About 10 years ago, a lot of people started wearing “this is what a feminist looks like” T-shirts—including male celebrities. Actors such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt donned the tees in support of the “f-word.”
While the general acceptance and ubiquity of the self-describing term “feminist” can be seen as progress, slapping the word on 100-percent cotton also raises some questions. What is feminism beyond a self-given label that you advertise to others? What does a feminist man actually look—and act—like?
A feminist man, technically, is just a man who is a feminist. But because feminism aims to challenge the power men have in society, feminist men need to do more—and different—work both internally and collaboratively in order to advance feminist ideals in support of a more just society.
And while, again, calling yourself a feminist is good, the “this is what a feminist looks like” T-shirts worn by so many men both represent and reveal larger issues with embracing the term before doing your research and understanding your role. The fact is, some of the shirts were controversial because they were being produced in factories in Mauritius, where women work long hours in poor conditions for little pay. Does saying you support gender equality mean anything if you’re also supporting the system that upholds injustice?
Think of the feminist tees as a metaphor: While they have a snappy, appealing message on top, it’s what’s going on underneath, behind the scenes, that’s a crucial part of the picture, and that’s how we’ll discuss feminism here, in particular what it means for men.
What is feminism and how do we distinguish feminists?
Feminism is an ideology, a social and political movement—of the equality of people regardless of sex or gender—that has taken many forms in recent history. From suffragettes in the 19th century to legal rights to birth control to fighting workplace harassment, it can look like a lot of different things. Too often, it’s had a white face and has excluded trans women. Present-day feminism is intersectional feminism that is about more than just oppression based on sexism, but rather a larger critical stance against systems of oppression.
The American author and activist bell hooks has written extensively on feminism, as a movement that takes into account the fact that Western society treats people differently based on race and class. She writes that “feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” and “as long as women are using class or race power to dominate other women, feminist sisterhood cannot be fully realized.”
Thus, the movement for the equality of women cannot ignore those societal injustices. Rather, it has to include and account for them. This aligns with the idea of equity: while equality is the idea that all humans have the same worth, equity is focused on how different treatment is needed for different people based on historical and present day oppression and unfairness.
Black feminist scholars including hooks, Audre Lorde, and Angela Davis make clear that feminism is about systems of power, which include (and are not limited to) sexism. With a systemic analysis, one that recognizes that sexism is a result of a history of oppression that cannot be disentangled from racism and classism, feminism becomes a larger and harder-to-pin-down concept. So, inherent to being a feminist is acting in ways that meaningfully challenge these systems of power.
Men who don’t already think about these topics can easily begin doing so by seeking out books, podcasts, and other feminist media.
“Expand what you expose yourself to. Open your eyes and shut your mouth. Look around you and listen,” Lee Hurley tells men. Hurley is a writer who runs the sports website Daily Cannon, and is a self-described feminist. “Put yourself in their shoes: ‘How would I feel if this was happening to me every day?’”
How can men learn and benefit from feminism?
“One of the greatest powers of masculinity/patriarchy is to make men oblivious to it,” said Mukoma Wa Ngugi, a poet, author, and activist, in an interview with Quartz.
For men, becoming aware of the privilege one holds is a major first step in working for equity and justice. No one person has a neutral or objective experience. For men, learning to pay attention to the ways masculinity impacts their worldview is an important place to start.
Even though the world may seem normal to each of us, understanding the fact that you have a very specific perspective on things—due to a position of relative privilege—is a way of both being humble and being open and curious to other people’s experiences, especially women.
“Stop thinking you know best,” Hurley, who is a transgender man and experienced harassment and sexism before his transition, advises other men. “There are a lot of things you haven’t experienced, and it doesn’t mean they’re not real.”
For men who believe in gender equality and who want to fight sexism and challenge patriarchal norms, it can be helpful to recognize one’s own self-interest in challenging gender roles, norms, and systems of oppression. Cultural expectations of masculinity can result in behaviors that are harmful to men. Suicide and substance abuse are two problems that disproportionately affect men in a culture of traditional masculinity.
Ryon McDermott, a psychologist who helped the APA create new standards for clinicians who treat men and boys, defined harmful traditional masculinity as “an extreme form of stoicism, dominance, violence, and aggression,” in an interview with The Atlantic.
“Throughout our generations—our fathers’ generations, our grandfathers’ generations, we’ve been taught that the lone wolf was the strongman, that we have to do everything ourselves, that we don’t need help. That’s a myth,” says Mike Sagun, a personal development coach with the men’s support community EVRYMAN.
For men who are curious about shifting from supporting feminism in theory to transforming their behavior, it can start with internal work to notice where society’s ideas of masculinity has hurt them. While patriarchy is certainly most directly damaging to women, gender nonconforming people, and trans people in a variety of acute and structural ways, it creates values and norms that are limiting and restricting for cisgender men as well.
The societal norm of men not being emotional can lead to self-harming behavior and addiction. The Western standard of men being breadwinners can result in the lifetime prioritizing work over relationships with family and children. The idealized image of a tough man can prevent the formation of meaningful friendships with other men.
“To be an oppressor is dehumanizing and anti-human in nature, as it is to be a victim,” wrote Black feminist theorist bell hooks in Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism.
Certainly this process of identifying one’s personal stake in the feminist movement shouldn’t be work that takes priority in feminist groups or spaces centered around those with marginalized gender identities, but it is a tangible way that men can connect to the work of gender justice and can begin to shift behavior.
2 critical steps for male feminists and allyship in the workplace
1. Develop interpersonal skills
For Sagun, a lot of those practices of challenging societal norms begin with the simple interpersonal skills of listening and asking for permission.
“Listening is a powerful tool that I teach guys in my coaching practice—that skill of really being present with another person, allowing and giving space for people to speak, and not already have something planned in your head to speak or to rebut or to defend,” Sagun says. “Part of this is vulnerability. It’s allowing ourselves to be impacted by other people.”
For men who hold power—either formal or informal—in the workplace, listening to experiences of others should be open and vulnerable.
“As a leader, when we can open up that line of connection between people—being open to listening to the hurts, the pains, the struggles of what’s happening in the organization—we can see the humanness in all of us, and that allows for more compassion and empathy,” Sagun says.
In a society built on domination, with a history full of legally sanctioned sexual violence, practicing consent is an individual step toward healthier relationships and patterns. Yes, consent is crucial in sexual relationships, but consent in conversation and interactions is another often overlooked piece toward treating all people better. Asking permission and checking in before diving into a topic are ways to ensure that all the people in a conversation have power in the interaction and to show deep respect for the independence, preferences, and needs of other people.
“With permission, the person being asked can say yes or no,” Sagun says. “That is a really valuable thing to practice when we are trying to connect with people in the workplace.”
2. Recognize privilege and shift power
In terms of daily interpersonal practices at work, male feminists can not only stop engaging in behaviors like sexualizing women in the workplace, talking over women, or claiming a woman’s ideas as their own—but they can also use the power to make positive changes.
“I’ve become increasingly aware of that power, and I’ve sought to use it more consciously to create that more equal world I want to see. When I had an opportunity to make a TV pilot, we made sure to consider and then hire beyond the typical comedy writer profile and had women filling half the roles,” says the comedian Baratunde Thurston in an interview with Quartz.
Similarly, Hurley uses his website to take a stand against sexism and racism in the sports industry. “I will highlight instances of racism and sexism on my website because I’ve got an audience there.”
Men can also use their privilege to make a real difference in the actions of male colleagues. When witnessing a sexist interaction, or one that may have discriminatory undertones, men can step in and confidently tell a colleague that what he said was inappropriate. Being silent only serves to reinforce harmful norms, and men can use their position of privilege to shift the culture, instead of leaving that work to women.
“Make there be a social cost for sexism,” Hurley says. “And stop making excuses for your friends.”
The power men hold can also be used to give voice to ideas and work led by those with less privilege—or it can be given over to make space for someone else to speak, depending on the context.
For men who hold positions of power at companies, working to improve workplace policies that support women and other gender minorities—like prioritizing parental leave, auditing for pay equity, putting in place flexible work options, and ensuring plenty of opportunities for promotions—are changes that can benefit women and gender-nonconforming people for years to come.
Toward feminism and beyond
For men, thinking critically about the power they hold and how it’s related to gender can be a hard but important first step in understanding the need for equity in many larger societal levels.
Black feminists have led the way in thinking and writing about the ways that systems of oppression are connected. The process of embracing this intersectional feminism means, for white people, also examining one’s own white privilege and role in white supremacy. For non-disabled people, that means learning about the historical and ongoing discrimination that disabled people face. For cisgender people, that means learning about and empathizing with the oppression that transgender people experience. These harmful systems continue every day by people who see those in a different group as “less than.”
hooks calls this system of interconnected types of domination the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” in an interview with the Media Education Foundation. “All of these things actually are functioning simultaneously at all times in our lives and that if I really want to understand what's happening to me, right now at this moment in my life, as a black female of a certain age group, I won't be able to understand it if I'm only looking through the lens of race. I won't be able to understand it if I'm only looking through the lens of gender.
“There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives,” wrote Black feminist scholar Audre Lorde in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches.
Thinking deeply about one’s own gender, privilege, power, and ways of interacting with others is work that takes a long time (a lifetime), and is much harder than putting on a tee shirt that reads “this is what a feminist looks like.” While it’s not as easy, it’s important work that can bring us toward a more equitable, better, safer, and more healthy world for all.
About our sources
Mike Sagun is a professional men’s coach and facilitator with EVRYMAN.
Lee Hurley is a writer and the owner of the Daily Cannon Arsenal news website. He lives in Northern Ireland.