In which I probably piss off the feminists…

Aug 30th, 2011 | Filed under Uncategorized

At regular intervals, it seems, discussion erupts over the role of men within feminism. Arguments go on ad infinitum about whether women-only spaces are an example of the sexism that gender equality is meant to address, or whether they’re a necessary part of the empowerment of women, and all kinds of other arguments. I’ll be honest, I don’t follow them too closely, mainly because I have no interest in getting caught up in in-fighting in a group to which I don’t strictly belong. That’s a lot of words beginning with “in..” right there.

I think people confuse “feminism” and “equality” too often, which I guess can be confusing. The right for women to have choice over their own bodies, for example, is a feminist issue but not strictly an equality issue. If anything, it actually creates a slight degree of inequality – the mother has a greater say over the outcome of a foetus than the father. In absolute terms, that’s unequal. However, a woman’s right to control of her own body is considerably more important than a little gender inequality, so I don’t think it’s valid for men to complain about that inequality. Just saying, it’s a feminist issue, which is not in itself about the creation of a society with equality for women.

However, there’s a fairly decent chunk of feminism that’s about dismantling a societal structure that favours men over women, and puts in place expectations and assumptions that reinforce the status quo. And specifically relating to this, I’ve seen women tell men that their participation is unnecessary – that the struggle for equality for women does not need men, and that rights have to be won, not simply given to an oppressed group by their oppressors.

I have a couple of issues with that approach. The first concerns whether or not feminism “needs” men, and whether the cooperation of men is in some way required as part of achieving equality. History has a few quite obvious examples of oppressors being absolutely key to rights being won by the oppressed.

The 1989 general election in South Africa, the last to separate voters by colour, saw a majority of white voters elect a white man who was undertaking a reform programme that would, by the next general election, see majority rule returned to South Africa. Nobody would argue that black South Africans didn’t fight for and win equality, but one could equally argue that due to the political mechanics of the thing, they were also given their freedom by the oppressing class.

It was men who granted women the right to vote, and while you wouldn’t argue that women didn’t fight for it, and didn’t win it, nevertheless the right was granted by men. Same goes for the slave trade, and the civil rights movement – blacks won concessions from white, but the dynamic there is still one of white people granting rights to black people.

In many case, oppressors recognise their role in oppression, and actively work to end it. South Africans in 1989 were faced with a choice between the National Party and the Conservative Party. The former had a progressive agenda, the latter was a strong supporter of Apartheid. The white voters chose to act to end the oppression in which they were complicit, by choosing the progressive party.

To reject that support, as appears to happen sometimes within feminist circles, seems to me to be unhelpful. It is my view that it is the duty of all people to recognise inequality and to fight it wherever they find it. The idea that the oppressors in any given power dynamic have no part to play in ending that oppression is to reject many historical examples of moves toward greater equality. If oppressors are to play no part in the struggle, then full revolution is surely the only mechanism that actually allows you to cut them out. Have we come to a point where that’s the only option being considered..?

My other issue with the assertion that “rights have to be won, not simply given to an oppressed group by their oppressors” is that it marginalises groups that are unable to fight for their rights. My uncle is mentally handicapped (if you take issue with this phrase, it’s not really your place to tell me how I can or can’t refer to a much loved family member, so save it) and lives in a care home. He’s far from stupid, but he would be completely unable to fight if his rights were threatened.

Responsibility for the defence of his rights rests on his family, and on wider society and their sense of fairness and compassion. His rights are no less important than anybody else’s as a result, and he is no less entitled to them than people who would be willing to fight to the death for theirs. To be honest, it’s actually kind of upsetting to see people trying to make out like the validity of a group’s rights are in some way correlated to how hard they fought to get them. The logical implications for my uncle don’t feel particularly good.

I guess what I take away from it is that there are some people who identify as feminists who do not believe that the cause of female equality requires men. I respectfully disagree, and would instead argue that equality for all is the responsibility of all. If I were running a business in which pay was unequal between men and women, and unilaterally decided that I would fix that in the pursuit of a fairer workplace, I wouldn’t take issue with women arguing that this was something that they had won. Pay equality is something that women have worked hard for, and when a man takes the decision to make that happen, I think it’s fair for them to call that a victory. What I would take issue with would be being told that equality isn’t my fight. That as a white, straight, able-bodied middle-class male, my role is a supporting role. I feel strongly about equality, and I won’t have anybody telling me that it’s not my fight. It’s everyone’s fight.

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