This focus on women’s misandry and matriarchy just keeps us focused on women when we need to be talking about our stuff, says Dr David Bloodwood, from “bloodwood: beyond trousers“.
Diane Abbott’s announcement of a “crisis in masculinity” certainly got the issue of men into mainstream media. Many of the responses have been critical: Abbott is circumscribing the debate with a feminist frame; her view of men is negative and even perjorative; she shouldn’t be criticising men – a man criticising women like that would be canned; there’s no crisis – men are doing well; there’s no crisis among men – the problem is feminism; there’s no crisis except in Abbott’s mind; and Abbott hasn’t asked men what they want.
While I agree that Abbott’s desired future masculinity of “earning, providing and belonging” is questionable, her speech is the first time ever that a sitting politician from a major UK political party has bothered to make a serious statement about the situation of men overall, rather than single issues, and has argued that our society collectively must address men’s issues.
Certainly, there are gaps in her proposals, just as there are gaps in her understanding of men’s experience of gender. But this is precisely because of her main point: men don’t talk about gender. Because we don’t talk about it, most of us have limited language to describe our experiences. And because men don’t talk about our experiences, women don’t understand men’s experience of gender either.
Sure, there are a very small number of men to whom men’s issues are central to their life and their work (I am one such). But between us we have not yet been able to frame men’s gender issues so as to engage millions of men in conversation about them. Instead, as Jack O’Sullivan says, “smart men play safe and stay out of it.”
O’Sullivan says feminism reinforces matriarchy and shuts down men when they speak about gender. To remedy this he calls for “democratic personal, private and domestic spaces where men feel comfortable to speak… [which] might generate a more open, less condemning public space”. Such spaces already exist, and have done for 40 years in the form of men’s groups. The first men’s group in the UK was held in 1971 in Brighton, which plays host to the 3rd UK Conference for Men and Boys in September.
It is crucial that men do have comfortable spaces where we can explore things which are difficult to speak about, and to explore together what our shared experience of gender is. But despite the well-known existence of men’s groups, very few men have engaged with them. And so far, men’s groups have not had a noticeable impact on the quality or atmosphere of gender debate.
Nor are they likely to, precisely because they are not public. In order to engage in public debate about gender we simply need to claim the space to do so on the basis that we are gendered and therefore we have a right to participate. Like O’Sullivan, I have had my share of personal attacks when I have stood up and spoken. This is part and parcel of public debate. Witness the response to Abbott, which is overwhelmingly critical. But criticism need not put us off, as it hasn’t put off feminists.
Feminists pioneered the fight to get gender onto the table as a major category of social and political organisation. Because feminists were gender pioneers they have a head start in terms of thinking gender and examining gender in their own lives. And it is understandable that feminists easily fall into the “pioneer fallacy” that women’s views of gender are all there is to gender. This history can look like matriarchy, and to a limited extent that’s true.
But men don’t need to attack matriarchy to engage publicly about gender issues. We can accept the benefits of this history: because gender is now being examined, we can now examine how we ourselves are gendered. We can acknowledge women’s extensive knowledge about gender from their point of view. We can accept the human failing of women falling into the “pioneer fallacy”. And we can stand firm on the basis that gender is never going to be understood by women or by men until men’s perspective on gender is incorporated into the foundations of gender theory. From this point of view men bring a vital and much-needed viewpoint to the gender debate.
Abbott says many things which need to be said. And her view clearly is that things can be better for men, and that society collectively has a responsibility to ensure this happens. I will say again: no national politician has ever made such a statement. The content of her vision is certainly thin, but she deserves credit for the step she has taken. The vast majority of men do not talk about gender. For those men who feel we are already talking about this stuff – we need to build on the space Abbott has created in the public arena.
Sure, by all means tackle misandry and work towards dismantling matriarchy. But such a focus is mostly on what women are saying and doing – which easily recycles the view that gender is about women, and means women continue to set the agenda. So it perpetuates the view that men can’t talk about gender until women let us.
We do not need women’s permission – we can simply go ahead and talk. Above all, the small number of men for whom gender IS a major issue need to keep experimenting with how to give language to men’s side of gender so that all of us men can get talking about it.