Being a male feminist

Prospect Magazine

Being a male feminist


What is the role of men in the fight for female equality, and what does it mean to be a man in today’s society?

Is Russel Brand the definition of the modern male feminist? (Twitter/RustyRockets)

At first blush, it might seem extraordinary that men might need a place to talk to each other. After all, we’ve established an elaborate network of gentlemen’s clubs operating under such names as Parliament, the Vatican, the corporation, the mosque, the sports team, the temple, the army, gangs, the police and the pub.

But it is a troubled time for men. After all, the carefully generated edifice of men’s power is showing cracks everywhere. Women have had the temerity to insist upon, and in many cases win, demands such as equal pay for equal work, the cessation of male violence against women in the home and on the streets, an equal voice and place within political, cultural, and religious institutions, a sharing of parenting and domestic tasks, and control over their own bodies including a choice whether to have a child or not.

Which leaves men exactly where?

For a growing number of men, it leaves us truly ecstatic. To imagine that the women we love might live lives full of the same privileges that men have long enjoyed is, for many of us, not only worth celebrating, but worth fighting for. My own work over the past two decades has had a particular focus on engaging men and boys to take action to help end violence against women—most men don’t commit these acts but few take a stand against it. Twenty years ago, when I co-founded White Ribbon, a campaign working to end this violence, I would have been astounded to think it would spread from Canada where I live to 70 or 80 countries worldwide. But, it shows there is a global network of men who support equality between the sexes.

There are, however, other men and, strangely, a number of women who aren’t quiet as sanguine about these changes. Women, such as the journalist Hannah Rosin who has written widely about the end of men or philosopher Camille Paglia who recently lamented the demise of real men. And there are a small number of men who form an angry backlash and now bang their drums for fathers’ rights and men’s rights, as if the state were ripping babies from the arms of men.

And then there’s the majority of men. Men who might not say they’re card-carrying feminists, but would definitely want their daughters to never experience violence at the hands of a man, and want their wife to be paid equally and have equal opportunities at work. At the same time, many of these men are questioning exactly what it means to be a man.

Shouldn’t this be an easy question to answer? Shouldn’t spending, say, one second naked in front of a mirror put to rest any doubts? No it isn’t, because “manhood” doesn’t actually exist, at least not as a biological reality. It’s a set of ideas and social relationships; it’s all make believe but, once established, feels as real as the chair you’re currently sitting on.

Over the past almost 8,000 years, we’ve constructed societies of men’s privilege and power.  That power has been orchestrated and perpetuated through our political, economic, educational, and religious institutions. But the strange thing about this male-dominated society is the ways in which we define manhood. Men have power, but we are traditionally meant to distance ourselves from a range of feelings and human possibilities in order to fit into an armour-plated notion of manhood.

These days, with men’s privileges and entitlement getting steadily eroded by movements for women’s equality, men are increasingly sensing the vacuum that remains. The emotional distances from women, children, and other men. The sense we are not so special after all. The loss of meaning and even purpose. The fear of not being a “real man.”

And so we need to talk. About our experiences. About the impossibility of living up to our historic ideals of manhood. About how we can raise our sons to be good men who will never need to fight, strut or pose to prove they are real men. About how our lives are being transformed by playing an equal role as parents. And how we can support each other to immeasurably improve our lives as men.

Michael Kaufman will be appearing at the Being A Man festival which runs from Friday 31 January to Sunday 2 February at Southbank Centre. 


  1. January 31, 2014

    Ray Kohn

    Dear Michael Kaufman
    When I taught a short course entitled ‘Men in Feminism’ I prepared a great deal of material that centred upon our relationships with women, both historically and into the present. It was a staff devlopemnt programme within a large institution in 1987. To my surprise, almost the entire course became dominated by one relationship that had little to do woth women. Fatherhood, relations with fathers and one’s role as a father predominated. Perhaps your festival will discover the same thing?
    Best wishes
    Ray Kohn

  2. February 3, 2014

    Jennifer Rockwell

    I think your efforts are admirable, and agree wholeheartedly that there is ample room for discussion among men about the transformation of traditional gender roles that have been mandated by women’s liberation. That said, I would point out that the fight for father’s rights is an entirely valid part of that transformation. The judicial system is getting better, and in most states the law no longer presumes mothers are better parents, but that movement has been the result of men demanding that they be seen as equal parents. That insistence actually supports the feminist movement, men accepting and sharing traditional women’s roles as women moving into traditionally male roles. Thus, I would only add to your argument that being a male feminist in all the ways you mention needn’t include negation of that movement, or being a male apologist. Men and being male still deserve celebration and recognition as they move through their own transformation.

    • February 3, 2014

      Ray Kohn

      Thanks Jennifer. The way that the course I took actually had little to do with “father’s rights”. Much more significantly, the members of the course began to explore their own identities in relation to the experiences that they had had as sons to their fathers and only at the end as fathers themselves. The women tutors with whom I worked assured me that in the very early days of women’s liberation, many women went through a similar process with regard to their relationships with their mothers. We, as men, were just a few years behind in the process of liberation.

  3. February 6, 2014

    Michael Kaufman

    Thank you, Ray and Jennifer for your comments.
    Yes, Ray, men really do need to push ourselves to create safe spaces for an authentic conversation among ourselves. The biggest thing that gets in the way is certainly not women, but fear among men–fear of the humiliation we received particularly when young if we weren’t ‘real men.’ In a sense, a different word for this fear is homophobia, which plays a large role in the construction of our dominant forms of masculinity. There were many wonderful conversations at the BAM! weekend.
    Jennifer, I agree that a critical area of change must be (and is) around fatherhood. I’m cowriting a book with my colleague Gary Barker on the global transformation of fatherhood and am very active in the international network . But I’m opposed to the “father’s rights” perspective because I don’t believe that being a father or having custody is an inalienable right. For example, men who use violence against their children or who are physically or emotionally abusive against the children’s mother should definitely not have custody or even unrestricted access. That much said, our efforts should go into encouraging shared custody and healthy post-separation parenting relationships. If men were doing 50% of the care work, then shared custody would be obvious to all–and that’s what our MenCare campaign is pushing for.
    All the best, Michael

  4. February 11, 2014

    John Ellis

    What one hopes for as the sexes get ‘more equal’ is that people will be seen as who they are as individuals. Some women are not as ‘nice’ as one might expect, just as men have some pretty warped views about womanhood is about. None of you mention religion: surely one of the biggest obstacles in many societies?

  5. February 11, 2014


    “who aren’t quiet as sanguine about” -> “who aren’t quite as sanguine about”

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Michael Kaufman

Michael Kaufman is co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign – the largest global movement working with men to end violence against women 

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