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Does feminism need men?

There’s no point in relying on men to rescue women

July 28, 2014 6:00AM ET

“A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle,” a phrase coined by Australian activist Irina Dunn in 1970 and commonly attributed to Gloria Steinem, expressed a primary goal of second-wave feminism: female independence. Liberal feminists of that era, including Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, spoke of men as partners and potential allies, not enemies and oppressors. Their kind of feminism wasn’t about rejecting men entirely; it was about freeing women to live without them (or, for those who wanted men in their lives, to enjoy their company on equal terms). Men were nice to have around, if you were straight and found a good one, but come the revolution, no woman would have to stick with a bad one out of economic, social or emotional necessity.

Today’s feminist rhetoric seems to have shifted from a focus on self-empowerment to a few-good-men mentality. Men are not only not the enemy; they’re our last, best hope. According to Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” “the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is.” Last year Xerox CEO Ursula Burns advised ambitious women to “Marry someone 20 years older.” And according to at least one feminist nonprofit, “Men ... have a critical role to play in creating inclusive workplaces … Without the avid support of men, who are arguably the most powerful group of stakeholders in most large corporations, significant progress toward ending gender disparities is unlikely.”

Women who aspire to positions of power are today advised to marry well, not advocate for themselves too forcefully and garner the support of powerful men. This isn’t bad advice: Having a partner does make it easier to devote yourself to work; you are likelier to advance as a woman or minority if you’re not seen as a pushy whiner, and currying favor with men in power probably helps more than it hurts (unless you’re perceived as sleeping your way to the top). 

But relying on a man for money and power, whether he’s your husband or a senior executive at your company, is not a bold feminist act. It may or may not leave individual women stronger, but it leaves women as a group weaker.

Life partners

Writer Gloria Steinem in 1965.
Yale Joel / The Life Picture Collection / Getty Images

Few would deny that it’s best to select a mate with care and that life is easier and more enjoyable with a good one. But are men really feminism’s missing ingredient?

A recent Ipsos poll found that 48 percent of men in 15 developed countries self-identify as feminists when the term is defined as “someone who advocates and supports equal opportunities for women.” At first glance, this is encouraging. But that figure includes men who only “somewhat” support equal opportunities for women, as well as those who “very much” support such opportunities.

Depending on how flexible you think the word “feminist” is, you could see this as evidence that egalitarian men abound. Or you could note that only 14 percent of men polled were “very much” in favor of equality, while 34 percent were only “somewhat” in favor. This means women who hope to succeed with an egalitarian partner by their side have only a small fraction of that 14 percent to choose from after discounting those who are too young or too old or are uninterested in dating women.

It’s at best unhelpful and at worst patronizing and insensitive to instruct women to mate wisely — a modern spin on advice from the bad old days to marry up. The problem isn’t that ambitious women don’t want supportive partners. Everyone knows it’s easier to have a career if you also have a wife. The problem is that the pool of men who unequivocally support equality (and are willing to do for their wives what wives have traditionally done for their husbands) is shallow.

Sheryl Sandberg wouldn’t be where she is today without the support of her lovely husband. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi has been described as lucky that her husband was willing to share parenting and household duties. Clearly, it’s still considered a stroke of luck when men are willing to look after their own children and buy milk for their own cereal. And that doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon.

It is disingenuous to pretend that men have as much to gain from feminism as women.

Progress for women as a group has been glacial, but thanks to a handful of high-powered, overexposed executives such as Nooyi, Sandberg and General Motors’ Mary Barra as well as a recent spate of misleading but provocative book titles, you could be forgiven for having the opposite impression. Let’s be honest: 4.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions and 1 percent of the world’s wealth does not a matriarchy make.

I have male friends who, in any discussion of feminism, are fond of mentioning that all their bosses have been women. (It’s certainly true that there are more female middle managers today than ever before.) Black women are considerably outpacing black men in terms of education, and it’s reasonable to assume that some men — whether they are victims of racism, have been left behind by today’s economy or educational system or all three — have a hard time caring about or even imagining women’s struggles.

Men face legitimate obstacles of their own, but their oppression, be it economic, political or social, is treated as a universal problem, not as a quibble from a special interest group. How many times have women activists been told that it’s more important to end war than it is to end sexism or more critical to win elections than to defend abortion rights? As the activist and cultural critic Ellen Willis once put it, “It’s hard to convey ... how radical, how unpopular and difficult it was just to get up and say, ‘Men oppress women … Men must take responsibility for their actions instead of blaming them on capitalism. And yes, that means you.’”

Women’s rights have never been the central fight for male activists; in many leftist circles, they weren’t on the agenda at all. By contrast, women have been instrumental in every major campaign for social justice, from abolition, anti-lynching crusades and organized labor to anti-war activism, civil rights and gay rights. They have historically devoted their time and lives to causes that didn’t necessarily affect them directly. Contrary to Stokely Carmichael’s infamous remark (“What is the position of women in SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]? The position of women in SNCC is prone”), women of all colors — especially black women — did more for civil rights than sleep with male activists. Black female activists such as Fannie Lou Hamer were regularly jailed and beaten. The Klan murdered Viola Liuzzo, a white activist who, before she was killed, declared that the battle for civil rights was “everybody’s fight.”

How many men think of safeguarding abortion rights or ending female genital mutilation as everybody’s fight? Apparently, only about 14 percent of men have gotten the memo that women are even people at all. This means that women who are waiting for a few good men — or an army of dishwashing husbands — to support them emotionally, financially and logistically as they lean into their magically high-powered careers will be waiting for a long time.

By women, for women

For at least a century, thinkers have argued that the women’s movement benefits men as much as it does women. “Feminism is going to make it possible for the first time for men to be free,” wrote the editor and critic Floyd Dell in 1914, referring to feminism’s potential to free women to earn a living and to free men from the responsibility of being primary breadwinners. I hope it’s true that feminism will liberate men as well as women. But men’s freedom should be a happy byproduct of feminism, not its primary goal. It is disingenuous to pretend that men have as much to gain from feminism as women.

In fact, they have something to lose, which is why we shouldn’t count on them to come to our rescue. Venture into the comments section of any article about feminism published in the last 20 years and you will see how many men are filled with rage, bitterness and terror at the prospect of women’s (largely fictitious) rise to power. Men are reluctant to cede privileges they’ve enjoyed their whole lives, even if or when they recognize that these privileges are unearned.

So why should men support equal opportunities for women? For the very simple reason that it’s inhumane not to. Accordingly, women should start asserting our rights and stop waiting for a few good men to recognize them.

Some men are born feminists, some achieve a feminist mindset, and some have feminism thrust upon them. Most men will never choose feminism; they will merely awake one day to a changed world. I admire and am grateful to the few good men — from Frederick Douglass and Floyd Dell to Alan Alda, Chuck D and Joss Whedon — who support or supported feminism. Men who advocate for women’s rights at the expense of their own privileges are wonderful but rare. We cannot rely on them for our liberation.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting one good man; many women do. But we should need one like a fish needs a bicycle. And we should rethink any corporate or social structure that requires us to rely on men’s patronage to succeed.

Raina Lipsitz writes about feminism, politics and pop culture. Her work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, Kirkus Reviews, McSweeney’s, Nerve.com, Ploughshares, Salon.com and xoJane, among others. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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