Egalitarian values consistently emerged from interviews with 17 male Texas Tech students who identified themselves as feminists. Doctoral student Samantha Christopher’s dissertation fleshes out the idea of what characteristics are common in feminist men.
“This distinction between men and women in many ways feels pretty arbitrary. People are people,” she says. “Everyone deserves to be treated with respect. So, I truly believe that these men in coming to feminism and looking at the world through a different lens, has really afforded them that opportunity to see how an oppressive system impacts everyone. How a patriarchal system impacts everyone, themselves included.”
All 17 men noted that they always had feminist values but did not have a label to describe it until their adolescence. Their values were shaped by significant relationships (mothers came up very often), as well as moments when they began to think about gender critically – like being bullied or not being manly enough.
The men, seven of them gay and all between 18 and 26 years old, identified several changes in their lives after labeling themselves as feminists. Those changes included noticing sexism more, catering their social groups to reflect their values, discovering freedom in their own gender expression and disrupting sexism.
Christopher says one of the men described a favorite science fiction book series he’d read as a kid that upon examination as a feminist now saw portrayals of ill treatment of women as well as misogyny.
“So, he came to this book series with a new lens, a new way of seeing the world,” she says. “Even though he valued equality before, didn’t see how it manifested.”
The topic of feminist men came to Christopher in college when discussion in one of her classes centered on whether sexual assault would happen if all men were feminists.
A main question in her research was how the men she interviewed came to call themselves feminists. What she heard was that they always really valued equality, believed men and women should have the same opportunities and that women be respected in the same way men are.
The men fell into two groups, which Christopher called ‘novice feminist’ and ‘seasoned feminist.’ The novice ones are newer to feminism and tended to make their views known only within their inner circles. They might call out a friend in that circle for a sexist joke.
“For many of the novice feminist men, there was a—it was not as robust of a community of other feminists that they could talk to, process their values and address their concerns. Whereas, seasoned feminist men often had a very strong support system of other feminists in their life.”
The seasoned feminist, on the other hand, goes outside their inner circles, and shared that they weren’t shy about confronting classmates or strangers they saw engaging in sexist behavior. In fact, the act of talking with others about feminism and their identities as feminists was a crucial part of these men’s experiences.
The vast majority in both groups recounted to Christopher having had overwhelmingly positive experiences in voicing their feminist views. “Men expressed concern about backlash and one of my participants even said that he was surprised by how little backlash he got by identifying as a feminist.”
Christopher, who says she’s grateful for the unwavering support of her advisor, Elizabeth Sharp, says undoing sexism is everyone’s responsibility.
“So, feminism has been effective in so many ways, but until we have everyone on board—men and women—there’s only so much we can do to shift the system,” she says. “I believe that men are a really important part of feminism. Feminism isn’t about men versus women, it’s about all of us. It’s about all of us being able to live the lives that we want without these societal expectations and barriers and obstacles standing in our way.”