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Men and feminism

I was sitting in the shade outside the Gallery Cafe one morning last week, when a young man with a camcorder approached two other young men who were drinking coffee, and asked if he could interview them about what it’s like being a man in the 21st century. It turned out it was for a project he was doing for his Masters course. The young men agreed, then were a bit stuck for words when the camera was pointed at them. It is a bit of a tough question, when you think about it.

I was struck by this more than I might have been because it came soon after a night I had gone to at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club (the best club in London as it happens!) put on by the East London Fawcett group, called Are Men Doing It? This posed the question about the relationship between men and feminism and it took me back twenty-odd years to my most active days in what was sometimes termed the anti-sexist men’s movement. I’m not sure it was a movement, really, as this makes it sound bigger than it was, but it certainly seemed like there was lots going on when you were in the middle of it, much of it centred around Achilles Heel, a 1970s magazine for anti-sexist men that was reborn in the 1980s with twin editorial boards in Sheffield and London.

I was struck by the differences between what we were doing then and the night put on by the Fawcett group now. We were overtly political and perhaps a little earnest, and there were some rich gatherings, some for both men and women and some just for men. A two-day conference, Changing Men, Changing Politics, held in Sheffield in 1991, made a big impression on me, particularly the emphasis on so-called ‘New ways of talking in groups’. A lot was made of this set of principles, which were stuck up all around the venue, and aimed at inclusivity and giving everyone a voice, and they really seemed to work, as even this shy, youngish social worker was able to take a full part in the discussions that took place. It might seem an insignificant issue, but I felt that it was representative of a wider commitment and move towards breaking down the hierarchical relationships that often exist between men, and between men and women.

At the end of that conference, there was lots of self-conscious hugging goodbye going on, and it might well be hard for a younger man to credit now that even enlightened and profeminist men found such physical contact with other men new and uncomfortable. We made ourselves do it though, as an important ideological act as much as wanting to say a fond farewell to men we had become close to over the weekend. It seems quite different now, and I doubt the many youngish men – that’s a relative term of course, and I’m meaning men in their 20s and 30s – at the East London Fawcett night  would think twice about physically embracing other men. The night felt different in other ways, being at a hipster club for a start off, and then starting off with some stand-up comedy. That was one of the things that made this event examining men and feminism seem more mainstream than the events I had attended in the early 90s, which was very refreshing.

I was interested by the idea that it was unproblematic for a man to be a feminist, when twenty years or more ago we identified as profeminist – the debate between these positions is touched on here. Perhaps a balance can be struck, between a lighter and more inclusive presentational style and the more political edge that is exemplified by the profeminist position. Either way, I’m glad to be experiencing a renewal of my own interest in this area, and will be investigating the activities of the East London Fawcett group a little more.

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