Can the men's movement be pro-feminist?

Issue 

By Sue Boland

"Pro-feminism's natural home lies elsewhere, not in the men's movement", responded men's movement participant John Mack to a 1998 article by Michael Flood which had identified pro-feminism as a section of the men's movement. Flood was a founding member of a pro-feminist men's group Men Against Sexual Assault (MASA) and a founding editor of XY magazine.

Mack continued: "Pro-feminism must necessarily start from the proposition that men have more power, privilege, etc than women ... While the rest of us [men] may disagree on whether men are more oppressed than women, or equally so, few can accept that the male role is empowering."

Mack's views are shared by many men's movement groups, particularly the "men's rights" strand of the men's movement. Flood identifies men's rights groups as an openly anti-feminist current within the men's movement. The other strands he identifies are "men's liberation, mythopoetic and pro-feminist". ("Mythopoetic" appears to be a misspelling of mythopoeic which has become generally used in the men's movement.)

Most men's rights groups claim that they are not anti-woman but just want equality with women, implying that women have won "special privileges".

An example is the Men's Rights Agency, which lists as one of its aims: "To promote equal rights and a level playing field for all men. We acknowledge the right of all women to equality, but overreaction is causing an imbalance leading to discrimination against men."

Claims by men's rights groups that they just want equality echo One Nation's false claim that it just wants equality for whites and is "anti-racist".

Resentment of gains

The men's movement began in the 1970s. However, only since the late 1980s has it become better organised.

By the 1980s, women had more control over whether or not to have children and whether or not to get married. There were fewer overt discriminatory barriers to jobs. It was easier to leave violent or unhappy marriages because of the existence of refuges, domestic violence orders through the courts, the sole parents pension and a more equitable distribution of marital property after divorce.

However, many men resented the economic independence that enabled women to desert unhappy relationships. They resented particularly that women were entitled to property after divorce, even if they had not previously worked.

This simmering resentment was exacerbated when the federal Labor government introduced compulsory child support payments in 1988. Under this scheme, child maintenance payments were directly deducted from the wages of non-custodial parents by the Child Support Agency.

The increased prominence of the anti-feminist men's rights groups coincided with the implementation of neo-liberal policies worldwide and an accompanying ideological campaign to convince people that poverty and unemployment were not the fault of the system. Rather, you could escape poverty only by changing yourself.

This individualism led to a huge expansion in the personal growth and self-help industry, which preys on the insecurities of men and women. The emphasis on personal growth and therapy gave new life to the men's liberation and mythopoeic strands of the men's movement.

The men's liberationists argue that men and women are both constricted by gender roles, and that men, like women, are, to one degree or another, oppressed.

The mythopoeic strand emphasises the need for men to reclaim their "true" masculinity in order to become whole men again. Mythopoeic thinking is based on psychoanalysis, particularly the work of Carl Jung and Robert Bly. Bly, according to Flood, sees feminism as "a mixed blessing: while a positive force for women, it has held back men and made some men 'soft'".

Individual focus

Men's liberation was initially close to feminism, but a large part of the movement later shifted from criticising traditional forms of masculinity, to attempting to restore a masculinity which is thought to have been lost in recent social change.

This shift partly resulted from the general rightward shift in politics in the advanced capitalist countries in the 1980s, but it also reflected the inadequacy of an approach focused on individual, rather than social, change.

Men's movement activist, Bob Pease, writing in the spring 1996 edition of XY magazine, says, "A key premise of the trend towards personal and spiritual growth in the men's movement is that men will only change their behaviour by acknowledging and dealing with their own pain and abuse and healing themselves. It is claimed that the only way for men to eliminate sexist behaviour is to reclaim their pride as men.

"However, will a men's movement motivated only by male self-interest, encourage men to overcome their restrictive masculinity? ... There is little (if any) mention in the mythopoeic and therapeutic books about men's social power or men's violent and abusive practices.

"In recent times, I have not shared the optimism of those who continue to see the present men's movement as representing a progressive change in gender relations because I believe that it overemphasises men's emotion and pain ... Men's personal growth will not automatically lead to personal and political actions in support of gender equality."

He points out that some of the men's liberationists of the 1970s, such as Warren Farrell and Herb Goldberg, became prominent men's rights activists in the 1980s and 1990s.

While it is true that the traditional gender roles of class society distort the development and human potential of both men and women, these gender roles are a result of the oppression of women and the need of the capitalist system to retain the family unit.

To the extent that men's mental and physical health is stunted and impaired, this is mostly a result of the fact that masculinity, in a class-divided society, is based on the oppression of women by men. Being trained to treat women as inferior necessarily distorts men's ability to form relationships with others.

Further, because they see the root of all men's problems in their masculinity, they don't identify the real cause of the problems facing men. They assume that most men's feelings of powerlessness are connected to their gender, rather than to their class.

They miss the fact that all working-class men and women suffer from feelings of powerlessness — because it is the capitalists and the government which have the power to determine whether men and women can get jobs and earn enough to survive. The only way to overcome that sense of powerlessness is to engage in a collective struggle for jobs and decent living standards.

Contradictions

For pro-feminist activists in the men's movement, the contradictions inherent in the movement are becoming apparent. Some, such as Pease and Flood, are no longer confident that the movement can be a force for progressive change.

Speaking at the Relating to Men Forum in Perth in 1998, Flood said: "The men's movement is ... unusual in that it represents a movement by members of a dominant or privileged group. It is more typical for people on the subordinate or oppressed side of a set of power relations to generate social movements ... the parallel would be to have a 'whites' movement' or a 'heterosexuals movement'. Under the men's movement umbrella there are contradictory impulses: the defence of men's privilege, and attempts to undo it."

In "State of the movement" (XY, spring 1996), Flood notes, "Many men in the men's movement itself would reject the idea that men are privileged or dominant in society, and some will go so far as to say that women are the new oppressors.

"In fact there is a whites' movement, a network of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups ... it is wholly dedicated to the protection and extension of its members' privilege and power ...

"This comparison makes clearer the point that there is ... a potential for the movement to turn towards the defence of men's privilege and position. ... this conservative potential has already been realised among some men's groups in Australia."

He continues, "I've long believed that it is possible and indeed essential for men to act together to dismantle gender injustice ... The question is, is a 'men's movement' the way to do this? ... I am far less sure now that the answer is yes."

Flood describes the men's movement as "an unusual one as far as social movements go. It has had an often therapeutic focus, an emphasis on personal growth and healing, while other movements focus instead or as well on social change."

It is not surprising, then, that the section of the men's movement which is focused on campaigning for political change rather than personal growth, the men's rights groups, is the section that is becoming the most influential and vocal — and it's campaigning on a reactionary, anti-woman platform.

While other sections of the men's movement may not always be explicitly anti-feminist, their theory that men are oppressed by their gender, just as women are, serves to reinforce the men's rights agenda. The only difference is that the men's rights groups claim that the "oppression" of men is a result of the women's liberation agenda.

Unfortunately, the separatist feminism of large sections of the women's liberation movement has helped to reinforce the idea that the only way in which pro-feminist men could support the struggle for women's liberation was by organising separately and focusing on consciousness raising in order for each individual man to expunge sexism.

A far better strategy would have been for the women's liberation movement to mobilise men in support of women's rights, alongside women, as the Aboriginal rights movement did in its struggle.

That would have undercut the false idea that men are oppressed by masculinity rather than by the capitalist economic system, which is based on the powerlessness of the majority.