Rebecca Kamm

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Rebecca Kamm: Feminist men through history

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In the third of her series covering men's relationship to feminism, Rebecca takes a look at some influential pro-feminist men in history.

Marquis de Condorcet. Picture / Creative Commons
Marquis de Condorcet. Picture / Creative Commons

If the male feminist is regarded with some suspicion today, imagine the cavalcade of raised eyebrows as he campaigned for women's rights one, two, or even three hundred years ago.

It goes without saying there wasn't a deluge of actively feminist men back through the centuries - during which non-reproductive female contribution to society was a largely alien concept - but history offers up an interesting smattering of them, nonetheless.

Take Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), a French mathematician and philosopher famed for his then-radical support of enhanced women's rights and view of gender as a construct. A leader of the French Revolution, Condorset envisioned the admission "of women to rights of citizenship" and felt the revolution was incomplete, having:

"...violated the principle of equality of rights, in depriving half of the human race of that of assisting in the making of laws. Either no individual of the human race has genuine rights, or else all have the same."

Whereas French philosopher Voltaire cast aspersions on women's intellectual ability (and his contemporary Diderot claimed women simply weren't able to think rationally) Condorset emphasised women's total exclusion from education, which he blamed for "all other differences between men and women".

Three other notable pro-feminists of the time were author Charles Louis de Montesquieu, who featured patriarchy-battling heroines to his fiction; Jeremy Bentham, a British social reformer who argued for the emancipation of women; and famed British philosopher and activist Stuart John Mills, who in 1896 wrote The Subjection of Women.

In his 1789 work Introduction to the Morals and Principles of Legislation, Bentham describes society's treatment of women as though they were either small children or certifiably insane, and called for their representation in all walks of life, including government.

In 1886, American minister and abolitionist Parker Pillsbury helped set up a radical women's rights newsletter called The Revolution - the timeless motto of which was "Men, their rights and nothing more; Women, their rights and nothing less".

Pillsbury was outraged the Fifteenth amendment broached the enfranchisement of black men but not women, and the paper - of which he was also co-editor - focused on "economic, political, legal, sexual and social equality" between the sexes. It also saw him publicly mocked, with one journalist famously referring to him as "Granny Pillbury".

The original pro-feminist men's movement - as we might recognise it today - was born in the late '60s and early '70s in the US, the UK, and to some extent Australia and New Zealand. Frustrated by the limitations of traditional gender roles and and inspired by the discourse emerging from the women's movement, left-leaning men's groups started publications like the Men's Anti-sexism Newsletter and Achilles Heel.

The first Men and Masculinity Conference (held in Tennessee in 1975) was one of the first organised activities by pro-feminist men in America. Alongside women's rights, "New Left" men, as they were called - newly "conscious" from the dizzying tumult of the 1960s - also looked at oppressive and prescribed notions of masculinity, and how to overcome them.

And what of influential male feminists in the present day? Beyond the glitzy of outspoken male celebrities, the list of feminist men committed to education and change is extensive.

Two leading figures are Michael Kimmel - an American sociologist and spokesperson for The National Organization For Men Against Sexism - and gender equality campaigner Michael Kaufman, who co-founded the White Ribbon Foundation. (Side note: Why Are (Some) Men Still Afraid of Feminism? on Kaufman's blog is well worth a read.)

Kimmel and Kaufman two joined forces in 2011 for The Guy's Guide to Feminism, a book and traveling "talk" that "illustrates how understanding and supporting feminism can help men live richer, fuller, and happier lives".

In the same vein is author Jackson Katz, who among other projects co-founded the Mentors in Violence Prevention programme - a 20-year-old gender violence prevention and education program which has been adopted by the US military.

Across the globe in Australia, pro-feminist Michael Flood coordinates, edits and contributes to XY, a website focused on men, masculinities, and gender politics "guided above all by a commitment to feminism".

(A similar site to XY is Meninist, whose manifesto states "the need for men to participate in the women's movement and help end 2000 years of men's patriarchy." For a wryer, hipper site, Manboobz keeps a close and scathing eye on the diatribes of men's rights activists.)

There's also academic Michael Allan Messner, who's spent nearly four decades researching male feminist activism; Joe Vess, who leads Men Can Stop Rape; and Chris Green, who launched the White Ribbon Campaign in the UK.

(Says Green, "I am often uncomfortable with the disproportionate praise we receive. It just points to how few men are willing to confront the issues".)

It's not an exhaustive list, which is encouraging, and pro-feminist movements are emerging in more unlikely places too. (Take the Considerate Constructor's Scheme, a collective working to overcome sexism in the building trade.)

And then there are the increasing numbers of thoughtful and eloquent pro-feminist bloggers like Hugo Schwyzer and Feminist Allies.

There's a way to go yet though, and preferably together. As Kimmel points out: "The very things that women have identified that they need to live the lives they say they want to live, are the very things we men also need to live the lives that we say we want to live."

To be continued next Wednesday with famous Kiwi men giving their thoughts on feminism.

Check out Part One in the series here.
• Check out Part Two in the series here.

Follow Rebecca Kamm on Twitter

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