The trouble with male allies

As I’ve said before, when it comes to men being feminist allies, “show, don’t tell.”

Now, more than ever before, feminists should be skeptical of men who claim the title of “feminist” or “feminist ally.” We’ve learned a number of things (one would hope) from the Hugo Schwyzer debacle — one of those things being that we should be skeptical of any man who claims to be an authority on feminism (particularly when these men have a history of abuse, but in general as well).

In an interview with activist and writer, John Stoltenberg, published here at Feminist Current this week, he responds to the question of where “pro-feminist men” fit into our movement with this:

“First of all I don’t think any man of conscience—whether self-identified as pro-feminist or not—can or should presume to speak in women’s place or ‘decide what feminism should be about.’ That’s just a baseline principle.”

You would think this would be fairly obvious. But it’s clear, based on the behaviour of many self-described “feminist allies” or “pro-feminist men,” that they are not respecting this foundational principle.

I, of course, see this often as men try to comment here on this site by authoritatively stating “AS A FEMINIST______,” demanding that we lend him more credibility in these discussions because he self-identifies as an ally. These men tend to be become quickly irate when you tell them that their opinion on feminism or what is wrong with feminist ideology isn’t of much concern. This behaviour, quite quickly, outs them as not an ally at all, despite their frustrated insistence.

This past week I’ve had some decidedly off-putting encounters with self-described “allies,” due specifically to discussions around Hugo Schwyzer. Some men joined in on efforts to harass and bully feminists online who they felt hadn’t responded correctly to the Schwyzer issue/incidents, criticizing them for having been duped by a manipulative sociopath. While certainly people, feminists too, should be held to account for their actions and many have admitted and apologized for their failure to condemn Schwyzer sooner, it is not men’s place to demand accountability from feminists. It is their place to demand accountability from other men.

A particularly frustrating example of this came from an interaction with a man who has been covering the various abuses and decidedly unfeminist behaviours of Schwzyer over the past year or so. I’m not angry he’s covering this, at all — in fact, as a man, what he is doing is trying to hold another man accountable for his actions. If he left it at that, it would be perfectly fine.

The problem, for me, comes when those efforts lean too closely towards righteousness and become authoritative or directive. I appreciate men doing the work of holding other men to account — I do not appreciate men telling feminists how they are failing at doing feminism.

I suggested, in response, that “perhaps as someone who self-describes as ‘ally’ it isn’t your job to decide what feminists are doing ‘wrong,'” but the comment was ignored. Which is fine. It’s Twitter. We can’t expect or demand people engage with us on a such an unproductive (in terms of having full, thoughtful discussions — I’m sorry but 140 characters simply doesn’t allow for it, for the most part) and at times overwhelming medium.

I know many men who truly are allies to the feminist movement. But they don’t refer to themselves as such. Simply, it’s obvious based on their behaviour, work, and their interactions with feminists and the movement. They don’t pat themselves on the backs for being allies, nor do they admonish feminists for “not doing enough” or simply because they don’t agree with their various ideologies.

In the midst of finger-pointing (of which, I have to say, there has been a lot of with regard to the Schwyzer issue), when it comes to male “allies,” (and, I would argue, feminists as well) the finger should be pointed squarely at the perpetrator. But also, for men in feminism, a great deal of the work involves looking at their own behaviours, as men, and the ways they roam the world, equipped with male privilege. My friend (and feminist ally) Reece said to me recently that what he’d realized in trying to be an ally was that, at the end of the day he could understand that “because of patriarchy, women have to live in almost constant fear of being raped, even in what may seem like a totally safe place — but I can’t say I understand what that feels like.” Part of being an ally is knowing that you will never fully understand what it’s like to be female, or brown, or poor in this world, if you are not (though you can still work against those oppressive systems).

My desire in writing this is not to “call out” any individual man in particular, but to remind men that the word “mansplaining” came in to being because it’s something women experience so often. Not because men can’t and shouldn’t have opinions or that they must be silent — but because men fall so easily into the role of “expert” — because they’ve learned they are the “experts” — and seem to expect cookies and back pats for doing the bare minimum in terms of being pro-feminist. I’ve fallen into this myself, being so caught off guard by a man actually saying something feministish that I am too easily willing to trust him.

While “show, don’t tell” should be the basic rule, my friend and sister, Elizabeth Pickett, came up with a set of more elaborate and specific guidelines for men who wish to ally with feminists. I think it is excellent and have published it on this site. Please do take a look.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.