I took WMST 200, Introduction to Women’s Studies, as an elective credit last semester. I knew from my social work classes that women and girls were a population I wanted to work with professionally and figured an intro class was the way to jump into the field. And it worked — here I am, writing for ShoutOut!JMU.
My class was composed of something like twenty women and three men. The first day, I mentally applauded the men in my class for being there, for having the guts to be minority students in a class focused on studying a marginalized (and unfamiliar to them) part of society. All of them had different reasons for being there. One said “my mom called me a misogynist and said I should take this class to try to like women more” (you think I’m kidding. I’m not). The other two quickly disaligned themselves with this perspective, and were valuable contributors to group discussions on gender. At the end of the semester, I had a great deal of respect for them; they restrained themselves from making reflexive comments for the sake of protecting majority culture. They really did their research on the subject matter and were empathetic listeners when class time became “rant against patriarchy” time. (Snaps for you, feminist men!)
One of our main discussion themes centered on what constitutes a feminist. Naturally, there are many different definitions of the word – how do you take an entire movement of diverse people and create a common profile? The definition we finally agreed upon was “someone who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the genders”. By this definition, can men be feminists? Heck yeah! Men can be feminists, women can be feminists, and individuals fighting the gender binary can be feminists. Feminism (defined in context of the general movement) isn’t about women “taking over” in retribution for thousands of years of male domination; rather, mainstream feminists look to bring women to the same level of equality as men. No more and nothing less than that.
By this definition, many of us likely know men who are feminists (and whom maybe don’t even realize they’re feminists). I can understand the reluctance of many men to claim the title; the majority of Americans still imagine “feminists” to be the stereotypical hairy bra-burners (note on grammar: that’s bra-burners who are hairy, not burners of hairy bras. Hairy bras…eww) . But whether men claim the title or not, there is one field of activism where female feminists could use “a few good men” : the abortion debate.
Aaron Traister (brother of feminist Rebecca Traister) wrote a piece at Salon encouraging men to speak up about abortion. Traister has been affected in two ways: before his birth, his parents aborted a fetus that threatened his mother’s health, and, as a young adult, Traister’s girlfriend had an abortion. Traister linked the stories of these two women with the story of his (now) wife, who as a young college student approached Planned Parenthood to equip herself with birth control before she became sexually active. Women’s rights – more specifically issues of reproductive justice – Traister says, are essentially tied to his (male) life as well, especially in these three case examples.
One section of his article jumped out at me:
But mostly, I don’t understand how these issues are still simply referred to as “women’s issues.” The destinies of men and women are intertwined by sex, and pregnancy, and childbirth. It is time for more men to sack up and start taking responsibility for their end of the conversation.
These “women’s issues” have shaped my life: my birth, my adulthood and the children for which I am forever grateful. So yes, I support women’s health programs and a woman’s right to choose.
I feel as if one of the misconceptions holding men back from joining the debate is the idea that they have no right to participate when it comes to discussing women’s bodies. And to some extent, I understand/mildly agree with this idea, because when it comes to legislation, I think it’s paws-off for legislators who cannot empathize with the female struggle for reproductive rights. If you can’t understand the problem at hand then don’t legislate it for everyone else.
Yet, male voices should be heard, because men are part of humanity. It’s not just the chicken and the egg…there’s an egg’s daddy (/sperm) in there, too. To say that abortion is simply a women’s issue demeans the person responsible for the other half of the fetus’s chromosomal makeup. Male voices should be heard, too – not in an effort to control women’s bodies but to provide a diversity of opinions.
I wonder if their careful avoidance isn’t born of a similar kind of embarrassment. I think this may be one of the reasons so many men have trouble talking about this issue. For me, it represents my low point as a human being and as a man: I was a failure, I couldn’t take care of myself let alone a child, I couldn’t provide for myself, or a wife, or family. My weakness and carelessness resulted in people hurting. I was not a man, I was something so much less than that. Why would anyone ever want to talk about something like that?
I recognize that not every man out there has found himself in my situation specifically. I’ve been told a lot of pro-choice guys don’t talk about “women’s issues” for fear of saying the wrong thing. All I know is: We’re not talking — as if it doesn’t have to do with us, as if it’s “their” problem, not ours.
If there are mental-health resources in place to help women who have had abortions, there should be similar resources in place to help men who have “experienced” abortion (“experienced” in the sense that they’ve been close/in a relationship with a partner who has had an abortion). Without these resources in place, a man like Traister is missing out on a community of men with the same experience whom could provide valuable support.
I realize that my stance may seem atypical of a feminist. I don’t mean in any sense that women who have had abortions deserve less care or understanding. I simply believe (like Traister) that it is time to integrate men into the dialogue as well. For me, feminism is about emphasizing and protecting human rights: the rights of men as well as those belonging to women. In my opinion, this includes the right to participate in abortion discourse. If men are, biologically speaking, 50% responsible for the fetus in the first place, then, in my opinion, they’re entitled to 50% of the dialogue surrounding abortion. It’s time to open the doors so that this dialogue can begin.