Men: if you really want to support women, take your feminism to eleven

Dear Well-Meaning Feminist Male Friends and Colleagues,

We need to talk about what happened. I’m not talking about the incident when when our co-worker cracked that inappropriate comment at the holiday party, or the faculty meeting where Prof. Curie was asked, again, to take notes, or when that high-profile Nobel laureate said something really offensive at his talk. Remember the other day, when that guy started yelling abusive language, got up in my face, threw some sexist slurs my way, and wouldn’t back down? It was a situation that could have easily escalated, but didn’t. I was glad you were with me afterwards. The glass of water, the cookie, the comforting words, the advice on how to handle it with HR — those were all really helpful. Thank you. But that’s not the part I want to talk about. 

Maybe you’ve always been a feminist, or maybe you’ve recently woken up to the experiences of women and minorities in the workplace. You’re actively working to come to terms with your privilege. You’re learning the jargon.  You’re getting really good at validating our experiences as women. You’re emotionally supportive. You likely identify as a feminist or an ally on social media. You post articles on Facebook about sexism and try to spread the word. You pride yourself on doing this all without expecting recognition for your efforts. Your sympathy, support, encouragement, and enthusiasm are appreciated.

It’s really great that you care about your women friends, family, and co-workers. It’s even better when you extend that care broadly, to total strangers — to all women, including women of color, transwomen, women with disabilities, fat women, queer women. Don’t stop doing that! But being here for us in the spiritual or philosophical sense is not enough. It’s time to take your feminism to eleven.

Here’s the secret to being a male feminist: supporting women is great, but what I really need is for you to worry about men. Men are what I worry about every single day: men with guns, men with anger problems, men who may turn hostile if I don’t respond well to a come-on, men who are working to erode access to healthcare I need, men who don’t get it,  men who objectify, men who rape, men who assault, men who abuse their positions of power.

I get that you want to distance yourself from those men. I get that you feel alienated, troubled, and uncomfortable that those men exist, and that their behavior means that sometimes, women treat you poorly because we don’t know if you’re Schrödinger’s rapist. But remember #notallmen? It’s not about you: it’s about doing what you can to make a real difference as a feminist. And usually, that means focusing on your fellow men, and not women.

Some of this will be (relatively) easy: Brainstorm with your male friends, colleagues, and relatives about active ways to combat sexism, toxic masculinity, violence, and harmful behaviors. Attend (and encourage others to attend) sensitivity trainings, diversity workshops, de-escalation training, or other skill-building efforts that you can apply when interacting with men.  Participate in (or start!) pro-feminist men’s issues groups, and build skills for healthy emotional processing. Be proactive about discussing diversity issues with male colleagues — don’t expect women to do all the diversity work. You’re probably doing a lot of this already.

Here’s the hard– and most important — part: intervene when you witness women being abused, harassed, or assaulted. Don’t just stand on the sidelines and offer support after the fact. This may take a set of skills you currently lack, and it will probably be scary sometimes, and you will probably screw up. Sometimes it will mean stepping up in the moment, and other times it will mean taking someone aside after the fact and telling them that their behavior was wrong. I don’t have advice on how to do this; talk to each other, and figure it out.

There’s a phrase that’s used in social justice discussions on social media: “come and get your people.” We get that you’re not responsible for the actions of others, but if you really want to help, you’ve got to step up. The harder it is, the bigger a difference it probably makes. Come and get your people. Take responsibility. Are you a fair-weather feminist? Or are you ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work?



11 thoughts on “Men: if you really want to support women, take your feminism to eleven

  1. Goodness, yes. Just yesterday, I was chatting with two male colleagues and one other female grad student. I vented about being worried about an upcoming stats exam, and one of the guys went “oh, it’s because you’re a woman!” I called him on it, and the other woman in the room immediately backed me up–but the other man just sort of awkwardly sat there and tried not to draw attention to himself while the two of us insisted that that was not a funny joke. It’s so frustrating, and it happens basically every time I have to say “That was sexist.” Women in the room will generally get behind me and reinforce what I’m saying by agreeing or nodding. Men? The best response I see, 99 times out of 100, is to apparently hide and go silent until the discussion passes. Even male allies.

    I really wish more men would actually do something when stuff like this pops up, but this is such a strong pattern that I don’t expect even men I otherwise trust, men who get this stuff one-on-one, to back me up in situations like this. They just vanish from under me. It’s really tiring to be simultaneously having to draw boundaries like this and then have men who think of themselves as feminist allies go silent and pretend nothing is happening if I say “this is not okay.”

  2. This! The only thing I would disagree with is that this is ‘taking feminism to an 11’. This should be standard behavior. Don’t collaborate/associate with jackholes who are racist, sexist and making anyone’s lives slow hell. This is not an 11. It is being a human with morals, choices and standards. Well said, Acclimatrix.

  3. Also, you can take this advice and replace the “men” with any systemically privileged group and “women” with the systemically disadvantaged group it goes with. Learn to be a better ally. I know it can be scary, especially when angry people are involved. As a person who is mostly “privileged” (cis, white, from a well-educated family/upper-middle class family) it can be difficult for me to address racism/ableism/heteronormativism/x-ism when the person who is doing the ism-ing is in a position of authority (implicit or explicit). It can be hard to say “hey relative, that’s racist” or “boss, that comment you made about Susan was inappropriate” or “respected friend, transwomen most certainly are women”. This is especially true if the comment is unexpected and comes from someone you care about; it is hard to comprehend a “good person” doing a “bad thing”. Try to address these incidents in the moment, but if you cannot, find the person afterward and let them know what they did and how it affected people.

    Musings on the problem of privilege:

    It is hard to accept that we are privileged. We are hard working and have earned the benefits of our success. Being told that we are privileged makes us feel that people think we haven’t earned our success. This is not what being privileged means, because being privileged is NOT about you. It means that someone who has worked just as hard as you has likely not seen the same benefits you have, or was not even given the opportunity to do the same kind of work in the first place.

    It is hard to accept that we are privileged. It makes us feel like bad people. Privilege means that there is always a chance that the opportunity/award/job should have gone to someone else, but we got it instead. We cannot control what groups/people are systemically privileged, so it also makes us feel helpless. We become bad people, with nothing we can do about it. …Again, being privileged is not about you. You are not a bad person because of your privilege. This does not mean you should not take every chance you can get to address privilege, to fix problems, to support someone. It just means that being told you are privileged isn’t an insult.

    It is hard to accept that we are privileged. But we should anyway. This is not about you. Be an ally to someone that lacks your privilege, because at the end of the day, this is about them. This is about helping people in whatever form that help needs to take.

    • I’ve seen growing discourse that suggests the very idea of ally-ship is fraught. People are declaring themselves allies and walking around with badges on. I’m growing to believe that you can’t be an ally, but you can ally — as a verb — with individuals or groups.

      • The idea of ally-ship is great: identify yourself as someone that can be looked to as a support system when things go wrong so people know who to turn to for support. This could be especially beneficial in the university environment, where displaying the signage might indicate to a student with serious problems that a certain professor or other authority figure could be a safe person to go to for advice/support/a friendly ear. The problem is that this is typically as far as it goes, the self-identification. This is especially true in these days of armchair activism. Change your Facebook profile picture to have a rainbow flag in the background, be a hero.

        You can be an ally, but it doesn’t happen just by declaring yourself to be one. And no, it will not earn you a cookie, nor should it be worn like a badge of honor (if you shouldn’t be ashamed of your privilege, you don’t get to be proud for acknowledging it). It is just a thing that we should do.

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  5. I agree with this 100%. Men need to call out peers when this occurs, grad students and faculty, although I have seen it happen rarely. I have called out male undergrads, grad students, and faculty (when I was a grad student) when I’ve seen sexist crap happen. It tends to not end well and in a couple of instances could have escalated to blows. My ability to diffuse potential fights or walk away likely prevented an altercation. Even after the fact, misogynstic men have held a grudge and were antagonistic and aggressive towards me. Only a couple of times (n=4, I think) has my mouth gotten me in the situation where me calling out another male grad student produced a possible confrontation. While rare, a physical confrontation is a potential outcome for anyone who intervenes, whether of sticking up for a female colleague or a stranger on the street. By nature most people want to avoid the thought of a fight. In my experience the small proportion of men that say sexist comments have other issues (e.g. massive insecurities and being overaggressive) and have no problem defending their comments or behavior.

    I think my point is at the student level intervening among peers can be a problem. I am in no way saying it should not be done, it should!. But I can understand why it does not happen. The faculty need to step-up since I doubt a grad student would want to fight a faculty member. I have no answer or advice on how to intervene, it’s hard. I was raised not to sit on the sidelines and watch anyone being bullied or harassed…but I really have no idea if me intervening in a situation ever helped in the long run…but I did make some enemies🙂

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