Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Men and feminism


I am a man, and I am a feminist. That’s a combo that has many men, and not a few women bewildered. After all, the majority of women in Britain feel uncomfortable calling themselves feminists, and men feel that such a stance is like sleeping with the enemy (which in no way should make them seem not to be heteronormative, Red-Blooded Males!).

Bill Bailey: feminist extrordinaire

Bill Bailey: feminist extrordinaire

At Christmas, I gave my girlfriend a couple of books on women and Islam as presents. Someone commented saying ‘Are you one of those Germaine-Greer types?’, to which she replied ‘If you mean to ask if I’m a feminist, then yes I am’. This was met with laughter — half nervous, half disbelief — as if she had declared herself a cyborg out to destroy humanity!

Our society has done a fairly good hatchet job on feminism, making many believe that feminists are dangerously subversive lesbian man-eaters, who, at the very least, are out to spoil our fun. The odd thing is that society is also broadly in agreement with many of feminism’s ideals, be it wage equality and equal opportunities or reproductive rights (unless you’re Roman Catholic) or criticism of casual misogyny.

The problem is that this has split third-wave feminism down the middle: our society compromised with some issues of equality, bringing them into the mainstream, while spinning off the core issue of systemic male dominance as hated extremism. The former becomes grudgingly accepted by men as fair play for women, while the latter is ‘feminism’. The problem is that these aren’t two separate things: the ideology of feminism articulated the call for equality, and that equality is powerless without it.

Year on year, men earn more for the same work as women, then get the promotions. Women have to juggle their desire to be fulfilled in their careers and fulfilled mothers, and many just give up and pick one, usually the thankless drudge of motherhood (see my comment below for my change of tone here). Permissiveness has allowed sex in advertising to diminish women’s body confidence to all-time lows, with increasing numbers of women wanting plastic surgery, and the normalisation of ‘being cut beautiful’. The global perspective on women’s rights is brought home by Amnesty International and other groups: beatings, rapes and ‘shame killings’.

Yet, amidst all of this, men feel that to give any ground to feminism would be to admit defeat and sound the retreat, as if we were really in a Gender War. Ultimately, to give in to feminism is thought of as rendering yourself impotent — socially and sexually. However, the demand on men to dominate, win, achieve and conquer is what feminism highlights, and it is this psycho-social pressure and not feminism that is where a sense of ‘failing as a man’ comes from.

Seen like this, feminism is not just about women’s liberation, but men’s liberation too. Patriarchal society has created the myth of the feminine (just go the pink section of Toys Ya Us, to give its Russian pronunciation, and you’ll see what I mean). While women struggle not to be defined by this subjugating myth, men are forced to define themselves against it, by being not feminine, which leads to being not gentle, caring, peaceful, nurturing, domestic, dependable and so forth.

Back in April, I read an article written by Laurie Penny that summed up my thoughts on this brilliantly and then added some more. In a recession, the most vulnerable in our society suffer most: the poor, working class, women, children and the elderly. Penny quotes from Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the Modern Man

What women are challenging is something everyone can see. Men’s grievances, by contrast seem hyperbolic, almost hysterical; so many men seem to be doing battle with phantoms and witches that exist only in their own overheated imaginations. Women see men as guarding the fort, so they don’t see how the culture shapes men. Men don’t see how they are influenced by the culture either; in fact, they prefer not to. If they did, they would have to let go of the illusion of control.

Patriarchy forces men and women to play gender games that damage both of us. The damage is not necessarily equal, but men do suffer too. Faludi shows us that it is a misstep for feminism to be solely concerned with how patriarchy distorts women without realising the effect it has on men too. Is it any wonder why the self-destructive protest movement Fathers 4 Justice — a group of fathers who campaign against the courts that rule that their contact with their children should be restricted and supervised — choose to demonstrate their suitability for fatherhood by dressing up as superheroes and climbing buildings? This demonstrates too how patriarchy infantilises men, teaching us just to be bigger boys with bigger toys.

I’m a feminist because I want to be a man, not some caricature of one.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

16 thoughts on “Men and feminism

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  3. I’m not entirely happy with everything I wrote above. The following sentence has been particularly problematic in discussions with others:

    Women have to juggle their desire to be fulfilled in their careers and fulfilled mothers, and many just give up and pick one, usually the thankless drudge of motherhood.

    I apologize for labelling motherhood a ‘thankless drudge’, and I would like to change what I wrote by expanding my ideas at this point.

    I do not want to put down motherhood. My intention was to highlight that motherhood is a lot of hard work and often goes without honour in our society. A lot of women find motherhood extremely rewarding in itself. However, motherhood beyond the ‘norms’ of middle-class ‘family values’ is still often made difficult, even met with antagonism, in our society: teenage motherhood and lesbian motherhood are hounded in much the same way single motherhood was in the 1980s.

    All of this was wrapped up in the thought about women often having to choose which way their life should take, while men can do both fatherhood and career (although traditional fatherhood roles are rather contact-limited to allow for this).

  4. KICK. ASS. There are not enough men feminists in the world.

    Re: the choice between work and motherhood, I’m pretty lucky in that I’m really in love with my career choice, and don’t have much of a desire to be a mom. I get more maternal around cats than babies. Yet the work/family choice still affects me! Part of the wage gap / glass ceiling is that many employers believe young women are not serious about their careers, and assume we’re just killing time until we settle down. From that POV, it’s usually a waste of time to promote women to key positions (have to replace women sooner than men, and that’s expensive and inconvenient), give us any sort of training/seminar opportunities (since they’ll go to waste when we’re popping out babies), or pay us fairly (we don’t need to save for the future, since we’ll be depending on our husbands soon).

    But what bothers me more, on a personal level, is the way we’ve constructed masculinity. As a straight woman, how am I supposed to have a healthy relationship with someone who’s excessively aggressive, emotionally stunted, and expects to treat me like his slutmommy? Getting 90% of a full paycheque (or ~70% if you don’t control for stuff like motherhood and career “choices”) is unjust and obnoxious, but ultimately it’s livable. Being unable to relate to the average member of the opposite sex is not. I find it so baffling when people accuse feminists of being man-haters, when my one of my biggest motivations for being a feminist is that I love men, and I want to be able to love men without a whole bunch of damaging societal bullshit getting in the way.

    I read somewhere that the way we construct gender is like sculpting with stone rather than with clay. We don’t build it up from nothing; we take little babies who have the potential for so many positive masculine and feminine qualities and just cut away everything that’s “wrong”. We scold little boys for crying and playing with dolls, little girls for standing up for themselves and dirtying their clothes climbing trees. We make men and women by carving away at people, and I think that’s really sad.

    • Thanks for your comment, Meg. I’m glad you liked the article.

      I realise the last thing we need is some man, like me, telling women about the choice between work and motherhood. I just notice that men choose to do both work and fatherhood and achieve a balanced life style fairly easily, where this is much more difficult for women. There was a time in the 90s when social debate was full of talk about supermums, who were mothers with high-flying careers, but strangely fathers who had similar careers needed no super-powers!

      I wonder whether women’s lower average wages is a major factor in deciding that mothers stay at home while sending the higher-earning father out to work. I think it’s a vicious circle: women are paid less and not promoted because they might leave to raise their kids, which makes women leave to raise their kids because the father earns more.

      I also wonder whether masculinity is a positive concept, or just defined as not the feminine other. Almost everything is gendered; and why is it that children’s toys are the most gendered things on this planet? If men and women are finding it increasingly difficult to relate to each other, is it because they have no gender-neutral toys in common? The psychological development along separate gender lines becomes an inhibitor to adult interaction between men and women.

      You are so right with your simile of the stone sculpture. This reminds me that if we have to reshape gender in our lives it’s a painful process. For some, this reshaping is necessary to establish a coherent identity, but for most of us, the best we can do is acknowledge our genderedness that has been shaped in us.

  5. That was an excellent read, hear hear!

  6. Gareth, brilliant post. Especially insightful point about F4J (I do like to think of them as Fathers For Jumpsuits). Society needs more strong male feminists like you.

    And thank you for the hat-tip!

  7. An interesting read Gareth. For me there should be across-the-board parity, with men extending courtesy to women where and when appropriate.

    To be clear, I’m no woman hater; I both love and respect my ‘partner’ – she’s fantastic. There is no doubt that in some areas of life women get a raw deal. But that’s not always the case, and it’s certainly not the case when it comes to one of the most important areas: parenting.

    My relationship with my estranged wife ended almost a decade ago, yet we’re still the courts. Encouraged by her mother, she has become a man-hater [or at least a Dickson Brown hater]. In the UK’s family courts there is absolutely no consideration that a women might possibly be driven by less-than-honourable motives.

    I took the expensive route through the family courts rather than walk-away from my children, which was the unthinkable alternative. I defended my right to stay in touch with my sons despite ‘her’ position that I should no longer have any contact with them whatsoever. I now see my children every week, although they obviously no longer live with me. It’s only right that they should still have a dad, but remaining their dad cost me everything …and I mean everything that I had, and a whole lot more.

    The whole Fathers 4 Justice thing exists for the same reason that the Suffragette movement existed. Men get the sh*tty end of the stick because of their gender. Sometimes men can be better parents than women – but at every turn, our courts systemically give preferential treatment to females.

    I believe in equality. In some circumstances that could well make me a feminist Gareth, but when it comes to failed marriages …I’m afraid I’ll be pulling on my superhero costume.

    Dickson Brown

    [Oh… and just to point out, I see more half-naked men in TV commercials than women these days].

    • Thank you for your comment, Dickson. You mention some personal issues, and it would be unfair for me comment on them. I think you would find the majority of those who work in family law see the need for a reform of the law that allows for greater flexibility and a move from confrontational to consensual resolution. Throughout the legal profession there are questions about how much it should cost to get a judgement, and who should pay. Again, our present arrangements are inadequate.

      Comparing Fathers 4 Justice with the campaign for votes for women is absurd hyperbole. The latter was a struggle to get full political representation for half the adult population. Fathers 4 Justice does not represent anywhere near as many people. They also represent a more confused campaign: men who feel they have received a raw deal from a legal process and want it overturned. Some of these judgements should stand, perhaps most. The problem with Fathers 4 Justice is that it doesn’t present a coherent case for legal reform. After all, a call for a flexible, consensual and affordable system of family law is not advanced by anything done by this group.

      You say that men get the shitty end of stick, but shit happens. All of us, men and women, get raw deals now and again. That’s life. However, life experiences for men and women are on average quite different. Feminists, like myself, see not just discrimination, but a significant power differential of men over women. This is seen in wages, career paths, likelihood of suffering domestic violence and a constant psychological barrage damaging self-confidence, body image and commodification. Yes, men can have issues too, but it’s nothing in comparison. It’s interesting to see that men in advertising are nowhere near as passive in objectification as women: the man might be half naked, but he is often depicted as active, powerful and in control.

      Men do not help themselves by moaning about their problems. I believe that men supporting women’s campaigns is the most effective way to put a stop to gender inequality and antagonism. I’ve recently become aware of the White Ribbon Campaign (, which is a men’s campaign against violence against women (and a campaign that fully supports women’s groups).

      • Hey Gareth,

        I’m surprised that you find it absurd to compare the Fathers 4 Justice movement with the Suffragettes.

        Surely this is about equal rights. You have to consider that not all women actually use their right to vote, but following the suffragette movement …they had the right. Likewise, not all men will find themselves being separated from their children by our society’s rules & regulations, but the Fathers 4 Justice [F4J] campaign is/was about changing that to give men [half the population] equal parenting rights.

        I agree that F4J didn’t do a great job of running their campaign, however were their stunts really any more reckless than Emily Davison’s?

        To suggest that [perhaps] most of the judgements should stand, indicates that you have little experience of the family court system. Family law does not work like criminal law. In criminal law the police investigate an allegation, and the Crown decides whether or not to prosecute; the accused is innocent until proven guilty. In family, there is no involvement from the police or the Crown. It’s typically the case that ‘mum’ makes an unproven allegation, and effectively ‘dad’ is guilty until he proves otherwise. This puts a huge technical hurdle in between dads and their own children. Many dads don’t have the energy or financial resource to tackle that hurdle, whereas others like me clear the hurdle and then realise that the rest of their lives has been trashed in the process. It’s a big old pile of unjust messiness …that could happen to any father out there.

        I firmly believe that it’s hugely more important to have the right to be a dad to my own children, than to have my say about which bunch of self-serving, spin-mongering crooks are going to be at the helm of our country for the next four years. That’s surely not too hard to understand Gareth?

        Dickson Brown

  8. It’s still absurd to compare Fathers 4 Justice to the Suffragettes, no matter how you try to spin it. In a democracy, the right to vote is essential. Denying women the vote was denying them legal and political personhood; the men could pass whatever law they liked regarding women, and they would have no voice. So, the struggle of half the adult population to be recognised as legal and political persons was a hugely important one. No matter how much you polish the Fathers 4 Justice campaign, it cannot compare to that great struggle. Emily Davison died for what she believed in, whether that was what she intended or not; there was something more selfless about that struggle.

    You talk about rights, but the philosophy of rights suggests that we often oversimplify this. Only a few ‘rights’ are truly universal and inalienable, and all others must been seen as somewhat limited. Certain thing we consider right and proper might be abrogated under certain circumstances. These things and circumstances need to be clearly defined under law.

    There’s no need to talk down to me about the mechanics of civil law, or are trying to say you want a copper or a public prosecutor in the family law courts? Perhaps you didn’t read what I wrote above about reforming the system away from the classical, adversarial approach. What you describe about a mum’s unproven allegation is more the problem of deciding these cases adversarially rather than by consensus. In the end, a decision must be made if the parents cannot agree one, and the system hampers a constructive dialogue in making that decision. Yes, the system should change, and that’s what most people who work within want. However, Fathers 4 Justice is clearly not a well-argued legal-reform movement. Many have honest grievances, but haven’t the money or legal arguments to follow them through the courts, but their grievances are not being put constructively. Ultimately, Fathers 4 Justice, by its actions and its very name, continues the adversarial principle that is the root of their grievances.

    The level of democracy in this country is at deficit, as you point out. Even still, a partial and limited voice in how this country is run is better than none at all. Most of us have more important battles to fight than who ‘gets in’ next time, but this is where most politics really happens now: in the causes and issues that drive us, rather than the corridors of Westminster. A consensual campaign for a reform of family law along consensual lines, moving away from our adversarial system and those adversarial campaigns. Of course, such a campaign would involve women as well as men, and would seek a better system of decision making all round. But that’s not what Fathers 4 Justice is about in the end, is it?

  9. As I stated before, I’m far from a woman-hater and I think there should be across-the-board parity for both sexes. At the moment there’s no equality for men in the UK’s family courts; I’ve experienced that first hand.

    Rather than dress up in a superhero costume, my response to the injustice is to paint about it – ‘painting 4 justice’ if you like.

    Anyhoo, sounds like we’ll have to agree to disagree on some points Gareth …but that’s okay.

    Merry Christmas to you.


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