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.
- 30 January 2014