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What Does It Really Mean to Be a Male Feminist?

A male feminist fighting for equality

If there’s one subject that’s likely to stir up strong feelings and heated opinions, it’s feminism. From the movement’s inception, there have been men who felt under attack by the stereotypical man-hating feminist. But the feminist movement is not inherently at war with men; its core mission is simply equality between the sexes. In fact, countless men consider themselves members of the movement. And believe it or not, some evidence suggests the number of male feminists is growing.

Tons of people – both men and women – are critical of the self-identifying feminist man. To certain guys, the male feminist can seem like a gender traitor. They’re “cucks” or, even more regressively, “gay.” Similarly, some women are instinctively uneasy around men who claim to be feminists. They suspect it’s just an act, merely a ploy for sex. It’s ironic that distrusting male feminists is one thing politically opposed men and women often can agree on.

Considering how contentious feminism currently is, you might wonder why any man would bother aligning with the movement. What’s in it for them? To answer that question, you need to understand the core of feminism and how it’s evolved. This will involve a (very) brief history lesson. Then, I’ll discuss what male “allyship” means and provide a definitive answer to the question, “Can men be feminists?”

What Is a Feminist?

Maybe you’re thinking, “Why am I reading about feminism? I just want to know how to be a manly man and meet hot women.” You’re not alone. Many men think feminism has nothing to do with them. It’s right there in the name, after all. What can a woman’s movement offer men? Maybe more than you’d think. There is a school of thought that argues modern feminism is for all people. To understand this argument, though, we need to know a bit of history–just the essentials.

The waves of feminism

The women's suffrage movement

If “feminism” is simply defined as the pursuit of equality for women, then the “movement” goes back centuries. Even millennia. It’s long been argued that Plato was a feminist. The modern American conception of the feminist movement, though, begins in Seneca Falls, New York, in the mid-19th century. That’s when the push for equal rights, including the right to vote, formalized into a unified political effort. In 1893, New Zealand became the first country to allow women to vote. Soon, other countries followed, including the U.S. in 1920 with the 19th Amendment.

This initial period of feminism is known as the “first wave”; the 1960s birthed the second wave of feminism. Whereas the first wave focused on political rights, the second addressed social rights. Specifically, it sought freedom for women to pursue lives outside the role of mother and wife. This fight for liberation coincided with or enhanced other movements, including the sexual revolution. The Roe v. Wade Supreme Court abortion decision came to represent the victories of second-wave feminism.

Feminism’s third wave began in the 1990s and was focused on expanding the movement’s reach. For one, the movement began wrestling with its own racist past, having often ignored or rejected women of color. Also, the movement focused more specifically on issues like physical abuse and workplace sexual harassment. Essentially, the third wave brought to light issues that had gotten less attention in the first two waves.

In the third wave, feminists also embraced the idea that the movement wasn’t just about women’s liberation. As a force for equality, it could benefit all people, including men.

Feminism today

This current moment, following the 2016 election of President Trump and #MeToo has been called the fourth wave of feminism. A century after women gained the right to vote, most Americans think gender equality has still not been achieved. With the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade, many feminists fear the movement is losing ground.

This is occurring at a time when views of feminism among some men are souring. A full third of men think feminism is harmful and undermines traditional masculinity. There is a clear political divide when the attitudes of Republicans and Democrats are polled. And, yet, members of both political parties overwhelmingly agree that women and men should be equal. A large majority of Americans believe more work is still required to achieve true gender equality.

That includes the nearly 40% of men who at least somewhat identify as a feminist.

What Is a Male Feminist?

A man who supports women's rights

Now, we return to our original question: what is a male feminist? In the simplest terms, a feminist man is someone who believes in and advocates for gender equality. In feminism’s first and second wave, such men stood alongside women in the fight for equal rights. They fought for causes like women's suffrage (the right to vote) and access to birth control pills. Male feminists saw women as their equals and worked to ensure that’s reflected in society.

The third wave helped shine a light on concepts like “rape culture” and sexual harassment. It also saw feminism grow as a movement to become one focused on racial and class inequality. As the movement expanded, so did the role men played in it. Instead of simply being about “women’s” causes, third-wave feminism became about extinguishing inequality in all forms. And, in that way, it began to expand what it meant to be a male feminist.

Feminists started saying the movement was for men as well. Tearing down concepts of gender norms that could benefit all people, not just women. As women embraced varied gender expressions, men no longer had to conform to strict ideas of masculinity. Prototypical male feminists of this era included rockers like Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder. In addition to being outspoken in their support of women, they’d often flaunt gender norms. Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana, frequently wore dresses on stage.

While feminism has expanded its goals and reach, it’s important to understand that the movement remains dedicated to women’s issues. The overarching goal may be to benefit all people, but the focus is still on the inequality women continue to face.

Can a Man Be a Feminist? Really?

So, really, can men be feminists? Is that an oxymoron or is a feminist man, as some guys suggest, a traitor to his gender? There are plenty of struggles for men in this world; why would a man devote more energy to women’s issues? Besides, aren’t all male feminists just really guys trying to get laid?

Overcoming the stereotypes

The stereotype that all male feminists are actually wolves in sheep’s clothing is, unfortunately, based on reality. Every woman has known a man whose feminist ideals disappeared once they got (or lost) the opportunity for sex. Every movement, whether we’re talking political, social, or religious, will have insincere adherents. Feminism is perhaps especially prone to this issue because the sexual dynamic between men and women is always there.

Does that mean there aren’t any real male feminists? Of course not. The women’s movement wants–and, at times, needs–male allies. Thankfully, there are countless men who sincerely believe in the cause and strive to live by feminist ideals. Men like Harry Styles, Mark Ruffalo, and former NFL player Wade Davis are outspoken feminists. Since bad-faith male feminists do exist, though, genuine male feminists have to expect skepticism about their intentions.

If you’re a male feminist, it’s important to not allow that skepticism to make you bitter or angry. It comes with the territory. Besides, if you’re a guy who’s only a feminist for praise and admiration, you have the wrong motivation. The good news is, if you are sincere, it’ll be clear sooner than later. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.

How to be a male feminist

Reading feminist literature to open his mind

So, can a man be a feminist? Yes, so long as he is doing it out of an honest desire for gender equality. The single-most defining trait of a male feminist is being a man who supports and listens to women. That means actually listening, and then taking action when it’s called for. And if at times that means being in conflict with other men, that’s the price he pays.

If you’re interested in being a male feminist, the first step is knowledge. Read the important feminist authors, both historical and modern. Writers and thinkers like Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, and bell hooks are good starting places. Modern writers worth knowing include Roxane Gay, Margaret Atwood, Caitlin Moran, and Angela Davis.

As with all long-running, wide-ranging movements, you shouldn’t expect all feminists to agree on all issues. The fourth wave of feminism involves substantial disagreements on major issues, including #MeToo, trans identities, and more. Feminism is not a monolithic movement, and that’s exactly why it’s still relevant. As societal and cultural norms change, the movement evolves. When all is said and done, though, it’s still a movement about equality.

After reading up on feminist philosophy, look for opportunities to join feminist and female-focused groups. These may be political organizations or just social activities in which women are the leaders. Also, seek out women-created art, including novels, movies, and music. It doesn’t have to be overtly feminist, it’s just about expanding the voices you listen to. When you do, you’ll start noticing how often the default view in culture is usually male. Grow beyond the default.

Ultimately, if you believe women and men should be equal and have equal opportunities, congratulations, you’re already a feminist. Now, the real work begins.

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