Should we say thank you?For me, the most compelling reason for talking about masculinities is to demand that men change.
In the UK, in the last 50 years, the changes in women’s lives have been staggering. When my mother got married, she was earning more than my father, but she was not able to get a mortgage in her own name. Women who worked for the civil service had to give up their jobs when they got married. Before the pill, arguably the single most important thing in transforming women’s lives in the UK in the last century, getting pregnant as an unmarried woman was socially very risky indeed. As late as the 1990s, there were more men called John than women in the UK Parliament.
These changes have been a result of new laws and social change, but they have also come about because women have changed. They have gone to university in ever larger numbers and worked hard to bag themselves the majority of the best degrees. They have gone out to work in larger numbers, ‘juggling’ paid work with childcare and other domestic responsibilities. They have got married less and got divorced more, as the stigma of being a single parent has subsided. They have tolerated biased selection panels, and the often hostile political and media working environment, to put themselves forward as MPs and bring about some of the most important and progressive changes of recent times – laws on domestic violence, better maternity rights, resisting changes to the abortion time-limit, legalisation of civil partnerships etc. The challenges for women who are not white, privileged, heterosexual and able bodied have been particularly steep and there’s a very long way to go.
Women have changed, but have men? In the UK today, women make up 46 per cent of the workforce and yet they still do the overwhelming majority of unpaid domestic work. According to the Office of National Statistics 2005 Time Use Survey, women in the UK spend more than twice as much time on housework and childcare as men. Lots of my friends are currently starting families and several have commented on the sense that they are expected to ‘thank’ their partners for looking after their own children. People often say, ‘oh isn’t he good, isn’t he hands on’. They’re his children!
Some would argue that gender condemns men to damaging and stereotypical roles as much as it does for women. Maybe so, but what about men’s agency to refuse to be bound by them? Many women have refused to comply with what society once expected of them and changed those expectations, so why can’t more men? Women should expect no less from those men who declare themselves progressive. But we don’t see enough of this kind of change happening around us, wherever we are. Perhaps, counter-intuitively, it’s harder to give up power than it is to seize it.
When I worked as a campaigner on women’s representation in politics, I remember there was a male Labour candidate (who later got done for claiming for a widescreen TV on his expenses), who spoke at a meeting about his support for all-woman shortlists. I remember being so thrilled that he, a man, was taking this position. It is true that in doing so, he strengthened our case, particularly as he himself had something to lose from the use of all-woman shortlists. But, really, should we be so grateful? When I stand up for my beliefs on discrimination on the basis of race, sexuality, disability or anything else, I don’t expect to be thanked for it. It’s part of who I am and it’s part of what I believe to be necessary to create a fairer world for everyone.
I used to organise a seminar series on feminism and development. We would have someone presenting their research on some aspect of this broad topic, then have a discussion. Almost without fail, there would be a pause as people gathered their thoughts, not wanting to be the first to pitch in, then one of the two or three men in the room would stick his hand up and start to talk, not about the research, but about how there were so few men in the room. What an incisive and penetrating comment it always was! The implication was that the men wanted to be given a pat on the back for being there. There was much hand wringing about why so few men came to the seminars and even some talk about whether the word ‘feminism’ was off-putting for them. As far as I was aware the men, who felt so very lonely, but simultaneously quite pleased with themselves for being there, made no efforts to gather their male friends and bring them along, so why was it up to me to persuade them and thank them for coming?
So, I agree that men should be part of the movement for gender equality. Women have changed so much, now it’s time for men to change. Let us strategise together about how to achieve a more gender equal and socially just world. But please, don’t expect me to be grateful to you for doing the right thing.