Can a male be a feminist? by D. Matthew Gregory, Ph.D

As a Student Affairs professional and as a male advocate, I am deeply honored to have been invited to write a blog post for the Feminist Friday series.  Before I begin, I am a Caucasian, Methodist, husband, father, son, brother, advocate, social justice aficionado and ethnographer.  As a qualitative researcher, I often write with an auto-ethnographic lens.  As I thought about the invitation to write for Feminist Friday and what my topic could be, I continued to reflect on my dissertation journey and one conversation in particular.  This conversation not only paved the direction for my dissertation, this conversation helped to shape my answer to the question,

“Can a male be a feminist?”

It was summer and humid in Southern Illinois, I was nearing my prospectus defense.  I had recently confirmed a new committee chair and had recently switched dissertation topics.  Times were hectic in my world.  Because so much time had lapsed since my comprehensive exams and little time was left in my program hour glass, I chose to write on a topic that was near and dear to my heart, male advocacy against sexual violence on campus.  I had both personal and professional experience with this topic.  As a male, I have women close to me who are survivors.  As a housing staff member, I fielded a few initial reports on incidences of rape and sexual assault.  As a police officer, I had fielded and investigated sex crimes to include interviewing all parties involved, presenting options to the survivor, making arrests, and transporting and staying with the survivor at the hospital during the hospital process.  During this time, I did not see my role as a male in these situations as inappropriate or as potentially re-victimizing.  To me, it was an opportunity to help women in the midst of a potentially devastating personal crisis.  Women close to me had similar experiences and did not receive supportive help during their time of crisis.  In some instances they were told they deserved what had happened to them or their concerns were dismissed soon after making a report.  It was my chance as a male to right a wrong.  These women and my role with these women inspire me to be helpful and compassionate as a husband, father, and administrator.

My view of myself as a male advocate was not challenged until I met with my doctoral committee members to defend my prospectus on that hot and humid summer day.  The conversation began like many probably do, a summary by my chair of my progression and my decision to change topics.  I provided a relatively brief summary of my topic, my interest in choosing such a topic, and my plan for the remainder of my dissertation research.  What happened next, was a personal paradigmatic shift.  A female member of my committee asked something close to the following, “As a male researcher, why do you feel it is appropriate to research a topic that is regarded as almost exclusively a female topic?”  I am sure I was defensive in my response about how sensitive I am, being raised by a single mother, and how experiences of persons close to me qualified me for such research.  I was so struck by this seemingly simple question, I cannot recall what other rationale I may have offered.  I do remember my committee member’s suggestion, “if you are determined to conduct research on this topic, you must incorporate and become knowledgeable of feminist theory…there is no way a male can write on or begin to understand such a gendered topic without doing so through feminist theory.”  I politely thanked her for her feedback and may have answered a few other questions from my committee.  This one question impacted me so much that I cannot recall the rest of the prospectus defense.  After taking two weeks to calm down and to reflect further on her question, I began to find out what I could about feminist theory.  Like many pressing topics, I ‘Googled it’.  I identified several books on feminist theory and in particular one book on feminist theory and rape.  These books made me look at societal issues, administrative practices, legal constructs, power dynamics, and the relationship between genders in a whole new light.

“Can a male be a feminist?”

Prior to this dialogue with my doctoral committee member, I recall a different conversation with a former supervisor, mentor, and cherished friend.  I remember her arguing eloquently and convincingly that a given male could be passionate enough and active enough in support of equality for women that he could be called a feminist.  We spoke about my background, my advocacy as a male instructor in the Rape Aggression Defense (RAD) program, and now my role as a male researcher on sexual victimization of women on campus.  At the time of this conversation, I would have ordinarily been moved to assert without hesitation that I was a ‘male feminist’ and should be recognized as such by all.  After all, I considered myself to be a sensitive man, socially just, raised by his mother, a brother to several step- and half-sisters, a husband, and father to a daughter.  However, I found myself sitting in my mentor’s office in cautious disagreement with the notion that a male could be labeled as a feminist.

…as I reflect on my answer to her question, I look around my supervisor’s office, clean, the epitome of professionalism.  I look at my supervisor, she is classy, she is smart, a strong personality, and carries a definite presence when she walks in the room.  I listen to her encourage me as a person and support my research.  It is uplifting and appreciated.  Yet, the same person has shared with me how she as a female professional has been wronged by male supervisors and male colleagues.  She has shared that she makes less money than some of her less-experienced male counterparts.  She has shared that some men have labeled her as a “bitch” when she offered her opinion or defended her point in a meeting.  She has shared that she feels male colleagues have dismissed her advice because their opinions supersede hers.  She has shared that she considers herself to be a feminist.  She has shared that mentoring young female professionals is important to her.  She has shared that having female friends is of great value to her.  I know in most cases, she is right.  Yet, I find myself struggling with her comment that a male can be a feminist.  Is it my admiration for her and other women?  Is it my regard for the women’s movement?  Is it my love for female family members?  Why am I reluctant to agree that a male can be a feminist?  Out of respect and due in part to a lack of my own awareness as to the complexity of the topic, I simply agreed with her that men can be labeled as a feminist and I chose not to present a counter argument.

“Can a male be a feminist?

If you have not viewed the recent TED post by Jackson Katz, it is an intriguing talk. (http://on.ted.com/JacksonKatz).  Katz challenges the belief that issues like sexual victimization of women by men are entirely “women’s issues”.  Katz argues that in fact, they are most definitely “men’s issues” as well.  Katz asserts that men are largely the problem in the first place so, it stands to reason that in order to address the problem, men may need to be the focus of efforts to change the culture.  While I tend to agree with many of Katz’ points in his TED talk, there is something powerful about an issue being linked to a certain population.  Taking that linkage away or globalizing that linkage removes the perception of power.  The issue, while negative, becomes a symbol for the struggle, a reminder of the oppression, and can be a source of pride for those who have endured.  For some feminists, the idea of reclassifying a societal issue like rape as an issue for both women and men may be akin to the re-victimization of a rape victim by a male researcher.  Let me put it this way, men, the stronger gender, will involve ourselves in this issue, acknowledge we are largely responsible, and will begin to socialize younger men and educate men in more healthy and respectful relationships with women (i.e. fix the problem).

Katz’ argument that men need to be involved for change to occur was one of my arguments when I chose to write my dissertation on male advocacy against the sexual victimization of women on campus.  However, as a male researcher there were concessions to be made.  Feminist theory was essential to guide and inform my lens to minimize the chance I would hurt rather than help the cause to reduce sexual coercion on campus.  It was too dangerous for me as a male researcher to interview female survivors so I and other men could better understand the harm caused by rape.  Doing so carried a high risk of re-victimization and was arguably inappropriate for me to do as a male researcher.  It was extremely difficult to firmly believe I had something to offer to further the dialogue and yet be constantly reminded from a feminist perspective that my mere presence in the dialogue could be unwelcome and inappropriate.

So, when asked, “Can a male be a feminist?”, I do not believe the answer to that question is mine to make.  For me, the answer to my own question, “Can I be a feminist?”, is only an answer to be made by members of the group at the center of the issue.  If someone, like my mentor, believes I have or can contribute positively toward the feminist cause and refers to me as a feminist, it is a label she chose for me.  Very different than a label I chose for myself.  What I do call myself is an ‘advocate’.  An advocate for women, an advocate for racial equality, an advocate for gay/lesbian rights, and an advocate for a socially just world.  If by advocating for what is socially just for women, I am referred to by others as a male feminist, then it is my honor to be linked to such a powerful movement.  Personally, being a male feminist would mean significantly more if women gave me the label than if other men called me a feminist or if I called myself a feminist.

So, I ask you, “Are you a feminist?”

D. Matthew Gregory is the Associate Dean of Students and Director, Student Advocacy and Accountability at Louisiana State University, contact him via email  or find him on Twitter at @DMattGregory.

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