I’ve always felt feminism to be like a block party: euphoric, emancipating, jubilant, and open to all. I often fear that many women in my generation think about it instead like a speakeasy: closed, password-protected, and open to the already enlightened.
The narrowing of feminism has presented itself in subtle and not so subtle ways. A few years ago, when I was on a panel and suggested that making the world better for women involved a plan for generating better men, the rhetoric I received was shocking, but familiar. “I don’t care about men,” one of the panelists said. I heard the retort and a round of applause from the audience and sat there dumbfounded. A few months ago, when I suggested that an abortion rights movement that is in peril should remind people that men who get women pregnant also benefit from a women’s right to choose, I was told that “there’s something slightly demeaning about framing women’s fundamental human rights as worthwhile because men have ‘personally benefited’ from them.” When I advised a Western government on a gender equality ministry program and suggested moving a sliver of the resources currently budgeted for girls over to boys to reach them how to be feminists, I was told none of the existing gender equality budget could go to them. For the last five years, when I’ve told people I am working on a book about how we need to develop a new kind of man in order to secure our freedom as women, I was routinely ridiculed. “Yes, because we don’t hear enough about men,” came the sarcastic sneer.
I am all for a feminism that decenters men. I am all for a feminism that puts women’s voices front and center. I am all for a feminism that seeks structural change and expects men to surrender power, but more and more I’m alarmed at a feminism that has no plan for men at all.
It wasn’t always like this for me. I too used to dismiss men’s role in the feminist movement. Men betrayed, harassed, assaulted, and traumatized me before I was even old enough to kiss one. I had to change schools due to violent bullying from the boys in my class. My experience with the opposite sex is far from unique. In fact, it’s shockingly normal and far worse for girls who aren’t white, middle-class, and able-bodied. In the United States, more than one in three women report domestic abuse from a partner in their lifetime. And in an average month, at least 52 women are shot and killed at the hands of an intimate partner. These are men women know. Never mind the men we don't know.
To put it simply, women have been hurt and harmed by men for centuries, so as they’re enjoying increasing liberation, worrying about their oppressors isn’t on the agenda. It’s not like we don’t still have work to do on our own behalf. Despite major wins, poverty is still so feminized that the gender wealth gap is expected to take more than two centuries to close. Programs that benefit women have had to endure the steepest cuts under the Trump administration. Even in the make-believe world Hollywood creates to distract us from the grim world we live in, women are less likely to be protagonists and speak half as much as men do. Given that women already get a smaller slice of the pie, there is a legitimate concern that dedicating resources to men is shortchanging women.
And to be clear, I’m not suggesting we need a men’s studies department to counter a women’s studies program. I have a women’s studies degree, and it was enriching and relevant. Earning it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. But as the writer Rebecca Traister has warned us, it’s because we are asking women to overthrow their own bedmates (and our fathers, sons, brothers, friends, and even colleagues) that our revolution needs a detailed plan for what to do with its men. A feminism with no plan for making better men is a feminism that will liberate women in name only, while at the same time leaving them with the daily burdens of unpaid bills, E.R. visits, bruised and broken bones, dead marriages, and silent Sunday dinners.
Four years ago I set out on a reporting journey to try to understand what was going on with men, who had begun to seem to me increasingly lost and out of touch. What I found was that without a plan for men, boys are failing in obvious ways.
Find that hard to believe? Well, boys are lagging behind girls in education at every degree level. Since 1982, women have received 10 million more degrees than men. And the number of black men who entered medicine in 2014 is smaller than the number who entered in 1978, which has translated into a literal shortage of black male doctors. And at home, men suffer too. The research is almost unanimous: Especially as men grown older, they consistently report fewer social ties, a lack of deep friendships, and less contact with their close or extended families than women do. Middle-aged men remain the least likely demographic to be in therapy despite being the most likely to benefit from it (given that they’re at highest risk of dying by suicide). Men and boys need support but are stuck in a world that’s convinced them they need none.
If feminism is committed to bettering the lives of women, it needs to be a gender-neutral movement, full stop. And as a younger, more gender-fluid generation comes of age, it’s no longer in the interest of our cause to limit who benefits from feminism.
Not least because when men don’t evolve, it’s a tax on women, particularly those who are already disenfranchised. When I interviewed them for my book, women of all ages told me the same thing over and over again. They didn’t feel married to men; they felt like rehab centers for them. They didn’t feel excited about having sons; they felt worried about them. Why would we want to maintain the status quo, when it’s neither liberating women nor helping men?
I’m not supposed to say this out loud, but I have empathy for men who have to live in a world that has changed the rules. This doesn’t mean I don’t hold them accountable. Transformation depends on seismic shifts, but it also demands compassion.
We need a call-in feminism, not a callout feminism. As Black Lives Matter organizer Brittany Packnett has often stressed, “Nobody was actually born woke.” She has cautioned against cancel culture particularly as it pertains to men. “If we cancel everybody, how will we get the work done?” she told Teen Vogue. We have a plan for men who commit sexual assault; it’s called prison. We don’t have a plan for men like Joe Biden, and we need one. And it can’t be to shun and shame them into oblivion. As educator Jackson Katz told me when I interviewed him for this piece, it’s neither productive nor possible to exile men who haven’t evolved to the extent that we’d like them to.
“If the goal is to lock up every guy who has ever done something sexist, is the jail going to be the Yankees Stadium?” Katz said. “If men know that...there is a path to redemption without social death, more men would be more likely to have that conversation.”
I’m not just demanding a conversation about the future of men, I’m calling on public attention and resources to be devoted to the issue. Just as we have dedicated resources and effort to urge women and girls to seek careers in engineering and science, we need to think about how to encourage boys to pursue professions like nursing and education. People and organizations who think and talk about women should also address men.
When I interviewed men for this book, I asked them how they were similar to or different from their fathers. I asked them what was challenging for them about being a man in the modern world. Many told me I was often the very first person to ask them those questions. That’s a colossal failure. We need to be curious about masculinity and give permission for men to be curious about it too. This is not about male accommodation; it’s about furthering the project of the gender revolution.
Logically speaking, no man should be afraid of feminism. But millions are. If we are to make the world a better place for the women who are the most marginalized, we need to make feminism not just a movement that’s great as a perfect ideal, but one that touches their lives in practice. And we do that when we don’t just invite men, but welcome men to join us. In 1945, faced with relentless discrimination, queer civil rights leader Pauli Murray said, “When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them.” Expanding what feminism considers “its problem” doesn’t threaten the survival of the movement. It’s in fact the only way to properly safeguard it.
Liz Plank is the author of For the Love of Men, which you can buy wherever books are sold.
Originally Appeared on Glamour