Zelophehad’s Daughters

Why Men Deserve a Place at the Feminist Table

Posted by Kiskilili

1. Gender roles can hurt men too. We often appeal to race relations—and activism to combat systemic racism—as a model for combating patriarchy. While the analogy comparing sexism to racism has some utility (whites and men, as overlapping classes of people, are both constructed as neutral categories and have a history of monopolizing economic and political resources, and we all continue to experience the effects of this in tangible and intangible ways), there are significant differences. One is that whiteness is not constructed in as restrictive a way as masculinity is. Patriarchy hurts and demeans women and benefits men through myriad means, and no rigorous feminism can ever afford to lose sight of this plain fact. But traditional gender roles—not simply those openly advocated by the church, from the top, but those enforced socially, from the ground up—cattle prod men into a circumscribed space, teaching them that masculinity is anti-femininity, and punishing them severely for failing to perform masculinity adequately. Men as a class are generally preoccupied with threats to their masculinity in a way that whites are simply not at all preoccupied with threats to their whiteness. In fact, masculinity is arguably far more restrictive than femininity, and much of the anxiety in the church over gender arguably stems from anxiety about masculinity specifically. The reasons for this arise in part from the privileged position masculinity occupies, but this dynamic nevertheless means that men too can suffer, in a multitude of different ways, from traditional gender expectations. If we exclude men from the discussion, we perpetuate the notion that only women have gender and that masculinity is a neutral category. Gender affects all of us, and it’s worth exploring the ways in which it does. (Of course, race affects all of us too, but it’s harder to identify any ways in which race negatively affects whites, with the possible exception of very limited reverse racist subcultures, which are not equivalent to pervasive gender expectations for men that are rooted in patriarchy itself.)

2. Men can make legitimate observations too. Men need not be relegated to the status of feminist ally: they too can be feminists, to the degree feminism constitutes a commitment to eliminating patriarchal norms and promoting opportunities for women. Feminists don’t need allies, because feminists don’t constitute a structurally disadvantaged class—women do. And it would be self-defeating for feminists to instruct would-be male “feminist allies” to defer to the feelings of women as a class without formulating any opinions about patriarchy of their own, because most women don’t identify as feminists, and many openly endorse patriarchy. For this reason, feminist commitment has to be grounded in more than a deference to all women’s choices regardless of what they are. (I know feminism is popularly characterized this way, but I personally haven’t been able to square feminism, which I understand to be an ethical critique, with moral relativism; I’d be interested to hear how readers have done this.) Logically this means men are entitled to do more than listen; they’re entitled to talk.

3. Engaging men is inescapable, because they have the power. If the primary goal of Mormon feminism is to create a shadow society that inverts, and thereby atones for, the male privilege of the ecclesiastical structure of the church, the only role men can ever play is to be voluntarily sidelined and subordinated. My discomfort with this model of feminism stems partially from the observation that the men who are least responsible for perpetuating that patriarchal structure tend to be the first to flagellate themselves for it. However, if the goal at any point is to effect any change in the church, engaging men is inescapable; we might be able to afford to alienate our male friends, but ultimately not our male leaders, our male prophets, or our male God. It would behoove us to think about ways of engaging them effectively.

Unfortunately, whether it’s intentional or not, male feminists have sometimes been given the message that they are neither needed nor wanted, and that the mark of a true “ally” is a self-imposed gag order.

It’s undeniably dangerous to incorporate men. Men are socialized to be more self-confident than women and less averse to conflict, and it’s easy for men to fall into authoritative roles and women into deferential ones, replicating the very patterns feminists are trying to eradicate. Men tend to take up all the oxygen in the room. When spaces aren’t specifically demarcated as feminine, they often quickly become masculine by default.

And there are other dangers as well, ones that affect individuals in deeply personal ways. Women who suffer under the patriarchal structure of the church are routinely gaslighted and invalidated by well-meaning members who insist the problem lies entirely with them, that there is no real patriarchy in the church or that it’s impossible for patriarchy to hurt people. It’s searingly painful to attempt to weave cobweb-like feminist spaces in which women’s concerns can be validated only to have those spaces trampled and ripped apart by dogged men—and sometimes women—who insist the problems are imaginary. I’m not entirely sure what the solution to this is; perhaps the distinction between “public” and “private” feminist spaces that now prevails between the blogs and facebook is helpful for maintaining distinct feminist spaces with somewhat different aims.

It’s a feminist act for men to listen to women and take their concerns seriously, to be attentive to gender dynamics in feminist—and non-feminist—discussions, to refrain from monopolizing conversations, especially on topics that affect women more deeply or more directly than they affect men.  On the other hand, I’d hate for any men to get the message that the only significant contribution they can make to feminism is silence. I’ve seen—and continue to see—thoughtful men make significant contributions to the conversation on feminism from which women, too, can learn.

24 Responses to “Why Men Deserve a Place at the Feminist Table”

  1. 1.

    Finally someone said it! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    How are we supposed to believe that both genders should have equal voice within the church when many feminists aren’t willing to let both genders have equal voice within that very debate?

  2. 2.

    Any believing self-aware man knows our ilk have made patriarchy preeminent from time immemorial and that there has been and is no equality between the sexes in the church. After thousands of years of such history, we men simply need to shut up and surrender to the Spirit. What are the traditional steps of repentance, the five r’s? Recognize, remorse, restitution, reformation, resolution, etc. Not much dialogue is needed for us to proceed with that kind of an agenda. Repent.

  3. 3.

    Wreddyornot,

    Your feelings about men within the feminist movements exactly parallel those of women within the church who are against the feminist movements. Are such feeling pro-equality or not? If they are, then women already have an equal voice within the church, just like men do in feminism. If not, then men do not have an equal voice within feminism, just like women do not have one within the church.

  4. 4.

    I guess the question is whether you seek to establish an equality of results (a kind of affirmative action with regard to speech) or an equality of opportunity.

    I can certainly see how silencing males would help establish an equality of results, but it would be the exact antithesis of an equality of opportunity.

  5. 5.

    Loved the post, Kishkilili! Thanks for the encouragement!

  6. 6.

    My message is for men within the church to repent, me too. It’s a process. The Spirit says that all are alike to our Heavenly Parents. Yet men have been and are now failing to facilitate and permit that to happen.

    Don’t you agree with that?

    Do the feelings of women within the church against the feminist movements share that goal? It seems to me only those who can make brash, unfounded assertions would think that they know that.

  7. 7.

    All three are excellent points, but I really was most intrigued by #1 in the way that it showed how, and why men need to be freed from patriarchy too. I’ve never seen that deconstructed quite so succinctly before — thanks for that!

    Also, I agree that men should be welcome to share their observations in the discussion, but (speaking from my brief observations in the bloggernacle) there’s always (ALWAYS) one or two (or more) dudes who don’t realize when they are dominating and/or derailing the discussion, nor do they seem conditioned to learn from women about her pov, experience, etc. I think if a guy/ally has made two or three contentious comments and is getting some pushback, he should take it as a sign that maybe he’s missing something, and perhaps there is a need to repent.

    But truly, all of us need to repent of something. As wreddy says above, it’s a process, and a flawed one; seems appropriate for flawed people in a fallen world. A worthy goal is a Zion society where all people, regardless of gender, are treated with fairness and equality.

    We have a long journey ahead.

  8. 8.

    I have been told that every problem that exists in the world today is a result of white male privilege. Jesus (as far as we know) was white and male. I figure He wasn’t such a bad guy, so maybe the pundits have it wrong. Now I no longer listen to what feminists say. I trust my wife more than any one else on earth and figure if I need improvement, she’ll let me know.

  9. 9.

    This is a much wiser brand of feminism, and one I could better support.

  10. 10.

    Jesus was white?

  11. 11.

    Seriously, though, great post. I think this is the perfect way to bring up legitimate concerns with men (consciously or unconsciously) dominating spaces, and asking them to be aware, without resorting to the “shut up” language that ends up alienating would-be feminists.

  12. 12.

    On the topic of repentance, I had this lovely talk with my mother the other day, and we agreed that repentance is really not about self-flagellation, but about becoming the person we want to be.

    Thus, I firmly believe that men should be involved in feminism, because my brand of feminism is much more about achieving an ideal (in which individuals are able to grow, serve, and learn to the best of their ability, without gender-specific expectations) than about requiring men to ‘pay for their sins’.

    Because might doesn’t make right, we would doubtless have to remind forceful personalities (both female and male), that their confidence in spouting opinions doesn’t guarantee the rightness of those opinions, and of course remind retiring personalities that unspoken needs are (almost) never filled, but that’s all part of the ideal.

    I guess I just think in an ideal world we’re much more focused on individuals than on their gender.

  13. 13.

    I agree that “repentance is really ‘not about self-flagellation’, but about becoming the person we want to be”. Although, I assert that self-flagellation (remorse) can’t be omitted in the process. Although remorse can’t halt the process, one has to show sufficient regret and then move on through the process. Restitution, reformation, resolution.

    History and the present show that men — again, collectively and certainly not all — have resorted to and do resort to might. It’s not right presently, and it never has been loving or righteous. The place for men in this scenario is repentance. We’ve collectively and most often individually countenanced our superiority.

    As to “equality of results” or “equality of opportunity”, one can’t discuss equality of anything until there is equality. There is no equality if you can never ever preside.

  14. 14.

    Thanks for the responses.

    IDIAT, the “racial” landscape in Jesus’s time was not oriented around a “black/white” dichotomy but, if anything, around a “Jew/Greek” one; in historical terms, saying Jesus is “white” is anachronistic. “Whiteness” is a social construct that simply had no currency in Jesus’s world. In our own era, Jews did not become absorbed into the category of “white” until after WWII.

    I personally don’t believe every problem in the world results from white male privilege, and I don’t know anyone who does. (Nor do I believe that this idea could be disproved if it could be demonstrated that Jesus were male and white.)

    Maybe you should try again to listen to what feminists say, with an open mind. Your wife knows you better than we do, and might be better positioned to point out your personal shortcomings. But feminism critiques something more pervasive than the quirks of individual men: it critiques unjust systems and ideologies that privilege men.

  15. 15.

    Kiskilili, thank you. Really. I care deeply about mormonism and feminism, and so it’s been disheartening to encounter such hostility from mormon feminists in the last several months.

  16. 16.

    Kiskilili #14 – my comment was tongue in cheek. However I don’t think your assessment is correct. Europe and Western Asia was filled with white or off-white people, Africa was filled with blacks, Asia was filled with Asians. We’ve had some wanderings the last two thousand years or so but about the only places of significant color (ethnic) change have been North and South America and Australia. The other four continents have stayed about the same. In the small land where Christ travelled, politically and culturally, things were essentially broken down along Jew and non- Jew lines. But from what I can tell, the Jews in and around Israel were what we would consider to be “white.” And ethnicity has always played a role in cultures, so it did, and still does, have currency. I can’t think of one truly color blind society. People may get along, they may intermingle, but ethnicity and tribalism are still firmly entrenched across all cultures. I also believe feminism should focus on the big picture systems that influence culture. It just seems the white male is a favored whipping dog. If I plopped a sister down in the middle of the Congo I wonder how the feminist conversation would go. Strangely, it’s the white male initiated Industrial Revolution that has made it possible to even have a society where women have more rights and opportunities than they have ever had. Yet, white males get no thanks or credit for it. White female privilege is so close to that of white male privilege as to make the difference (on a grand scale) neglible. Perhaps white women are more a part of the problem than they realize.

  17. 17.

    “White female privilege is so close to that of white male privilege as to make the difference (on a grand scale) neglible.”

    Easy for you to say, given that you’re a (presumably) white male.

  18. 18.

    ” If I plopped a sister down in the middle of the Congo I wonder how the feminist conversation would go.”

    There are plenty of people who could tell you how it goes, if you cared to educate yourself a little. To take as the moral of the story of the need for intersectionality in feminism that “the white male is a favored whipping dog” is such a stunning performance of ignorant privilege that it would be funny if it were not such a widespread belief.

  19. 19.

    IDIAT–for example, here’s something a bunch of Mormon feminist women are doing in Africa. (Not the Congo, I know, but since we’re doing gross generalizations about race and ethnicity anyway…)

    http://www.wwhi.org/

  20. 20.

    “Strangely, it’s the white male initiated Industrial Revolution that has made it possible to even have a society where women have more rights and opportunities than they have ever had. Yet, white males get no thanks or credit for it.”

    You know who also gets no thanks or credit for the Industrial Revolution? Betsey Metcalf, Mary Dixon Kies, Helen Augusta Blanchard, Josephine Cochran, Margaret Plunkett Colvin, Catherine Greene, Margaret Knight, Sarah Boone, Amanda Jones, Mary Walton, and the many other women inventors whose ideas and works were critical (the cotton gin!) but whose contributions were often hidden behind male names at the time and have been largely forgotten by the same schoolchildren who learn about Eli Whitney and James Watt.

  21. 21.

    Ziff it is easy to say. Presuming you are white and female it should be easy for you to say, too. Kristine – you missed my point completely. I don’t think the feminists in the middle of Africa are singling out white male privilege. Male privilege, yes, but not white middle privilege. Petra – I wouldn’t begrudge recognizing women’s contribution to science and technology. That said, I think you would concede that western males (predominantly white) were the movers and shakers. And yes, surely they reaped the benefits. But so have western women and women in general. This tit for tat is over. Have a great Sabbath.

  22. 22.

    Personally, I would like to thank and acknowledge the children who were never actually able to be schoolchildren because they were forced to toil and labor in coal mines and dank factories during the industrial revolution, living out unimaginabley miserable lives and then dying young. It is them that I thank.

  23. 23.

    IDIAT, is it possible you’re conceptualizing feminist critiques too concretely? You seem to understand feminism to be a movement of women bent on demonstrating that individual men are bad, rather than a critique of structures that privilege men. (It’s specifically because I don’t conflate patriarchy and individual men that I believe men can be feminists too, as I tried to argue in the post.)

    I say this because you’ve now produced two examples of white men making valuable contributions to society: Jesus and the men behind the Industrial Revolution. (I have some problems with the framing of both of these, but let’s set that aside for the moment.) To what claim are these cases meant to serve as counterexamples? No one here doubts that white men have made enormous contributions to society. Pointing to good white men refutes the idea that white men are universally brutes, but nobody’s contending that. However, it doesn’t do anything whatsoever to refute the idea that white men have privilege.

    (This is very similar to an argument church leaders advance frequently, that men need to be nice to women—as if that will make patriarchy acceptable.)

    The various men whose contributions brought about the Industrial Revolution don’t need to be paid back (even if we could agree the Industrial Revolution was an unmitigated good); they were paid forward, which is exactly why they had the resources to do what they did.

    I also think, if you’re genuinely concerned about the voice women in the Congo have in the world of Mormon feminism—certainly a legitimate concern—you shouldn’t be so hasty to ventriloquize on their behalf.

  24. 24.

    IDIAT, there are a lot of responses I could give to your claim that Jesus was white.

    I could point out that race is a social construct, so even if we could demonstrate that Jesus had physiognomic properties we would label white, this was not a meaningful social category in his era. The lines along which race is contructed—ethnic, religious, physiognomic, and linguistic—change with time and place. Recall that as recently as 100 years or so ago, Jews weren’t white (this one is especially relevant to Jesus’s status), but neither were Irish. Think of the Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda, or a hundred other examples of racial categories being constructed according to different criteria in different times and places.

    But let’s look at it from another angle: Why is it so important for you to understand Jesus to be white? What’s at issue? What would change if images of white Jesuses in Mormon churches everywhere were replaced with images of black Jesuses, and the temple movie were refilmed with an aboriginal Australian Jesus?

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