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Before I even write this article, I could predict some of the responses. I will be told I am mansplaining. I will be told to check my privilege. I will be told that I need to listen and not talk. It will be pointed out that I am a white male (correct). In some capacity I will also be told that I cannot be part of the discussion and perhaps here lies just one of the factors behind a wavering attitude towards 4th wave feminism. I have always been led to believe the movement is about a march of progress towards gender equality but it seems that often men are being told they are not allowed to be part of the dialogue. Does that not defeat the aim of what the movement is actually trying to achieve?
In 2014 when Emma Watson delivered her brilliant and uplifting #HeforShe speech the underlying message was that women and men need to work together to tackle the issues of gender inequality and for the movement to have maximum impact then it needs men on its side to empathise, understand and support the issues. What we saw was a ripple effect including men such as Tom Hiddlestone and Benedict Cumberbatch proudly wearing the ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ logo and helping to oil the wheels of the campaign. It felt like an important message was chiming with a new generation and a breakthrough was occurring but just 4 years later when a man dares to enter a Twitter discussion about gender inequality they are likely to be told in no uncertain circumstances by some parties to pipe down.
The author of ‘Who stole Feminism’, Christine Hoff Sommers states that this ‘shut out’ treatment is a trend within some areas of contemporary Feminist academia, she notes that ‘There is a lot of hostility toward men and toward women who don’t agree with them. There is a willingness, a readiness to censure, to silence people. It’s ironic because this is what feminists claim is being done to them. They demean people, they stereotype, they silence dissent. What I’m describing is fairly new. This is not what feminism has always been’. Worryingly, it seems that this approach is putting many men off classifying themselves as a Feminist but possibly even more of a concern is that it is putting off many young women too.
A recent online discussion amongst myself and fellow Sociology teachers identified that an increasing number of young females do not refer to themselves as Feminists, in fact many claim to find much of the movement embarrassing and sometimes that they are outright opposed to it. How can this be? In 2018 I expected to see every member of a Sociology class (females and males) to raise their hand when presented with the question ‘Who is a Feminist?’. Surely everyone is opposed to honour killings, domestic violence against women and FGM? Of course, they are, but those are not the issues many young people are seeing as they scroll through social media. They are seeing men getting called out for sitting with their legs open on public transport and people getting triggered by the name of a popular brand tissue. For many they are seeing what they consider to be trivial gender issues rather than over-arching systemic hegemony.
I asked one of my students, let’s call her Emma why she did not identify as a Feminist, especially as a very well read and talented Sociology student, one may assume that she would connect strongly with Feminism. Emma states that ‘The world I read about in my Sociology textbook and the world I live in are not the same. I am told that I will face sexism in school, that I won’t get to the top, that I will get sexual abuse on a daily basis and that men will control me. Maybe, I have not seen enough of the world yet but I have never felt any of those things, I do not feel I have been a victim of sexism in education ever, I am going to university next year to study law and I do not see any boundaries at all for me to do this, be successful and earn a good wage, if anything I think I am encouraged as a young woman to make it to the top. I also think that men are made out to be bad all the time, in my world now I do not see that, I have a boyfriend, brothers and a father who are nothing but supportive of me’.
Bridget Gray, a Sociology teacher from Chipping Norton School notes that ‘Some students can be reluctant to say they're feminists but when I ask them what they believe about human rights then I just tell them they are feminists! It’s interesting to think why feminism has a negative reputation’. Alison Clive agrees that ‘My students also see feminism as a negative movement’. Karen Green notes that ‘I have a class of girls that believe feminists are unfair to men’. These comments seem perhaps difficult to comprehend to an older generation but if you take a scroll through popular twitter hashtags such as #Menaretrash and #Killallmen then it would be hard to disagree that sweeping generalisations and negative stereotyping of men does not exist within the social media world.
One example of this silencing treatment was seen on the recent hypothetical scenario proposed by Danielle Muscato on Twitter which asked: Ladies, a question for you: "What would you do if all men had a 9pm curfew?". A really interesting platform for discussion I think we would all agree but then the question was finished with Dudes: Read the replies and pay attention. This rather patronising line was then quoted over and over again to any men that wanted to join in the hypothetical discussion. There were of course many men who were rude and, in my opinion, fairly ignored or blocked. Many contributors (male and female) though wanted to point out that although the debate was interesting it fell into the problem of punishing all men for the actions of a minority and therefore it would not be fair to enforce such a blanket curfew. Anyone male that dare make this suggestion was routinely silenced and told ‘This thread is not for you to speak. It is for you to listen’.
As Sommers pointed out, this way of talking to and silencing people is the exact behaviour that many Feminists feel is being enforced toward them and so it has to be asked why would they carry out such a hypocritical method themselves? What was noticeable on this very discussion was that the dialogue became so much more interesting when all tweeters were allowed to contribute and give their views from a range of different angles. As a male I was genuinely touched by some of the female responses, it opened my eyes to just how restricted many women feel on a daily basis, though I was too really interested in male views on how it would make them feel being told they were on a curfew.
Unfortunately, the latter opinions were blocked and shut down. Surely telling people to follow one line of argument or shut up is the social media equivalent of making noises and putting your fingers in your ears on the school playground. I also have to confess that I ended up posting some pretty trite comments on the thread especially when I was accused of condoning sexual assault. It seems the best way to shut someone down is to accuse them of being a misogynist. I should not have taken the bait. I failed.
The discussion on gender becomes so much richer when we open up the doors to all; the journalist and comedian Caitlin Moran instigated a recent twitter debate with the following: Men. Men of Twitter. What are the down-sides of being a man? We discuss the downsides of being a woman very frequently - but what's going on with you lovely guys?. At first there was reluctance, some men even posted ‘Careful, it is a trap’. However, once it became clear this was an open platform and forum to express ideas it became a fascinating read and yes there were squabbles and differences of opinion but the debate flowed and although the question was directed towards men it did not restrict comments and replies from women, it allowed a fantastic insight into thoughts from both men and women into the inner feelings, worries and fears of individuals. Heated? Yes, censored to one line of argument? Absolutely not.
Is this not the way we should be moving forward? That if we want to continue the march towards gender equality then we should allow a dialogue that includes everyone, that differences of opinion can be listened to and tolerated even if we do not necessarily agree and that gender equality should be an open discussion for all? It seems counter-productive to set up a debate about gender inequality and then only allow discussion points that follow a set hypothesis, how are we ever meant to learn about the views of all if we only listen to the ones we want to hear? It certainly concerns me that there are people being turned off Feminism at a time when you would really expect the movement to be approaching full capacity.
As a brilliant ex-student of mine, Sarah Trainer put it: ‘It’s something that causes a fair amount of conflict in Feminist discussions and often my Feminist peers disagree with me because I think that men absolutely have to be involved in the discussion. It is absolutely paramount that people understand Feminism is for men as much as women. Equality can only be a good thing for men as well, if we allow women a strong voice in society, society improves for everyone'
Hoff Sommers Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women (1995)
Matthew Wilkin has been a Sociology teacher for 16 years, he is a lecturer at Bellerbys college in Brighton, he has previosly taught Sociology in Kenya and Spain and writes textbooks for Collins publishers. Matthew is the main editor and moderator for the Podology website.
Chrsitina Hoff Sommers
Sarah Trainer (BA Sociology/MA Human RIghts)
and her fantastic new tattoo