Masculinity versus feminism: can men be feminists?

Just to start off.. I felt like my first post should be something serious and less playful. So here it is. I promise, next ones will be shorter and possibly more fun!


Mankind has always been concerned with different global and local changes in ‘society’; eschatological ideas have been at the forefront of popular consciousness for millennia, but for the last century, one of the most pertinent phenomena has been the shift away from a society dominated by patriarchy to one of greater gender equality. It is clear that women have shown temerity in their determination to attain their place in society. Though, as we look at society and the fight for equality today, we should ask, is it really just about equality between sexes or does it involve a wider issue regarding crave for gender domination? Have previous debates over equality helped to instigate a gender identity crisis? I decided to look at feminism and masculinity from the perspective of theory and test it with the perspective of some young men.  Through the small 10 minute talks with five males regarding their thoughts on feminism I will try to find out: can men be feminists or is feminism just for women?

But to start with it, a little bit of background to the debate in general. So what is contemporary feminism?

There are numerous definitions of what feminism stands for and every individual perceives it in their own way. Most common idea circulating in society is “equality between men and women”. This standpoint, of course, is true, but feminism as a theory goes deeper than just idea of equality between genders. To fully understand what feminism is today, we are supposed to look at the history of feminist thought and development of it up until today.

Even though the notion of gender and female/male roles in society has a long history (going even further than relationship between two sexes), the notions of maleness and femaleness are relatively new.

The first wave of feminism emerged in 19th century and is characterized as an idea in classic liberalism – on-going emancipation and self-determination of women in society, which is ruled by men. The prevailing concern in the first wave of feminism was the affirmation of equality between women and men and an attempt to abolish all prejudices concerning biological differences. Basically, the first wave of feminism was against embodiment of women in terms of both – men and women – being the rational human beings. Claire Colebrook in her book “Gender” (2004) talks about how this idea developed as a distinction between sex and gender, meaning that “one’s body or sexuality had no was a merely physical quality and had nothing to do with one’s subjectivity”. Even though the first idea is still a base for a feminist idea today, feminism has developed from that point on, i.e. Mary Wollstonecraft was a feminist by the standards of her day, but if she was writing today few would regard her as such.

As for the second-wave of feminism, it is considered to be more radical on equal rights than the first-wave (liberal feminism). It has originally evolved from shift of values and quality of life concerning educational changes in the middle of 20th century (1950s and 1960s), moving from woman’s role in reproduction and household to public policy building. Second wave feminists insisted that with acquiring education etc. gender oppositions should be either reformed or dissolved.

Second-wave feminists also emphasized that being different from men is not considered to be a failure regards reaching equality, being different as a woman was considered a value itself – feminine perspective on the world. Main idea of the feminists (also in anthropology) at the time was that gender matters and that gender-neutral position is not an answer. The main critique of the second-wave feminism mainly lies in the argument that it was “white led”, meaning that this feminism generalizes women, not taking into account their race, class or ethnicity.

In early 1970s several feminist organisations were formed by women of different races; they would ask for recognition from the so called ‘white-led feminism’, drawing attention to the needs of women of different class, race and ethnicity. Even though these organisations tried to go away from the term feminism as it had this association with supremacy, they still fought for the same thought. As the leader of the Black liberation movement of the time Assata Shakur puts it:

“To me, revolutionary struggle of Black people had to be against racism, classism, imperialism and sexist for real freedom under a socialist government”.

Third wave feminism is mostly said to be emerging from 1980 to the present (in other writings since 1990s). Anthropologists in earlier years had been concentrating on biological differences, which suggested that sex was a source and power phenomenon based in physical diversities between men and women. However, these questions cannot be cut down to a simple statement, since the 1980s feminism proposes a setback of the earlier separation of nature and culture by representing sex as a social category like gender, because humans do have social anticipations which are grounded on our physical body.

Additionally, more comprehensive work has made it more difficult to differentiate between biological and cultural factors. Feminist anthropology no longer focus only on the matter of gender unevenness, as this leads to negligence in various disciplines in anthropology. Instead, feminist anthropologists now recognize differences through categories like class, race, ethnicity, etc.; in other words, it is accepted, that nonetheless women share the same sex, it does not mean that they necessarily have the exact same essentials needs and experiences. Third wave feminism was also affected by postmodernism, which encouraged an evaluation of the representation of women.

An interesting thought on the third wave feminism has been offered by Julia Kristeva (1986). She states that relationship between the natural and cultural, male and female, subject and object etc. is a superior phenomenon that constructs our experiences. In earlier works she states, that the distinction between men and women is also moderated by “maternal flux”. In other words, without these differences, there would be no knowledge. In my opinion, she is trying to challenge gender in a way that our existence is primarily organised – through differences of body and maternal origins.

SO…What about masculinity?

First of all, I thought, what is that masculinity has to do with feminism? Why are people always mentioning these two as contrasts or even nemesis? Why are there public discussions on masculinity crisis?

In 1970s, women’s liberation movement supposed an opposition between masculinity and feminism, however at the same time (1970s and 1980s) masculinity studies in the academia cultivated a diverged dependency on the theories of feminism. 1990s masculinity movements pursued to regain the status of dominant gender over women, though the process was affected highly by the queer theory. Today, the situation is more balanced, and masculinity is perceived more as an independent field of studies. Nowadays, masculinity studies, same as feminism (and gender studies in general), explore the differences and interdependences between masculinity and femininity – men and women.

The main resentment between feminism and masculinity rose during the second wave of feminism, until in 1990s it deplored male discrimination and gathered men in groups united by the idea of male rights. However, this movement was not the only one men were active in, there were also some movements, smaller in numbers though, that were considered to be pro-feminism. The ideas of pro-feminist men mostly sought eliminating the privileged society and stated that masculinity has positioned itself against women as well as subordinated men (mostly meaning race and different sexuality). This leads to important aspect regarding masculinity studies today – homosexual rights movements. As Goldstein (1998) puts it in “The hate that makes men straight”, masculinity is recognized  through rejection of femaleness in men, hence homosexuality is disturbing mostly heterosexual men, as in their mind anxiety about their masculinity makes homosexuals feminine (notion of feminine masculinity).

When it comes to anthropology, it has been that men for ages have been talking to men concerning men. There are several ways anthropologists address masculinity like manhood, being a man (manliness), gender identity and social roles. As M. C. Gutmann puts it, problem with this is that there is no strict line between these concepts, which makes most of the writings to engage with more than one of the concepts, hence make their writing unclear. He divides these concepts and explains them in a way, that makes every anthropologist re-consider the use of the term:

  1. male identity – “anything that men think and do”;
  2. manhood – “anything that men think and do to be men”;
  3. manliness – “some men are considered more manly than other men”;
  4. men’s roles – “anything that women are not”.

Let’s not lie.. The notion of a gendered fieldwork exists. It is often argued, that women are more emotional, more engaged with the group of study, less objective etc. Well… maybe so, but, in my opinion, it is not all so ‘black or white’. Victor Seidler in his work “Masculinity and Violence” states, that men often grow to be strangers to themselves and backs up his opinion with the citation from Anne-Marie Fearon:

“I believe that all human beings, even male ones, are born (or are at any rate conceived) sensitive, loving, intelligent, open and real”.

Seidler then develops this idea further, by saying, that one of the main reasons for men to turn into expressive and possibly violent, arrogant and closed humans is closely related to feminism ideas and the notion of positioned relationships between men and women raising “(…) a sense of despair, guilt and a paralysing self-hatred” (V. Seidler: 1996, p.1 (63)). In my mind this linked in some way to the well-known citation by Simone de Beauvoir:

“One is not born a woman but becomes one”.

Are we really meant to be one or the other? And what determines otherness? Women or men, feminine or masculine, only because our body is born like one or the other sex? Or do we raise ourselves to believe that certain things are appropriate only to one or other sex (gender)? My question here would be – do we learn our gender? So often women are struggling with violence and abuse from men, but, at the same time, there are characteristics, introduced to us when we are just kids, that become encoded in our brain.

The main problem with feminism and masculinity is the stigma, that keeps dividing both genders by stating, that one is supreme to another or that there are certain expectations mentioned before based on our bodily differences. Sure, we are different and there are some things some people do better than the others, but that should not be decided for us by the gender.

In my opinion, a perfect example on what society thinks of masculinity is expressed through this citation:

“It (masculinity) is always something that you have to be ready to defend and prove. You have to prove that you are as much a man as everyone else.” (V. Seidler: 1996).

Let me make an example; genetically, ‘we’ as women are coded to look for a man, that could grant us safety; whereas emotionally, we might be more attached to one through characteristics, special connection or dialogue etc. This is how contradictive relationships are; it is all about proving a point, living up to different expectations. There are no good enough men – and that is just one of the issues of shaping and giving meaning to masculinity in my opinion. And it reflects in several spheres, like some ideas in English literature, i.e. writer George Bernard Shaw. I think, he shows masculinity as a type of a personal religion, as something that characterizes you as individual and is closely related to your education, psychological, philosophical etc. aspects and not by your gender. For example, his play ‘Pygmalion’ clearly shows Medea’s character as something existing outside of the traditional Greek policy, she is a strong character with somewhat heroic traits and characteristics. She is smart, volatile and powerful.

Now to the point. Can men be feminists?

Can men be feminists? This is a common question in different disciplines in social sciences. There are various debates winding around the question if men should be feminists (pro-feminists) and how actively they should involve in processes. Mandy van Deven in “Is feminism men’s work too?” cites Khary Lazarre-White (co-founder of Brotherhood/Sister Sol – a youth support organisation for Latin Americans and Afro-Americans) who says:

“It is essential for men to take an active role in the work to counteract sexism and misogyny because it is our responsibility. Sexism is not the problem of women – it is a problem of men.”

M. van Deven states, that idea of a man as a feminist is both – contradictory and fictional; the reason for this might be the emphasis on women fighting for their rights, that may exclude male involvement in it. There are writings on men in feminism, like “Men in Feminism” by Shira Tarant, that focuses on explaining the importance of feminist ideas in men’s everyday life and how the subordination of women is not tolerated by every man throughout the history.

I, however, was seeking for the answer to question if men can be feminists by narrowing it down to young men and their views on feminism. For the small ‘interviews’ I chose my five ‘experimental rabbits’ by randomly approaching young men in the library. The set questions were:

  1. How do you think, what is feminism?
  2. Do you think men can be feminists?
  3. Do you think men should be feminists?
  4. Do you consider yourself a feminist and why?

To be completely honest, the answers and their variety did not surprise me very much, I would say they were as predictable as the possibility of rain in Midsummer celebration (which is like really predictable). Since the start of studying anthropology, I have met a huge variety of individuals and talked to them about this subject, and for me all of them fall in two categories, which would further divide:

  1. People who disagree with feminist ideas: a) People with knowledge on what feminism is but finding it not legitimate; b) People who have an abstract idea of what feminism is that might be constructed on the stigma ruling in society and that find it absurd and even offensive.
  2. People who agree with feminist ideas: a) People with knowledge on what feminism is, finding it legitimate and call themselves feminists; b)People with knowledge on what feminism is, finding it legitimate but do not actively participate – call themselves pro-feminists; c) People that agree with feminist ideas but prefer not to call themselves feminist or pro-feminist for various reasons; d) People who have an abstract idea of what feminism is, think they are feminists, but base their opinion on stigma.

As for my results, interestingly enough the ideas divided in almost a half – those who have this stigmatic and pretty predictable opinion on what feminism is, where answers of respondents talk for themselves:

  1. “Women Hitlers”;
  2. “Feminism is a type of a ‘book club’ for housewives and lesbians who don’t have anything better to do than to bitch about men being superior etc.” (Some angry young man this one was, haha)

And the answers of those who have pretty strong ideas on what is feminism were:

  1. “A diverse set of ideologies united in their affirmation of women’s rights”;
  2. “Activities and ideologies towards equality for women”;
  3. “Something really important, but blurry as a concept. I think, feminism is active action that eliminates women’s subordination? Yes, that’s how I would put it.”

As for men being feminists, the answers were mostly like this: “I think they could be feminists, because the gender does not matter, what matters is the idea” or this: “I don’t think we can be fully feminist because we don’t exactly know what it means to be a woman. But I would say that we can be supporting feminist ideas.”

One idea caught my eye and I wanted to explore it further:

“Ha, sure they can… if they are gay!”

This opinion goes perfectly with what Gutmann had written on the role of gender – a man is everything a woman is not. In my opinion, this clearly shows the roles men have to play in order to be perceived as masculine, i.e. being considerate of women rights automatically means being homosexual? I think this lies in the pre-determined world of expectations, where the gender is a really important social construct. Or is this about fakeness?

Of course, when the question “should men be feminist” was raised I would get a really short and self-explanatory answer from one of the guys: “No!” One other was undecided on this question, and three of them replied positive (one of them, however, mentioned the aspect of being ‘for’ feminism ideas, instead of being feminist himself).

 As for conclusions…

To answer the question if it is possible for men to be feminists, we have to provide a coherent set of conceptual definitions as to what feminism, pro-feminism as well as masculinity are. The theory I incorporated within this, in my opinion states that men can be feminists, since the idea of gender equality eliminates gender as such, however during my small interviews I gained results that showed the division between the ‘camps’ and stigmatic thought. However, since there were only 5 informants and they were chosen randomly, these results are not in any way representative of the general opinion among young men.

These interviews made an impression that social setting is really important, when it comes to openness on sensitive questions, such as masculinity, sexual orientations, roles of gender etc. I felt that the guys were a bit nervous, bothered by what other people might think of them, the judgement of their answers.

In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that, in spite of what my interviewees said or did not say, I still think men can be feminist and that there is no great difference between the positions of pro-feminist or feminist. As one of the examples I used is also the quote from the interview mentioned above – “the gender does not matter, what matters is the idea”.

And just for a better and more mellow mood, here is Hugh Laurie and ‘Let them talk’ 🙂

If interested in some of the theory behind this, read these:

  1. Bell, Diane. Daughters of the Dreaming. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
  2. Bernard, H.R. Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches (4th edition), Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2006
  3. Colebrook, C. Gender. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004
  4. Gardiner, J. K. (ed.). Masculinity Studies and Feminist Theory: New Directions. Columbia University Press, 2002.
  5. Geller, Pamela L, and Miranda K. Stockett. Feminist Anthropology: Past, Present, and Future. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
  6. Gutmann, M. C. Trafficking in Men: The Anthropology of Masculinity in Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 26 (1997),
  7. Hayes, B. C., McAllister I. & Studlar, D.T. Gender, Postmaterialism and Feminism in Comparative Perspective in International Political Science Review  Vol.21, No. 4, Women, Citizenship, and Representation. (2000),
  8. Kemp, S. and Squires, J. (eds.) Feminisms. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998
  9. Kristeva, J. and Moi T. The Kristeva Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.
  10. Kristeva, J. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1981.
  11. Seidler V. Violence and Masculinity in Rethinking masculinity: philosophical explorations in light of feminism (May, L., Strikwerda, R. A. & Hopkins, P. D.), London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1996.
  12. Thompson, B. Multiracial Feminism: Recasting the Chronology of Second Wave Feminism in Feminist Studies Vol. 28, No.2, Second Wave Feminism in the United States, 2002,
  13. Van Deven, M. Is Feminism Men’s Work, Too? In Herizons, Fall, 2009.

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