While feminism has largely liberated women from domination and domesticity and helped them find new identities, the paradigmatic male identity has largely remained the same. The way society is structured still favours men in power, and certain attributes like strength, courage, assertiveness, and aggression. This model however doesn’t benefit all men and hinders them from forging their own identity and version of masculinity. A feminist men’s movement could help with that, writes Ashley Morgan.
Women have come a long way since the eighteenth century, and their lives do not have to be dominated by domesticity. In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she proposed the idea of women’s equality with men, especially in terms of education. Wollstonecraft could see the problem of a society in which men dominated women, and this book acted as a springboard to early feminism. Most decades since then have been characterised by at least one feminist movement. The present decade is no exception as demonstrated by the #MeToo, #NoMeansNo and #ChangeTheDiscourse movements, women still must push to get themselves heard.
Men on the other hand, have largely stayed the same. Society is run by the rules of patriarchy - the system of male power which percolates throughout every section of life, including culture, the economy and society at large. Fundamentally, all norms, standards, and units of measure in society are male. The question is, is this arrangement as good for men as it can seem on the surface? And could male identity also undergo a transformation that resulted in liberation from the norms of the patriarchy not just for women, but also for men?
So-called traditional masculinity is still highly valued in most societies: strength, courage, assertiveness, and aggression are all encouraged as seemingly necessary features a man needs to be competitive.
So-called traditional masculinity is still highly valued in most societies: strength, courage, assertiveness, and aggression are all encouraged as seemingly necessary features a man needs to be competitive. In the 1980s R.W. Connell coined the term ‘hegemonic masculinity’ in order to describe the ways in which powerful men continued to dominate in society. Hegemonic masculinity is an ‘ideological practice’ that sustains and supports the interests of the powerful in society. It is in part because of the structure that promotes hegemonic masculinity and the attributes that it rewards, that women can’t achieve equality with men under this ideology.
The idea that all men benefitted from other men’s power, the ‘patriarchal dividend’ was a myth.
One of the problems with conceptualizing patriarchy is that it appears to be something fixed and standardized, a kind of ‘one size fits all’ perception. This suggests that all men are powerful simply because they are men, and that all men benefit from their masculinity. But when researching into masculinity in the 1980s, Connell found that many men felt marginalized and were highly disenfranchised, culturally, economically and socially. Therefore, the idea that all men benefitted from other men’s power, the ‘patriarchal dividend’ was a myth. Moreover, unlike feminism which has had to be dynamic in order to address the multiplicity of issues caused by inequality, masculinity appears to be static. Connell argued that patriarchy as well as rendering women subordinate to men, it marginalizes less powerful men. As Allan G. Johnson suggests, one of the difficult things to remember about patriarchy, as it is so embedded in our social lives, is that everyone is involved in it. Even when we don’t think we’re a part of it – like when some men fail to see how what they oppresses women because they feel like they do not personally oppress women – men are participants, whether voluntary or not.
Men’s movements that have existed have sought and continue to seek to reinforce the precepts of ‘traditional masculinity’, to reclaim power through a fixed sense of ‘manliness’.
Unlike the feminist movements, there is no obvious men’s movement that men can join in order to help women and other men who are oppressed. Men’s movements that have existed have sought and continue to seek to reinforce the precepts of ‘traditional masculinity’, to reclaim power through a fixed sense of ‘manliness’. Hence in the 1960s and 1970s, men’s groups were about ‘reclaiming’ men’s innate ‘wildness’, because men’s ‘naturally’ occurring freedom to be competitive was on wane. Traditional masculinity and ‘men being men’, is believed to be at stake through the creep of feminism; this has a push and pull effect which leads to a stasis in masculinity. The problem with this of course, is that not all men identify with ‘traditional’ notions of masculinity, whose aim is to gain power through oppression.
It is actually not that difficult to imagine a world in which men are supportive of women, because many men are already hugely encouraging in helping to promote women and have always done so. Men supporting women and helping to end sexism has been the subject of much sociological scrutiny, where it has been concluded that society would benefit enormously from greater equality. This would mean that men who felt marginalised by traditional forms of masculinity would also be liberated from feeling they had to conform to antiquated models of oppression, and become free to forge new male identities. This is evidenced through hybrid masculinities, where men take aspects from gay masculinity and femininity, such as through clothing, wearing skirts for example, in order to distance themselves from hegemonic masculinity. Moreover, recent evidence from Eric Anderson demonstrates that younger men are considerably more likely to be sympathetic and supportive of women and gay men, than older men are.
Men who felt marginalised by traditional forms of masculinity would also be liberated from feeling they had to conform to antiquated models of oppression, and become free to forge new male identities.
Yet it is difficult to see this being enacted for two main reasons. Firstly, men supporting equality tends to be conducted at a small local level rather than through a large and obvious cohort, and secondly because many men appear to feel that feminism is an attack on them. Therefore, promoting the idea that men can be feminist too, seems counterintuitive.
There is no obvious men’s collective whose mandate is greater equality for women.
A good example of the dynamics at play is social media. Despite being a forum in which men and women can speak their minds, it has also encouraged men to feel attacked if challenged by women, because many men in positions of power have seldom been challenged before. Many of them do not like it, and hotly refute women’s critiques of what they say. Moreover, many men fail to see the irony that women are being constantly challenged and oppressed by men, because patriarchy obfuscates and normalises this. There are cries of misandry, which might well be the case, but misandry does not topple patriarchy and millennia of traditionally entrenched masculinity, because women’s voices are not powerful voices.
But at stake here is the power of the few over the many. It’s not in hegemonic men’s best interests to promote feminism, as it might upset the uneven status quo which means they might benefit less. Thus, the push and pull effect of masculinity versus feminism stops hegemonic masculinity from moving forward.
Yet, changes are afoot, which suggests that masculinity is more dynamic than it seems, and more importantly, because hegemonic masculinity does not include all men. A number of men’s groups have sprung up on social media (which has also been used as a force for good), offering much needed support for men, especially around mental health, which is still a huge taboo for many. Shared Parental Leave and Pay has allowed many men to spend time with their babies which acknowledges the importance of fatherhood. Furthermore, after the deaths from violence and attack of a number of women in the past couple of years, many men have become activists against male violence, standing up for women and speaking out. Therefore, while it might take a while to get there, some men are certainly on the road to feminism.