by Jarrah Hodge
Every once in a while I’m asked to recommend books or other resources for men who are new to feminism and want to learn more. I usually start with bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody and follow up with Michael Kaufman and Michael Kimmel’s more recent and more specific book, The Guy’s Guide to Feminism. Now I have a new one to add to the list – one that really explores the diversity of issues and identities of male feminists and pro-feminists: Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power.
The 2nd edition of Shira Tarrant’s edited anthology contains 41 essays (11 new since the first edition) around six themes: Masculinity and Identity, The Politics of Sex and Love, Dealing with Violence and Abuse, Masculinity at Work and Home, Men and Feminism, and Taking Action, Making Change. The insightful, personal pieces cover a range of topics within these themes, including masculinity in hip hop culture, teaching men about violence against women, sexual harassment in the U.S. Military, the problems with the “fathers’ rights” movement, and explorations of sexuality and gender identity.
It’s hard to narrow it down, but if I had to pick my top three highlights of the book, they would be Amit Taneja’s “From Oppressor to Activist: Reflections of a Feminist Journey”, which uses a series of narrative “snapshots” to explore the author’s path to becoming a feminist as a gay, immigrant, person of colour; Jacob Anderson-Minshall on grappling with newfound privilege after transitioning from lesbian to straight white man; and C. Winter Han on fighting racism in the queer community and homophobia in anti-racist groups.
The only quibble I had with the book was Michael S. Kimmel’s intro to his essay, “Abandoning the Barricades: or How I Became a Feminist”. Overall I’m a big fan of Kimmel’s work. I already mentioned The Guy’s Guide to Feminism and Manhood in America is another must-read for anyone interested in the how our current gender roles in the West have been built through pop culture and politics. But I was a tiny bit disappointed reading his contribution to this book because he prefaces it by saying there are things in this older essay that he no longer agrees with, but doesn’t identify specifically what those are other than saying he now identifies as “pro-feminist” rather than “feminist”:
“I’ve left the text as I wrote it in 1975…I do so not because I stand behind every word I wrote more than thirty-five years ago; indeed, I would take a few things back, mute or sharpen various points, or change the language. No, I leave it the way I wrote it not because I stand behind every single word, but because I still stand with the young man who first wrote them.”
I felt like that was kind of a cop-out because it forced me as someone who has a lot of respect for Kimmel to give him the benefit of the doubt on things I disagreed with (it was mostly the overall slightly self-righteous and condescending tone I objected to, such as when he talks about feeling “angry at the men and protective toward the women” watching harassment in his college dorm). I would’ve appreciated more clarity on what he would and wouldn’t stand by so I didn’t just have to assume. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s a minor point.
Back to the big picture: there are big questions about the appropriate roles for men in feminism and Tarrant identifies some of these in her intros to the various sections. For example, in the intro to the part on Men and Feminism, Tarrant writes:
“The puzzle is this: How can we (a) make room in feminism to account for men as “our comrades in struggle,” while (b) retaining a central focus on women, yet (c) avoid reinscribing the gender binaries that feminism-as-female invokes?”
And it is a puzzle. I firmly believe that men have a place in and an interest in feminism. Excluding men does reinforce the idea of essential, binary gender identities. But I do hear the concern of women feminists who are worried about diverting the focus off the inequality of women. They see men feminists working on the same issues and in some cases getting more respect and credit for being men. There is concern that men taking space in the feminist movement might actually silence or marginalize women feminists. As Kelley Temple, Women’s Officer for the UK’s National Union of Students said, “Men who want to be feminists do not need to be given a space in feminism. They need to take the space they have in society & make it feminist.”
Men Speak Out can’t totally resolve this tension but it does a great job starting honest conversations and exploration of these issues. Many of the men in the book acknowledge how important it is to take the lead from and be accountable to women feminists. Ultimately reading the book made me feel really encouraged about the possibility and the desirability of building a feminist movement that can be more inclusive without losing sight of basic principles. This is something that’s needed because, as Tarrant points out:
“Without men’s active participation in feminist political organizing, however, three problems emerge: First, feminism without men inadvertently essentializes a political perspective while paradoxically arguing against essentialist foundations; second, a purportedly inclusive social movement risks framing itself in exclusionary terms; third, a political movement that has among its goals the equal access of goods to society…renders itself responsible for doing the ‘dirty work’ of fixing sociopolitical and interpersonal gender problems.”
Overall this is a book edited by a woman, made up of essays by men largely for men. I think it would make a great read for guys taking or thinking about taking women’s or gender studies at college, or even for men who have an open-mindedness toward and interest in gender equality and the idea of feminism.