Earlier this year, I was teaching my college human sexuality class.
The topic of the day was legislation surrounding reproductive health, and as I was getting sorted, pulling up my slides, and handing out an attendance sheet, I overheard part of a conversation between some of my students.
One of them had arrived wearing a shirt that read “feminist” across the chest, and another student said to her, “I like your shirt, but I don’t call myself a feminist since I support rights for everyone. I like humanist better.”
Then a third chimed in, “Me, too. Or equalist because I don’t think women are better than men.”
Now, I didn’t get the sense than any of these folks were actively anti-feminist. But in the course of my semi-eavesdropping, it did become clear that there was a lot of misunderstanding about what feminism is and what it isn’t. Who it benefits, and whom it is assumed to harm.
So just to clear things up, it is important to realize that at its core, feminism isn’t about supposing that any a/gender is superior to any other.
Nor is it a movement designed to advance the rights of one group at the expense of another.
Really, the underlying goal of feminism is to dismantle all manifestations of gender-based oppression, something that many feminists know has to be done in tandem with fighting discrimination in its myriad forms.
But due to a complicated combination of blatant misogyny, plain old misunderstanding, and various missteps within the feminist movement, a lot of people don’t realize how feminism can benefit people of all a/genders.
And the idea that anti-feminism actually harms people of all a/genders, including men? Well, that’s still hard for a lot of folks to understand.
With that in mind, here’s what you should know to help sort this all out.
1. Patriarchy Hurts Everyone
Though individuals may hold patriarchal ideas, when we talk about “the patriarchy,” we aren’t putting responsibility on any one person.
Rather, we’re referring to an unjust social system that enforces rigidly divided gender roles, and in doing so oppresses people of all a/genders. This system is often made up of social, political, and/or economic mechanisms that promote cis male dominance over all other a/genders.
One of the most prominent voices to challenge the forces of patriarchy is feminist scholar bell hooks who has been writing and teaching about radical social issues since the 1970s.
hooks has explained patriarchy as:
A political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.
This view of the patriarchy does not implicate lone men. Rather, it positions men, too, as victims of an oppressive system.
And how are they victimized? In countless ways.
For example, since patriarchal societies tell men they’re expected to be sex-driven, violent, dominant, and emotionless, when they don’t live up to these rigid expectations, they’re punished from a shockingly early age.
Just think about all toddlers who are told that “boys don’t cry.” And then think about how these kids grow up assuming toxic masculinity is the only way to protect themselves against one of patriarchy’s favorite strategies: the constant reminder that there’s nothing worse than being perceived as feminine.
At first glance, it might seem like a/gender minorities are the sole victims of patriarchal thinking. But when we dig just a little deeper, it becomes clear that this is far from the case.
2. The Foundation of Anti-Feminism Is Often Misaligned with People’s Actual Values
There have always been people who will denounce efforts to help evolve our understanding of gender roles and who are against expanding rights to traditionally marginalized groups.
For example, there was opposition to women’s suffrage, there was opposition to the birth control pill, and there remains opposition to the fight for basic human rights for people of all a/gender identities and sexual orientations.
But the origins of the modern anti-feminist movement generally emerged out of specific opposition to legal abortion and to the – Oh my god! How has this still not passed? – Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
Originally, these two hot-button issues were fought on conservative, religious grounds. But it didn’t take long for these sentiments to grow into something of a full on anti-feminist movement.
Now, in a country that is increasingly secular, it would stand to reason that many folks might take issue with the religious rationale for such views. However, in the anti-feminist circles, this doesn’t seem to happen a lot.
Partly because it’s common to pick and choose from religion as it suits you. Often that works out just fine.
Other times – say, like when you only use religion to justify your right to oppress someone else (as slave owners did back in the day, or as folks tend to do currently when trying to challenge the rights of a whole range of marginalized people) – not so much.
Today, a lot of the anti-feminism hype is coming from individuals calling themselves “men’s rights activists.”
These people may argue that things like custody laws and child support requirements are unfair to men. They often seem to believe that there is a feminist-led conspiracy to falsely accuse them of rape.
And they tend to cite an imagined history where incredibly traditional gender roles resulted in harmony and prosperity, if not for all, at least for the white men many of these fellas claim to represent.
And, of course, there are plenty of gender minorities who oppose feminism.
But it’s important to distinguish between those who oppose feminism unilaterally, and those who choose not to align themselves with the feminist movement, or who don’t call themselves feminists. That is something a lot of people do for a lot of good reasons.
Indeed, feminism as a movement has had its fair share of stumbles.
Historically, we had white suffragette attempts to marginalize Black women and their role in the movement. We had Second Wave feminists who, citing a “lavender menace,” literally denied lesbians a seat at the table.
And we had trans exclusionary events like the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, which called for attendees to be “womyn who were born female, raised as girls, and who continue to identify as womyn.”
But there’s a difference between choosing not to identify as feminist in light of some of these issues, and actively working against the core anti-oppression goals on which feminism is based.
And really, many of the women hostile to feminism aren’t challenging the movement’s internal problems.
Rather, they’re functioning under the illusion that supporting feminism puts them both in opposition with men (it doesn’t) and means that they can’t embrace things like femininity or domesticity (they can).
Ultimately, we all have the right to our own views. But the more people understood the motivations of the anti-feminist movement, the less likely they might be to get behind it.
3. Opposing Feminism Is Really Opposing an Equal Distribution of Power
Feminism challenges society’s traditional power structures. So it might make sense that people who benefit from these structures would oppose anything that has the potential to disrupt them.
But while this might sound troublingly logical, it’s not as if a lot of the people who hold anti-feminist views are really even gaining much from the current state of affairs in the first place.
Yet one of the best tactics used to sustain this system has been to convince people that they deserve privilege which they haven’t earned simply by dint of the presence of qualities they may possess.
Doing this encourages these folks to do the dirty work of enforcing the status quo since they’ve been persuaded that allowing change will personally harm them, even though the opposite is often true.
For example, plenty of men do not feel powerful in their jobs (or lack of jobs), or in their public lives. But within a patriarchal system, they’re bolstered by a narrative that tells them they’re entitled to hold authority over their households simply because they’re male.
However, when this head of the household role is challenged, many men act against their own interests and continue to support a system which demeans them based on a range of other personal characteristics, like their race, or class, or religion, or ability.
Some men with this experience may loudly oppose feminism.
This is usually due to a reactionary assumption that it’s feminism, and not American patriarchy’s supporting cast of white supremacy and capitalism that are to are to blame for their hardships.
But doing so really just reinforces a system where the only way people in subjugated positions can feel power is by dominating others who possess even less of it.
Nevertheless, feminism is fundamentally an egalitarian movement that aims not only to fight sexism, but also all other forms domination.
So far from stripping these men of power, it’s actually a really good tool to help them advance in the face of the actual forces that are holding them back.
My relationship with feminism has changed over the years.
I went from being a teenager with activist aspirations, to a college Women’s Studies major, to someone who, for a period in my mid-twenties, felt pretty disillusioned with the whole scene, to a person who is now committed to working towards ways to make this world more equitable.
And doing so under the feminist framework works for me.
And while I get why it isn’t the right framework for everyone, what I worry about more than labels is that people will dismiss some of feminism’s hard-earned gains simply because they don’t really understand what the movement is about at its core.
Or because there are strong and complex forces actively working to dismantle its credibility. And these forces are selling people a false vision of who is to blame for their oppression.
Assuming that feminism harms men, or that it views women as superior to all other a/genders, makes it a pretty easy movement to dismiss.
But when we realize that this isn’t actually the feminist vision, the claims of anti-feminists become a lot harder to support.
Ellen Friedrichs is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She’s a health educator, sometimes writer, and mom. She has worked at Manhattan’s Museum of Sex, developed sex education curricula in Mumbai, India, and run HIV prevention programs for at-risk teens in the South Bronx. Currently, Ellen runs a middle and high school health education program and teaches human sexuality at Brooklyn College. More of Ellen’s writing can be found here and here. Follow her on Twitter @ellenkatef.