Free to be…feminist

By Andil Gosine

One of the best-kept secrets about feminism is this: women’s liberation is good for men.   We have heard a great deal about how much greater equality between men and women improves the lives of women, but we have heard not so much about what this means for men—leaving us with the wrong impression that if women gain, men lose.

Feminism sets out to liberate men, as it does women.  It’s a mistake to think that feminism is about turning power over to women—to “give the girls a chance to steer the ship,” as some have put it.  Some may see it that way, but to me the core objective of feminism has always been about the liberation of women from the imaginary meanings attached to their bodies, in a similar way that anti-racism is about seeking freedom from the attachments put to skin, hair and bones. Feminism intervened to say, for example, that just because women had wombs did not mean that all women had to be, could only be mothers, just because they had body parts and body shapes that most men found sexually appealing did not mean the entirety of their experience was reducible to their sexualities.  Like anti-racists, feminists pointed out the truth: that bodies alone bore no relationship to intelligence, creativity or skill.

I learned this lesson early on from the examples of Caribbean women in my life: grandmothers who often did things that might sometimes seem ungrandmotherly (like chop cane, climb coconut trees, have a drink with the boys), Aunts who kissed off rules about when and even if they should get married, teachers both at temple and at school who shared their unique views of the world, cousins who have gave as good as they got, in the yard, girl friends who expressed their womanliness in all kinds of ways, and my mother—who chose to be a mother in the manner that she wanted to be a mother.

In the process of freeing themselves, these women also demonstrated to me that I could also be free to be: that just as they could unshackle themselves from the social expectations put upon them just because they happened to be in women’s bodies, that I too could be any kind of man I wanted to be.

Feminism is not just about freeing women from their bodies, it’s also about liberating men from theirs as well—to free men from the burdens of masculinities, from the limited range of behaviors and activities that are supposed to be available to them.  In my life, that has meant imagination of a world with more choices and less pressure.

When I compare the men of my father’s generation to those of his children’s, it’s not difficult to see how feminism has benefited men.  Even with the advantages patriarchal culture has afforded to them, the older men suffer the pressures of living up to certain expectations of being a man, whether that means being the main breadwinner, living up to a certain sexual or physical virility or showing no signs of vulnerability—stresses that, research has shown, weaken men’s health and well-being, and ultimately shortens their lives.

Younger men, even while they still certainly many burdens of masculinity, have already benefited from feminist challenges to a patriarchy that has also been harmful to men—more anticipate being in relationships where earning income is not expected to be their responsibility alone, where it’s possible to express emotions, including vulnerability and fear, where it’s okay to lean on others for support, and where there is a broader imagination of ways in which they are free to be.  The suggestion is often made that women’s liberation is behind absentee parenting by young Caribbean men, their falling behind girls at school and high unemployment rates, but these are largely consequences of global economic conditions and failures of the state to adequately understand and respond to state crises.  Advanced capitalism, not women’s gains, are to blame.

Feminism: it’s a good thing, for men.

(Trinidad born and raised, Andil Gosine teaches Sociology at York University in Toronto.)a

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