By Jasmine Wyeth, founder and President 2011-2012.
Please be aware that this post will focus almost exclusively on binary genders. If you would like to submit blog posts about non-binary genders, feel free to email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. There will also be elements of heteronormativity.
Trigger warning for discussion of suicide.
Why would an Upper-Sixth student give up his Wednesday afternoons, which he would otherwise have free, to talk about human rights with Lower-Sixth students who chose Amnesty International as their compulsory enrichment activity? This was the question that someone asked James, one such Upper-Sixth student, running the Amnesty group when I was in it for my enrichment. “It’s good for your UCAS,” James replied. This was in the Autumn term, and he was thinking ahead to when he would be going to university in a few months- something which is a huge, exciting adventure for many young people.
Fast forward a few weeks. First day back at college after the Christmas holidays. Friends re-united after the break, pleased to see each other again, excitedly talking about what they got up to over the holidays. But the mood becomes subdued when our form tutor informs us that a student in the Upper-Sixth killed himself over the holidays.
I can’t remember when this part happened exactly- it was definitely within the same week, but it may not have been on the first day back. I was in a class, and a friend turned to me and said: “You know that boy who killed himself- it was James.”
James was just 18 years old when he died. I had only met him maybe 3 or 4 times - we weren’t close - but his death has always really affected me. I have no idea why he did it. What I do know is that it never mattered how good his UCAS was.
Rest in peace, James.
Feminism is defined as a movement that fights for social, political and economic equality for all genders, and thus, by definition, feminists are people who fight for social, political and economic equality for all genders. Of course, this leads to some people questioning why the movement is called “feminism” rather than “equalism”, and leads to some people going even further and identifying as an “equalist” rather than as a “feminist”; after all, these people claim, the word “feminism” implies fighting for women’s superiority over men.
This isn’t true, of course - the movement is called “feminism” because it fights to liberate women in order to raise them up to an equal level with men in society. It does this by focusing on issues which primarily or solely affect women, such as abortion, rape, the representation of women in advertising etc. For many feminists, feminism is a movement which has historically focused exclusively on liberating women, and should remain so. I must admit that when I first came to feminism (around the time I turned 16 - I’m 20 now), I must have thought of the movement purely in terms of fighting for women’s rights, unaware of any gender-based struggles that men may face. However, I can see now that viewing feminism as a movement that focuses solely on women is naïve, and I hope I can illustrate why in this post.
In recent times, feminists have had opposition from “men’s rights activists” (MRAs). Of course, there have always been men who have opposed the fight for women’s rights, but in previous times, these men have recognised that women were restricted on the grounds of their gender, believed that these restrictions were justified and should continue to exist. MRAs view feminism differently – they believe that women achieved full equality with men long ago, and thus that feminism is no longer needed. In their view, today’s feminists are indeed just misandrists who are fighting for women’s superiority over men. They believe that feminism has gone too far and we live in a “feminised” society, where men are now the ones who are the victims of gender oppression.
MRAs often attack feminists, and feminists often criticise the men’s rights movement. Both groups have a tendency to view the other as being in direct opposition to themselves, and there appears to be very little/ no attempt at working together. I believe that this direct opposition and lack of constructive discussion is counter-productive to fighting for equal rights. Feminists fight to liberate women from gender oppression, men’s rights activists fight to liberate men from gender oppression – there is a correlation here, and I’m going to make the (perhaps controversial) statement that feminists and men’s rights activists should work together. Both groups are essentially working towards the same goal, that is, to liberate people from gender-based oppression - they are just working towards this goal from different perspectives. So, combining the two groups would strengthen each movement.
A lot of the gender-based oppression that women face arises from gender stereotypes. Such stereotypes include the notion that women are maternal and must thus want children, and the notion that women are very emotional and are good at talking about their feelings. These stereotypes promote a narrow ideal of femininity. However, for gender stereotypes about women to exist, there must also be gender stereotypes about men. Such stereotypes include the notion that men are the breadwinners who should be able to provide for their families, and the notion that men are tough, macho and unemotional and shouldn’t talk about their feelings. These stereotypes promote a narrow ideal of masculinity. Such stereotypes for women and men are often opposites and are complementary to each other, and they lead to complementary gender roles. So, both women and men are subjected to restrictive, limiting gender roles and stereotypes about what it means to be a woman or a man, and thus, it is logical to conclude that women cannot be liberated if men are also not liberated. It is therefore necessary to include discussion of masculinity and men’s rights in the feminist struggle.
I’m going to talk about a couple of issues that the men’s rights movement focuses on to illustrate my point. Firstly, one of the major issues is that of fatherhood and childcare. The men’s rights movement calls for a greater balance in the rewarding of custody of children. Many men perceive the family justice system as favouring mothers. In 90% of disputes over contact with children that are settled through the courts, the children go on to live mainly with one parent, and only in 12% of those do the children live with the father (although it is worth noting that only 10% of disputes are settled through the courts) (1). Currently, there is also no presumption of shared parenting, although in response to many calls for such a presumption from fathers and grandparents, the government are looking at changing this, as long as any change in the law is framed in terms of what is best for children rather than in terms of parents having a right to custody of their children. There is a clear bias towards mothers and against fathers here. Men’s rights activists might claim that this is a clear example of systematic discrimination against men, and perhaps it is, but it will take more than legislative change to really address this imbalance – we need to change the ingrained attitudes that society has about the roles of women and men.
As mentioned before, women are restricted by the gender stereotype that they are maternal and that their primary role is that of a mother. Whilst women have made large gains in education and the workplace, this stereotype is still obvious when women who have had children want to continue with their careers, something which remains notoriously difficult. Feminists fight to make this easier, but in order for this to become easier, we need to break down this restrictive gender role of a woman as a mother. If we placed less emphasis on women being the primary care-givers to children, we could increase the balance of parenting between mothers and fathers, and the role of men as fathers could be promoted. With increased emphasis on the role of men as fathers, it should then become easier for men to gain shared/ sole custody of children after separating from their partners. Thus, in the context of family roles, by breaking down stereotypical notions of femininity and masculinity, both women and men would gain, and both feminists and MRAs would achieve some of their aims.
Another issue that men’s rights activists use as an example of the oppression of men in society is the fact that the suicide rate for men is so much higher than for women. I started this post by writing about James to show that I have a real, personal desire to address this issue. In 2010 in the UK, 5,608 people over the age of 15 killed themselves, and of these, 4,231 were men and 1,377 were women (2). This is despite the fact that more women than men are diagnosed with mental health problems. It is very possible that this disparity is at least partially due to men not feeling able to get help for their problems. Expressing one’s emotions and talking about one’s problems are seen as feminine traits, associated with the stereotype of the emotional woman. Such stereotypically feminine traits are generally seen as “weak”. Men cannot express such traits without also being seen as “weak” and unmanly, and any man who was to express feminine traits would likely be told to “man up”. Men are faced with the restrictive gender stereotype that they must be tough and unemotional, and this stereotype can stop men from getting the help that they need. This is a clear example of double-sexism: sexism against women because stereotypically feminine traits are seen as weak and negative, and sexism against men because they can’t get help if they need it.
In order to address this issue, we again need to break down gender stereotypes. We need to end the polarisation of femininity and masculinity. Expressing one’s emotions shouldn’t be seen as weak- it is a basic human thing to do, and should be something that all people feel free to do, regardless of their gender identity. Instead of stereotyping traits as being feminine or masculine, we need to neutralise them for the benefit of all. Men need to be able to talk about their feelings too, especially when faced with serious problems that could affect their mental health. If we neutralise the trait of being emotional, then it should become easier for men to get help when they need it, and then that would hopefully reduce the number of suicides. Feminists need to fight for this neutralisation so that women are no longer stereotyped as weak, and men need to fight for this neutralisation so that they can feel free to express their emotions and no long feel they have to live up to the stereotype of the macho man. Thus, in the context of emotions and mental health, by breaking down stereotypical notions of femininity and masculinity, both women and men would gain, and both feminists and MRAs would achieve some of their aims.
I believe that both feminists and MRAs have to look at how the discrimination that women face relates to the discrimination that men face, and vice versa. Both sides have to understand that the gender-based discrimination that men face is inextricably linked to the gender-based discrimination that women face. Women cannot be liberated if men are also not liberated, as so long as one gender is boxed into a restrictive gender role, so will the other. Thus men’s rights issues are feminist issues, and the feminist movement needs to include more discussion of how men are affected by stereotypical notions of masculinity and what it means to be a man. Conversely, the men’s rights movement needs to recognise that women are far from achieving equality, and that men will face gender-based discrimination for as long as women face gender-based discrimination. By working together, feminists and MRAs could break down restrictive gender stereotypes together, and thus achieve their aims of liberating people from gender-based oppression much quicker and much more effectively.
1) Peacey, V, & Hunt, J. (2008) Problematic contact after separation and divorce. In Family Justice Review Interim Report (2011), by Norgrove, D. et al., page 180.
2) Suicide rates in the United Kingdom, 2006-2010. Published by the Office for National Statistics.