Letter to the Editor

Lately there has been much talk of the word “feminism.” Beyoncé and Emma Watson have been celebrated (for the most part) for “coming out” as feminists, while a smattering of male celebrities from Louis C. K. to Prince Harry have jumped aboard the f-train. And yet for all the celebrity endorsement, it is clear that for many people today—including many or most young women—the term itself has a negative resonance. One frequently hears: “I’m not a feminist, but I believe in equal rights/gender equality …” An admittedly extreme but nonetheless representative example of this is the recent Tumblr “Women Against Feminism” phenomenon. In addition to mouthing all the familiar anti-feminist stereotypes (“bitches,” “misandrists,” etc.) many of the young women involved echo this familiar anti-feminist refrain with a twist: “We are not feminists because we believe that women should be able to say and do what they like!” Some well-intentioned folks respond to this sort of statement by saying: “Aha! You are feminists, since that’s exactly what feminism stands for!”

I, however, beg to differ. To say you believe in gender equality or equal rights or women’s free choice does not make you a feminist. It makes you a “liberal” (in the classical sense of the term), an egalitarian, perhaps a humanist. But to me, feminism has always been more than simply a commitment to the liberal, humanist ideal. Like Buddhism, anarchism, and environmentalism at their best, the “f-word” is and must remain a challenge and a provocation. The liberal perspective puts all value in individual “choice” and “rights” without considering either structural, systemic issues (what Buddhists call the inescapable interdependence of being) or, frankly, the “moral responsibility” that we owe to those around us. Feminism—at least my feminism—is a call to a radical transformation in the way we view and act with others and the world. In short, the women posting selfies on the “Women Against Feminism” website are quite right: they are not feminists, because they are patently not interested in anything other than their individual “rights.” I say let them be.

I also want to reiterate a point that has been made recently by others, including Emma Watson in her speech to the UN and Walter DeKeseredy in a recent talk here at Bucknell. The issue addressed by feminism are not solely women’s issues. Sexual assault, for instance, is arguably a men’s issue, because men are almost always the perpetrators (even when men are the victims). To me, as a male feminist (or “pro-feminist,” as some would prefer) of long standing, it seems obvious—but still bears repeating—that the problems that emerge from sometimes subtle but deeply-entrenched misogyny in contemporary U.S. society will not change until men change. And it is more than simply men saying to men: “Don’t hit women.” Rather, our cultural constructions of masculinity are in need of serious review. Boys and young men grow up with a shockingly limited set of “choices” as to what makes them “men”—it may be that there is no real “choice” at all. You either are a “man” or you are not (and of course being “not” comes with serious consequences). And sadly, American masculinity is often intrinsically bound up with misogyny. Guys, we need to talk about this.

On the one hand, as a progressive feminist, I want to insist on the structural changes that need to take place, in concert with any and all cognitive or behavioral ones. And yet, like DeKeseredy, I also recognize the problem of focusing solely on regulatory and retributive structures and top-down programming while ignoring informal and grassroots methods to generate conversation and community. At Bucknell, a good number of female students have become engaged in “campus climate” (another euphemism!) issues. Very few male students have done so, for reasons that are not hard to fathom. And yet, until (young) men talk with other (young) men about these issues, and our confined and distorted visions of masculinity in particular, nothing is going to change, in spite of all the institutional programs and structures we create and all the (important!) conversations are taking place among women. I would like to take this opportunity to call for young men on this campus to rise up and stand for women—and for themselves. Man, where is your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. A woman? No. But ain’t I a feminist? Yes. Yes, I am.

James Mark Shields



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