Here’s a few of the many things that were amazing about UK Feminista last weekend:
1) Meeting up with the wonderful Twitter fems
2) The volume of support for our objections to the Bristol lapdance clubs
3) Hearing the mighty Finn Mackay on the opening afternoon
Here’s one thing that troubled me: the Sunday session led by Matt McCormack Evans called ‘Mobilising Men into Feminist Activism.’ As you probably know, Matt set up the Anti Porn Men website "for (mainly) men to write about and discuss anti-porn issues. The Project also provides and sign-posts anti-porn resources and news concerning pornography". As an eloquent young man, he is becoming the face of male feminism. He’s doing a great amount of positive work to challenge men who are resistant to feminist thinking and suggest an alternative view for them. Matt is a good thing.
My problem with the session has nothing to do with Matt personally, but everything to do with a man (any man) running a session for a mostly female audience, and urging them to think of ways to include men in the movement. Yes, I support men being feminists, and yes, obviously the more men who recognise the benefits of feminist thinking, then the closer we are to achieving equality. But why do we need to indulge the men in order to flatter them into allowing us, or helping us, achieve our demands?
To my mind (and many others, if Twitter is to be believed), it was troublesome to have a man stand up and tell women what to do (never mind clap his hands to silence us at one point). As women, when we finally achieve equality, we need to have achieved it on our own terms – not by running to men and asking them to help us. Surely, that’s not even an issue?
One of the topics discussed was about whether feminist groups should be women only spaces or mixed gender.
“Feminism is becoming a mainstream mass movement. It’s not a club,” Matt pointed out. “It makes no sense to exclude almost half of the population. Men can be useful. How can we see an end to violence against women without engaging the people committing the violence? In a lot of ways, feminism needs men.”
I disagree. Strongly: FEMINISM DOES NOT NEED MEN!!! If feminism ‘needed’ men, it would not be feminism.
In simplistic terms, what Matt says in the above quote is true. Feminism IS becoming a burning issue again, and it was wonderful to see so many young women attending the UK Feminista conference, some of whom were just doing GCSEs. But I was worried that those who were new to feminism and who had flocked to Matt’s workshop (which was attended by three times as many people as there were seats allocated for them, such was his popularity) based on his media presence, were going to be sucked in by what he said just because of the individual man saying it. I don’t mean to disrespect Matt by saying that, as I have great admiration for what he does and genuinely think he seems like a nice bloke.
But as a 30-something feminist, I am concerned to see the next generation hearing “feminism needs men” and not questioning it. Afterwards, I talked with several groups of young women who had attended Matt’s session, 100% of whom were really pumped and totally convinced by what they had heard. They seemed shocked that I said the session had made me angry and that I was fuming with feminist rage about how patronised I felt. So we talked about it, and I explained that I was frustrated to see so many enthusiastic female feminists believing that they could only achieve gender equality by enlisting men to help them do it. They all told me they had never thought of it like that before. And this worried me enormously. What else were people being told and not questioning? I don’t want to sound patronising (and am aware that I may do, for which I apologise), but if people are not questioning what they are told – then patriarchy has already won. It’s as simple as that.
Matt suggested we should be aware that men experience sexism, too. I mean, seriously, he actually said that. Before you say anything, I’ve had my share of self-righteous men asking me why I’m so strident campaigning against Hooters or lads’ mags, but why am I not worrying about the exploitation of the poor men at Butlers in the Buff, or on Heat’s Torso of the Week page. Seriously – some people actually think this is a valid question (and presume they are a great male mind for having dreamt up such a facetious poser).
So for a respected man like Matt – a man with influence among young feminists – to strand up and say (and seriously, he said this), that we needed to counter men who scorned us for having PMT by pointing out that men could be a bit moody too, sometimes, well, fuck me – the steam was coming out of my ears. (It was probably just my hormones, though.)
You see, poor old men, they’re on the receiving end of sexism, too. They’re expected to be uber macho, and to like only football and tits, when they might like something else. Oh, so what?! They should try being a woman in a male-dominated society! I know that men experience sexism… but by turning it into the tired old “what about the men?”, “think about the men” argument, it totally devalues all the good work of hardcore feminism.
The solution, says Matt, is to “frame feminist issues as men’s issues as well as women’s issues”. No, that’s really not the solution. Why the fuck should feminist women have to pander to men, or waste valuable time and energy solving male problems, when we have a hard enough time trying to get patriarchy to take our existing concerns seriously? In the 1970s, there were seven key demands made by the feminist movement. It is now 40 years later and we still have six and a half of those demands still waiting to be met. Feminists do not have time to indulge men – we are fighting a slow and uphill battle to achieve our own rights. Men can look after themselves. And stop holding us back while they do it.
It was around about this point in the session, that Matt’s Powerpoint display flashed up the overused image of Bill Bailey wearing Fawcett’s ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt. This is an image that most people agree has been publicised to death because it’s, like, a funny man, and he’s wearing a feminist t-shirt, titter titter. But shockingly the giggles in the room were fresh – many people seemed not to have seen this photo before. But how could they have missed it? It’s been all over Fawcett’s website for a verrrrrry long time, and it’s all over the internet. The only way they could have missed it was if (gulp) they had never been to the Fawcett website. But they’re feminists. How could they NOT have been to the Fawcett website? (The tailback of implications here is terrifying, considering all of the attendees at the conference were self-identifying feminists.)
Apparently, NOT ALL OF THE ATTENDEES AT THE CONFERENCE WERE SELF-IDENTIFYING FEMINISTS. This came about after various women in the audience started trying to re-name feminism.
Let’s just pause and digest that horrific fact.
Yep, there are some women at a feminist conference who want to lose the word ‘feminist’ because it has “negative connotations”. What did they have in mind as an alternative? Someone suggested ‘The Anti Sexism Society’. Someone else suggested ‘Gender Egalitarians’. Another woman suggested ‘Pro-Feminists’ (which doesn’t even mean anything, by the way).
Matt pondered what would happen if we did as some suggested and re-brand ‘feminism’ as simply ‘equality’. Fortunately, he immediately explained why he recognised this was a terrible idea: in short, “This would ignore the problems of patriarchy.” Damn right, it would.
He followed this with the most sensible thing he’d said in the whole session (and there were plenty of other sensible things he said, I hasten to add): “Men’s problems don’t come from the same place as feminist issues.” No, they don’t. And that is precisely why feminists should not be expected to tackle men’s problems in order to somehow earn the right to be able to continue fighting for their own demands. Matt said: “Just because feminism has the answers to men’s problems, should we change it’s name? No.” (I’m ignoring the contradiction between his two quotes, as essentially he’s talking sense here.)
While I admit I went to Matt’s session as a sceptic, I wanted to be proved wrong. I wanted to see how a session led by a man at a feminist conference could be a positive experience. I’m sorry to say the session left me insulted, angry and patronised (not necessarily by Matt, and in many cases more so by some in the audience).
Much of what I have written here is a general problem I have with finding a satisfactory way of including men in feminism, and is not a personal attack on Matt. Like I said earlier: he seems like a nice bloke, and I’m respectful of all he has achieved, and hope he goes on to achieve. However, his session inspired me to write this blog post and address my concerns about a) men in feminism per se, and b) a male-led session at a feminist conference.