A few months ago at a conference, I was involved in a conversation with a few other scholars and the topic of men and feminism came up. One individual (who happened to be female) argued that men couldn’t be feminists, while another (who happened to be male) argued that they could.
I pitched in that it didn’t really much matter to me whether I could be a feminist as a man or not. I’m against sexism and gender inequality; I’m sympathetic to feminism; I attempt to actually incorporate gender and issues related to feminism and gender inequality in my teaching; I’ve done at least a few things over the years to try to do my bit for gender equality; and I figure those are the sorts of things that are important. Whether someone wants to refer to me as a feminist, a pro-feminist man, a feminist man, a man sympathetic to feminism, or whatever else is more incidental. I also figure that as a man it would be a bit odd at best for me to dictate to feminist women whether or not I can be a feminist (i.e. I wasn’t going to argue against this person’s saying I couldn’t be a feminist, but I also wouldn’t argue against another feminist woman’s saying I was).
That whole set of issues isn’t really the point of this post, though, but just a setting. Next, the female colleague said something I felt was simply wrong, that pro-feminist men are traitors to their sex. I didn’t voice my disagreement at the time, mainly because the conversation shifted gears before I could do so, but I’ve mentally come back to it a few times since.
Pro-feminist men aren’t traitors to their sex (or gender) because they can’t be. Neither maleness nor men constitute anything like a coherent social group or entity that they could betray.
Still, “maleness,” “masculinity,” “men,” remain useful labels or categories for some descriptive purpose. I began to wonder how this was the case given that males or men in no sense comprise a single, unitary group. There’s no way that one can realistically speak of the interest of men as a group, for instance, given the divides of culture, race, ethnicity, class, family, religion, etc. (The same point can obviously be made of “femaleness,” “femininity,” or “women.”)
There are social groups comprised exclusively of one gender. Fraternities on university campuses are one example. They constitute distinct groups, capable of acting collectively as a coherent social entity for specific purposes. But recognizing that a group of men (or women) can in a delimited context comprise a social group is a far cry from recognizing men as a whole (especially cross-culturally and trans-historically) as a group. One can speak realistically of men in groups or groups of men, but not Men as a group.
Cross-culturally, within the context of specifically delimited cases, there are instances of gender as social group. For example, in the ethnography Women of the Forest, by Yolanda and Robert Murphy, Mundurucú men are described as constituting such social groups on the basis of gender. All the men of a particular community live collectively in a men’s house, and they act collectively as a gender group from time to time, for certain ritual purposes or on occasion to act punitively toward particular women, exercising power over women as a collectivity, not as individual man or individual patriarch or head of household. In such a setting, a man could potentially be a traitor to his gender, e.g. by handing over to a woman the sacred horns seen by Mundurucú men as a critical source of their collective power over women. Situations such as this, where men do constitute a social group (I’d argue from the evidence presented in the Murphys’ ethnography that the same doesn’t apply to Mundurucú women) occur in specific contexts, don’t characterize men in general, and so far as I’m aware have no analogues in contemporary Western culture.
Instead of constituting social groupings, sex and gender are primarily categories of quality. It can be meaningful to speak of males or men, despite the fact that such terms don’t refer to any real social group (again except in specifically delimited contexts, none of which is present in contemporary Western culture), because they speak of qualities that tend to be shared by individuals that the terms pertain to, without such individuals in any way comprising a distinct social group or entity.