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Thursday, 7 March 2013

Part-time allies not required

By Matthew C
I recognise the irony of a (trans) man writing about the role of men in feminist spaces and welcome being called out on any mistakes I have made or assumptions that are incorrect. I was asked by a woman within
FemSoc to write this, and hence have. Within this article I’ve spoken or implied primarily about the experiences of cis men and women. I chose to do this due to relevance to the wider movement, and the complexities of gendered socialisation in trans people, whether binary or not. I realise that is a problem with this article.

Feminism societies are not necessarily women-only societies, many, like the one we have, welcome people who are not women as well. However, we’re there as allies, to support the movement. It is not ours. The fact that feminism benefits men too should be wholly irrelevant to our involvement– if we’re in it for some kind of self-gratification or benefit we’ve entirely missed the point. 

In feminist spaces, as in any other spaces, we have male privilege. It doesn’t dissolve just because we’re in a femsoc meeting, and equally just because a space is a feminist space doesn’t mean the women within it suddenly lose everything inherent within female socialisation.
Women have still been socialised to be quiet, to step back, not to disagree with or speak over men – and we have a responsibility to know that, to step back, to recognise that the amazing point, or experience, that we’re desperate to share, may in fact be irrelevant. That point may also be a part of a debate, and it’s easy to get
carried away within debates, but what we’re debating –  for example whether someone was actually misogynistic – is something most men are debating in the abstract, possibly against people who have actually experienced their misogyny. We need to take care not to intellectualise debates and forget that what may only be academic to us may be a real threat faced by women.

On the other hand, there is nothing to say that you shouldn’t hold an opinion different to that of a woman. Women are not a monolithic group with a shared opinion and experience and it would be sexist to say otherwise. There is no harm in disagreeing, but be careful that in doing so you’re not silencing the women you’re disagreeing with, when women are socialised not to disagree with men. However, if you find yourself being the only man espousing a certain point of view in a feminist space, take a long, hard look at why.

It’s easy to bring our wider politics into feminist spaces, to try to convince women to vote for a misogynistic candidate in an election because the rest of his politics are just so good, or to try to convince women to join our organisation because we’re just so spot-on on feminism. Feminism is not disengaged from wider politics, nor from life. It isn’t a tool you can pick up to convince people on the one hand, then ignore when convenient on the other. It isn’t easy to be a feminist. You can’t just decide that a bit of misogyny is alright sometimes, you have to stand up to it solidly.

That might cause problems with your other friendships. You might find yourself having to lose friends because it’s not okay to come to a feminism society meeting once a week and be a good feminist, whilst spending the rest of your time around friends making misogynistic remarks, without calling them out or trying to prevent them.
Being a feminist activist as a man, whether identifying as a feminist or as a feminist ally, has responsibilities. You can’t call yourself a feminist if you aren’t completely committed to examining your every behaviour to ensure that you’re not actually being misogynistic, to ensure that you’re stepping back, to ensure that you’re aware of your privilege. You can’t call yourself a feminist if you’re not completely aware that you’ll make mistakes and if you’re not open to being called out on them – being told that behaviour was wrong, and committing to change it. There are no cookies that come with being a feminist. You’re not going to get a reward for being a vaguely decent human being. If you’re a feminist you’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do.

What can I, as a man, practically do to help within feminist spaces?
  • Always ensure that a space is intended to be mixed gender before entering it – don’t presume because you’re welcome at one event you’ll be welcome at everything
  • Put your hand up and wait to be invited to speak by a woman – even if the group doesn’t generally enforce that policy it means you’re speaking only when wanted, rather than speaking over women
  • Remain aware of your behaviour and if you get called out for making a mistake stop and think about why, and how to correct it. Don’t get overly upset or make the call-out about your feelings.
  • Take on roles nobody else wants to do – do the washing up, set the chairs out, ask the women in the space what needs doing, then do it. Allow the women to be organisers of their own liberation and simply support them in that, taking whichever parts of the burden are impeding their own work most
  • Act respectfully. Remember you are a visitor, invited into their spaces, and treat those spaces that way.
If all of this sounds too much – too big a commitment, then step back, and acknowledge that you’re not a feminist, but don’t claim to be one if you’re not willing to take on all the work that entails


  1. While I completely agree with the article and the points on practical help in feminist spaces. I suppose I have only one question, does avoiding sacrificing personal relationships in order to identify as a feminist-ally make me a part-timer? As a progressive thinking person from a pretty rural culture, I would have to disregard many of my friends and family if I had to '[call] them out or [try] to prevent them' at every instance of socialisation or misogyny. This wouldn't be practical to how I live my life and most importantly wouldn't change a damn thing of the way my 78 year old Grandfather thinks. However I want to aid the movement and to be a supporter of the wider ideology. Does this make me part-time? Am I not required?

    1. I'm replying as the author.

      I think this is difficult. On the one hand, were I to rewrite this I'd emphasise not risking your personal health and safety, physical or mental. I suppose I'd also discuss futility. On the other, do we actively want to maintain relationships with people who are actively harming women?

      I'm not trying to suggest I have all the answers, I suppose I'm more starting a discussion from a point of view that I'm open to changing, and wanting suggestions.

  2. I think there's a lot to unpick in here, and I want to attempt to do so thoughtfully as the author has clearly put thought into the writing. My characters are apparently limited so please see the following comments.

  3. p1

    This article essentialises gender while claiming to do the opposite. Such, I would argue, is the inadequacy of 'privilege politics' as a useful lens for viewing oppression. For example, while stating that women are not a monolithic entity, there is an implied universal subjectivity of "man" and "woman" in identifying a monolithic 'male privilege'. Does not being told to wait for a woman to admit a person to speak also have implications for assuming genders? If we're really trying to break away from heteronormativity it is inconsistent for us to re-essentialise gender by using a lens of privilege politics which necessitates an acceptance of universal subjectivities in order to work. We know the realities are more complex than this, and oppressions work in a myriad of ways which can't be abstracted into quantifiable categories. The alternative is to embrace intersectionality.

    A problem we can perceive is that privilege politics and intersectionality are often talked about in the same conversation, when in actual fact they are logically opposed to one another. Intersectionality recognises the myriad of oppressions which exist in terms of gender, race, sexuality, ability, class, neo-colonialism and much more (as is necessary), while recognising that these oppressions and the delicate and non-universal intersections between these subjectivities cannot simply be translated into atemporal and essential categories of oppression with a corresponding privilege, such is the logic privilege politics demands.

    None of this is to deny that very often there are people who proudly proclaim themselves 'feminist', lambasting any perceived non-feminist while 'in real life', not really thinking much about feminism at all. We've all witnessed that at some point. However, this doesn't mean we shouldn't challenge the consistency of our own politics when thinking about these problems and how to deal with them. In this sense, although I agree with the broader sentiment conveyed in this article, I find deeply problematic the logic of the argument for the reasons mentioned.

    My second issue with this article is how it essentialises the 'feminist' as a concept. We have all come to feminism through different routes. Who reading this can honestly say they have always been a stellar example of a feminist? People change, and have the capacity for change. We have to believe that otherwise there's no point being a feminist at all if we don't want to challenge people's ideas around gender, and ultimately for them to come to our way of thinking. Therefore, it is difficult to take the concept of the 'feminist' as a monolithic entity who fits each criterion at every given time. None of us is a 'biological misogynist' any more than any of us is a 'biological feminist'. Should we pick each other up on (for example - I could pick any number of things) the casual use of sexist language? Of course. However, this doesn't mean ostracizing the offender and saying "you can no longer call yourself a feminist" - we're feminists because we believe people can and do change. So I didn't do the washing up or set out the chairs. Does this mean I don't have a transformative politics around gender in society? Of course not. Lazy perhaps, but it doesn't mean I'm not a feminist.

    1. Matt (author) I'm going to try to give your comment the detailed response it deserves, but there were times when I got a little lost. I apologise.

      If anything, I think I was deeply aware that I was essentialising gender to some extent in the process of writing this. I could have given more detail to what I meant by male privilege, especially given the myriad of differences in experience of it, but instead chose to... create an average, if you will, as best I could, to discuss this. I don't think anyone would disagree with me that in wider society, as a group, men have advantages women don't, that as a group white people have advantages black people don't, etc. I also know the pain of assuming genders very personally, but at the same time I know the pain of being perceived to be a woman and yet being spoken over consistently by people perceived to be men in spaces I thought I was safe in. I realise that at various intersections these things do interact (but please be aware I had 750 words to write this in, and already went way over that).

      I'd say the universal subjectivities of privilege politics allow it to be a useful tool, as long as it's not our only tool. Have I been treated differently, better, in society, since transitioning to visibly male? Yes. I have. As a man in my current situation, am I better off than a woman in the exact same situation would be? Probably, yes.

      I think identity politics fail us because they are abused - I don't believe at their heart they contradict intersectionality at all - but I do think a lot of the time people who don't exist at an intersection will ignore it - I'm both trans and disabled, trans spaces ignore my disability, disabled spaces ignore my transition. That doesn't negate the fact that I still fit into those boxes, though my experience would be very different to someone else in those boxes who was black, for example.

      In terms of your argument about privilege politics and intersectionality I don't believe the two are counterposed. I hear where you're coming from about seeing privilege politics as a ladder, and agree that there are times in which it is ill-fitted to a discussion on intersectionality, but also believe that it can have its place in starting those discussions. I exist at various intersections and am also privileged by the fact that I don't exist at other intersections. The privilege I as a visibly disabled, white, trans man experience in society is very different from that that a non visibly disabled black cis man experiences in society. There are areas in which my race privileges me, there are areas in which the fact that he's cis privileges him.

      The final paragraph I agree with - that people have the capacity to change, and that people do. I don't think ostracising someone for a genuine error should happen, but I also think that genuine error can cause a lot of pain. I didn't set out in the article to tell people that they're not feminists, so much as look at what people can commit themselves to in order to be better feminists and help in the movement more, rather than hindering it.

      I have tried to extemporise the point that women are not a monolithic group, and the same would also apply to feminists.

      On an intellectual level I appreciate the challenge to my post and the stuff you're raising, though I'm aware that it may be taking us to a point where we're intellectualising privilege and intersectionality while rome burns, so to speak.

  4. p2-

    I'm vaguely aware of the background to this article, even if I'm not directly involved. As a member of FemSoc I am concerned that there seems to be a sense of some impending beat-downs being handed out. As I say I don't possess any of the facts, or probably even half the rumours. My anxiety is that from a distance I get the sense of a certain Leninism expressing itself through a temptation to silence or censure people, as though FemSoc were a political party. If some feel others have behaved in a way not conducive to the aims of FemSoc, that conversation needs to be had, but given the transformative politics which unites us a Soc, we need to ensure we are encouraging people to change ways rather than branding them 'this' or 'that'. I hope I'm wrong, but this is my perspective as something of an outsider.

    1. I agree with the aspect of this regarding encouraging people to change rather than beating them down, but am also somewhat an outsider, being out the country at the moment. I would hope that this post could be read as an encouragement to change, to myself as much as anyone else, rather than as a "beat-down".

  5. p3-

    Disclaimer: I'm nervous about submitting this comment. I have tried to give it a lot of consideration; I have read the article over and over and tried not to waffle. I would never claim to be a perfect person, though I would claim to be a feminist. So why am I nervous? I'm nervous because nationally there seems to exist currently a culture of labelling, of non-debate and of exclusion. Frankly, I am worried that because I don't agree with many of the nuances of this article, that I will be labelled a misogynist, and so I feel that even though most people reading this will be friends and comrades, I am still stepping on eggshells. Often, the last point in many 'privilege checklists' is the most authoritarian one: "if you disagree with this, you're a (misogynist/homophobe/etc)". How can you begin to challenge an infallible argument like that? Is that the limit of a transformative politics? I hope not.

    1. I don't think the nuances you're disagreeing with, so far as I can tell, are ones around what makes one a misogynist, so much as ones around what makes one a good feminist in my - one man - 's opinion.

      In spaces that are mine, for example LGBT spaces, I try to call out transphobia in a way that is friendly, engaging, and helps people change. Sometimes though, I'm exhausted and I snap. I'm not comfortable with the idea of judging an oppressed group for not responding to the way they disagree with their oppressors safely.

      The last point I was making wasn't intended to have that nuance - as a man it would be ridiculous hubris to suggest that if someone disagreed they couldn't be a feminst. The point I was making with it more was/is that if you're in feminist spaces you need to be cautious, and that there are ways in which men who consider themselves feminist allies can really help, and we should do more of that. God knows I should.


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