Since I am an outspoken male feminist working as a gender equality expert, I have always felt that people mostly treat me like an exotic specimen. Sometimes, they’re not sure how to react. Sometimes, they think that I’m a total misunderstanding. And sometimes, they even thank me for simply being the only male in the room discussing gender equality issues. The reactions have always been diverse, and I perfectly understand why.
Fight for gender equality isn’t exclusively about alleviating women’s status
So many people perceive the struggle for gender equality as women’s struggle. THEY need this. It’s THEIR trouble. Over the past two years, after I published my first introductory book on feminism, I spent my time diving deeper into the topic of masculinities and published my second book on that. My goal was to make sure my readers understand that the fight for gender equality isn’t exclusively about alleviating women’s status or situation. I wanted to show that men are not immune to gender stereotypes; they suffer from them as well and experience so many social constraints because of that. Therefore, it’s their struggle, as well.
And that’s not the only reason to have men as partners in this struggle.
It has never been all-female
The early feminist movements that fought for women’s suffrage had quite a few fellow men who were active in the struggle.
Richard Pankhurst, solicitor and a husband of Emmeline Pankhurst, who has been an influential leader of militant suffragettes in the UK, drafted one of the first bills for women’s suffrage and women’s property rights and was an active supporter of the cause.
32 out of 100 signers of the Seneca Falls Declaration adopted in 1848 were men. This Declaration laid down the crucial arguments for gender equality and was a result of the first women’s rights convention in the US. By the way, some of the males who signed were husbands and family members of those women activists.
Frederick Douglass, a black abolitionist, writer, and orator was one of the most influential figures in the struggles for the abolition of slavery and social reforms in the 19th century. However, social injustice for him wasn’t just an isolated case of racial subjugation of black people, he wholeheartedly supported women’s rights and not only put his signature under the aforementioned declaration, but advocated it loud and proud.
So there were men in the women’s suffrage movements who used their voice, networks, privilege, and professional qualities to support the cause since they saw it as a question of justice, solidarity, and equality. Indeed, today’s men might find enough inspiring examples of male figures in the history of struggles for gender equality.
Men are suffering from gender stereotypes, too
We surely know that gender equality is good for men. It reduces the harmful impact of gender stereotypes on men; it helps them to shake off toxic masculinity that’s toxic not only to those around them but also to themselves. When everyday life is less about hard work of accessing and maintaining power and privilege over others, when there’s less nerve-wracking stress of sustaining the image of a true, real man – life gets better. When men get more emotional space and freedom, they get less (self)destructive. They start caring for their families, partners, and children, appreciating and cherishing the relationships, and caring for their health and wellbeing.
It sounds like a question of quality of life, yet sometimes, it still feels too detached from real life and too abstract to comprehend when you are living your everyday life. I’ve learned that what annoys me the most is stereotypes and the constraints it brings in my daily experience.
For instance, the way I, my family, and others in the street and on social media judge my body: unfit, too skinny, not muscular enough, not hairy enough. The pressure to be neat-handed and know how to repair everything you have in your house. Don’t get me started on the pressure to be interested in cars and technology, to like and play sports, or learned paralyzing fear of other men’s touch that can compromise your sexuality in seconds. There’s also a stigma on male friendships that bring constant stress of having to navigate between friendly affection and masculine roughness. The lack of knowledge and intuition on how to foster a relationship. The pressure to act and look self-confident when you are not, to pretend you are not afraid when you are, to hide your tears while in pain and suffering.
This perspective helped me to see that gender stereotypes intruding on your intimate life, and self-image is what brings the most prominent harm to men. Fighting against that is a part of the gender equality agenda.
Women are progressing, while men are trapped
Just look at the progress women achieved concerning their rights, opportunities, and situation in Western societies. There’s still a lot of space for improvements (keeping in mind that no country on Earth has achieved gender equality yet), but we already can witness how far we have come, especially in Europe and Scandinavian countries. The fight for women’s emancipation has transformed their traditional gender roles as only mothers or wives, and now they live entirely different lives comparing to those of the 19th century. How emancipated are modern men? Have their roles changed to the same extent as women’s? Can we see the signs of men’s emancipation from traditional roles?
While we see positive development in women’s roles, men appear to be stuck in their traditional role and group psychology as workaholic breadwinners, staying away from “feminine” stuff like childcare and household chores and suffering from emotional constraints, acting self-destructively. The gender statistics that cover these aspects show very little progress in the situation of men.
While women emancipate, men seem to be trapped in their position, unable to adapt to the new norms and transform their identities. Sure, for women, it took three or even four waves of feminist movements. More than a century of struggles, activism, and advocacy. How many transnational social movements were organized by men and for the emancipation of men? Zero or close to zero. That’s why we need to explicitly include and encourage men to speak up and advocate for the emancipation of men from the traditionally masculine roles. If we only work towards emancipation and empowerment of women and leave men somewhere aside on their own, to reach gender equality would be extremely difficult.
Whataboutism can be transformed into something more productive
When I would speak about gender equality while participating in public discussion or presenting my first book on feminism, I would hear a question that is so familiar to feminist activists: “What about men? Why don’t you speak about the injustice experienced by men?”. Even though my version of gender equality has always implicitly included men and the emancipation of men. There’s plenty of arguments (this one and many more) why such an approach to any social issue is misleading and unethical. And I know from experience that there’s no proper way to respond to this question in a satisfying way for a whataboutist.
However, I love responding to this by encouraging men not to ask others (for instance, women activists or other men) to speak about men’s experience, but to use their voice to tell how they perceive their situation concerning the gender stereotypes and injustice. And I genuinely believe that these personal accounts, these spoken or written experiences need to have a place in the gender equality discussion. Not at the expense of safe spaces for women, not by replacing feminist discussion with discussion on men’s experiences, no. Men’s experiences must have its own space, located somewhere inside the gender equality agenda. I guess after this, the question “what about men?” would appear to be meaningless.
Modern men are craving for new concepts of masculinity
I’m sure you have heard the popular opinion about contemporary men feeling misguided, unsure, disoriented about their role and identity as men because of the fast-changing world and social norms. There should be plenty of articles and research on that, but I want to draw attention to the other side of this disorientation.
I’ve learned from modern men by interviewing them on my podcast: the present modern or postmodern masculinity is tied up with a constant search for new masculinity norms and symbols. They are in the creative process; they seek to find other, less traditional ways to be a man in this society. So the present men crave inspiration and search for new role models, ideas, and concepts of masculinity. They undergo a process of becoming men of the new generation, and there is no better time for us to provide guidance and encourage men to recognize their role in building a more equal and healthy society.
Apparently, it’s almost everyone’s struggle, so let’s keep it moving forward.