Columns, Opinions

Kumar ’17: Where are all the feminist men?

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, February 23, 2017

Last Thursday, I attended an event hosted by NARAL Pro-Choice Brown University titled “State of the Uterus Address: The Future of Roe v. Wade.” The three-person panel — which included a Planned Parenthood representative, an OB/GYN and a medical student — discussed the dim prospects of women’s health care, reproductive justice and the Supreme Court in the current political climate. With an audience filling Salomon 003, the event proved by its mere existence the importance of reproductive rights to the Brown community. Notably, though, little more than a handful of men were in attendance.

This dearth of men in the feminist arena, even at Brown, is not unusual. I have witnessed it during the election, when many men were reluctant to declare that they were “with her;” on Facebook, where I often feel isolated among men in posting about women’s right to choose, the struggles trans women of color face or the importance of gender parity in politics and at other events relating to women’s rights. The silence of other men on these issues is often deafening. Yet I know that many men who are not vocally feminist would still describe themselves as such. At a university as left-leaning as Brown, the most important challenge is not to convince men of the importance of gender equality but to convert their beliefs into action.

One possible reason for men’s relative lack of involvement in fighting for women’s rights is apathy: Because cisgender men will never personally need an abortion, they do not shape their politics around Planned Parenthood funding. Perhaps men without a uterus saw the title of the Brown NARAL event and thought that it didn’t concern them. A more likely explanation, I think, is insecurity about their position as allies. If the goal of feminism is to make space for women, how much space should men take up? If feminism aims to amplify women’s voices, how loudly should men yell in agreement? How can men use their own political power to fight for gender equality without diminishing women’s power?

There are no simple answers to these questions, and this column can barely scratch the surface of such a debate. One thing is clear, though: Feminism needs more, not fewer, men. By showing up to events and publicly expressing their support for women’s rights, men can demonstrate to other men — including their elected representatives — that everyone can benefit from gender equality, regardless of gender. Men should lean into the discomfort they may feel over their role as allies, keeping in mind that listening and asking questions are better than doing nothing at all.

Despite the gloomy outlook described by the Brown NARAL panel, there are signs that feminism is becoming steadily ingrained into the American psyche, for women and men alike. In January, many men participated in the Women’s March on Washington and associated marches across the country. At the march in Charlotte, North Carolina, I was delighted to see men displaying their solidarity with their families and friends. Furthermore, prominent governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York and Terry McAuliffe of Virginia have taken a hard stance on protecting access to contraception and reproductive healthcare. These are just two examples among the multitude of ways men can use their influence to turn their appreciation for feminism into concrete action.

Another good place to look for inspiration is the “He for She” campaign, for which Emma Watson ’14 advocates in her role as Global Goodwill Ambassador of U.N. Women. Though much of the campaign’s value is symbolic, it makes clear that advancing the cause of gender equality is a burden that men must share with women. The steady accumulation of actions as small as challenging jokes that perpetuate gender stereotypes can eventually shape a culture in which gender equality is the norm.

The panelists at the State of the Uterus Address emphasized the importance of having difficult conversations about abortion, in particular between pro-choice and pro-life advocates. Even if neither person intends to change their mind, some sliver of common ground can nearly always be found. The alternative, in which both sides stay in their own corner and attend events where everyone is already on the same page, will not lead to meaningful progress. Indeed, it seems that the same logic applies to the role of men in feminist politics. Only by announcing loud and clear their support for gender equality and then participating in the occasionally uncomfortable conversations that ensue can feminist men add to the momentum women activists have worked tirelessly to create.

Nikhil Kumar ’17 can be reached at nikhil_kumar@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.