This is a transcript of a speech I gave at Sussex University on the 6th March, 2008, to tie in with International Women's Day. You're getting it in its unadulterated form, as halfway through a rather frightening beetle ran across my notes, putting me off my stride somewhat. Ever the professional, confident, non-table-standing-and-screaming young feminista, that's me.
I have an outrageous confession to make: I like men. In fact, some of my best friends are men. You may scoff, but I know several men who’ve worked hard right through school and university to better themselves, who are holding down steady jobs and making decent, honest contributions to society; I know men who are not violent thugs, or who seem at any rate to have the violent, thuggish impulses innate to their base, primitive natures. At any rate, they seem to be here to stay, much as we may wish to declare open session on the entire species.By now you’ll have seen where I’m heading with all of this. 21st-century feminism must rid itself of the ugly notion that men are born criminals.
Now, I would call myself a radical feminist, where radical implies getting to the root of the problem, picking through historical trends and working towards deep, systemic change to end gender oppression once and for all. But for years my feminism has run up against a stumbling block: I don’t believe that men are the root of our problem. I believe that patriarchal capitalism is the root of the problem, and I believe that men, individually and collectively, are an easy target, because they are the ones who nominally win out from the patriarchal capitalist gender equation. I say nominally, because men too suffer from being immersed from birth in a culture of male violence and thuggishness. Men, too, are conditioned to behave in any number of strict, gender-coded, heteronormative ways and punished or attacked if they deviate from that norm. I would lay money that most of you have a male friend who has been mugged or beaten up in the street, or knows a male who’s been a victim of ‘gay-bashing’.
Now, this march coming up at the weekend [London’s Million Women Rise march, 08/03/08] has a fantastic message. The vision of a future for women free of violence. Strength in unity. Brilliant. But why should men be excluded from that gentler future? Ending a culture that condones violence against women should not mean that we march around yelling ‘men off the streets!’ reinforcing every narrow-minded stereotype that’s ever been thrown at the feminist movement. Nor should it mean that we deny the many men that do support our cause the right to march alongside us. Martin Luther King thanked the white people who marched and were imprisoned in support of their black brothers and sisters; we should have the grace, the maturity and the strength of vision to welcome men to our cause in the same way.
Misandrist feminism, feminism that is pro-woman but anti-men, is massively out of date. The feminism of the 1960s and 1970s was a political movement which was vital for its time but which is proving dated, anodyne and inappropriate 40 years on. In fact, Sixties and Seventies ‘second wave’ feminism, having won the most important of its battles years ago, retains only the most questionable and paranoid of its objectives: fostering an anti-men sentiment amongst middle-class women, objecting to genuine gender subversion, and shoring up the remnants of a model of elitist ‘sisterhood’ to which no men and few women are invited. A violently anti-male sentiment was incredibly useful as a pincer in the initial pro-woman assault, but as a long-term political strategy it is worse than irrelevant; it actively damages the ideals of gender equality, tolerance and freedom from violence that we have fought so hard to uphold.
The rigid, unforgiving approach to gender espoused by old-fashioned feminism all too often involves serious prejudice against queer and transpeople. Modern gender fascists such as Julie Bindel take issue with the transvestite, transsexual, transgendered, intersex, androgynous and ambi-gendered, because their very existence flies in the face of the tired binary by which misandrist feminists have defined themselves. This is the binary whereby all men are genetically predisposed oppressors, and all women fundamentally social underdogs, justified to select any and all male people for their kicking sticks. Anything that goes against that paradigm of two genders, one downtrodden and righteous, one violent and evil, sticks in the throat of conservatism.
Marching down the Tottenham Court Road with my comrades and sisters during the November Reclaim The Night march, I met a shy and pretty transwoman in her early twenties. She carried a tiny, home-made placard held together with sellotape, bearing the legend ‘transpeople against violence’. She explained to me how alienated she felt by the ‘men off the streets’ message of the march, and how she had personally lobbied one of the organising bodies to get Bindel, famed for her intolerance of all those not born female, relegated from her position as keyline speaker. Unfortunately, Julie Bindel is such a ‘big name’ feminist that the authority and celebrity her prescence brought to the rally won out over principle. Quite simply, Bindel was too famous to turn down on the small grounds that this sort of intolerance is no longer relevant or useful to modern feminism.
Men are not the problem. Patriarchal capitalism is the problem. A culture of male-perpetrated violence is part of the problem, but most men are not thugs. Men in the West grow up in a culture that teaches them that masculinity is expected to be violent; some respond by becoming perpetrators of violence, and the rest of them remain, like everyone else, cowed by the threat of violence. Men, like women, are worked over every day by the deeply disturbed gender attitudes of their society. All of us, male, female, straight, gay, bisexual, transsexual, kinky or vanilla, we are worked over every day by the treatment of gender in Western culture. Creating aggressive divisions within this paradigm is hugely counterproductive.
More and more, young feminists are kicking against tradition and embracing men as part of the solution, rather than the problem. Six months ago I gave a talk at the second Feminist Fightback conference. Speaking about feminism, socialism and the future of the left at the end of a long day, it was heartening to see that about a third of the sizeable attendance was male. The enthusiastic friends and boyfriends of female attendees, along with male student representatives from all over the country, had come to show their support. Moreover, I’ve been organising a post-march party to allow friends from outside London to attend Million Women Rise, and I’ve had to let down four or five male friends who wanted to join us, either to support their friends, lovers and sisters or because they wanted themselves to walk, for once, through the streets of the capital at without fear of assault. The country is flooded with men who are sick and tired of being worked over by their gender, of being categorised and criminalised on the basis of their genital arrangement, just like us; and more and more men are proud to call themselves pro-woman. Just look at the success of movements like the White Ribbon campaign, or Men Can Stop Rape. We cannot and should not do this alone.
Having the men and boys of the 21st century on side will make an immeasurable difference to the future of the feminist movement. If we carry on treating men like the enemy, some of them will see no reason to stop behaving like our enemies. Men must see that it is both their right and their duty to involve themselves in feminist discussion, and to fight with us to change the massive gender prejudices that still exist in our society. In turn, we must welcome them into the fold.
Anger, hatred and violence are not appropriate or constructive responses to anger, hatred and violence, not once you're out of training bras. Contemporary feminism needs to welcome as many men as possible into its ranks: to do otherwise is plain hypocrisy.
When I march alongside my comrades on Saturday, I will be marching with pride, and what I will be marching against is the culture of gender-based violence that has evolved from patriarchal capitalism. I will be marching for an end to gender-based and sexual violence against everyone, and I will be marching for solidarity with those brave young men and women of the 21st century with the vision to call themselves gender activists. Over-simplistic, sexist anti-male sentiment has no place in contemporary feminism. It is for this reason that the men and women of the young feminist left must take a stand against the uncompromising bigotry of our forebears, and forge a new feminism for the complexities of our own generation.