Men’s Movements/ Men’s Studies


Men’s movements emerged at the time of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and the groupings gathered together under this umbrella title were as heterogeneous as early radical feminist groups. In a sense they all seemed to be a reaction to feminism, but that could be either a positive or a negative one. Men’s consciousness raising (CR) groups, emerging during the early 1970s, generally had a benign relationship with feminism and women in general. There was an acknowledgement that all men had at least the potential to be the oppressor and had greater opportunities for power, and therefore it was important that men got together in their own separatist groups to discuss the effects this knowledge had upon them as individuals. Just as women in CR learnt a great deal about the processes of their own socialisation, so men came to understand the ways in which they were educated to be ‘men’ and what that meant.

In the USA and the UK there were a scattering of Men’s Liberation Groups or smaller CR groups. Some felt that gender oppresses all individuals and that men need liberation from masculinity, just as much as women need to be liberated from the thrall of patriarchy. However, more recent commentators (e.g. Pease 2000: 40–55) were sceptical about calls for ‘liberation’ from men’s groups. It was felt that unless those groups exercised some consciousness about the social and ideological advantages they held over women, their call for liberation would be an empty politically naïve gesture – ‘to assume that men can, unproblematically, experience “men’s liberation” – that there are any analogies with gay or feminist politics – is, in the end, an illusion’ (Tolson1987: 144).

Given that this movement had a direct relationship to feminism, it is worth pausing to consider feminism’s relationship to men. From the outset, modern feminism has concerned itself with thinking about men. The crucial use of the concept of gender, which identified masculinity and femininity as meanings culturally ascribed to men and women, had opened up ways of thinking about their arbitrariness and changeability. For example, women’s striving for greater recognition in the public sphere of work and politics was generally regarded as ‘masculine’; and in this way gendered ascriptions of such behaviour have in the past been used as a way of discouraging career aspirations among females. Feminism’s scrutiny of gender binaries, therefore, potentially provided a radical point of departure for all men and women who didn’t feel they conformed to such norms and could, through solidarity, break out of them. Early second wave feminism, although established in part as a reaction against men on the left, did not emerge as separatist from the start. Men were present at early conferences and socials (sometimes in a ‘servicing’ role, such as helping with the childcare) and it was only later that they were banned because their presence was considered disruptive or inappropriate.

Nonetheless as Sheila Rowbotham observed early in the 1970s, ‘the creation of a new woman of necessity demands the creation of a new man’ (Rowbotham in Wandor 1972: 3). If one subscribed to the social constructionist view of gender, then men could only be the enemy for a finite period; but in the meantime, given the commitment to separatism, it was difficult to establish where their place was. Men’s movements, where that meant CR or other kinds of groups, were a logical step forward for anti-sexist men, providing a platform to discuss how men and women might be reunited across the gulf of gender politics. In any case, many feminist groups, particularly black feminists, lesbian feminists and socialist feminists, felt that they needed their continuing alliances with men fighting the same battles against the oppressive forces of racism, homophobia and advanced capitalism

Some early anti-sexist men’s groups wanted a space where they could recognise their privileges as potential oppressors as well as their responses to this, to confront ‘both their internalized domination and their dominant position’ (Pease 2000: 3). They seemed to celebrate male separatism as a demonstration of solidarity with women, which also left women space to take their own debates further. In an early men’s movement paper from the UK called Brothers, one contributor argues that ‘[f]or me, personal politics must be fitted into a greater struggle. I know that if I am screwed up my politics will be; if I am sexist so too will be my revolution. But I cannot experience women’s oppression. I can perceive it and learn from it. I can only experience my own (men’s) oppression. I will and do support every demand women make. But I do not have the right to take over those demands’ (Anon 1974: 3). In the UK the first conference of men against sexism was held in London on 10 June 1973; a year later there was a men’s conference in Birmingham – a city which according to Brothers had its own men’s liberation group.

At this time there seemed to be a consensus that the term ‘feminist’ applied to women alone and that men could call themselves either antisexist or pro-feminist in support of women’s aims. During the 1970s as a whole there continued to be a groundswell of male support for feminism; in addition, many of these men’s groups had quite clear socialist leanings. In fact the UK men’s journal Achilles Heel was very much a socialist men’s journal and is one of the most successful, having been founded in 1978 with its last issue appearing in 1999. Most of these men’s groups comprised a majority of heterosexual men, perhaps because many gay men had found their political voice through the gay liberation movement. This heterosexual focus could, however, be seen as a strength of such groups since heterosexuality was so rarely interrogated by men – in terms of straight men’s relationship to both women and gay men. Tolson, talking of his experiences with the Birmingham group, notes that ‘[f]or everyone, an immediate reason for his joining the group was the feminist challenge to male sexuality’ (Tolson 1987: 138), and the result was movement towards understanding masculinity as a social problem. Victor Seidler, a founder of Achilles Heel, draws attention to the token essentialism of masculinity, where personally and because of social censure it is much more difficult for men to cross gender boundaries than it is for women. Nonetheless, the development of a body of knowledge about masculinity produced by men suggests importantly that sexism is not just women’s problem, just as racism is as much a problem for whites.

Having said that these publications dealing with masculinity have been largely welcomed by feminists, there have been other forays into ‘high’ feminist theory which have been greeted with more suspicion. These volumes, the earliest of which to cause a stir was Men in Feminism (1987), often feature both male and female contributors, and in some cases debated men’s role within feminism. A commonly expressed wish by some men to be called feminist pushed the debate in a more controversial direction, with feminists questioning the motives of men so keen to attach the moniker to themselves. For many of these men it seems they wanted to be able to freely use the feminist discourse which had framed their own thinking (many of them having been tutored by feminists) without constantly feeling they were outsiders. In a perfect world the dissemination of feminist perspectives over a wider constituency could only be positive; but it could also mean the co-optation of feminist ideas to anti-feminist ends or the cynical jumping onto the bandwagon of feminism’s flurry of academic success at a time, in the 1980s, when feminist texts were jumping from the bookshelves. Some feminists felt obliged to welcome the newcomers – a veritable ‘men’s movement’ within academia – partly because they were aware that feminism’s lack of toleration of other constituencies had come to seem tyrannical in the popular consciousness. What concerned women most about this flurry of interest of men in feminism was the possible motivations behind wanting to lay claim to the identity feminist when, tacitly at least, since the late 1960s it had been the preserve of women alone. Why could not ‘pro-feminist’ or ‘anti-sexist’ suffice?

As these academic disputes settled down and moved on to other territories such as queer theory and postmodernism, the 1990s was primarily characterised by a renewed media onslaught on feminism by men who claimed that they were the new victims in a reverse sex war. In the UK the publication of Neil Lyndon’s No More Sex War: The Failures of Feminism (1992) and David Thomas’s Not Guilty : The Case in Defense of Men (1993) aimed to spread this image of male victimhood into the broadsheets. Interestingly, at about the same time Naomi Wolf (1993) was asserting that women should deny victimhood and recognise that they are about to profit from a massive ‘genderquake’ – a shift in the relations of power.

The so-called ‘mythopoetic’ movement, which included Robert Bly’s Iron John movement, was also a clarion call for men to retreat from contemporary masculinity and into their primitive selves. In Iron John (1991) Bly implies that feminism has softened men, and while he ‘disclaim[s] hostility to feminism, his movement places no emphasis on helping the struggle against women’s oppression, and seems to be part of a series of inward-looking “men’s liberation” activities which . . . may even be part of the anti-feminist backlash’ (Christian 1994: 11). This emphasis on spiritual growth seems to anticipate increasing media descriptions of ‘men in crisis’, supported by statistics about the increase in young male suicides, attributed to their loss of traditionally ‘masculine’ rights and identities and changing employment patterns. Of course much of this could equally be due to an increasingly unstable global workforce constantly shifting and relocating to meet the demands of the market, but feminism is, by and large, held squarely to blame. Even feminists such as Rosalind Coward and journalists such as Susan Faludi write with passion about this crisis in Sacred Cows (1999) and Stiffed (1999) respectively, raising the same concern about young men and their future and arguing that the mass media is replete with images of men as incompetent and disenfranchised (see Coward 1999: 90).

Even though there is more discussion about masculinity now, there seems to be less evidence of men’s movements continuing, much less those which bear strong links to feminist movements. Just as feminism is better known these days for being located within women’s and gender studies in the academy, so masculinity becomes more of a theoretical site of struggle than anything else. Media-hyped debates about the ‘new man’ in the 1980s and the ‘new lad’ in the 1990s do suggest that men are going through a period of transition, but whether this leaves us simply with men in crisis or an exciting new chapter in the history of masculinity is yet to be discovered. As John Beynon remarks, ‘the fact remains that in spite of the huge amount written about masculinity, we still need to know how men perceive masculinity today; whether or how they experience masculinityin-crisis, how they enact “masculinities” and how they relate to other men and women’ (2002: 143).

Source: Fifty Key Concepts in Gender Studies Jane Pilcher and Imelda Whelehan Sage Publications, 2004

Both Pease (2000) and Beynon (2002) offer useful commentaries on studies of masculinity today, Beynon’s being intended as introductory and covering popular culture. Seidler’s many books (e.g. 1989) offer a useful background to the field. Faludi (1999) and Coward (1999) show how some women have responded to the notion of men in crisis and Whelehan (2000) is slightly more sceptical, relating it to a new era of ‘retrosexism’.

Categories: Gender Studies

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