The media is currently full of people with opinions about feminism, like this pieces in Time, but little or no knowledge of the history of feminism and what feminism is in terms of its diversity of ideas and approaches. Feminism is constantly presented as a monolith, constructed as needed by cherry picking whatever suits the critic. Feminism is anything but.
Most people who know a bit about feminist history know that feminism came in waves. In addition there are several branches and off-shoots of feminism, like for instance queer theory. Sure, there are bad off-shoots too, off-shoots that hate men or anything they deem tainted by “maleness”, but they are not the norm.
Feminism is not about men
One common objection to feminism is that it doesn’t care about men, and therefore is inherently sexist. Critics often comment on feminist articles trying to derail the discussion, and make it about men instead. But why does feminism have to be about men at all? I’m not saying feminists should not care about men whatsoever. The idea that those are the two options is the false dilemma most often thrown back at us. A lot of the core ideas of feminism concerns how we understand gender and gender roles, and deconstructing these does benefit men in many ways. Gender roles and gender segregation works both ways, even if women and non-binary people tend to get the short end of the stick.
So, why do men have to be a focus of feminism? Is it because men are dominating other human rights topics like anti-racism and LGBT activism? Research has shown that people overestimate how much attention women get because we’re accustomed to men having most of it. Women to some degree, and men to a larger degree, tend to also underestimate the amount of sexism towards women that exists in our culture. A 2011 study looked into this and concluded that
Women endorse sexist beliefs, at least in part, because they do not attend to subtle, aggregate forms of sexism in their personal lives. Many men not only lack attention to such incidents but also are less likely to perceive sexist incidents as being discriminatory and potentially harmful for women.
Maybe a lot of people, as a result of this, are overestimating the effect sexism has on men? A classic example used is child custody cases where there is supposed to be a significant bias towards the mother. Looking at the raw numbers it may seem that way, but to establish bias you also need to take into account the fact that fathers tend to not ask for custody anywhere near as often as mothers do. The numbers may not be as skewed as assumed, and even if mothers are preferred because they are women, the issue is as much about women’s gender roles as it is men’s, a topic that surely is a concern for most feminists.
Men should care more about men
Critics of feminism also tend to only be concerned with men’s issues when the topic is feminism. One blogger, I believe it was PZ Myers, noted that articles about feminism always attract comments that want to talk about men, while articles about men’s issue rarely receive the same attention. This is just a perception many people have, but it does seem very few people care about these issues outside of the feminist debate. This is what the “but what about the mens” point is about. The “but” is not so much about why people don’t care about men’s issues in general as it is about the fact that feminists don’t usually put it on top of the list.
Yes, men’s issues are important too. Fighting for equality is not a zero-sum game. Focusing on one group doesn’t take away someone else’s rights. It reduces the privilege gap, but that’s different. Feminists do things that benefit men all the time
It is OK to have a main focus in pretty much every other area of activism, so why is it so bad when feminists focus on women? Even so-called men’s rights activists (MRAs) tend to be more concerned with feminism than actual men’s issues. See for instance this debate between Matt Binder and Paul Elam, especially from about 24 minutes. In my experience the people most informed about men’s issues and how it intersect with feminism are feminist men.
Hat tip to Soraya Chemaly for the research references.