Why I Am (Not) a Feminist

Wes Chapman

French translation courtesy of Jean-Etienne Bergemer
Macedonian translation courtesy of Katerina Nestiv
Ukrainian translation courtesy of Anna Matesh

"Men's relation to feminism," writes Stephen Heath, "is an impossible one" (70). In part this means that men trying to be feminist are prone to reduplicate the same patriarchal moves that theoretically we renounce. As Heath puts it,

the point after all is that this a matter for women, that it is their voices and actions that must determine the change and redefinition. . . . Women are the subjects of feminism, its initiators, its makers, its force . . . Men are the objects, . . . agents of the structure to be transformed, . . . carriers of the patriarchal mode; and my desire to be a subject there too in feminism--to be a feminist--is then only the last feint in the long history of their colonization. (1)1

Heath is not the first to have made the point that men entering into the discourses of feminism may be tempted to colonize it. Among the best known and most influential arguments to this effect (and one which Heath acknowledges as having been "very much part of the writing of [his] essay," 266n) is Elaine Showalter's in "Critical Cross-Dressing: Male Feminists and the Woman of the Year." In that article, Showalter accuses Terry Eagleton of conducting a "raid of feminist criticism" in The Rape of Clarissa (127) . For Showalter, the Eagleton of The Rape of Clarissa (not, however, the Eagleton of Literary Theory) appears to be one of the "male theorists" who "borrow the language of feminist criticism without a willingness to explore the masculinist bias of their own reading system" (127). That Eagleton should make clear his position with respect to feminism--in part what Heath describes as being the "object" of feminism, the "[agent] of the structure to be transformed"--is for Showalter particularly crucial. "What I chiefly miss in The Rape of Clarissa," she writes, "is any sign from Eagleton that there is something equivocal and personal in his own polemic, some anxiety of authorship that is related to in his own cultural position" (130).

Showalter was writing in 1983, when self-identified male feminist criticism was a relative rarity. Since that time, a significant body of gender criticism written by men has appeared, much of which, directly or indirectly, has had to come to terms with the "impossibility" of men's relation with feminism. One of the earliest volumes, Men in Feminism, takes up the issue quite directly. The book arose out of pair of MLA sessions in 1984; before the sessions, Heath's paper was distributed to all of the participants. The "impossibility" of men's relation with feminism is thus a recurring issue throughout the book, in smaller and larger ways. Alice Jardine, for example, finds Heath's "impossible relation" to be a signifier of "struggle," and thus seems to find it at once laudable ("Heath wants men to learn from feminism, to try to be as feminist as possible" (59)), and suspect ("Why then would men want to be in feminism if it's about struggle?" (58)). Elizabeth Weed reminds us that if "the relation of men to feminism is an impossible one, so in different ways, is the relation of women to feminism," because it is true for both men and women that, "although as individual human subjects we live our heterogeneity, we also live our positionings in the social field" (74). Showalter's "Critical Cross-Dressing," which as I have indicated was an important pre-text for Heath's article, is included in the volume (as well as a response by Eagleton and counter-response by Showalter). In these essays and others, there is by no means a consensus on the issue of the "impossibility" of men' relation to feminism, but there is widespread acknowledgement that it is an issue, that men's relation to feminism is highly and perhaps intractably problematic.

Some male gender critics, however, have argued against Heath's claim that men's relation to feminism is "impossible." In Engendering Men: The Question of Male Feminist Criticism, Joseph A. Boone, while noting that "one critic after the other in Men in Feminism, whatever his or her personal reading of the issue, nonetheless accedes to the theoretical impossibility of men ever being 'in' feminism except as an act of penetration, violence, coercion, or appropriation," argues that "'being in' isn't the only relation possible between men/feminism," and tries to "redirect our attention to the possibilities (rather than impossibilities) inherent in the conjunction of men and feminism" (12, Boone's emphases). One of the reasons that Showalter and others have found male entries into feminist discourse colonizing, Boone argues, is that they have been looking to those critics most likely to be in the position to appropriate feminism for use in other discourses: a "well-known and very powerful men in the academy already identified with specific schools of criticism other than feminist criticism and with strong preexisting allegiances that have perhaps almost inevitably modified their professions of feminist sympathy" (14).2 In effect, writes Boone, Showalter has posed a small group of men in a very particular situation as representatives of the "male feminist" (not, he adds, because she is unaware of the younger, less visible men working in the field, but because she is writing a review essay, which necessarily circumscribes her selection of critics). One of Boone's solutions to this problem is to, in his words, "coax forth a bit of the 'me,' the personal pronoun hidden in the word men" (12). By this he means at least two things. He means, first of all, recognizing that individual men are different, and that theories of male feminism which treat all men as if they are alike by virtue of being men are as destructive and falsifying as similar theories about the nature of "Woman." Second, he means that men must discover their position with respect to feminism in the particulars of their own lives. Thus, as he sets out to describe the five "moments" in the recent history of male feminist criticism which will lay the foundation for his argument, he points to his "very personal and indeed subjective relations" with those moments, and notes that "it has been in the very intimacies and awkwardnesses of my position in relation to each of these events that I have recurrently experienced the aforesaid gap between the 'me' and 'men' in 'me(n)" (13). An important part of what he has learned from or about feminism, he implies, he has learned not by taking it up as a discourse but by living it as a relation.

Boone's argument raises important issues about how men are to perceive their relationship to feminism and feminist criticism. On the one hand, I cannot praise too highly most of the complex of values and ideas packed into the phrase "coax[ing] forth . . . the 'me' . . . in . . . 'men'" (12). It seems to me that Boone's insistence on the diversity of men's relationships with feminism, and his efforts to see his own personal position with respect to feminism, are highly laudable. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there are some potentially dangerous problems in Boone's argument. One of the effects or purposes of Boone's wanting to make discriminations between the different kinds of relations men have with feminism is to distinguish himself from the "cross-dressers," the false feminists. He states quite directly that he "read the Showalter article with special care, determined to discover [his] difference from the negatively represented 'male feminists' of the article's title" ( 15).2 However, he never describes the criteria by which one is to judge the "true" feminist from the "false." I certainly would not argue that Boone should tell us what a "true male feminist" is, in order to for us to know who "passes" and who doesn't. But the issue of "criteria" matters: the fact that Boone's article seems to work by a logic of criteria--he wants to "discover [his] difference from the negatively represented 'male feminists'"--betrays an element of defensiveness in Boone's project, a strong desire not only to be feminist, but to be perceived as feminist, a "true" feminist as opposed to a cross-dresser.

Where this defensiveness leads Boone within the essay is to a mistaken generalization of the category "male feminism"; several of the essays in Engendering Men are what we would now call gender criticism rather than feminist criticism. A feminist argument, surely, must at least be woman-centered; it must be directly committed to the struggle to overcome women's oppression, however that struggle is carried out and on whatever terrain. Many of the articles in Boone and Cadden's anthology simply do not fit this criteria. Presumably, such overgeneralizing is not a mistake that Boone would make today, as Women's Studies, Men's Studies, and Queer Studies have become recognized academic fields. But a hypothetical example can show that such defensiveness, not in Boone necessarily but in male feminists in general, might lead to even more difficulties, may in fact make impossible some of the most valuable work on gender that men can do. Boone cites with approval, rightly I think, Jardine's quoting Hélène Cixous "that men still have everything to say about their own sexuality" (24). Suppose that a male critic were to try to investigate the idea, widespread in feminist writing, that men's sexuality is specular, objectifying, pornographic, to try to describe what the experience of that sexuality is like, how it comes about, what is invested in it. What does the pressure to be, absolutely and always, "feminist" do to such a project? How could a male tell anything like the truth about that experience, if he should find that the truth of his sexuality is precisely what he "should not" be? This is not to say that such a critic shouldn't read and learn from the work of writers like Andrea Dworkin who critique such pornographic sexuality. But if we are to investigate our maleness--and it seems to me that that is one thing male feminists must do--then we have to be able to look at those aspects of ourselves that are not feminist, and that means that we must have recourse to spaces where the pressure to be "feminist" is held in temporary abeyance. If we must "coax out the 'me' in (me)n," we must also coax out the "men" in "me"--all of them. For men to be defensive about feminism is truly to make the relationship between men and feminism "impossible."

This may seem like dangerous terrain. For if men give up, even temporarily, their moral obligation to be feminist--that is what we're talking about, I think, a moral obligation--what's to keep them feminist at all? What's in it for men? I could argue that, in the example I have used above, the "lapse" from feminism is undertaken to further a feminist goal, understanding and ultimately rewriting the male sexuality that has been oppressive to women. But I think that the question, "what's in it for men?" is a good question; it deserves some attention. I can't answer the question for all men; Boone is quite right to insist that different men establish quite different relationships with feminism, and that means that men will find different fulfillments in their relationships with feminism. I think I can begin to answer the question for myself.

I have been asked the question before. At a conference at Cornell, after I had read an early version of my article "Male Pro-Feminism and the Masculinist Gigantism of Gravity's Rainbow," a woman in the audience asked me why men should be involved in feminism, what stake they might have in it. Oddly enough, I had never actually thought about the question before; after fumbling with one unsatisfactory answer after another, I replied with the single word "guilt." When the laughter had subsided, I went on to say that I thought we should take male guilt seriously, see where it comes from, and try to use it politically. I knew then that this answer was not entirely honest, although at the time I could not have come up with a better one. Not that my answer was entirely dishonest either; to become aware of one's complicity in the oppression of women is certainly to develop a conscience, a sense of guilt. But the single noun, without agent or referent (guilt about what? towards whom?), conceals as much as it reveals. If I could have said, "Because I feel guilty," then I would have known how dishonest the answer really was, and how unfair. For, although I would not underestimate the significance or even the power of guilt, my commitment to feminism goes much deeper than that, and is much more problematic.

It begins, I think, with my mother. My mother was an idealist to some extent all her life, very much one in her early years. Her own mother, a pious, somewhat rigid woman who believed fervently in hard work and upright behavior, raised her as a single parent; she had divorced her husband fairly early in their marriage for some crime she was too outraged to discuss. My grandmother's conventional standards of behavior were rather confirmed than shaken by the divorce. She was so furious at my grandfather that she cut out his half of her photographs of the two of them, yet for many years afterwards she signed herself in official documents as "Ruth Rimmer, a widow," because divorce was too shameful to her to admit in public. My mother shared her mother's dislike of him; she thought him mercenary and manipulating. She recalled to me once an essay she had written for a contest, which she gave to her father to enter. Only after she had already won the contest did she learn that he had completely rewritten her essay for her, changing not only its style but its substance. To him it made no difference; what mattered was to win the contest and its monetary prize. To her, of course, it was a gross usurpation, a degradation of everything she had written. This incident symbolized to her everything she despised about the man--and to me symbolizes much that I admire in her. She had tremendous integrity, and expected others to have integrity as well. At this age and one some level all through her life, she believed in herself. She believed in general--believed in work, in intelligent, principled patriotism, in love and marriage, in opportunity. Her life confirmed her belief: not only bright but industrious, my mother did well in school, she was a member of a successful debating team, she was popular with both men and women.

In graduate school she met my father. He was gentle and very intelligent. He was principled. He had a sense of humor. If he had a fault it was that he was shy; he disliked the group gatherings that meant so much to her, and in some ways he could not open up to her. At the time it seemed like a small thing, and, other things being equal, might yet have been so. Their early years were, by her account (nearly all of this narrative is by her account) fairly happy. When they moved to Cambridge so that my father could pursue his doctorate (they both had already taken Master's degrees), she quickly became as active as she had been in Texas: she was active in the church; she was involved in volunteer work, and enjoyed chiding the blueblood ladies she worked with almost as much as she resented their insufferable superiority; she taught remedial writing to students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds--and earned their respect.

Yet the seeds of her discontent were sown here and in Evanston, where my father got his first teaching job. She found my father's silences difficult; his colleagues stuffy. She resented her role as faculty wife and the condescension of male academics towards their own wives and towards her. When she gave birth to my sister, and two years later to me, her situation grew increasingly worse. Taking care of us meant that she had to give up her work, both volunteer and paid; my father's silences, once annoying but tolerable, quickly grew intolerable when he became her sole source of adult company. For his part my father was caught up in the unholy race for tenure; academics demanded the greater part of his heart and mind, and, knowing no other way to live, he gave it. Like men then and to a lesser extent today he was trained to think of his work as something which, done well, might be shared by his wife, given like a gift. He dedicated his first book to her, and was deeply hurt that she would not read it, not realizing that to her that book was not the years' product of the loving and painful work of a mind engaged, but a major cause of years of a mind's disengagement; not to her a triumphant expression of the self but a shutting off of the self. By the time they moved to Austin, where she found few friends, no one to take her seriously, nothing to do but care for her children, nothing to occupy her mind, no correlative to the goodness she had nurtured in herself, her life was unendurable.

At some point, she began to drink. I doubt that there was any clear beginning to her alcoholism; what was once social became a surrogate for the social and an anaesthetic for the pain of being cut off from the social absolutely and irrevocably. To the very end of her life she was very much a functional alcoholic: she rarely drank until 5:30 (precisely, in later years), which allowed her, once her children were in school, to resume teaching (and by all accounts she was an excellent teacher); she managed her financial resources carefully; she kept a neat if unchanging house. She hid her drinking fairly well from the world at large, and at first from my sister and me as well; I never even knew that she drank, or at least that drinking was in any way a problem, until after my parents' divorce, although I know now that in fact she drank and drank heavily long before then.

After the divorce, however, neither my sister nor I could possibly overlook her drinking. Until 5:30 she was an excellent mother, caring, open-minded, interested in what we were doing, absolutely fair. After 5:30 she was a different person altogether. She was not physically abusive, for which I grow more and more thankful as I grow older. But when she drank she grew maudlin; she pitied herself and hated herself at once. She blamed my father for ruining her life, and at the same time blamed herself for being unable to make their marriage work; she lashed out at herself for being a bad mother, and in the process created what she feared. My sister and I were perforce an audience for her recriminations and self-recriminations, and soon became a part of the show. Desperate to express all of her pain and anger, she would criticize us for small things--poorly washed dishes, a ring in the tub--as a pretext to keep us there to talk to or talk at; blaming herself for the mess of our lives, she was quick to point out all she was to blame for--my poor performance in sports and more generally my suspiciously "weak," "effeminate" behavior, my sister's increasing weight, our unhappiness in school where, hiding our secrets, we were both unpopular in different ways.

Blaming my father for her unhappiness, she taunted our love for him, and in my case--this is important--accused me of being too much like him, cold, aloof, intellectually proud, the "great stone face." She was right about me, although I did not at first recognize the man she described as my father. My strategy for coping with her abuse, and with the loss of my father, my childhood, my belief in myself, and not least my mother herself, was to shut her out the only way I knew how: to refuse to share myself, to show no emotion; to take pride in and use as a weapon the only thing no one had ever accused me of being bad at: intellectual gamesmanship. In short, I became my father as she knew him; she was right. And there was no way for me to express or even understand the terrible injustice of this accusation. In some ways I revelled in it. Being like my father, I could, all at once, maintain some sense of decency in myself (for the part of me that remembered his tenderness and wit saw him as a lifeline to an earlier era when none of the horror that surrounded me had happened--and wasn't I just like him?), and take my mother's part in her war with him (for wasn't he just like me, emotionless and proud?). I was too much like my father; very well. Be it so.

I would not claim that my childhood and adolescence were typical. Yet I am struck now by the confluence of the particular and the conventional, of "me" and "men." From this atypical family scenario--not that dysfunctional families are rare--grew up a man who fit squarely into a type of man. It took me many years to realize this, thinking as I did that I was in no way normal, that indeed normalcy was lost to me and I to it. Yet it is quite true: as men are supposed to, I repressed my feelings; I was arrogant; I was intellectual and quite snobbish about it. True, I was poor in sports, and rarely if ever experienced the all-consuming loyalty of the good buddy with his comrades in arms; but I knew the exclusionary rules of that game--comrades in arms define themselves against-- and although I hated what I took to be my tormentors, I took upon me the icy cool that would give me safe passage through their ranks by identifying me as one of them. I learned from so many sources that I could not possibly sort them out now, and in no way do I take my turning away from my mother's abuse to be the source of my masculinist behavior then or now. But that scene codified my masculinism, reinforced it, inscribed it, gave it a justification and a reason, petrified my emotions in a horrible pattern of denial, repression, numbness, aloofness, arrogance; a pattern of solipsism, as I cut myself off from others again and again, clinging to a strategy of disengagement which I took to be to very pattern of human consciousness; of a kind of voyeurism within everyday life, a restriction of sexual and emotional contact to a leering resentful desirous gaze from behind a great stone mask; a pattern, in general, which looks to me now an awful lot like the pattern for what men are "supposed" to be. I was too much like my father, like a man.

Yet at the same time I take my relationship with my mother to be the inspiration for my commitment to feminism as well. And again my particular predicament resonates within cultural patterns. I am a male; I am accused by my mother--whose life was ruined by a patriarchal culture that took away her ambitions, her intellectual opportunities, and her sense of herself as a decent human being--of being too much like my father. Although my mother did not consider herself a feminist, her life was a pointed feminist critique written in the ink of suffering. I am responsible for this, I thought; for as children of alcoholics do, I felt that I was responsible, although I could not then articulate that to myself. Somehow it was my fault that my parents had divorced, that my mother was desperately unhappy, that my father stayed away. The flaw was in me; hadn't my mother told me as much? But here my analogy--to the extent that it is an analogy, and not simply a lived experience--breaks down. I was not responsible for my mother's drinking, but I am responsible for all the masculinist patterns of behavior that I have learned and acted out and perpetuated in others.

Guilt, indeed; for a quick defensive answer, it would speak volumes to anyone who knew what that word meant to me. But not just guilt. For my mother's suffering was a source of my own, and continued to be for many years, indeed continues to be even now. Time and time again I have returned to that scene, tried to relive that anxiety, guilt, hurt, loneliness, loss, fear; through all the tricks, little or big, that children of alcoholics know, I tried to recreate the living room as it was, my mother on the couch, us on the floor, tried to return so that I could turn back the clock just one day, and then another, to find again that my mother loved me as I knew she did, that I loved her as I have never stopped, that I could love her, without fear of exposure or rebuke, that whatever I did I could undo or be forgiven for, that she could be happy, that my father could return, that everything could be all right. But all I found was the pattern itself, never the reprieve; seeking to escape that suffering, I became my father again and again. How could I stop? I am too much my father; how does one stop being oneself?

I learned little that was directly feminist from my mother save a basic sense of fairness, but because of her there is for me in feminism everything at stake. It took me many years to learn that I could not save my mother, that I was not responsible for her. It took me many years after that to learn that my father was not quite the villain that he was made out to be. Not that he was innocent; none of us were. But if I ask myself the obvious question--even if he didn't create or enforce the codes that deprived my mother of fulfillment (and my mother was enforcer enough), didn't he as male head of the household benefit from my mother's position as housewife, mother, faculty wife?--then I have to answer, yes, of course he did, but not as much, I think, as he would have benefitted from an egalitarian relationship with a woman who was reasonably fulfilled. He had to go through the nightly scenes for years before we did; and he had to cope with the emotional mess, as we all did. In that house no one benefitted from patriarchy. Certainly not my sister and I; the sins of the fathers visited themselves upon us with a vengeance.

I can't say for sure that feminism, had it been a larger force in my mother's generation, would have "saved" any of us; feminism is not a cure for alcoholism. But I am convinced that it would have made a difference. And so, because of my admittedly very particular family circumstances, it seems to me unquestionably obvious that feminism is in my interest, and in the long-term interest of all men. Not necessarily in all of my interests, plural, but in the most important ways in my interest. The core of it is this: men are not apart from feminism, because they are not apart from women. The well-being of our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, significant others, wives, bosses, coworkers and female friends is intimately connected with our own, connected at the very deepest levels of our psyches, despite men's (usually blatantly false) claims to be "independent." Well-being is not finally measured or meted out in terms of power and privilege, it is a product of relationships. How then could I possibly say that this struggle for feminism is not also my own?

I do not believe that male feminism is "impossible"; nor do I believe that Heath thinks it is. Heath points out that he says that men's relation with feminism is impossible not "sadly nor angrily . . . but politically" (1). Heath's use of the word "impossible," that is, is a hyperbole with a political function: it serves to slow down the easy glide of men into feminist discourse, to remind men that their position with respect to feminism is always problematic, always conditioned by their position and their identities as men. Such skepticism towards oneself is a salutary thing, when it does not become paralyzing.

But I wonder if in asking about men's relation with feminism, we aren't finally deflecting attention away from what matters more--men's relation, and relations, with women. It is not finally important whether a man, or any particular man, can call himself feminist, or pro-feminist; such an appelation is a political move, useful in some contexts, dangerous in others. What is important is how men behave towards women, both interpersonally and within larger social structures. To behave well, I believe, requires not only--and indeed not so much--intellectual skills such as categorizing (feminist/not feminist) and analyzing (a feminist has quality x, quality y), but fundamental personal qualities and interpersonal abilities: fairness, caring, commitment, respect for others, honesty to others and to oneself, open-mindedness, skepticism about the received wisdom, the ability to listen, the ability to imagine oneself in the place of another. Not one of these qualities can be said to exclusively or definitively feminist, although they have been central values in feminism from the beginning. Together they define a terrain of endeavor in which "impossibility" is not an issue: all of these qualities and abilities are possible--and all of them are difficult, requiring constant effort and attention.


1 Heath's "Men and Feminism" and Showalter's "Critical Cross-Dressing" are cited as as they appear in Jardine and Smith's Men and Feminism, even though both have appeared earlier (Heath's essay in a longer version), because I take the latter text to be most widely accessible. back

2Toril Moi, in her response to "Of Me(n) and Feminism," notes that there is "a somewhat unsettling institutional sub-text to Boone's plea for men in feminism. That sub-text is structured over a series of oppositions: old/young, visible/invisible, known/unknown, speaking/silent and so on (see passim). But, with one or two awkward exceptions, Boone does not apply these categories to female critics. What he is interested in is the agonistic struggle between younger and older, invisible and visible men" (186-7). This is not only a reduplication of a standard male rivalry, but also a dubious rhetorical confirmation of his feminism: "Boone, by seizing the right, 'oppressed' side of the well-known series of patriarchal binary oppositions, and by placing them within his own professional context, is trying to pass every unknown male critic off as 'silent,' 'invisible,' powerless'--in short, as 'feminine,' and therefore also as feminist" (187). back

Works Cited

Boone, Joseph Allen. "Of Me(n) and Feminism: Who(se) is the Sex That Writes?" Engendering Men: The Question of Male Feminist Criticism. Eds. Joseph Allen Boone and Michael Cadden. New York: Routledge, 1990. 11-25.

Heath, Stephen. "Male Feminism." Dalhousie Review 64.2 (Summer 1984): 70-101. Shorter version rpt. in Jardine and Smith, 1-32.

Jardine, Alice. "Men in Feminism: Odor di Uomo or Compagnons de Route?" In Jardine and Smith, 54-61.

---, and Paul Smith, eds. Men in Feminism. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Moi, Toril. "Men Against Patriarchy." Gender and Theory: Dialogues on Feminist Criticism. Ed. Linda Kauffman. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989. 181-188.

Showalter, Elaine. "Critical Cross-Dressing: Male Feminists and the Woman of the Year." Raritan 3:2 (Fall 1983). Rpt. in Jardine and Smith, 116-132.

Weed, Elizabeth. "A Man's Place." In Jardine and Smith, 71-77.