A couple of decades ago, when I was part of an activist’s listserv, I heard a compelling argument for keeping feminism by, for and about women, and using a different name, pro-feminist, for male allies. Because feminism’s effects — all those repercussions, all the outrage and the consequences and the benefits, alike — accrue to females only, feminism is a word for female activists. I don’t recall which radical woman staked the territory, but the fallout was dramatic.
Draw the hard line, and men, who will NOT be denied their entitlement, their access to naming, their right of defining, fight fiercely for this no-woman’s land. They will demand, badger, cajole; they will rally other women’s support — either in the group itself or among personal acquaintances; they will challenge the credentials of any woman who blocks their easy access to this simple word. Since the first battle I witnessed, I have understood that limiting ‘feminist’ to females is an excellent way to determine whether a man can be an ally — that is, can he assist without insistence on leading, on controlling, on having his way and on access to everything important? Remember, we are talking about the fight against female oppression — where the repercussions aren’t going to impact him directly, where the oppression is not his. In fact, feminism exists because he and others like him are privileged, are over-valued within the sex duality.
Men who can act credibly as allies are far more likely to accept limitations on their name access. Men who are asked nicely to cease, and yet push on, demand their presumed due, insist that they will have what they want against a woman’s expressed discomfort … honestly there are names for men who refuse to take No for an answer. The simple one is ‘bully.’ It’s not the only one.
Drawing this line is illustrative, even eye-opening. But it’s so for another reason, for women’s responses, too. What do women’s reactions mean, for sisterhood, when one woman tells men in a group that she doesn’t like them using the name that belongs to females — and another woman quickly rushes in to assure the men it’s OK for them to call themselves whatever they wish? And another woman challenges the first woman’s right to stake any territory within feminism as her own? I think it suggests that sisterhood is, so far, unlikely.
Before I ignite all of your defenses, I wish to say that words are less the issue than actions. I care most what people do. At the same time, my point here is not so much the wording as the reactions that occur around limiting ‘feminism’ to females only. The reactions are telling — magnifying the issues that already exist within feminism. Issues with men. Issues with other women.
I would suggest that, tactically, we as women either tend to forget or actively deny a great deal of our oppression, of how it works, especially. While we might like or sometimes even love individual men, they are still a part of the sex-caste, men, which oppresses women. Men oppress women. ALL men benefit from the oppression of women. The only thing that men can do to ameliorate this unfortunate fact, really, is to declare and then enact their allegiance to women, without question. To give loyalty to women who are fighting the oppression of male supremacy — misogyny — especially. Loyalty has nothing to do with leadership, with claiming higher knowledge, with demanding access to all of value. As I have suggested, such maneuvers of superiority at least border on a rapist mentality.
But we, as females under male supremacy, have been groomed to see as reasonable any loyalty flowing the other way, from women to men. If men oppress women, if all men benefit from the oppression of women, then this loyalty is not in our own best interests — who looks out for females in this framing? We must! But we have been taught that we can never be anything but kind in facing down our oppressors — we must be fair, we must never hurt them as they have hurt us. We forget, just as we’re supposed to, that we aren’t equal going in, so it’s not the same if we do something — it’s not “just as bad as men” when women take a hard stance. It’s not “just as bad as men” who formed exclusive clubs if oppressed women want to separate and heal. Those men’s clubs excluded from a point of elitist privilege, whereas separatism allows the oppressed their space away from those who have hurt them. And denying men access to a named oppression resistance that ONLY affects females, ‘feminism,’ cannot be claimed to be “just as bad as men” who kept women from positions of economic power, which is, again, elitism. By definition, the oppressed cannot be elitist toward their oppressors!
And we have been taught that we need numbers more than we need quality or commitment in our allies. But are a few difficult and demanding men really worth more than our alliances with one another? And isn’t that the false choice the men-nurturing women are giving in to? If men are being excluded, the woman doing the excluding has to be made to stop. But for what reason?
What is the effect of women stepping in to say that they disagree with any limitations on men’s access? To me it looks very much like male-appeasement — like a chance to step up and be regaled as The Good Woman, perhaps the kind woman, generous, loving, nurturing of course, not one of those extremists, harpies, too-radical types that give feminism a bad name! And I have a hard time fitting male-appeasers into the feminism I hold most dear. More honestly, I could name them patriarchally complicit, even saboteurs to a valid sisterhood!
I have seen situations where a woman confronted a man, and her sisters stood back, gave her space, and let her offer the challenges. If she asked or it was clear she needed backup, other women came forward. But not a single woman rallied to the side of the confronted man. And not a single woman chastised her for being unfair or unjust. It can happen, and when it does, it’s beautiful. Unfortunately it has not yet happened in my view in regard to the name ‘pro-feminist.’ We aren’t there yet, I don’t think. And we need to be — regardless of whether or not you believe that men are reasonably called ‘feminists.