Men and feminism

The relationship between men and feminism has been complex and intricate. Men have taken part in significant cultural and political responses to feminism in each 'wave' of the movement. Such responses have been varied, with some more sympathetic or critical than others, depending on the individual man and the social context of the time. One popular taxonomy has been offered by Michael Kimmel, who classifies men's responses as falling into the categories antifeminist, masculist/masculinist, and pro-feminist, each largely differing in their view of masculinity. [1] Kimmel himself falls in his profeminist category. Male discourses on the position of women in society date back to Classical Greece, including Plato's Republic and Aristophanes' Lysistrata.

The masculist position advocates campaigns for men's rights. One masculinist position, associated with the Mythopoetic movement and author Robert Bly, criticizes "emasculation of men by feminism", and argues for intrinsic differences in the sexes.[2] Masculism in general, however, is the male counterpart to feminism, and seeks to redress social issues facing men and boys. A further discussion of various masculist positions on feminism may be found on the masculism page.

Early pro-feminist discourses have their roots in the philosophies of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In the 19th century, first wave feminists and abolitionists found common ground as they worked in order to promote the rights of women and slaves, respectively.



The 18th century saw male philosophers attracted to issues of human rights, and men such as the Marquis de Condorcet championed women's education.[citation needed] Liberals, such as the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, demanded equal rights for women in every sense, as people increasingly came to believe that women were treated unfairly under the law.[3]

In the 19th century, there was also an awareness of women's struggle. In 1866, John Stuart Mill (author of “The Subjection of Women”) presented a women’s petition to the British parliament and supported an amendment to the 1867 Reform Bill. Although his efforts were concentrated on the problems of married women, this is a realistic acknowledgment that marriage for Victorian women was predicated upon a sacrifice of liberty, rights, and property. His involvement in the women's movement stemmed from his long standing friendship with Harriet Taylor, who he eventually married. The British legal historian, Sir Henry Maine criticised the inevitability of patriarchy in his Ancient Law (1861)[4]

Men's responses to feminism

Sociologist and scholar of men and masculinities Michael Kimmel divides male reactions to feminism into three categories: pro-feminist, anti-feminist, and masculinist.[1]

Pro-feminist history

In the Athenian comic poet Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, women engage in a sex strike to bring about the end of the Peloponnesian war. Similarly, in The Republic, Plato suggests an ‘ideal’ state in which women would receive equal education and opportunities to participate in activities of the state, at least within the guardian class.[5] Although both Lysistrata and The Republic present problems within contemporary feminist readings, they demonstrate the beginnings of men’s concern with women’s issues.

During the Renaissance Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa wrote La Supériorité du sexe feminin (Superiority of the female sex). Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the majority of pro-feminist authors emerged from France, including Denis Diderot, Paul Henri d’Holbach, and Charles Louis de Montesquieu.[5] Montesquieu introduced female characters, like Roxana in Persian Letters, who subverted patriarchal systems, and represented his arguments against despotism.


In 1849, when women were refused the right to participate at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. Supporters of the women attending argued that it was hypocritical to forbid women and men from sitting together at this convention to end slavery; they cited similar segregationist arguments in America that were used to separate whites and blacks. When women were still denied to join in the proceedings, abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Lenox Remond, Nathanial P. Rodgers, and Henry Stanton, all elected to sit silently with the women.[6]

One argument against female participation, both at the World Anti-Slavery Convention, and commonly in the nineteenth century, was the suggestion that women were ill-constituted to assume male responsibilities. Pro-feminist Thomas Wentworth Higginson argued against this, stating:

I do not see how any woman can avoid a thrill of indignation when she first opens her eyes to the fact that it is really contempt, not reverence, that has so long kept her sex from an equal share of legal, political, and educational rights…[a woman needs equal rights] not because she is man’s better half, but because she is his other half. She needs them, not as an angel, but as a fraction of humanity.[6]

During the end of the 19th century, Greenwich Village radicals attempted to institute feminist ideals into their lives by adopting new kinds of relationships with women. They embraced believed feminist objectives, like women’s sexual autonomy and access to birth control.


Today some men's profeminist groups include:

  • MAN for the ERA - Men Allied Nationally for the Equal Rights Amendment
  • NOMAS - the National Organization for Men against Sexism
  • RAVEN - Rape And Violence End Now in St. Louis
  • MOVE - Men Overcoming Violence in San Francisco

Men's liberation movement

The men's liberation movement began in the early 1970s as consciousness-raising groups to help men free themselves from the limits of sex roles. Proponents of men’s liberation argued that male bonding is a mechanism to conform men’s identities to a single sense of masculinity, which reinforces patriarchy. In lieu of such bonding, the men’s liberation movement called for open acknowledgment of the costs of masculinity: men’s entrapment in their fixed role as the breadwinner of the nuclear family and the taboo against men expressing emotions. Most significantly, this movement made it acceptable for men to be open about their emotions while maintaining their masculinity.

The distinction between gender and biological sex originated during the men's liberation movement. The previously accepted link between the biological male sex and the social construction of masculinity was seen by scholars[7] as a limitation on men’s collaboration with the feminist movement. This sharply contrasted with sex role theory which viewed gender as something determined by biological differences between the sexes. Other key elements of the men's liberation movement were the ideas that genders are relational and each cannot exist without the other, and that gender as a whole is a social construction and not a biological imperative. Thus, second-wave profeminist writers[8] were able to explore the interactions between social practices and institutions, and ideas of gender.

Men's liberation's engagement with race

Racial differences have historically stratified the men’s liberation movement and such divisions still remain problematic today. Some profeminist scholars argue[9][10] that racism within American society has emasculated non-white men. For example, black men are perceived to lack control over their innate sexual aggression.[11] Within this ideological framework black men are presented as hyper-sexual to an animalistic degree; they are therefore beasts, not men.[citation needed] Asian-Americans have been emasculated in an opposite way: they have been portrayed as desexualized, unattractive, small, wimpy, intelligent, and devious. (See: Stereotypes of Asian Men)

Men's liberation's engagement with gay liberation

Second-wave pro-feminism paid increased attention to issues of sexuality, particularly the relationship between homosexual men and hegemonic masculinity. This shift led to more cooperation between the men's liberation and Gay Liberation movements. In part this cooperation arose because masculinity was then understood to be a social construction, and as a response to the universalization of ‘men’ seen in previous men’s movements. This allowed for the men’s liberation movement to analyze the conditions under which society becomes less tolerant of homosexuality.

Profeminist writers[12] have identified several hypotheses for explaining the origin of homophobia. These hypotheses rely on the idea that gender is a binary system where deviation from either gender norm is viewed as socially unacceptable. Such a system is argued to lead to heterosexism, as a way of preserving the binary division.

Mythopoetic/Antifeminist Male response

Other men have reacted to feminist claims by refusing to engage them at all, instead seeking to re-establish a more traditional masculine ideal in order to preserve male dominance. This movement is associated with the formation of fraternal organizations such as the YMCA. Their founding is seen by some as an attempt to instill traditional masculinity and male bonding in its members.

Where anti-feminists strive to revoke women's rights, masculinists seek to further men's rights. In fact, some masculinists claim that men have been hurt by feminist advances, and that they should empower themselves by revitalizing their masculinity. This argument was also echoed in religious circles with the Muscular Christianity movement. The Mythopoetic movement is frequently associated with Robert Bly.

Mythopoetic men's movement

The mythopoets crafted a masculinist response to feminism which began in America in the 1980s. The movement selectively used mythology and fairy tales to seek refuge from the perceived ‘feminization’ of modern society with an emphasis on ‘deep masculinity.’ Mythopoets held that all men inherently possessed a ‘deep masculinity’ that has been repressed by over-dominant mothers.[13] In order to recover ‘deep masculinity,’ Mythopoets attended escapist retreats. During these retreats, men attempt to reconnect with nature through initiation rites and ceremonial behavior. Mythopoets often credit American Indians as prime examples of such customs,[14] although the content of the retreats bears little resemblance to any actual American Indian practices.

Mythopoets claim to be concerned with what they see as harmful effects that the modernization of American society has had on men.[14] They argue that as America became industrialized, men were forced from the home and into factories, thereby leaving boys with only female role models. The most prominent effects of this lack of guidance were the destruction of nurturing bonds between men and the limitation of emotional expression by men. Mythopoets strove to counter this by reclaiming emotional power from women.[13] Much Mythopoetic literature takes the form of nostalgic longing for a time when deep masculinity was more accessible.

A founding mythopoet is poet Robert Bly. Bly’s work includes “Iron John: A Book About Men” in which he recounts a myth of a young prince’s quest for maturity. In Iron John, Bly argues that, although there are several powerful male characters, most men identify with the weak young prince, and that this identification demonstrates that men do not possess the power and control ascribed to them by feminists. This conception of gender dynamics is representative of the mythopoetic perspective.

Profeminist response to the mythopoetic men's movement

The profeminist men’s movement responded to the Mythopoetic movement in part by acknowledging the difficulties of contemporary masculinity. Profeminist writers[15] sympathized with the Mythopoets’ claims that the economic and social isolation of modern American men affects the contemporary concept of masculinity. These writers understood the ways in which the increasing loss of economic autonomy made it more difficult for American men of the 20th century to satisfy their own definitions of masculinity. Many profeminist authors, however, argue that the Mythopoetic movement defines masculinity as essentially intrinsic to men and separate from women.[10][13] These profeminist writers believe that[10] this essentialist view propagates restrictive gender standards. Profeminists suggest that instead of constantly working to demonstrate how men are not women, men who truly wish to eradicate hegemonic gender standards must ally themselves with the feminist movement. Some profeminist writers[10] see the Mythopoets' essentialist views as the expression of an emotionally-rooted anti-intellectual stance, intended to defend the movement against honest criticism from external sources.

Additionally, some profeminist scholars[15] find much of the Mythopoetic retreats as racist misrepresentations of some aspects of Native American culture. This Mythopoetic selective viewing extends beyond Native American cultural appropriation to the mythologies of other cultures as well. The Mythopoetic call for male-centric “Zeus Power,” for example, ignores Zeus’ appearances in mythology as an incestuous rapist. Profeminists claim[15] that by identifying themselves with these incomplete images, Mythopoets ignore the circumstances in which these cultural values evolved, and creates an unrealistic and idealized 'history' toward which its members strive.

Another perspective advanced by several feminist writers[16] is that the mythopoetic movement was a publicity stunt to revive the career of Robert Bly. This view is based on Bly’s earlier fame as a peace activist during the Vietnam War, when he advocated that men embrace their 'feminine' qualities.

Antifeminist response

Opposition to feminism comes in many forms, either criticizing feminist ideology and practice or arguing that it be restrained.

Men's rights

In the early 1980s, the men’s rights campaign emerged in America in response to the men’s liberation movement. A uniting principle was the belief that men's problem were awarded less attention that women's and that any previous oppression of women had turned, or were about to turn, into oppression of men. Men’s rights activists cited men's economic burden of the traditionally male breadwinner role, men's shorter average life expectancy, and inequalities favoring women in divorce issues, custody laws, and abortion rights[17] as evidence of men’s suffering.

The campaign has generally had the most success achieving legal reform in family law, particularly regarding child custody. Activists argue that the American judicial system discriminates against fathers in child custody hearings since mothers are typically viewed as the main caregivers. They claimed that the economic burden of the breadwinner role has made it more difficult for men to take part in child rearing, and that court decisions rarely account for this obstacle.[17]

Some organizations, such as the National Coalition of Free Men, have made efforts to examine how sex discrimination affects men. For instance, this group argues that custody rights in favor of women discriminate against men because they are based on the belief that women are naturally more nurturing and better caregivers than men. Also, in the belief that women are somehow less culpable than men, women receive gentler treatment by the justice system for the same crimes that men have committed. Thus, groups such as NCFM promote awareness, resources, support, and openings for discussion for these issues.[17]

Profeminist responses to men’s rights

Many tenets of the men’s rights movement have been rejected by profeminists. Profeminists believe that the overarching social structure of what they see as patriarchy gives men power over women.[citation needed] This is argued by pointing to problems with imbalanced economic and family structures, and exploitation of women. In examining women’s experiences in the workplace, profeminists claim that men retain clear advantages. Women typically earn less money for the same work, are more likely to be victims of sexual harassment, and earn fewer positions of power than men.

Profeminist scholars claim that men's anxiety surrounding divorce rights stems from an unprecedented feeling of entitlement.[18] In the case of custody laws, profeminist supporters claim that men do not take an active role in the lives of their children until their rights are threatened by the courts.[citation needed] Men’s rights groups are generally seen as effective in providing self-help, emotional support, and legal advice for divorced men. However, they have also been viewed by some profeminist scholars as providing antifeminist fuel for conservative backlash against the struggle for equal rights between the genders.[18]

Male feminism

Historically a number of men have engaged with feminism.[19] In 1866, John Stuart Mill (author of “The Subjection of Women”), presented a women’s petition to the British parliament and supported an amendment to the 1867 Reform Bill. Others have lobbied and campaigned against feminism. Today, academics like Michael Flood, Michael Messner, and Michael Kimmel are involved with men's studies and pro-feminist.[6][17][18][20][21]

There is debate over whether or not men can be feminists. While some scholars argue that men cannot be feminists because of the intrinsic differences between the sexes, others argue that men’s identification with the feminist movement is necessary for furthering the feminist causes. A number of feminist writers maintain that identifying as a feminist is the strongest stand men can take in the struggle against sexism against women. They have argued that men should be allowed, or even encouraged, to participate in the feminist movement.[22][23] Other female feminists argue that men cannot be feminists simply because they are not women. They claim that men are granted inherent privileges that prevent them from identifying with feminist struggles and thus make it impossible for them to identify with feminists.[24]

A common idea supporting men’s inclusion as ‘feminists’ is that excluding men from the feminist movement labels it as solely a female task, which scholars argue is sexist in itself. They assert that until men share equal responsibility for struggling to end sexism against women, the feminist movement will reflect the very sexist contradiction it wishes to eradicate.[23] The term ‘profeminist’ occupies the middle ground in this semantic debate, because it offers a degree of closeness to feminism without co-opting the term. Also, the prefix ‘pro’ characterizes the term as more proactive and positive. There has been some debate regarding the use of the hyphen (identifying as a ‘pro-feminist’ as opposed to a profeminist) claiming that it distances the term too much from feminism proper.[22] Nonetheless, 'profeminist' seems to be the term of choice at this time.

Men confronting violence against women

An area of feminist social work in which some pro-feminist men have participated is preventing violence against women, and supporting its survivors. Anti-violence activists work in shelters for battered women, counseling survivors, rehabilitating perpetrators and spreading awareness of the issue. Many male activists[25] support these anti-violence campaigns on two strong fronts: first, that violence against women concerns all people, regardless of gender; and secondly, that more attention should be paid to the social environments that produce perpetrators. Activists[25][26] have also analyzed the cultural factors that contribute to violence against women.

The White Ribbon Campaign was founded in response to the École Polytechnique Massacre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.[26] The movement aims to spread awareness about the issue of violence against women by educating men about the problem.[27]

Men confronting rape

Although men's participation in anti-rape activism in American campaigns is still uncommon[citation needed], some men have proved valuable allies in their positions in shelters, support groups, and rape response teams.[28] Some male activists[28] claim that their efforts are met with mistrust and anger. Much literature[28][29] about male anti-rape activists involves men experiencing epiphanies about the emotional and psychological impact rape inflicts on its victims. Scholars typically claim that in order to end rape and violence against women, men must become aware of these issues, otherwise there is no hope for stopping rape.[28]

In addition to the struggles men face as a part of their work with anti-rape activism, many men that choose to speak out against rape report social costs, specifically that they are viewed as ‘not masculine.’ Men's deviation from hegemonic masculinity can lead to exclusion by their male peers.[29] Male activists[28][29] claim that unless masculinity can be redefined to include both caring for women and being vulnerable to emotional issues such as rape, men will continue to avoid taking action against rape.

Men confronting pornography

Some pro-feminist scholars believe that the portrayal of sexuality in pornography has contributed to the rise of sexual violence, misogyny, and the perpetuation of inequality between the sexes. They suggest that the normalization of male-dominated, violent, and degrading sexual acts has led users of pornography to incorporate violence into their own lives.[30] Pro-feminists may assert that these trends in pornography are reflected by increased acts of sexual violence; and also contribute to normalizing rape culture.[citation needed] As with some areas of feminism, pro-feminists may also believe that pornography reduces women and teenage girls to sex objects.[30]

Men’s studies

Masculinity scholars have seek to broaden the academic discourse of gender through men's studies. While scholars argue that most academic disciplines, except women’s studies, can be considered “men’s studies” because they claim that the content of the curriculum consists of primarily male subjects, masculinity scholars[31] assert that men’s studies specifically analyzes men’s gendered experiences. Central to men’s studies is the understanding that “gender” does not mean “female,” the same way “race” does not mean “black.” Men’s studies are typically interdisciplinary, and incorporate the feminist conception that “the personal is political.” Masculinity scholars strive to contribute to the existing dialogue about gender created through women’s studies.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ a b Michael S. Kimmel, “Who’s Afraid of Men Doing Feminism?,” from Men Doing Feminism, Tom Digby, ed. New York: Routledge, 1998, 57-68.
  2. ^ Rowland, Susan (2002). Jung: A Feminist Revision. Blackwell. pp. 79–80. 
  3. ^ Campos Boralevi, Lea, Bentham and the Oppressed(Walter De Gruyter Inc, 1984)
  4. ^ Maine, Henry Sumner. Ancient Law 1861
  5. ^ a b Feminism & Masculinities, Peter F. Murphy, ed. Oxford University Press, 2004.
  6. ^ a b c Michael S. Kimmel, “Introduction,” in Against the Tide: Pro-Feminist Men in the U.S., 1776-1990, A Documentary History. Boston: Beacon 1992, 1-51.
  7. ^ Mirsky, Seth. “Three Arguments for the Elimination of Masculinity.” Men’s Bodies, Men’s Gods: Male Identities in a (Post-) Christian Culture. (New York: NYU, 1996), 27-39.
  8. ^ Carrigan, Tim, Bob Connell, and John Lee. “Toward a New Sociology of Masculinity.” Reprinted in Feminism and Masculinities, Peter F. Murphy, ed. ([1985]); Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  9. ^ Hoch, Paul. "White Hero, Black Beast: Racism, Sexism, and the Mask of Masculinity," reprinted in Feminism & Masculinities, Peter F. Murphy, ed. ([1970]; Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 93-107.
  10. ^ a b c d Messner, Michael. "Politics of Masculinities: Men in Movements." Oxford: AltaMira Press, 2000.
  11. ^ Carbado, Devon (1999). Black Men on Race, Gender, and Sexuality: a Critical Reader. Walking Proud: Black Men Living Beyond the Stereotypes: NYU Press. pp. 309. 
  12. ^ Hopkins, Patrick. “Gender Treachery: Homophobia, Masculinity, and Threatened Identities.” Reprinted in Rethinking Masculinity: Philosophical Explorations in the Light of Feminism. (Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield, 2002).
  13. ^ a b c Keen, Sam. Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man. Bantam Books: 1992.
  14. ^ a b Bly, Robert. Iron John: A Book About Men
  15. ^ a b c Kaufman, Michael and Michael Kimmel. Weekend Warriors: The New Men’s Movement
  16. ^ Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006.
  17. ^ a b c d Messner, Michael, Taking the Field: Women, Men, and Sports, University of Minnesota Press, 2002, ISBN 978-0-8166-3449-1
  18. ^ a b c Flood, Michael. “Backlash: Angry men’s movements.” Reprinted from The Battle and Backlash Rage On: Why Feminism Cannot Be Obsolete (Stacey Ellen Rossi). Xlibris, 2004: 261-278.
  19. ^ Tarrant, Shira, Men and Feminism, Seal Press, 2009
  20. ^ Michael S. Kimmel, “Who’s Afraid of Men Doing Feminism?,” from Men Doing Feminism, Tom Digby, ed. New York: Routledge, 1998, 57-68
  21. ^ Messner, Michael, Power at Play: Sports and the Problem of Masculinity, Beacon Press; Reissue edition 1995, ISBN 978-0-8070-4105-5
  22. ^ a b Harry Brod, “To Be a Man, or Not to be a Man — That Is the Feminist Question,” in Men Doing Feminism, Tom Digby, ed. (NY: Routledge, 1998), 197-212.
  23. ^ a b hooks, bell. Men: Comrades in Struggle, in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984).
  24. ^ Russ Ervin Funk, “The Power of Naming: Why Men Can’t Be Feminists,” in Feminista!: The Journal of Feminist Construction 1, no. 4.
  25. ^ a b Katz, Jackson. The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help. 2006.
  26. ^ a b Kaufman, Michael. “The White Ribbon Campaign: Involving Men and Boys in Ending Global Violence Against Women,” in A Man’s World?: Changing Men’s Practices in a Globalized World, Bob Pease and Keith Pringle eds. London: Zed Books, 2001.
  27. ^
  28. ^ a b c d e Orton, Richard. “Outside In: A Man in the Movement.” Transforming a Rape Culture. Milkweed Editions: 2005. 233-248.
  29. ^ a b c Funk, Rus Ervin. “Men Who Are Raped: A Profeminist Perspective.” Male on Male Rape: The Hidden Toll of Stigma and Shame. Cambridge, MA, Perseus Publishing: 1997. 221-231.
  30. ^ a b Jensen, Robert. Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. South End Press, 2007.
  31. ^ Brod, Harry. "Studying Masculinities as Superordinate Studies," in Masculinists Studies & Feminist Theory, Judith Gardiner, ed. (2002), 177-90.

External links

Further reading

  • Alan D. Berkowitz (ed.) Men and rape: theory, research, and prevention programs in higher education, issue 65 of New directions for student services, Jossey-Bass, 1994, ISBN 9780787999711.

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