Dear men’s rights activists,
I have to preface this by saying that I consider myself one of you. Unfortunately, I suspect that a number of you might not agree with my self-identification as a men’s rights activist, because of another important self-identification: I am also a feminist. I know that this may seem incoherent and even offensive to some of you, and that is why I am writing this letter. The struggles for both men’s and women’s rights have a lot to gain if only the men’s rights movement realizes that feminism is not its enemy. Feminism and men’s rights can, in fact, be highly effective allies if they align themselves against their common foe: patriarchy.
Upon my mention of that last word, I can almost feel thousands of rolled men’s rights activist eyes on me. When I was a men’s rights activist of a more recognizable antifeminst variety, I immediately dismissed anybody who uttered the p-word. That was because I didn’t have the faintest idea of what feminists mean when they talk about patriarchy. Therefore, before I go any further, I will have to explain precisely what I mean by the word. Contrary to what I once believed, feminists talking about patriarchy are not referring to some kind of conspiracy. While it has prominent supporters and apologists, patriarchy has no leaders. Its membership is not exclusive and its methods are not hidden. In fact, patriarchy is so universally visible and inclusive that it is difficult to detect if you do not put some effort into doing so, much as you would never know about the presence of the oxygen that sustains you if you had not had it explained to you.
Patriarchy is an emergent phenomenon that comes from the behaviour of virtually everybody on earth. It is the sum of all the beliefs, actions, words, choices, policies, practices, preferences, tastes, and documents that together constitute a broadly enforced but unwritten code that expects one clearly defined social role of women and another one of men. This is both descriptive and normative: gender roles are assumed to be natural, yet patriarchy demands the conformity of those who do not behave according to their supposed nature. I can say with near-complete certainty that you contribute to patriarchy. So do I. And so do even most feminists, as many of them admit themselves. It is fiendishly difficult to act against a lifetime of social conditioning, and yet it is precisely this task that feminism undertakes.
I think that if a sensible men’s rights activist looks at the consequences of patriarchy with an open mind, it will become obvious that they should be working with feminists rather than against them. A good example of this is the issue of family courts. Men’s rights activists have brought forward evidence that family courts are biased in favour of mothers during child custody cases. If this is indeed the case, then it would be difficult to see any plausible explanation for it that did not include the fact that women are generally considered to be more nurturing, and better suited to the care of children than men. That attitude, which is close to universal in our society, is a manifestation of patriarchy that hurts men. It has a flip-side, though. The common perception of women as sensitive and nurturing and more suited to child-raising leads to disadvantages in the work place, including the glass ceiling and lower average pay.
This kind of overlap exists for a number of feminist and men’s rights issues. The perception of women as fragile that leads to their being passed over for the draft or combat duty in the military is also a huge setback for women’s athletics, and the social expectation that men be the active party in the initiation of any relationship, while frustrating at times for men, is deadly serious for women as it contributes to stalking and date rape. A social order which has a set of expectations for men and a different set of expectations for women is beneficial for neither. Both men and women have entirely self-interested reasons to fight patriarchy. Adding a bit of solidarity for the other side of the struggle can only strengthen the cause.
It must be said, however, that there are many ways in which we men have it easy. One needn’t believe in patriarchy to concede that the vast majority of political, economic and cultural leaders for the history of the human species have been men. It therefore stands to reason that much of our society was and is set up by men and for men. This a priori argument is corroborated by a significant amount of hard evidence suggesting that women do, in fact, have it harder on average than men. This is difficult for a men’s rights activist to accept, as it implies that certain privileges that men currently enjoy must be eliminated in order for equality to be attained. This is, I suspect, the reason why those interested in men’s rights are so reflexively sceptical of feminism. There is no way around this. If complaints about the status of men are to be taken seriously, then it must be accepted that men are privileged and that this privilege must be fought. I am confident that there are plenty of people within your movement that have the maturity to accept this, and to live up to the term men’s rights activists, rather than the less attractive label of men’s privilege advocate.
The bottom line is that equal rights is not a zero-sum game. The elimination of patriarchy provides a blueprint for the realization of a world in which nobody’s gender will be used to oppress them in any particular way. This is an ambitious project whose realization demands nothing less than a complete rearrangement of the existing social order, and it will be made much easier if women and men can work together, both with their own goals in mind and out of genuine concern for the well-being of the other half of the human race. For that reason I ask you in the men’s rights movement to see feminism as an ally rather than an enemy, and to back that up with a commitment to fight for things that truly should be men’s rights, rather than for men’s privileges that should rightfully be abolished. I believe that there is enough honesty and maturity within the men’s rights movements that this can come to pass.