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[Guest Post] “White Knights of Women’s Rights”? Yes, Men Can Be Feminists Too!

2012 January 23

It’s a guest post! Please welcome Becky Shepherd to the soapbox. (And if you’ve got a guest post, send a short pitch to [email protected]).

The subjection to online abuse of female writer sorts is something that has, of late, been widely discussed. The press appear to perceive it as a non-issue, even though there resides a catalogue of women who’ve experienced this kind of backlash, ranging from the latently patronising to intimidating and violent threats. But a new twist came when Nick Cohen wrote an article defending writers Laurie Penny, Polly Toynbee and Melanie Phillips – and condemning the vitriol that they in particular experience when passing comment in the mainstream press. His bone of contention is not that any of these women face criticism; that’s a given if you make known your judgement on highly emotive issues. What he does have a problem with, however, is that these journalists encounter very personal, sexually abrasive and downright scary comments because they are women, and that these comments specifically target their womanhood. He even goes as far as to blame the “complicity of newspaper managers” whom he believes do very little to deter this type of victimisation and actively “demean” their female staff.

Seems a commendable sentiment, does it not?

The problem then became that he was zealously praised for bringing these virtual misogynistic tirades to light, despite the fact that female bloggers have been persistently trying to get their mistreatment taken seriously. Feminists are angry that Cohen rode in on his horse, waving his gallant testimony, rescuing the damsels and making this concern valid, like it wasn’t already. Nicky Woolf, another New Statesman voice, wrote a counter piece claiming that “male supporters of women’s rights risk looking like ‘white knights’” and subsequently raised the question: can a man ever really call himself a feminist? There followed a lot of dictionary definitions of feminism and references to the multifarious tapestry that is social theory.

Photo showing wall mural in Ghana showing a set of scales balancing "MEN" and "WOMEN" with a peace dove balancing on top. Photo by Rachel Strohm, shared under Creative Commons.

Photo: Rachel Strohm (

There are those who believe men cannot identify themselves as feminists. End of. The argument being that unless you relentlessly suffer under patriarchy, you can’t comprehend the impact it has on your very existence. I do appreciate this school of thought, and it’s used for many other social prejudices, including racism. The reason I don’t agree with it though, is twofold; firstly I think genuine empathy is just as valuable as shared experience, because it demonstrates a wider acceptance of the goals you’re trying to achieve. If you only encourage your philosophy within the tight constraints of those whom it will inherently appeal to, you’re not going to change anything. It’s like running an ideological bakery; trying to sell cakes to a cake lover is easy, trying to sell cakes to a diabetic is… well, it’s dangerous, but you catch my drift.

My other reasoning is that, as my crudest understanding of feminism is the pursuit of equal rights, refusing to call men feminists on the basis of their gender is hypocritical, and the very antithesis of equality. Throwing inter-defined phrases like ‘pro-feminist’ or ‘feminist sympathiser’ around creates a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mindset. By resorting to the dissection of semantics, you risk alienating someone who wanted to identify with you – and you, with a desire for black and white delineation, then reject them. Men already suffer prejudice if they express any distaste for hegemonic masculinity; it’s difficult to publically denounce sexism without being seen as ‘girly’ somehow. I think it’s widely believed that until traditional ideas about masculinity are rewritten so that’s it ‘normal’ to feel sensitivity to violence and rape, feminism will fail to accrue male mass appeal. I’m sure that lots of men don’t give a flying fudge what their peers call them, but ignorance to the implications of old fashioned gender roles for men is unforgivable. Separate sphere-ism is something that still plagues society, for all genders.

I remember reading a piece by Cath Elliot a couple of years back which looked at this debate. Her most valuable observation is about fragmentation; she speaks of the need to ideologically confine ourselves to very specific labels which can ultimately lead to the splintering of women’s’ groups. She says that the conflict as to what extent men can be included in feminist activism is just another manifestation of that; another thing that can’t be agreed upon and risks hindering progress. I’m not sure how far I agree with this, but it does raise an interesting point about how feminism treats its supporters. It sometimes looks like the remnants of a Pankhurst vs Fawcett debacle, which neglects to realise that ultimately, we all want the same thing. But I think this is probably the case for lots of groups seeking social reform. The political is personal, and personal politics aren’t easy to share.

It translates into pop culture too. A current example of the divide is exhibited in criticisms of Stieg Larsson. The Hollywood revision of The Girl With The Dragoon Tattoo has, yet again, stirred up misgivings about Larsson’s depictions of misogyny in the Millennium Series. I too, feel uncomfortable with the sexed-up sexual violence displayed onscreen, but is it really fair to question the author’s motives? It’s common knowledge that the books were inspired by a childhood trauma, when Larsson witnessed the gang rape of a local girl. And all the evidence suggests that as a consequence, he genuinely abhorred violence against women. He was a socialist activist, founding the Swedish Expo Foundation which sought to expose and end extreme right and white supremacist activity. He was very vocal about his feelings on inequality. So why does it appear so difficult for us to read the message with the spirit in which it was intended? Would we feel the same discomfort towards the franchise if the creator was a woman? If the writing had been female, maybe it would have been viewed as harrowing instead of graphic. But whatever your thoughts on the series, you have to pay credit where credit’s due. Larsson has helped bring misogyny to the forefront of public debate, the volumes have sold 65 million copies worldwide, and the films are huge too. Regardless if it appeals to one’s personal taste, surely the feminist community should embrace the chance to discuss misogyny within a contemporary and popular context?

I suppose for me, my perception of men and feminism is built around my own heroes. My Dad, for one, always instilled a sense of ‘you are not a girl, you’re a person’ in both me and my sister, and that was vital to my understanding of sexism, misogyny and the injustices I felt later on. It’s not because he identifies himself as a feminist, mind – he has no socio-political interest whatsoever. It was simply that, as his children, he wanted to pass on his interests to us, and the fact that we were girls and some of his pastimes were less than feminine was irrelevant. His biggest passions were music and film, and I owe my love of both to him. I was listening to Dire Straits when most girls my age had little in the way of audio knowledge other than the theme tune to Rosie and Jim. He made us have a crack at everything; fishing, sailing, karate. We were taught to use tools. Although I’d like to think my thoughts on egalitarianism are a little more sophisticated than they were as a kid, I do owe my unwavering faith in fundamental parity to the men in my life, as well as the women. So I feel a personal obligation to ensure that men and women are credited and treated fairly.

I do get it. We don’t want to rely on men to make feminism credible – I suppose the fear is that many thoughtful discussions aren’t ‘validated’ until they’re echoed in a male voice, meaning that the content of the message is only getting through via a diluted medium. But to split hairs over whether or not a man calls himself a feminist is flouting the nature of what we’re all about. After all, what’s in a name?

  • Becky Shepherd meanders around Essex looking for shellacs, toot or beer. She’s an aspiring novelist, but until someone’s mad enough to publish her efforts, you can ‘ave a butchers at her blog, All Quiet On The Wench Front, where she’s busy putting the world to rights one parody at a time. She also scribbles for The Indie Pedant and on Twitter: @Becky_Shep.
19 Responses leave one →
  1. Daniel permalink
    January 23, 2012

    Excellent post – sensible and insightful. We need more voices like this and fewer seeking division and self-promotion. I will come back to this next time I’m planning on arguing about men and feminism.

    • Becky Shepherd permalink
      January 23, 2012

      Thank you very much!

  2. Stephen B permalink
    January 23, 2012

    Best quote I saw recently (online somewhere): “I want every man who doesn’t openly call himself a feminist to explain to the women in his life why he thinks they don’t deserve to be treated equally.”

    I get a lot of abuse (online) for calling myself feminist, from men and women. Interestingly, it’s never focused on my attractiveness, doesn’t suggest I should stop saying anything online, and isn’t sexually threatening. So I decided I could put up with it, since I see all of those aimed at female feminists often.

    • Becky Shepherd permalink
      January 23, 2012

      So maybe the vitriol is thrown at anyone who expresses an explicitly feminist sentiment, rather than just women?

      Although yeah, the nature of the rage isn’t the same.

      • Stephen B permalink
        January 23, 2012

        Well, I can understand some of it – if I express ANY strong opinion, then I’m telling women how to do feminism. And that’s true, there’ll always be women who take an opposite stance on an issue, and I’m disagreeing with them. But yeah, I think some of it (from both men and women in my experience) is specifically aimed at men who claim to be feminists.

  3. January 23, 2012

    That was an interesting article, thanks. Although, I don’t entirely agree. In my opinion, (here we go, eh?;) empathy is a vitally important ability, but not *quite* a substitute for actual experience. I think men can be feminists in the “I’m Spartacus” sense, and should be applauded for it — maybe given a medal or something, blokes like that kinda thing.*

    *I’m joking. No medals.

    • Russell permalink
      January 23, 2012

      The argument that Becky slightly danced around, of course, is that patriarchy hurts men too, by limiting the forms of expression, lifestyle, and identity available to them. Not every man in a patriarchy is directly responsible for it (though no doubt many are) and not every woman is absolved of responsibility (though no doubt many deserve to be). So long as we don’t live in a gender-equal society, and so long as the name we give to the movement to create that society is “feminism”, then I think that men can be and should be part of that movement. As a male who identifies as a feminist, while empathy plays an important part, it isn’t my sole motivator; there are lots of ways in which I’d like for it to be okay to express myself which aren’t because of my gender, and lots of expectations which I don’t particularly want to actually live up to.

      • Becky Shepherd permalink
        January 23, 2012

        Did I “slightly dance around” it? I think I out and out say that patriarchy silences men too?

        But I do really like your point about feminism and the ultimate achievement of gender equality being as valuable to men as it is to women, which I didn’t consider. The fact that men would hold ‘selfish’ motives means that we do have a shared oppression, and they can be feminists for the same reasons as women.

  4. Jennifer permalink
    January 23, 2012

    I’ve never heard anyone say that men can’t be feminists and would have liked more evidence of examples of this in this article, if this is a major school of thought from feminists.

    I am uncomfortable with this article, because I see ‘but men are feminists too’ often used as a reason for challenging women-only spaces and protest forums. Because feminism is so persistently marginalised, I believe women-only spaces are a very valuable forum for women to find their political voices and identities. Feminism nurtures the female leaders that are so desperately needed.

    In my experience feminists in the charity and community sectors aren’t saying a) that men can’t define as feminists or b) that feminism does not want men in the feminist movement.

    We obviously don’t want a female only society: we want a transformed society where power and privilege are not alloted by gender. That necessarily must include feminist men.

    However the value of the voice of someone who has been oppressed fighting that oppression cannot be undervalued. I am passionate about equality, but I would not presume to set myself at the helm of a black or gay civil rights movement, because I am not black or gay; instead I would view myself as working in solidarity with them.

    Someone recently asked me to define feminism and I suggested that is is the reaction to patriarchy. This would explain the different threads of debate, which I see as healthy rather than fragmentory or a ‘debacle’. We have different backgrounds and so we respond to patriarchy in different ways.

    It is a delight that so many men in this millenium care about fighting gender inequality. We can plan a transformed world together. But where should their voices be in a movement that needs to empower and strengthen women?

    I wish that were more the sort of question this article had posed.

    • January 23, 2012

      @ Jennifer

      ‘I’ve never heard anyone say that men can’t be feminists’, well, you for one seem to imply they’re not welcome, in your desire to create ‘women-only spaces’? If men aren’t allowed into your women only spaces then it may prove difficult for them to lend their support/input. I’d argue whether they’re called feminists or not becomes a mute point because you’ve marginalised them already and made them feel unwanted.

      Actually that seems very odd you would actively choose to try and marginalise people who offer support of your ideals on the basis of their gender, espesh when the likelihood is the very men lending support are men who quite possibly feel they have been ‘oppressed’ in some tangible/personal way.

      Anyway, really nice article Becky. Enjoyed the context/ description of your father, which gave it a lot of heart and all in all got me thinking.

      P.s. One final thought is that I’ve never actually met a man who wanted to be called a feminist. It’s probably an accurate word to describe my feelings about women and society and the need for equality, but I’ve no desire to be labelled it or to join a group (if some men do, let them?).

    • Miranda permalink
      January 23, 2012

      In terms of your “where is this being said?” question, I think Becky is mainly responding to the Nicky Woolf article for the New Statesman (arguably quite high profile since it’s on a popular and widely-read platform). That piece explores a few avenues but essentially does conclude with a heavily implied “nope, men can’t call themselves feminists; they can use ‘pro-‘ or ‘ally’ instead.”

      I’m personally wary of some women-only spaces, because many of them have in my experienced had, as a corollary to “women-only”, fostered a frankly crap record of transmisogyny which – ironically enough! – has marginalised a fair few people. But others I have found helpful in my time. I don’t think men calling themselves feminists means they have to attend every single feminist event – I certainly don’t attend every feminist event! Some events, such as BlackfeministUK’s meetings, for example, aren’t intended for me, and I accept that. I think a lot of the feminist men I know could also accept that some spaces weren’t for them and that’s okay without forfeiting their right to use a word.

      I enjoy the visual statement events like Million Women Rise and Reclaim the Night make – in fact, here is our Jenni talking about the advantages of those women-only spaces! But I also feel like those events don’t need to be regimented – a lot of women attend them, and a lot of men don’t want to ‘get in the way’ and don’t attend them anyway. A lot of men also make noise about feeling shut out from things like International Women’s Day, which always gives me cause to cringe, but in any case, I don’t think gatekeeping the word “feminist”, access to which it’s quite widely held should not be dependent on race, sexuality or class at the very least, helps the issue much.

      I think potentially that there is room for women-only spaces AND men in feminism! I also think the conversation doesn’t really benefit from being framed in linguistic terms of who can’t – I prefer focussing on who is particularly encouraged to attend, rather than who should stay away. I think it should be an enabling movement wherever possible, with lots of space (and spaces) for lots of people.

      I agree with you that it’s tricky, and though I do identify as queer-bi, I also wouldn’t “set myself at the helm of a black or gay civil rights movement” – I think the movie The Help is an example of a preferred dominant narrative where the “story of the white ally” is the narrative Hollywood is more interested in selling and telling than one which focusses directly on black voices or involves their writing. However, I wouldn’t want to ban it.

      So I don’t think a one-or-the-other approach is always helpful in feminism. It is not directly comparable I don’t think, but in the civil rights movement there were Freedom Rides, which were good and had one kind of impact. And then I think that Black Power did a lot of good and had another kind of impact – an important one. And I think that both were important for the course of history, and continue to be so.

      And bringing it back to men in feminism – I think the issue of what “male” and “female” are and could mean is difficult. There are many kinds of women. And there are many kinds of men. And there are people like Mx Justin Vivian Bond who use pronouns that go beyond a gender binary. Of course I don’t think men in feminism should silence women, but I also don’t want to antagonise them. Many of them are very much not my enemy.

      Class is also a major factor in all this. I do not personally feel more in common with Margaret Thatcher on the basis of shared gender than I might with a fellow male striking union member on the basis of class issues. Again and again I find that I come back to this particular puzzle.

      This blog team is around 25% non-female identified – which doesn’t mean everyone who doesn’t identify as female is necessarily a cis male – and I think that it’s the better for it. I think the team learn from each other, even when they absolutely disagree. It’s not a model for everyone, but it has certainly helped us understand each other better both as feminists and more generally.

      • Becky Shepherd permalink
        January 23, 2012

        Miranda – I wish I’d mentioned class and other ways in which people identify themselves, because I think your point is really important. The implication that I have a shared plight with Theresa May because we both happen to be female makes me feel sick.

        Jennifer – You use the word solidarity but I can’t understand how you can consider yourself “in solidarity” with a group of people, if that group is split into hierarchies of who is more valuable – dictated by whether you’re man or woman, black or white, gay or straight? Surely that’s exactly the kind of mentality we’re trying to erode? And “threads of debate” are fine – as long as they’re all treated with equal relevance – but threading can turn into fragmenting, which I’m against.

        Don’t get me wrong, I think you’re right that the suffering of the oppressed mustn’t be undermined. But what’s just as important for me is that nobody is said to be less entitled to feel outrage at injustice, nobody’s treated as if their motives are questionable just because the ones they have aren’t exactly the same as the masses. We don’t have a right to do that. No one has ideological omnipotence.

        I’ve felt dejected and outsider-ed by a few protest groups, and if I’m honest it’s why I don’t take a more vigilant role in activism. Being made to feel like your participation isn’t necessary because you don’t fit that particular anarcho-mould happens quite a bit. I worry that progressive ness and protesting will become a ‘scene’ as a result of exclusivity.

        The question of “where men’s voices fit into feminism” makes me uncomfortable; it makes me feel like one is asking “oh, you want to be a feminist? What are your credentials? where can we fit you in our clique”

      • Miranda permalink*
        January 23, 2012

        Also, I would very much hope men CAN be feminists, otherwise a number of people who help out with this blog are in a bit of a pickle.

        And what about if you say “screw gender! I am neither” or are intersex? It might not be many people statistically but they pose a valid question about the usefulness of a binary-segregated approach. I think there are positives to an approach that focusses on women and women bonding and working together as a group, but I also think the negative side of that coin, namely defining “woman” a certain way or claiming “womanhood” as the predominant uniting factor for two women who may be from very different backgrounds and have reasons to disagree on the issue, can bring with it its own limitations.

        I say this because once you get into which men get to identify as feminists, I think it gets pretty marginalising (only if queer? only if they are not cis? Or do no men at all have experience of gender oppression? Why not? To put it another way: there is at least one man on this blog’s team who defines as a feminist and who has arguably encountered as much if not more gendered harassment – from both other men and from women – as the women on the team. And also from self-identified feminists, very unfortunately.) There is certainly a difference in experience, access to privilege, and so on, between many men of many backgrounds, and between cis white men and men who identify differently. Absolutely. But it …isn’t a simple two-camps issue.

        I don’t particularly want to isolate “cis white males” as a “least welcome” group either. I do think it is a useful shorthand as a term when you’re blogging, and we’ve used the phrase, absolutely (eg. “this film is catering to the fantasies of…”) but I wouldn’t say someone couldn’t read the posts, or contribute one, or call themselves part of the movement on that basis. No one is saying it’ll end up like this, eh.

        I just don’t find it helpful, not least because feminists are people, and they exist in three dimensions, and many of them are friends and partners with these men. And if these men – any men – want to know how they can help and what they can do and what’s-it-all-about, then I welcome that. The rule of thumb for me is “listen and learn and don’t act like an arse” – and that applies to pretty much everyone regardless.

        And if they don’t attend every event, that’s fine. It’s not a prerequisite of the label. Many very good bits of writing on here are by men. I like that. I think it’s a good business.

        (Another man who blogs well on a feminist blog: Garland Grey over on Tiger Beatdown.)

    • January 23, 2012

      I’ve been thinking about women’s spaces lately, and why they are special. I went to an all-women’s college, spent time in various women’s groups and have recently been participating in women’s groups for my male-dominated profession.

      I found a similar space recently though, at a local political movement, that had nothing to do with gender. Instead it was carefully facilitated by an experienced anarchist facilitator who purposefully disrupted power dynamics and attended only by explicitly feminist people who were experienced in active listening. I do not believe it is gender that is important: I believe it is behavior.

      I have been in at least as many women’s spaces that failed as those that succeeded, because while being a woman is correlated with a listening, receptive, collaborative, high-social-intelligence approach to the world it is certainly no guarantee. As much as it is much harder work, in the long run the only way to change the status quo is to explicitly teach both men and women the skills we value from those all-women’s spaces. There are many women poorly served by separate spaces (trans* women, queer women and gender-explorers most obviously, but also poor women, women of color, immigrant women, women who don’t speak English well or those with cultural experiences unlike the predominant White, middle-class feminist norms).

      As much as women’s spaces made some things easy for me personally, I consider them at best a short-term bandaid and not a long-term panacea. The exclusion of the consideration of men’s oppression under patriarchy has been a serious blind spot that has hurt feminism as theory was built on incomplete information. I think women’s spaces can be extremely helpful as short-term, personal consciousness raising spaces and day-to-day support. I think they are a highly exclusionary way to build a movement.

    • October 7, 2012

      women only spaces for ‘nurturing’ leaders? separate but equal then? awesome. thank you. so the coloreds can go from one master to another. yay us.

  5. January 23, 2012

    There are many ways that men suffer under patriarchy, or are rewarded for signing devil’s bargins. It is possible not only for men to be feminist on the basis of women’s experiences, but on the basis of their own experiences as well. Those who claim that men can not be feminist are the same ones that don’t consider the abuse men inflict on each other in the name of patriarchy a feminist issue: I do. Not one that it is women’s responsibility to solve, but a true, deep tragedy.

    I find many claims of White Knighting to be attempts to silence feminists, period. It is not men’s fault they are given more weight by sexists: all that does is give them a greater responsibility to speak out early and often. They *can* go out of their way to reference the feminist thinkers they are drawing from and are responsible for not claiming other people’s ideas as their own, but I expect sexists will encounter feminist arguments for the first time in men’s writings basically by definition.
    I think the truly problematic behavior is better described by the word “mansplaining”, where men attempt to tell women how to be feminist. Simply talking about feminism, participating in an ongoing online exchange of feminist ideas or highlighting sexist issues without attempting to drown out women’s voices I do not find in the least problematic.

    • Miranda permalink*
      January 23, 2012

      “Simply talking about feminism, participating in an ongoing online exchange of feminist ideas or highlighting sexist issues without attempting to drown out women’s voices I do not find in the least problematic.”

      This! This is what I think, but said nice and clearly :)

      • Becky Shepherd permalink
        January 23, 2012

        Here, here! No hijacking from anyone, please!

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