Finding the Men in Feminism

On the 20th of September 2014, Emma Watson declared before the delegates of the United Nations, “Feminism by definition is: The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes”. This was said as part of her speech declaring the launch of ‘HeForShe’, a campaign to convince males to join the feminist movement because “men ought to stand up for the rights of the women of the world who are their mothers, sisters and daughters”. This fight for the rights of women has utterly changed the face of the world since it began, and these changes have been overwhelmingly positive. Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, credits this movement not only with the changes to the justice system that respect the rights of both sexes, but also with a huge decrease in violence in society. In his book, The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, the feminization of society has had this effect because “Since violence is largely a male pastime, cultures that empower women tend to move away from the glorification of violence and are less likely to breed dangerous subcultures of rootless young men”. Not only providing an incredible moral guidance to society, the feminist movement has, without fail, caused explosions in the economies of every society it touches by doubling the workforce of the country. Thanks to all of the women now available to work, earn, and live independently, societies housing successful feminist movements have flourished and accumulated staggering amounts of wealth in the process. The importance of the feminist movement to modern society is undeniable, so on its face the HeForShe campaign signals a wonderfully logical progression based on how good feminism has been for society so far.


On a deeper level, however, it is becoming clear that something is different now. According to Pew polls in the USA, less than a fifth of the population identify as feminists. When the question was asked regarding the Emma Watson definition of feminism, the overwhelming majority identify with these sentiments, signalling that, to the average person, this definition simply does not represent what feminism actually is. There have been many attempts to understand what the different strands within the feminist movement are, and how they influence public perceptions of feminism.  One example of this is “White feminism”, an increasingly used pejorative term describing a feminism that focuses only on increasing the power of a highly privileged minority of women, with no interest in addressing the issues facing the incredibly at-risk underprivileged women, typically women of colour. Another is identified by Watson in her speech, “the more I have spoken about feminism the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating”. It is very popular for feminism to be seen as a movement united by an accusatory anger towards men for the various negative things experienced by women, and it is important that we respect that this is simply the reality of how huge swathes of the population have experienced feminism. The angry feminist trope, with its misandry and over-reliance on the concept of patriarchy to explain all the ills of the world, exists for a reason, and even though there are few who conform to this stereotype in reality, we must acknowledge that it didn’t appear from nowhere. The most devastating argument against identifying with the movement of feminism is the critique of the name: feminism is for females, not males.


The sad thing is, this female bias is becoming more and more important for the feminist movement. Feminist academics across the world use the tools of the social sciences to discover all of the areas in which women are underprivileged, undervalued, and have their human rights taken away from them, and they successfully direct the flow of funds towards the correction of these injustices. Over the past decade we have seen huge campaigns brought about to combat sexual harassment and rape, we’ve seen the vast improvement in the availability of women’s shelters for the victims of domestic violence, and we’ve also seen attempts to equalise the gender ratio of various professions and educational fields. In a recent piece in the University Times, Professor Eileen Drew, who has taught both in the Centre for Computer Science and Statistics and in the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies in Trinity, is quoted as saying that overrepresentation of males in STEM fields warrants “national and international EU-wide campaigns” to provide young girls with “some very smart and attractive role models who are on top of their field speaking publically, doing schools and leading public campaigns” with an aim to encourage women into STEM fields. In itself an admirable goal, in the broader context of governments assigning funds to different projects we have to recognise that, if feminism is biasing researchers to focus too much on females and to ignore males, calls for funding like this could end up being profoundly damaging to society.


When people talk about men’s rights advocates, it is usually to dismiss them as a “hate-group” dedicated to preserve male power over females, and to convince people to ignore discrimination against females. I would argue that the fight for men’s rights must be at the core of the feminist movement, if the above definition is to be taken seriously. At this moment in history, the time has come to recognise that there exist uniquely male problems that need to be addressed, particularly in education, both physical and mental health, and criminality. It is fair to say that these problems are the most dangerous problems that exist today for feminists to combat.


In education, girls are leaving boys in the dust. Vastly outperforming boys in every subject in the Leaving Cert, bar maths and physics, with differences of almost 15% being seen between the average scores of boys and girls in English and Irish, it seems that schooling in Ireland is much better catered to girls than it is to boys. The lack of catering to the boys becomes even more clear in the incredible differences in the drop-out rates between the sexes. Every single year we see several hundred more boys dropping out before their Junior Cert than girls, and thousands more boys dropping out before their Leaving Cert, and increasingly this is reflected in third level institutions where there is a strong female majority. It is widely acknowledged in the field of psychology, particularly in child psychology, that boys do not begin their mental development as quickly as girls.  It is a truism in child psychology that boys tend to be far more active and have poorer concentration than girls, engaging in more rough play and displaying poorer self-control right up until the end of adolescence (the many exceptions to this rule don’t negate the fact that this pattern is found again and again worldwide). The evidence shows that boys’ brains take longer to develop than do girls’. In Irish society, the result is that boys are more likely to fall behind than are girls, which is a sad state of affairs that itself leads to problems.


More terrifying is the situation in America, where the result is that boys are sent to psychiatrists and are prescribed drugs to treat the symptoms of being a stereotypical boy. Three times more boys are diagnosed with ADHD than are girls, who are then treated with strong daily amphetamine prescriptions akin to the study drugs taken by our own students to stay up all night studying before exams, and similarly the majority of diagnoses of mental health problems among children and adolescents are for “behavioural disorders” which are treated with “Antipsychotics (also known as neuroleptics or major tranquilizers)…a class of psychiatric medication primarily used to manage psychosis (including delusions, hallucinations, or disordered thought)”. 80% of children and adolescents diagnosed with behavioural disorders are boys. So in Ireland, boys are treated as though they are less intelligent and less suited to being educated than girls, and in America boys are treated as though their very boyishness is a medical problem. This is huge, because if these boys are falling out of education then where are they going?


Sometimes, they go into work that doesn’t require standard educational qualifications. This leads to the predominance of males in industries such as mining, agriculture, forestry, fishing, and construction, dangerous jobs that result in the incredible statistic that, in the USA for example, 93% of people who die in their workplace are men. When they cannot get these kinds of jobs, however, men arrive in a hugely dangerous demographic. A report published by the Irish Department of Health and Children found that men of low socioeconomic status are far more susceptible to dying by heart-attack or stroke (for example). Male life expectancy in Ireland is almost five years lower than female life expectancy, and when we consider that males of low socioeconomic status are six times more likely to die of the leading causes of death than those of high socioeconomic status, this means that the result of these educational sex gaps is that men are dying. Despite the fact that women dominate depression diagnosis statistics in virtually every society, if we use real-life outcomes as indicators of mental health problems, men take the cake. There is nothing to say but to let the numbers speak for themselves. In Ireland, there were 13,526 people in prison in 2012. Of these, over 10,000 were men. In Ireland, every year four men kill themselves for every one woman that does so. This means that we lose 300 more men than women  to suicide every year. It is important to note that men across the world experience these issues, regardless of the influence of gender equality. It’s not so much that women are favoured as that men are uniquely at risk, and this is something that is in everyone’s best interest to address.


Today, feminism is at a crossroads. Despite the good that feminism has done for societies all around the world, and despite the good intentions of many of those at the forefront, most people still feel that feminism excludes men. The most compelling way for feminism to move forward from this, so that we might someday reach a point where the majority or even the totality of the population identify as feminists, will be to win men over to the cause. There is no better way to show men that they are a part of the feminist movement too than to acknowledge and work on the incredible problems that men in modern society face. This is not the oppression Olympics. It is time to embrace men’s rights activists, not as outsiders who are working against the aims of the feminist movement, but as an integral part of what feminism is all about. Emma Watson defined feminism as “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes”. Let us prove it.


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