talking to my (right-wing) coworkers or family, I don’t call myself a Maoist Third-Worldist, I just say Socialist and leave it at that. When I get in the company of people who Know Things, that’s when I have to be a little more conscious of the ways in which I label myself.

      We also agree that there is danger in that. It’s a fine line to walk, and I worry that the view of our (men’s) Male Voices as More Important, even as a strictly ad-hoc measure to begin “bridge-building” conversations with those who might turn out as allies, can too easily create tacit acceptance of one of the very cultural norms we’re rebelling against! I think men who wish to be allies of feminists need to be constantly on our guard against those sort of behaviors, and claiming the label of feminist just because we support the movement can pretty easily be read as male entitlement behavior, even with noble intent.

      That said, I wouldn’t argue with a feminist woman for calling me a feminist, but I just wouldn’t do it myself.

      • 16 May 2011 15:35

        I think men who wish to be allies of feminists need to be constantly on our guard against those sort of behaviors

        That’s a good point. Are you familiar with Paulo Freire’s writing? It’s been years since I read Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but I remember a point that always stuck with me: that if those in the oppressor class are truly invested in helping with liberation, they must be committed to re-examining themselves and their beliefs constantly.

        I think, otherwise, dialogue can turn into “women should just emulate men.” When complete emulation of men (or the male gender role), say, doesn’t translate as liberation for men or women.

        • 16 May 2011 16:49

          We have Pedagogy… sitting on the bookshelf, but I haven’t gotten around to it. I should, apparently.

          edit: trapped in tiny nested comment box, send help augh

  2. 17 May 2011 00:34

    The more a dude protests that he is too a feminist, goddamnit, the less likely it is to be true.*

    I refer to feminism-promoters who benefit from male privilege as profeminists or feminist allies, and usually prefer when others do the same. For a guy to use these terms implies that he understands something about feminism beyond its grating dictionary definition, and he particularly understands that ‘feminism’ isn’t his own personal movement to claim and to mould.

    *Source: The majority of comment threads on liberal or lefty sites that don’t have “feminism, and not the 101 kind” clearly indicated on the page header. I no joke once saw a dude (on a thread 300+ comments long, even) tell everyone there that he was going to call himself a feminist regardless of whether or not the feminist women present had any objections. And I’m not entirely convinced that he was trolling.

    • 17 May 2011 07:47

      Very true about the dudes who protest too much.

      Via the same source you cite, I have also learned that those who begin their comments with “if you look at the dictionary definition of feminism, then technically I’m a feminist” tend to have a remarkable propensity to actually be anti-feminist, as they often finish that sentence with a “but I just think men and women are really different, and we should celebrate that.”

      • 17 May 2011 20:55

        Yeah. That’s fun. Also, “I believe in true equality. Which means that if you don’t think it should be acceptable for a man to punch a woman in a fight, then maybe you’re not such a big feminist after all.”

  3. 21 June 2011 17:13

    I found a good quote on The F Word (Vancouver) a few days ago that’s pretty in line with the post:

    Stephen Heath wrote, in Male Feminism: “Men have a necessary relation to feminism” but “that this is a matter for women, that it is their voices and actions that must determine the change and redefinition. Their voices and actions, not ours: no matter how ‘sincere,’ “sympathetic” or whatever, we are always also in a male position which brings with it all the implications of domination and appropriation, everything precisely that is being challenged, that has to be altered. Women are the subjects of feminism, its initiators, its makers, its force; the move and the join from being a woman to being a feminist is the grasp of that subjecthood. Men are the objects, part of the analysis, agents of the structure to be transformed, representatives in, carriers of the patriarchal mode; and my desire to be a subject there too in feminism—to be a feminist—is then only also the last feint in the long history of their colonization.”

  4. 6 January 2012 01:16

    Interesting. I’m a lady, and a feminist, and not a radical feminist according to the accepted meaning of radical feminist within the community, though I may be radical in some ways. And… it actually annoys me when men who hold feminists beliefs refuse to call themselves feminists. I think I understand your reasons for doing so, but in general, when I see a man calling himself a feminist ally instead of a feminist, it makes me think that he is trying to separate himself from feminism and from being too identified with women and womanly things. By assigning himself a different label, it seems like he is saying he isn’t on board with what feminism is– that he must differentiate himself from using a term that normally denotes female, which reflects on the normal trend of men dissociating themselves from the stereotypically or superficially feminine.

    • 6 January 2012 08:32

      Hi claracomfort, thanks for reading and commenting. There are definitely lots of pros and cons for a man self-applying the label of feminist, and the conversation I had with fannie up above highlighted some of them. I do think it’s less problematic for a man to refer to himself as a feminist if he’s in the company of people who need to see “regular” folks, especially guys, support feminist causes. I think it becomes more problematic when that dude is trying to participate in a place that’s meant to be a women’s spaces (feminist blogs, conferences, gender studies classrooms etc).

      I understand your fear there, that a guy who refuses to call himself feminist might be avoiding “feminine” labels and terminology, but I think it’d be pretty easy to tell, no? I don’t think a person who speaks in the language of ending oppression of women, eradicating the patriarchy, recognizing women’s issues as human rights issues, etc etc is the same type of person who’s going to be icked out by attacks on his masculinity.

      I feel like you’re describing something more along the line of people, especially dudes, who say thinks like “Now, I’m no feminist, but I believe there should be equal pay for equal work.” For that guy, I totally agree with you, that’s someone hesitant to be lumped in with feminists for fear of losing status in a masculine, heteronormative society. The difference between him and me is that I’ll stand up and say it- Feminism is awesome, gender is a myth, and if you’re not down with eradicating the Patriarchy you’re not my friend.


  1. Linkspamming How to be an Ally « The Fivefold Path
  2. If You Are A Feminist, You Should Call Yourself One, Regardless Of Your Gender « claracomfort

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