Can a Male Feminist Lead?

The intention of this piece was three-fold. First, it was to emphasize that our work as feminist/pro-feminist men is a part of our daily lives in addition to our political/activist-oriented work. Second, it was written to emphasize that our personal work is a work in progress, not ever a completed task. Last, it was written to emphasize the importance of being vulnerable and honest with yourself and with others as you continue to develop as a person and as a feminist.

Approximately three years ago, I began working on the Women’s Studies (WS) committee at a small college in the Boston area. The WS committee is responsible for various tasks, including overseeing the courses in the minor (at the moment there is no major in WS), advising students, planning WS educational and activist-oriented events, and advocating for students regarding issues pertaining to women.

Not surprisingly, the bulk of the members of this committee are women. Most of them are faculty members in various departments including biology, fine arts, nursing, English, and sociology/criminal justice. There are also student members who are almost exclusively women. In the past three years, there have been three full-time members who have been men and one male student for a brief time. While there have been men and women members, leadership positions have been filled by women.

As a member of this committee and as a participant in several campus activities, I have been very active and outspoken about my concerns about various areas of college life. Recently, I was invited by one of the deans to be on a task force made up of various people on campus to examine issues of safety across the campus. At first I assumed that they wanted me to represent Women’s studies, but through some discussions we all decided that another member of the WS committee would act as the official committee representative on this task force. However, it was understood by the WS committee that I would be one of two people that also represented WS concerns.

Recently, I was invited by one of the deans to be on a task force made up of various people on campus to examine issues of safety across the campus.

Being placed in this position brought about some anxiety for me.

Being placed in this position brought about some anxiety for me. The question of how to take on a position of leadership and continue to develop a feminist identity brings up some difficult contradictions and past experiences. I wondered how does a male feminist act in a way that is assertive and in accordance with his own needs without reasserting typical patriarchal behaviors? In other words, how do we make sense of being in a leadership role without participating in the dominating and dismissive qualities often associated with men who are ‘in-charge’? Can a male feminist lead?

I took my role on the task force very seriously, attending all of the weekly meetings. I researched what other colleges are doing (and not doing) in response to sexual violence. Progress on the task force had been slow and difficult, but we drafted and submitted proposals for policy changes to the administration. Some changes are already being implemented and we are hopeful that the rest will be implemented soon. The whole process has been overwhelming, but I survived. It often felt like an exercise in frustration, disempowerment, and alienation, quite the opposite of how I feel when working with the WS committee.

Throughout the semester, I have also been updating the WS committee on the work of the task force and concerns that I have had. In these meetings, I have often been very pessimistic and presented myself in an overwhelmed fashion. Looking back, I feel that this daunting task of being on the task force contributed to my presenting information in a deterministic/fatalistic way. I often reported information as if further intervention would not change things for the better. WS members certainly had the opportunity to ask questions or request that I (or my colleague) do certain things differently, but my presentation may have set a context for people to censor input. Why would they get involved when the tone of my message was seemingly so negative?

For example, one member requested that we collect data on students’ concerns about these safety issues. In fact, the WS committee had previously developed a survey that particular committee members wanted to utilize. But rather than genuinely pursue the idea, I argued that the survey was irrelevant by citing numerous examples from the past to prove my point. Looking back, I feel that my tactics in this matter were too heavy handed and inappropriate. As someone concerned about the voices of others, especially those of women in the WS committee, I realized later that I may not really be hearing and representing others’ needs well. Granted, I technically wasn’t the WS committee representative on the task force, but I wasn’t pro-actively trying to understand and voice what the WS committee members needed. I wasn’t acting in a way that is in accordance with the kind of feminist man I want to be. Why did this happen? Did the other WS committee members perceive it this way?

It wasn’t until I started writing this piece
that I even realized that I may have been
alienating my allies....

It wasn’t until I started writing this piece that I even realized that I may have been alienating my allies in the WS committee. I do believe I had been a strong advocate for women’s issues and certainly was extremely assertive on the task force. However, the process made me feel overwhelmed, negative, confused, and even appalled at times. I should have asked for support. I did chat with one of my colleagues about the task force, but more often the chats focused on my frustration, rather than how ineffectual, alienated or dehumanized I felt. Because I didn’t reach out for emotional support from my colleagues, I ultimately stayed feeling that way.

Some of this experience for me seems to be about how men often don’t want to ask for help. Men suffer in silence because we think that we should be able to handle any hurdle that comes our way. This ‘tough guise’ (to borrow Jackson Katz’s term) contributes to all kinds of health related problems, both physical and psychological. Let’s keep the concept of ‘asking for help’ as a type of vulnerability, often more associated with women, in the back of our minds for the moment.

Admitting that I need help sometimes does feel like I have failed in some way. Perhaps I felt like less of a feminist because I wasn’t meeting some expectations I had of myself. And the irony is that this pressure does NOT come from the group of women in WS who I work with, but rather it comes from me. I put the pressure on myself to be able to do something, to change something, and when I am unable to meet the expectation in a way that is satisfactory, my identity as a feminist man suffers. But that isn’t the primary reason for my feelings of discomfort.

I felt like less of a feminist because I wasn’t meeting some expectations I had of myself.

For me, the core concern is the fear of what will happen if I ask for help and it isn’t given. So the reason for not asking for help isn’t so much feeling vulnerable but being concerned about how others will react to my vulnerability. Being vulnerable in this way can be particularly difficult for men because others often don’t know how to respond to it. In this sense, a man is actively and purposefully choosing to behave in a way that is more associated with behaviors expected from women. I have had numerous instances in my own life where I have been mocked, humiliated, and denigrated for taking such a risk. Such experiences make it difficult for me to take such a risk. I did not imagine that the WS committee would humiliate me in some way had I asked for help (since my past experiences have been very positive with this group), but because at a deep level I am very aware of how often the culture responds negatively to this kind of behavior from men I may not take this risk as often as I could.

Some feminist men struggle with a conscious desire to challenge patriarchy in the culture and in their own lives, and may also be concerned that when they incorporate more feminine qualities in their lives that they may relive some of the shame and humiliation they have suffered in a world that is misogynistic towards both women and the qualities associated with them. I know several feminist men who have taken these kinds of risks and have been denigrated, or perhaps at a lighter level ‘teased’ by their partners and friends. So not only does the culture at large reject you, but at times, it can feel like your allies are rejecting you.

Returning to my task force experience, I think that this fear kept me from asking for emotional help and ultimately contributed to an atmosphere where I could not be the person I truly want to be. I don’t think that people on the WS committee are furious with me and ready to kick me off, at least I hope not, but I do think that I could have been a better representative and advocate.

So perhaps this piece seems to argue that a feminist man can’t do well in a leadership position (or at least this one isn’t doing so well). But that is not my conclusion. Being a feminist man does not mean I need to be perfect. But it does mean that I need to continue to be aware of the process of challenging myself and to hold myself responsible for my interactions with others. Perhaps that is the element of leadership that becomes the most important.

All of us must examine the conditions that keep us distanced from one another.

It also means that if feminist men are going to be able to continually develop and challenge patriarchy within ourselves and within the culture that we will need our men and women feminist allies to be open to challenging their own discomfort with men being ‘feminine’. We must work together on this in order for it to improve. By including women here, it is not an attempt to blame women for patriarchy or to put the burden of responsibility of men’s emotional needs on women. Men must take responsibility for their dominant role in maintaining this unjust system and recognize how women have historically been viewed as being responsible for caretaking men. However, women must also examine their own internalized misogyny which can become apparent when men attempt to be more ‘feminine’. All of us must examine the conditions that keep us distanced from one another. I feel very fortunate to have wonderful men and women allies in my personal life, on the WS committee and through NOMAS that are committed to this goal.

As you are reading this piece, I have already begun discussing my concerns about my perceived lack of pro-active inclusive behavior with the WS committee (I have spoken with two members already) and plan to officially discuss it at our WS meeting in January. The work continues. I would love to hear how other feminist men have struggled with this issue. Please feel free to write to me at the address below.

©2007, NOMAS - Boston

Pro-Feminist Ally Organizations

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Jack Kahn is currently co-chair (internal relations) of the Boston chapter of the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS). He has published articles and presented numerous workshops on topics of diversity and is currently doing research exploring the identity formation of men that embrace feminism. or E-Mail

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