OPINION: Feminists need to focus on educating men

(Natalie Bauer • The Student Life)

I imagine that being a man in a feminist world can be a bit like living the plot of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” — men are accused of a crime they can’t understand and given no clear way to go to court or do their time. Meanwhile, as they search hopelessly for a way to atone for their mysterious sins, their understood identities and reasons for being are yanked out from underneath their feet. 

Having never experienced it themselves, men can’t understand the discrimination women face — at least not without teachers and the motivation to learning. 

This is why it is absolutely crucial that we feminists spend much more effort on educating men, not just women. Men need a clear explanation in positive terms of what it means to operate in the world as a feminist ally and why it’s important they do so. We can achieve this by perpetuating feminist male role models, or even by taking actions as simple as including men in gender education seminars in the workplace. 

Feminists tend to focus a lot on what women can do to further the cause, as shown with a simple search for the best feminist literature. This is completely understandable: Women are the ones affected by this issue and are therefore the most likely to take action. However, the problem isn’t going to go away unless men change. We need to take steps toward that goal. 

The simple fact that some men care enough about feminism to hate it implies that to them, “equality of the sexes” impacts the standing of men, even though that isn’t necessarily a logical conclusion. In other words, these men assume that what it means to be a man is relative to the gender performance or standing of women and that part of being a man is not being a woman

If the actions and abilities of women as a group did not affect men, it’s unlikely that men would push back on behalf of their gender.

It does make sense that men would be scared about their general standing; as women gain access to everything that men have, the line between man and woman becomes blurred, and the word “man” can start to lose its meaning.

This blurring can shake men who have been told their entire lives that they have to act a certain way or fill certain roles to the core — because they are men, of course.

Take a boy whose family told him that he needed to “be a man,” and being a man meant playing sports and eventually getting a job to provide for his several kids and wife at home. If being a “man” is a lie and the boy shaped his life to fill that gendered expectation, he might bump into the scary thought that all of his life’s work has been for nothing. Or worse, the thought that he has not successfully become who his family wanted him to be. No one would want to feel that way. I certainly wouldn’t.

It makes perfect sense that some men resist having their identity and purpose snatched from them, and it tracks that they resist feminism — that is, if they are not given reassurance that feminist masculinity can exist, that men can still fulfill much of their identity in a feminist world.

Feminists must redefine, not destroy, manhood to men who would oppose gender equality. This comes through education. Currently, feminists aren’t doing such a great job of defining to men the elusive concept of feminist masculinity. 

From what I’ve gathered, feminist education for men usually takes the form of vague no-nos: Don’t be toxically masculine; don’t objectify women; don’t follow the model your father or grandfather or father figure set for you. 

A simple Google search for “how to fight sexism” shows this phenomenon of positive (do this) advice for women and negative (don’t do this) advice for men. The Council of Europe’s page on fighting sexism is titled “Sexism: See it. Name it. Stop it.” As the name suggests, it’s framed as what folks should do to stop men. Another article on the first page of that search is called “6 Ways to Shut Down Sexist Comments at Work.” In other words, “what people can do to shut down men who are doing the wrong thing.”

It is less common for feminists and feminist resources to tell men what they should do. It’s really no wonder men rebel, given that feminists rely primarily on negative reinforcement and nonconstructive criticism. 

Talking solutions, one of the simplest large-scale ways to teach men how to operate in a feminist world is through role models in media that they consume. 

Right now, positive feminist male role models do exist, but they’re few in number and very rarely make it into media geared toward men. For example, I consider “Queer Eye” cast members to be good male role models, but that show isn’t expressly marketed to straight men

Defining a feminist male role model is a significant challenge for feminists in itself, but it’s one we need to undertake. My definition is certainly not the be-all and end-all of definitions, but most good male role models are active allies to women and do not penalize anyone of any gender for acting outside their traditionally assigned role. They also hold others to this standard.

Of course, role models aren’t the only way to educate men about feminism. Employers and educational institutions, for example, can start to focus more heavily on men when teaching about gender equality. According to Harvard Business Review, when men are deliberately engaged in gender inclusion programs, 96 percent of organizations see progress, compared to only 30 percent of organizations where men are not engaged. 

In other words, Jan’s girls only “women in the workplace” seminar in the episode “Boys and Girls” from “The Office” was the wrong move. Jan should have focused on educating Michael and Dwight about feminism and sexual harassment instead of kicking Michael out of the conversation at every turn. 

The bottom line is that feminism will not succeed unless men change. Men don’t oppose gender equality just to be malicious; they probably want to better themselves as people, just like everyone else. However, they won’t change on their own, especially if they don’t know how to be a good ally or why they should even try. It is imperative that, as feminists, we redirect some of our efforts toward patiently and positively educating men on how to be good feminists — without emasculating them. 

These articles might help. Take the advice as the beginning of a rethink of the way we teach anti-misogyny. 

Margot Rosenblatt SC ’23 is from New York, New York. She likes to wear light pink in hard STEM classes just to freak people out. 

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