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?