By Zanny Begg
This is a vexed question in feminist circles, many asserting that feminist consciousness is intrinsically linked to female biology and that therefore only women can be feminists. But does biology really determine political ideas? Or is this the sort of reductionism that feminists have been arguing against when they challenge sexist notions of "woman's proper place" in society?
Sexual difference is a biological reality, but oppression and discrimination have not always been attached to such difference. In hunter-gatherer societies, there was a division of labour between men and women, but no differences in social status were attached to this division. Women, because of their biological role in child-bearing, were more involved in gathering food and hunting small game; men were more involved in hunting large game.
It was only when a sustained surplus of food and other necessities developed, and it was possible for some to accumulate that surplus and be freed from the need to work every day, that classes developed and oppressive relations were attached to the sexual division of labour.
Children became both a source of labour and wealth and the means of passing wealth between generations. Thus the purchase of women, along with all rights to their future offspring, arose as one of the social institutions of class society. Women became tied into the family, and unpaid domestic drudgery was designated "women's work".
The family institutionalises women's oppression. Women's unpaid labour in the home — caring for the sick and the elderly, rejuvenating their husbands' labour and bringing up the next generation of workers — is the essential crutch upon which the system rests. Today the Howard government is attempting to keep women in the home. Why? To relieve the government and employers of the cost of providing a range of services women provide for "free": child-care, aged care, health care and so on.
The fact that women have not always been oppressed tells us something about how to overcome oppression. Women are not oppressed because men are intrinsically stronger or more dominant (just as women are not intrinsically weaker and more passive). Sexism is a product of class society; to overcome sexism, we need to change society.
Feminist consciousness is sparked by a rejection of sexism. Because women suffer this sexism directly, through unequal pay, sexual harassment, domestic violence and so on, they may radicalise more readily around the struggle for women's rights. So women will be at the centre of all struggles against sexism.
But the fact that not all women are feminists indicates that feminist consciousness is not inherently female. It is a political position taken by women moved to fight their oppression as women.
To change society, women need allies. Although some women may want to create a female planet where men have been mysteriously eliminated, this is not an achievable goal (or a desirable one for many women). So women need to seek alliances with men in the struggle to change society.
Can men understand women's oppression? Men do benefit from women's oppression. Women do more domestic work and take more responsibility for child-care. freeing men to earn a wage and be economically independent. But men can break from the sexist ideas that accompany this position of relative privilege and join women in the struggle against gender inequality.
When feminists have taken to the streets to demand abortion rights, equal pay or anti-harassment legislation, men have often joined in these struggle because they have understood the injustices of sexism and because they've recognised that victories against such injustices strengthen common struggles against racism or against their exploitation as workers.
When men involve themselves in these struggles, they are taking a feminist stand. When they commit themselves to the ongoing fight for women's liberation, they can become feminists.
But how can men be feminists when they don't suffer sexism? In the same way that people who don't suffer racism can become anti-racists. In the mass campaign against Pauline Hanson and the racism of the major parties which spilled on to the streets last year, thousands of people — Aboriginal, white and Asian — took a stand against racism. These rallies were energetically built by many people who had never suffered racism directly but were committed to fighting racist prejudices.
Does that mean that men should lead the movement for women's liberation? No. Because sexism silences women, undermines their confidence and teaches them not to lead, the movement for women's liberation must be led by women themselves. Women need to develop their political confidence, determine their own demands and debate which way forward in the fight for equality. But when engaging in struggle against sexism, men who support the demands for women's rights can be part of the feminist movement.
Sexism, racism and homophobia are prejudices fostered by the ruling class to divide working people from each other and protect the social and economic power of the rich. In seeking to overcome these divisions, we need to avoid creating divisions of our own (men can't be feminists, white people can't fight for land rights, heterosexual people wont campaign for gay and lesbian liberation) and instead focus on how the majority of society (who do not benefit from this profits-first system) can fight together against all injustice and oppression.
A strong and united feminist movement will convince many men that we need to fight and eradicate sexism. These men can call themselves feminists.