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Tuesday, August 13, 2002
Can men be feminists? My response

I've always considered the question "Can men be feminists?" and others like it, a little odd, especially within the context of feminism. Consider:

1) Feminism holds a strict body/mind distinction, usually expressed as "sex vs. gender." Genetics determines sex, i.e. what genetalia and physical characteristics a person will have. However, parents, society, lifetime experience, i.e. nuture, determines gender. Thus, male-and-female are natural and biological, while masculine-and-feminine are artificial human constructs. We can't change the biology of sex, but we can, and should, change the psychology of gender.

2) Since we can choose how we socialize our children, we can raise feminine males, or mascualine females, or come up with n other genders we've not even considered yet (I ignore the sexual variation of hermaphrodites and other rarities for simplicity).

Unfortunately, language is not the exact tool of discourse we like to think it is. Word meanings change from context to context, and sometimes the changes are so slight we don't even notice them--Marx jumped between meanings a lot to seduce his readers. So I must ask, is a "man" someone who is male, or someone who is masculine, or both?

To say "Males cannot be feminists" would be ridiculous, and would undermine the feminist sex/gender distinction. Women could believe in a philosophy that men could not even begin to consider in the same way that the color-blind could not perceive color. Once we decide that certain biological subsets of humanity cannot understand certain philosophys, we unlock the gates to a barbarian horde of stupidity. Men could start saying that women are incapable of engineering, or white supremicists could claim that blacks are incapable of appreciating Cicero.

To define "man" as "masculine person" also seems contrary to our use of the word. I have met many masculine women, but I rarley apply the word "man" to them, and then only for dramatic effect, rather than as accurate description.

So, if my theoretical interlocutor has actually thought about his question, he must mean that "men" are both masculine and male. This also has problems, since we would still apply the word "man" to feminine males, but for the sake of argument, we'll go with it. So, can masculine males be feminists?

That depends on your idea of "masculinity." For me, the answer would be yes. My concept of masculinity explicitely forbids all gender violence, and includes empowerment of women, despite my rock-heart facade. It just made me emulate the "strong silent type," but since my emotional issues are independent of my politics, this allowed me to be a feminist.

However, other forms of masculinity do include, and can even require, gender violence--consider some rap lyrics, or Latin American machismo. One could argue that such masculine people are psychologically unable to be feminists.

So, can men be feminists? Depends on the man.

I must question my interrogator's motivations. If he has thought out the question as far as I have, he should realize that he poorly worded it. I could simply assume that he hasn't thought out the question, but then I fall into the trap of smug superiority. So, if the asker agrees that the main issue is psychology rather than biology, and he also agrees that biology and psychology are independent, he must agree that the answer depends on the pyschology, making my answer trivially true.

However, my questioner does not want to make mind and body so independent. As Mr. Waligore aks, "Because men can choose whether or not they believe in feminism or be concerned with feminism, does this make them less of feminists, if they choose to be? Meaning, if they can opt out, are they really feminists in the same sense as women who must experience being a woman in this society?"

Apparently, for men, feminism is a choice, while for women, it is a requirement. Although mind and body are independent, people react to the body in a way that affects the mind. Thus, biology indirectly enforces psychological gender roles. Fair enough. I will readily agree that women tend towards feminism more than men because of their differing gender experiences. But to say that these differing experiences require women to be feminists and preclude men from ever "truely" becoming feminists is ridiculous. Feminism is a philosophy, not a product of biology or psychology. Feminism is not synonymous with being a woman. Psychology is a weird thing, determined by dodecillions of variables. The single variable sex cannot determine whether a psychology nudges someone toward feminism or against it.

Equating "feminism" and "womanhood" makes the argument even more ridiculous. First of all, it would deprive radical feminists of a favorite rhetorical tool: accusing non-feminist women of "collaborating" with the patriarchy. Women can't collaborate with the patriarchy, since women must be feminists. This would also make all politics impossible. You can't be against invading Iraq until you've been an Iraqi being invaded. You can't oppose the drug-war until your own property has been seized under asset-forfeiture laws.

The argument is further muddied by something I mentioned before: since we can choose how we socialize our children, we can raise feminine males, or mascualine females, or come up with n other genders we've not even considered yet. How do these "transcendent" genders, neither masculine nor feminine (or both!) fit in. Would such people be unqualified to enter the feminist debate? Or suppose all the world shifted to a new gender system--would feminism be dead? Or would it adapt to conflicts between the new genders?

Since psychology influences whether a person can hold a given philosophy, and since psychology is independent of biology under feminist doctrine, feminists cannot preclude men from joining their ranks. Some simple exhuastive thought shows this. Certainly, men can't experince womanhood, and so would have different perspective on the matter, but that doesn't mean he can't believe statements like "yes, women are oppressed." So why would a person, going through this thinking, ever answer "no, men cannot be feminists"?

I can only conclude that some more radical feminists do not actually try to solve the problems of gender in society today, but use them as an excuse for some other agenda, either politcal or ideological. For some odd reason, this means making feminism a women's only party. So they answer the question before they even ask it.