Why My Man Won’t Call Himself A Feminist

Sarah Laing’s partner is every bit a feminist, but he’s reluctant to use such a label. She explains why.

My partner and I rarely speak about gender. This in itself is unremarkable, except that I’ve just finished a post-graduate degree in Women’s Studies, I’m researching women’s history for my doctorate, and I talk about gender with—well, pretty much everyone else in my life. But does it matter?

Were I to push him, I’m certain that my beloved would speak out in favor of women’s rights. I’m certain that he would defend women’s right to choose, advocate for measures to get more women in politics (and to more powerful positions in the public sphere), and is happy to split our domestic chores fairly (do domestic chores still act as a litmus test for men’s engagement with gender equality?). He’s astonishingly supportive of me, despite the fact that my academic and professional work ethic has led to protracted periods of separation. In turn, I marvel at his compassion, his humor, his kindness, intelligence, and generosity. To him, women’s equality seems to be self-evidently desirable. But would he call himself a feminist? I’m not sure.

This, in part, speaks to the problematic nature of the word “feminism” for young men. The Web has created new forums for these conversations, increasing the visibility of these debates (indeed, his Facebook newsfeed must be littered with my re-postings of gender articles and opinion pieces. I’m not sure what kind of bedfellows they make with postings about football), and has led to the word “feminism” having wider social parlance. But despite being loved by a woman who is proud to call herself a feminist (and his having many fabulously feminist friends), I can see why he may have reservations about applying it to himself.

He is what I consider to be the archetypal man-in-the-middle. There are increasing numbers of wonderful men in my peer group who can and do loudly proclaim their feminism. There are a few men I’ve come across who would absolutely not, and who recoil from both the term and the cause. But the majority of men, so it seems to me, believe in women’s rights, and want to further them. However, they feel like they can’t articulate this in the current gender climate. This has something to do with men’s peer-group policing, and something to do with the enduring battle over the word itself. These men, nervous to raise their heads over the parapet, lie in the middle. On the one hand, they risk taking fire from their male friends for aligning themselves with a cause still, unfairly, associated with de-masculinization.

On the other, some female feminists reject their allegiance. And all it takes to put off these men in the middle is one woman who disparages men’s involvement, and reiterates the stereotype of feminism as a term exclusive to those with certain anatomical features. That there is a multiplicity of understandings within the feminist movement becomes obscured by the vocal objections of a minority.

My graduate course exemplified this. It was small; indeed, there were fewer than 20 of us. This belied a huge breadth of opinion regarding the philosophical grounding of feminism. There was perhaps only one woman on the course who would have objected to the beloved calling himself a feminist due to his sexual orientation and anatomy, but her determinedly exclusive definition of feminism has become embedded in his perception of what the movement as a whole might consider him to be: an imposition. 

For him, neither he nor I (as a makeup-wearing, leg-shaving woman) look like a “proper” feminist. This perception of “proper” feminism—a feminism that has only one face, and an exclusively female face at that—is popularly reinforced. This is why the increasing frequency of the word’s usage is only the first step in getting young men to have a share in it. According to him, feminists just don’t look like young men. This is, of course, conflating several issues: the portrayal of feminism in the media, the internal debates within the movement, and the enduring and harmful stereotypes about what it means to “be a man.” But the crux of it, for these men who would align themselves with the ideological aims of feminism but who are reluctant to label themselves as such, is this: They don’t see themselves reflected in the image of the movement. And because they have few male role models who call themselves feminists, there are fewer male feminist male role models. And so it self-perpetuates.

But the beloved is outraged by gender inequality (and is sensitive to the intersections of disempowerment), and he supports the movement to address this. So does it matter that he doesn’t call himself a feminist? On a personal level, no. Our relationship—though always evolving—is respectful, loving, and equal. But I’m starting to think that on a political level, maybe it does. So perhaps it does matter that we rarely talk about gender. Perhaps this is where I can make a move to diminish the numbers of men in the middle. Our relationship, founded as it is in mutual respect, conversation, and love, has given me the courage to face society’s ills and has equipped me with the language to fight them. Perhaps it’s time that I repay that favor.

Of course, this can’t be done overnight. But perhaps I can engage in what a fellow feminist and dear friend has labeled “feminism by attrition.” Beloved one, the nature of our conversations over breakfast is liable to change any time now.

Sarah Laing graduated with a Masters from Oxford University and is now reading for a PhD in women’s history in London.

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