Home > feminism, gender > Getting it right for Every Body: Feminism & Freedom of Gender

Getting it right for Every Body: Feminism & Freedom of Gender

My friend’s wedding reception was particularly glamorous. After a Thames boat trip and an evening meal, her husband stood up and joked that he hadn’t written a speech.  As a professional speechwriter, he’d prepared too many, he said.  “For goodness sake, I’ve even written something for the woman’s rights officer about what it takes to succeed in a man’s world.”  About half of the room – probably just his side of the family, actually – laughed.
You won’t be surprised that he left me with plenty to rant about.  Nevertheless, he illustrated one thing, which is that many men find it hard to talk about gender equality.  This is strange, because most people who care about equality agree that it should benefit everybody, including men as well as women.  Only a few people doggedly believe that men are solely benefactors from the way things are at the moment (though “male privilege” is mentioned often on my Twitter feed, and admittedly the amount of it on display during the wedding left me feeling more ill than the boat ride did).

The trouble is that most of the arguments in favour of gender equality benefiting men are somewhat indirect, or abstract.  The former Equal Opportunities Commission lobbied hard and successfully for women’s rights in the workplace.  To explain how they were tackling the other half of their statutory brief – gender equality for men – they developed a strap-line: “if we get it right for women, we’ll get it right for everyone.”  What they meant is that, if policy can cater for the amazing diversity of women’s life courses, then by definition it will cater for men’s too.  My dad, in his more optimistic moods, argued that men would benefit from gender equality through happier (he always assumed, women) partners, and from more productive women in the workplace.  You can see why I think these arguments have value, but are indirect.

There are lots of ways that men are discriminated against, or constrained in their behaviour.  Examples of parents supporting the right of their boys to dress in pink,i or school children deciding to wear dresses,ii are exciting to me.  It surprises me that, after 29 years of personal development and moving to a liberal city, it still feels radical to behave in ways which are feminine.  Some of the restrictions on my behaviour are small, but important.  My vivid pink socks always attract attention at work.  Being the person who gets cuddled, and nestling myself in the underarms of someone I love, feels radical to me, even in private.  Sitting on a bus, with my head on a partner’s shoulder, having my hair stroked, would feel dangerous in some parts of London.  If I’m in a bar, I might fancy a beer, but if I then switch to a cola, somebody will make a comment. I’m a lightweight when it comes to alcohol, and if I say this, people think I’m eccentric.  If these things bother me, it’s no wonder why I don’t wear the dress that I like down Oxford Street.  Some of my friends are brave enough to do this, but surely something is wrong with our society if so much bravery is required for something that doesn’t hurt anyone.

The truth is that even the most progressive of us accentuate gender divides, often without realising it.  Over the past month or two, my friends have organised women’s only hen nights, women’s only trips, and women’s only shibari workshops.  People should have the right to shape environments that suit them but, over the longer term, we need to start to remove the qualifiers from some of these events.  Implicit in them is the assumption that women cannot have certain experiences – and possibly even a feeling of safety– with men around.  To my mind this assumption is insulting to women, and particularly those around me who I know are strong and independent people and able to determine, communicate and police their own boundaries.  It unnerves me that people might assume that I do not know how to respect these boundaries, because of my body.  I believe that the more we are able to open up shared environments, the better we will get at learning to negotiate potentially intimate situations.

However, it’s not enough to widen our aims for gender quality to include “men’s rights”.  Feminism needs to evolve not only beyond freedom from discrimination on the grounds of sex, but also towards freedom of gender.  It’s ironic that the feminism is so often interpreted to mean “women’s rights”, when the word that has been chosen refers to feminine, which is a label that can be chosen and not limited to female-bodied people.  As male-bodied boy who increasingly feels more female-gendered, I wonder how I fit into thismovement.  Put another way, if dialogue is phrased only in terms of “men” and “women”, then I can’t locate myself within the arguments without making some compromise about how I identify.  Feminism has concentrated on some of the most obvious examples of sex equality – and the gender pay gap in the UK, especially in part-time work, and differences in pension income for today’s generations of older people, are startling.  This focuses the dialogue on issues which are mainly economic, or otherwise fits into a legal framework about discrimination.  Feminist debate which allows for the possibilities of self-determination and freedom of expression about gender, for everybody, is thin on the ground, especially when it comes to male-bodied people.

Written by The Boy Wonders, who sometimes blogs at Subsphere.
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