Over the last week, connected to International Women's Day, and the terrible case of Sarah Everard, the discussion about men's role as feminist allies has suddenly rocketed in the U.K., which is promising (if long overdue...). So, beyond more obvious actions like - not walking behind a woman late at night - or - funding crisis support services -, what does 'being an ally' actually mean for well-meaning men?
We've put together seven handy tips:
1. Listen and learn (without defensiveness)
When any of us are faced with the reality of someone else's experience, and it's very different to our own, it is often difficult to truly listen without defensiveness, take in everything they are saying, and believe it. To deeply understand the experiences of others requires humility and a willingness to be wrong. It requires self-compassion (see no.6) and the commitment to educating ourselves over and over again, to remind ourselves of what we might be missing or misunderstanding (and what the status quo continues to silence). When seeking out knowledge, remember, you don't need to grab your nearest feminist friend and grill them about feminism (see no.2), there are thousands if not millions of books, podcasts, articles and media which have been created for this purpose. Feel free to check out our 10 books for feminist men or our new podcast on Consent as a starting point.
2. Recognise the burden of emotional labour
The consistent, day-to-day nature of oppression (through micro-aggressions, discrimination, violence, harassment, etc.) can be very tiring. The experience and memory of what it feels like is stored in our bodies over years and years, which means that something seemingly 'small' may trigger a big emotional response. For many women and all survivors of violence, cases like Sarah Everard's this week will have brought up old trauma, anxiety and rage, leaving us emotional and on edge. This doesn't mean we don't want to help share our experiences in order for men to understand them, but we don't want it to be assumed that we are always here for your educational development when the curiosity finally strikes. Having to educate 'your oppressor' about how they are oppressing you is understandably fraught with emotion and misunderstandings are often painful, especially when they involve the people closest to you - partners, family members, friends and loved ones. Be mindful of how you approach these conversations, and if you hear anger or frustration, be patient around it and remember...
3. Remember it's not about you
You didn't invent the thousands-year old system of patriarchy, and you didn't wake up this morning and decide that things should be this way. The ideas, habits and behaviours that feed into sexism and misogyny are much older, more widespread and more deeply ingrained in society than your personal experiences, and no, it is not your fault that they exist. However, it is your responsibility to educate yourself about the impact they have had on you and others around you.
Yes, as an individual man, you are a representative of a much bigger structure, which your individuality will sometimes get lost in. Yes, it is sometimes frustrating to not feel seen or to feel misunderstood. Yes, it might feel confusing or bewildering to confront that rage and despair, and you might feel you're being blamed for something you personally haven't done. But if you identify as straight / white / cis and this feels frustrating, imagine how frustrating it is for people in groups that are marginalised (i.e. queer / people of colour / trans people) to have to constantly shoulder the damaging stereotypes that constrain their freedom. Not wanting to represent that privileged group doesn't make your privilege go away. Try to be humble and understanding that when you enter into a conversation, a relationship, a workplace, you are bringing the history of people who look like you into it too, and use that opportunity (and power) to do things differently.
4. Remember it is also about you
This moment is also an opportunity to take stock of how your actions and behaviours have likely contributed to the problem. Simply by existing in this society, we are all breathing in ideas about men, women and gender which find their way into our subconscious beliefs, language, and ways of seeing the world. This is not about creating a witch hunt, or wanting men to wallow in self-loathing, but as with any structure of power, it's a first (and critical) step to recognise - 'OK, so I am part of the problem'. Owning that truth is not about piling on moral judgement, it simply means that you are in a more open place for learning, change and transformation. You are ready to actually be an ally instead of pretending all of this has nothing to do with you. And it means that when you do mess up (because all of us will), you will be more able to own it, apologise and move on without it stopping you in your tracks or making you shrink away from more growth. If you aren't sure where to begin, check out our feminist allyship terminology sheet.
5. Understand the complexity
There are as many kinds of feminism as there are feminists, and gender is only one part of a complex system of power which defines people's experience by race, class, ability, sexuality, nationhood, colonial history, etc. If you are unsure about what 'intersectionality' actually means, watch this TED talk by Kimberlé Crenshaw (who invented the term in 1989) as a starting point. The history of feminism is one that is fraught with exclusion and discrimination amongst feminists - around trans women, black women, women of colour, working class women, disabled women, lesbian women, bisexual women, gender-nonconforming people, sex workers, etc. and this continues today. One place to begin growing your understanding of this history and complexity is the book Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. As a Black, lesbian feminist, Audre knew a thing or two about existing and fighting in the margins, and in famous texts like 'The Master's Tools', 'The Uses of Anger' and 'Letter to Mary Daly' she calls out white women for excluding women like her and reproducing the problem. For a modern representation and analysis of the feminist debates, look no further than Lola Olufemi's brilliant Feminism, Interrupted.
6. Practice impeccable self-care
It is largely patriarchy's fault that men struggle to look after themselves and their mental health properly. Taught that external indicators of success are what matters about being a man, men often ignore and don't tend to their inner worlds and the emotions that they are dealing with.
It is particularly hard to learn how to feel and process difficult emotions when, from a young age, men and boys have been taught to suppress the emotions of sadness, doubt, or hurt, (because this questions their masculinity) and are encouraged to only express these 'negative emotions' through aggression or physical exertion, if at all. If men have been under-served by patriarchy in terms of their inner emotional skills, then women have been strongly encouraged to deepen their emotional analysis, and their muscles of caring for others. This means that men tend to rely (without even realising it) on the women in their lives to care for them, and make space for their feelings. This often leads to unequal dynamics in relationships, both around emotional support, and the practical labour that comes with caring for each other (for more on this, see this long but excellent doc on Emotional Labour).
It might sound counter-intuitive, but a big step in being a good feminist ally is practicing deep compassion and care for your mental and physical health, and building that in a self-reliant and sustainable way. What might this look like for you? (e.g. going to therapy, creating a journalling practice, learning to connect to your emotions in a healthy way).
7. Talk to other men
If you know you are further on in your journey with feminist (un)learning than the men around you, talk to them about it! If there is a gender-related issue at work that you can lend your support to, do it. If you know a guy in your circle who is thoughtful about these issues, talk to him about it. Connected to the point above, cultivating deep and healthy male friendships is a force for good in the world. It also takes the burden off women and gender-nonconforming people who currently tend to supply the bulk of feminist education and emotional support. Finally, it is a sad truth that men tend to listen more to other men about this topic, so you will have an advantage in getting the points across more effectively (and with less emotional cost). And if you don't get anywhere the first time - remember that change is not about having one conversation, but a deeper investment in having several conversations over a long period of time.
Image credit: Tom Davenport