For a hundred years or more, feminists have been answering Freud’s question of what do women want. And for much of this time, it has been presumed by those on both sides of the struggle that the answer to the parallel question of what men want would not be the same. Men’s patriarchal dividend must mean that men’s desire to be ‘in’ feminism with women is suspect. As Heath puts it (1986:1):
“Women are the subjects of feminism, its initiators, its makers, its force; the move and the join from being a woman to being a feminist is the grasp of that subjecthood. Men are the objects, part of the analysis, agents of the structure to be transformed, representatives in, carriers of the patriarchal mode; and my desire to be a subject there too in feminism – to be a feminist – is then only the last feint in the long history of their colonization.”
To what extent then is the recent flourishing of masculinities work with men, much of it avowedly concerned with promoting men’s contributions to securing gender equality, only another “feint” in men’s colonization of women? Or can men ‘want’ the goals of feminism, and if so, what are they prepared to do to help realise them?
The work of Ranjan Karmaker of Steps Towards Development in Bangladesh is testimony to the possibility of men wanting to support feminism and taking practical action in pursuit of that goal. Ranjan began working with men on ending violence against women and promoting women’s political participation over 17 years ago, long before “masculinities” entered the vocabulary of the development mainstream. For the first seven years or so, it was a struggle to gain acceptance from women’s rights organisations and feminist groups, whose vigorous campaigns against patriarchal power, in both private and public spaces, had left them unsurprisingly sceptical of men expressing a desire to give up that power.
But over time, and through continual efforts to ally with the women’s sector in tackling some of the most pressing problems of male power and their impact on women’s lives, STEPS earned first the trust and then the respect of organisations leading the feminist struggle. It is now an equal partner in that struggle, most recently coordinating the development of the Alternative CEDAW report for Bangladesh.
I have been working on ‘men and masculinities’ issues for ten or more years and like to think that I keep up to date with the developments in the field. But up until a few days ago, I had never heard of STEPS and the gender work it has done with men. My ignorance offers some lessons when it comes to reflecting on the question of what work with men can offer to the struggle for gender equality. The first is that this work, to be useful, is not so much about masculinities per se, but about men’s practices in relation to an oppressive gender order. It is concerned with what men think, feel and do when it comes to gender, with their experience of femininities as well as masculinities, and with the practical steps that men can take to promote greater gender justice, for the women in their lives as well as for them themselves.
The second is that this work is explicitly about social change. This requires personal change, but the vision is a broader one. The question for men is not about what kind of man do you want to be, but what society do you want to live in, and your children to live in. As such, it is necessarily concerned with the many forces shaping the lives of both women and men; the structural violence of transnational capitalism and the changing political economy of gender, fractured nation-states and conflicts over sovereignty, and resurgent patriarchalism in the guise of religious fundamentalism. If men want justice, be it economic, racial/ethnic, religious or caste, they must want gender justice.
Social change requires collective action and joint struggle, and this points to the third lesson. Not only is it important to understand gender relationally, but struggles for gender justice are about the relationships that individuals and organisations within such struggles nurture between them. Gender equality work with men cannot expect to participate in efforts to secure gender justice simply on the basis of men being “the other half of gender”. It has to earn its place and argue its case. It must welcome scepticism as an opportunity to engage in the conversation about what men have to lose and gain by challenging patriarchy. It needs to embrace accountability as a practice of trust-building. And in speaking to the question of what do men want when it comes to gender, the field of gender equality work with men must be in greater self-reflection about what does it want politically.
Heath, S. (1987) ‘Male Feminism’, in A. Jardine and P. Smith (eds), Men in Feminism, New York and London