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?
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.