Can a middle aged white guy be a feminist?

(Warning: this isn’t my usual subject matter. I don’t mention baseball or movies or music once in this piece. It takes a lot to get me to jump into the deep end of the pool and start waxing philosophical about social issues, but this has been gnawing at me for awhile. Thank you Darrah Le Montre for the inspiration.)

Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem has been a leading advocate for women’s rights for decades

I never realized, until recently, that a man could be a feminist.  It still sounds odd to me. When I hear the term I think of Gloria Steinem, or even of the mythical Rosie the Riveter from World War II. I never think of guys who believe in equality as ‘feminists.’  And maybe that’s part of the problem.

Feminism shouldn’t just be about strong women asserting themselves and vocally fighting for their place. It really should be about anyone and everyone who believes in equality standing up for those who traditionally have been and continue to be oppressed. This is true of gender as much as it’s true of races or religions (or the right not to practice a religion at all).

I grew up relatively oblivious. As a young white male in a relatively diverse California suburb attending public schools, I really never noticed overt signs of racism. And while I’m sure I was exposed to sexism, I didn’t recognize it. After all, I was a white male. What would I know?

GOP Logo

There was a time when I proudly wore this logo on a t-shirt, back in the mid-1980s. No more.

In recent months I feel like I’ve had an awakening of some kind. Thanks to the rhetoric of the GOP primary season, I was spurred to start exploring what exactly was going on around me. I had trouble believing what I was hearing and seeing during the debates, and some of the restrictive legislation that was being proposed (and passed!) in states around the country.  This surely wasn’t the Republican Party I was a part of decades ago, when I was a member of the College Republicans chapter on my college campus.  The more I listened, the more I read, the less I could comprehend.

I recall flashing back at one point to a time in college when I stood listening to two Chinese students who had escaped their homeland after the Tiananmen Square massacre. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life, realizing both what these students and their peers had been through simply for espousing freedom, and how lucky (and sheltered) I was as a white male American. I got that same feeling recently, as I heard about women being censured for speaking out in the Michigan legislature, and Arizona passing a law allowing doctors to lie to women patients in the interest of putting the fetus ahead of the mother.

Tiananmen Square, 1989

The most enduring image from the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989. Tragically, hundreds were brutally massacred for speaking out against a tyrannical government.

I began following the discourse more closely, and interacting with some fascinating writers who weren’t afraid to have their voices heard.  I listened, and discovered that indeed I have been sheltered, and oblivious.

When conservative white males (and the lemmings among the female species who follow them) put their own religion ahead of basic human rights, I am appalled. When sexual misconduct is laughed at or downplayed, my stomach turns. When doctors are able to keep potentially life-threatening news from a pregnant woman in the name of religion, I am in disbelief.

I don’t think I’m in the minority. I don’t believe that the majority of white males in America believe women are second-class citizens, playthings kept around to keep men happy but not to have minds or wills of their own. I can’t imagine that’s the state of our society in the 21st Century, despite what I continue to read and hear.

Yesterday I read of a sexual assault in Washington DC that occurred not long ago. A bicyclist cruised up to a woman and stuck his hand up her skirt, violating her very being before riding away laughing. It would be easy to pass this off as an isolated incident of some pervert getting his kicks, except that this particular woman victim (Liz Gorman) wrote a blog about it, and hundreds responded with their own stories of similar experiences and worse.

Thank goodness this woman and others like her are speaking out instead of staying silent. Thank goodness they’re upsetting the status quo. Thank goodness they’re waking people like me up to what is going on around us every day.

Votes for Women

Until the 19th Amendment, women were denied the right to vote

It’s always been hard for me to fathom that just months after I was born, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, or that not long before that, not every citizen in this country could vote. It’s hard for me to believe that when both of my grandmothers were children, their own mothers weren’t legally able to vote. And I wonder what is becoming of our hard-fought freedoms today when our society seems deeply divided like no time I can remember, and a powerful segment seeks to limit or deny basic rights of others.

I fear for our future when I see adolescent and college-age guys being spoon-fed rapacious porn and jocular yet overtly sexist advertising that just feed into their levels of testosterone at that age. Couple this with how we continue to muffle women’s voices about sexual needs and desires, and we are raising another generation of coarse, close-minded men who rally around Daniel Tosh and don’t think twice about their sense of privilege or entitlement.  Basically: bad lovers, bad fathers, absentee husbands. I grew up knowing the experience of having an adulterous, alcoholic father, and far too often I was an absentee husband in my own failed marriage, far more focused on career than relationship. That cycle needs to stop.

The stereotypical male is a sexist pig. He sees women as merchandise to be gazed at, and groped at. He sees himself as the master of his domain, and sex as HIS enjoyment, or even as his conquest. He may know of boundaries, but often feels they don’t apply to him. He laughs at sexist jokes, he gawks at pretty ladies like a slobbering schoolboy, and he is enabled and empowered by an advertising industry that gears its print and television ads at him – because, after all, the stereotypical male is the head of household, the breadwinner, and the decision maker.

ProCheer Calendar Shoot, 1999

My thinking seems to have evolved a bit since the ProCheer calendar shoot in 2000

I know this firsthand. I ran numerous websites and published a sexy cheerleaders calendar years ago that pandered to this demographic, and did it well. I gave no consideration to the fact that I was feeding the sexism machine, subjugating and objectifying women in the interest of making a buck. After all, the models I worked with were professionals who were thrilled to be on the sites or in the calendars, and my target demographic was those stereotypical white males who buy the merchandise.

It’s time for feminism to be mainstream. It’s time for open-minded, forward-thinking men to realize that equality means embracing feminism. Feminism isn’t a bad word. It’s simply a cry for fairness in an unfair world dominated for far too long by a small segment of white males who have convinced too many of us that speaking out is wrong, that having a voice is a privilege rather than a right, and that somehow they know what’s best for all of us.

I shouldn’t be ashamed to be a white male. I shouldn’t feel like I need to explain myself and my views to women who automatically see me as a threat, or even as the enemy, simply because I am a white male. But I am, and I often do.

It’s far past time that men start listening, instead of always expecting to dominate the conversation. Only then will we be able to start ridding ourselves of the shameful stereotypes that we’ve been saddled with thanks to the brutish ways of many of our species.

I’m a white male, and now I know I’m also feminist. And thank goodness for that. THAT I don’t need to apologize for.

53 thoughts on “Can a middle aged white guy be a feminist?

  1. Great piece!!! Was this written by Paul? Did I miss the writers name?… sorry … I had…no time for coffee today! hehe!!! I have conducted research all over the world on this subject for my books and we just talked about this on the Love Bites with Rhonda & Jon YouTube Show… Instead of acknowledging the populations (in parts of many countries) that do not value the equality of women in the workforce, family and bedroom; we accentuate the joy and healthy lives of people that embrace the woman making the same pay so he does not have all the financial stress… and her Not having to figure out how she is going to stand another night of unsatisfying sex with her man. When a man is married to a woman that looks forward to being a loving co-parent… letting him have time with the children too… creating her own outside career successes and helping with expenses… and adoring her man while he adores her… with gratitude for each other… that is a powerful message to the world and generations to come…. and wonderful way to live…And it is catching on!… Thank God! Thank you for your awesome writing! ;D

  2. As the father of a daughter, I don’t see how you can be anything other than a feminist. You have great power to influence the world your daughter inhabits and how she inhabits it. –Dani

  3. This is a fabulous, important post. As a woman who only recently “came out” as a Feminist, I truly appreciate the courage it takes for a man to do so. The incident in DC enraged me, not least because some of the commenters took the opportunity engage in some victim-shaming, claiming it didn’t make any sense physically to them so she was probably making it up, among other things. But yes, those comments were overwhelmingly outnumbered by those from women relating similar stories. You’ll find my tale of woe on my blog. Stats say 1 in 5 or 1 in 4 women have been raped (1 in 3 if you’re in the military), but I think it’s even higher than that, especially when you consider that the FBI *just* changed its definition of rape to include all forms of penetration (which is a whole ‘nuther ridiculous story). Anyway, thanks so much for writing this. I’ll be sharing.

  4. Thank you, Paul! Excellent piece. I hope to raise my two sons to respect women always and stand up as vigilantly for their rights as they do their own.

  5. And then maybe one day you will throw anti-racism activism in there. Now THAT would be brave. After all you can relate to white women because you are white but how would you relate to woman of color or even to a male of color?
    White women experience sexism but can still be racist, black men experience racism and can still be sexist. Where does that leave women of color when it comes to your and other whites male support of feminism?

    • Nowhere in this piece do I say I am relating solely to white women. I’m talking about all women. I point out that I am a white male simply because of all races whites (I’m sure you’d agree) historically have been the ones in power, at least in America, and that power has been held by men. I also point out that discrimination of races and religions is equally heinous, but in this piece I am talking about sexism…which certainly does not deny in any way that racism exists as a massive problem in society to this day. Racism, sexism, religious persecution…all are terrible scourges on society, and I make reference to this in the piece I wrote.

      • Hey Paul, I think Tabby is talking about intersectionality, or, in this case, the specially awful blend of racism and sexism that women of color experience simultaneously. I’m sure you’d agree that talking about all women is quite a task, because it is over half of the world’s population and there are many differences between us. A lot of times in feminist circles there is overt racism and then there is this sort of racism by omission–where the stories and experiences and examples relate specifically to white women. It’s not possible to talk about gender comprehensively without talking about other axes of oppression as well–race, class, religion, homophobia–because they combine to create whole new beasts for people who are oppressed in multiple ways.

      • Thanks Joy – and I agree. I just wanted to point out that I wasn’t referring solely to white women (and certainly was not intending for it to appear that I was)…I fully agree that race, gender, religion, sexual orientation all become intertwined…and I think I’m being honest in saying there’s no way I can understand that as a white male – I can only abhor it.

    • Yes, I do, because I am one, and I was speaking of my own experience and perspective. And certainly all men should be feminists, but I cannot speak for all men, only for myself.

      • white men are the ones with almost all the power in this country. the power to perpetuate racism and sexism. so they definitely need to be a focus. i’m definitely seeing men of color opening up to feminism, too, so there is hope!

  6. Thank you for voicing this. It was beyond time for men to speak up. I’m sick of teaching my 4 daughters how to be rigid expecting an attack from any male that gets too close to them. I’m sick of having to do it. I’d love to be able to go out without my husband or rottweiler and not be in full flight or fight mode watching every shadow. That’s what happens when you’re brought up around violent men or been attacked. Sadly it seems to be getting worse. We need more like you to help us with this fight so that as women and humans we can truly be safe and free.

    Kudos and well earned at that.

  7. Great post Paul. I feel the same way as you, and I am appalled at the recent campaign against women’s rights in general by the GOP and others. I just believe in basic human decency and respect for all. Taking away the rights of others is never a good thing, no matter what any religion says.

    • Exactly ! Remember the story about ” They came for the Jews , and I wasn’t a Jew so I did nothing……and on till they came for me ” Allowing disrespect , loss of rights for any group does Not make your group better ; it only makes it easier for “Them” to take your rights away , too. We need more male voices expressing themselves on this subject ( Feminism is really just part of the whole fight for basic human rights and equality for everyone ) After all , you are the husbands and fathers of people who you want to have a good life. Thanks , Bob.

  8. Excellent post. You might look up Peggy MacIntosh. She writes on white male privilege. I had a similar awakening a few years back.

  9. I am glad you have awakened, but also glad you are not the first. Nor was my grandfather, but he was a pretty early supporter of feminism when he published the first U.S. edition of Margaret Sanger’s “What Every Woman Should Know” and was arrested for selling it. There have always been men as well as women who have acknowledged women as human beings who “hold up half the sky.”

  10. i am glad you are opening up to feminism. it makes me so extremely happy whenever i see men waking up… but as a white male who has never really noticed so many of the problems around you for most of your life, feminism will also be a very tough learning experience for you. as you interact with more and more feminists, there will be a lot of things that will be very hard to hear. things that will make you feel like you are being attacked personally and hated as a white male. but they are things that every man needs to hear, absorb, reflect on, and understand if all of us are to continue moving forward toward a better world. i’ve seen it happen again and again where men try to get more involved in feminism, but then can’t take the critiques of themselves and the patriarchy… they feel personally attacked and defensive and reply, “well, you’re just a man-hater.” try your best not to take the critiques personally… they are not personal, they are analyses of a system bigger than yourself. put yourself in the shoes of every woman you talk to, and try to feel and understand where her pain is coming from, even if it seems irrational to you at first. the problems with the Republicans and some of the obvious woman-hating murders and rapes around the world are only the tip of the iceberg of the system of patriarchy, poking out of the water for you to see it. there is so much, so much for you to learn. i hope you will be able to stick to feminism, as painful as it can be at times… it is painful, but also freeing (and very intellectually stimulating ;-)). thank you for taking your steps down this road… every person who joins make a difference… a drop in the sea causes ripples!

    • don’t know why i wrote “some of the obvious women-hating murders…”. take the “some” out of that. :-) i think i started writing something else and then switched tracks, it’s a remnant of another thought.

    • I agree with your post , but also have always thought it sad that men who are trying to understand the realities of women’s lives are usually pushed away. I discovered very early that I was only a thing to many men ( one was an uncle). I spent my teens trying to navigate a “safe” relationship with males. Like most who have been reduced to basic survival , I fought against being a frightened victim.That state of being also seems to draw predators to you , almost like they can smell your fear and lack of power. We must not be “victims”! We must stand strong for what is right – not just for women – but for the society we send our children into. Men must be a part of that ; we must allow those that support justice and decency to join in the battle with us.We should rejoice that they can “awaken” and work for changes in societal values. We should rejoice that in that awakening they discover the true value of the people in their lives. Only when we see the humanity and value of each other , no matter the gender , race , sexual orientation , social status ,or creed will we be free.

  11. Thank you to all the men who spoke. Women cannot achieve a just society for all without including all segments of that society. I have been a victim ; it has taken many years to realize that carrying that as my “cross” served only to keep me a victim. We do need to acknowledge attacks on women ( which are a means to remove our humanity and our right to rights). Women are not the only segments of society being attacked ; “They” are working hard to negate any group different from Them. We should teach our sons and daughters that every other human deserves respect and has rights. Every person should be equipped to recognize danger and deal with it , male or female, but it shouldn’t be the theme of a female’s life from an early age. No one should live in fear because they love someone of their own gender . All of us must rise above the false barriers, propaganda,victim-hood, ignorance, and efforts to divide and conquer. It is the responsibility of all of us to protect each others rights and to make our government and society represent our ideals.

  12. Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. When I tell people that I am a feminist, I see the glaze come over their eyes. Popular belief is that feminists are crazed, man-hating lesbians, and men like you help not only show men that they have an investment in feminism, but also help change the public perception of feminists as a whole.

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  14. Thanks for writing this excellent piece. In the end feminism is nothing more, and nothing less, than the belief that women are as important as men and deserve equal rights, respect and dignity. We should all be feminists, and proud of it.

  15. Hi, Paul,

    Good to have you in the team but, as you are already realising, it’s a learning process. Up top there you use the phrase “the mythical Rosie the Riveter” which creeps me out. Sorry, but it does.

    We do no know for certain which woman’s photograph may have inspired the graphic artist. Fair enough! We were busy at the time, remember?

    When you say it like that, though, you play into the comfortable notion for some that – haw! haw! haw! – of course women could not have done heavy work in shipbuilding and industry. Well they could and they did in in the US and in the UK, in WWI and in WWII.

    I hope we don’t have to experience WWIII just so that women can prove themselves capable of such things all over again. That’s one of the things you are going to learn as a very welcome feminist – just how many times you have have to prove the same point before the HawHawHaw Brigade will believe it.

  16. Thank you for this Paul. I’m a 36 year old gay male who began understanding and embracing feminism several years ago. Our country is wonderful in many ways. Unfortunately, the treatment of women is far too often horrifying. The sexism in our culture is deeply rooted. To combat it, we need women AND men. It may have taken you longer than others to get onboard, but I’m glad you did. It may be scary checking your privilege and understanding how you contributed to the oppression of women, but you sound like a different, better person than you used to be. Kudos!

  17. Another middle-aged white guy story: I live in a college town, and most of my co-workers and customers at the small grocery/deli I work at are college-aged. One day, a young lady and I were discussing feminism, and, after imparting what pearls of wisdom I had on the subject, she said, “Oh, so you’re a feminist.”
    That caught me off guard. She saw the look on my face, and, perhaps misinterpreted it a bit. She said, “Aw, come on. You’re not that insecure with your masculinity, are you?”
    Rather than correct her, I went for a laugh (I know, it’s a sickness). I replied, “I’d like to keep what I have, thank you.”
    But it got me to thinking. I grew up in an environment that had pretty large components of poverty, ignorance, and violence. Most of the guys I grew up with turned out to be misogynists, racists, and generally intolerant of anything or anyone different from them. I turned out different. I don’t know why. But I’ve spent most of my adult life feeling as though I’ve dodged a bullet. Apparently the environment did have some effect. The fact that a simple matter of terminology bothered me, even a little, was cause for reflection.
    Today however, I have no problem with describing myself as a feminist. A proud one at that.

  18. I find it somewhat amusing that the question in your title really has to be asked. Perhaps it’s merely my personal perspective biasing my view, but it reads to me as “can a middle aged white guy think women are people?”. Described that way, it sounds kind of ridiculous, doesn’t it? We appear to have a problem with definitions in some parts of our society.

    In any case, welcome to the cause, as varied as it may be at times. There are several points I saw that might benefit from some expansion or analysis.

    “When conservative white males (and the lemmings among the female species who follow them) put their own religion ahead of basic human rights, I am appalled.”

    I would strongly recommend not referring to anyone as a ‘lemming’, since that is tastelessly close to dehumanizing language. Ignorance shouldn’t be considered a crime, in any case. Try to consider other people in terms of their potential, because all educational efforts require it.

    “I don’t think I’m in the minority. I don’t believe that the majority of white males in America believe women are second-class citizens, playthings kept around to keep men happy but not to have minds or wills of their own. ”

    To some degree, that is an empirical question which can only be answered by data. While there are rhetorical reasons to take an optimistic attitude and assume the best of people, we should also actually investigate people’s real views rather than guess at anything.

    “Thank goodness this woman and others like her are speaking out instead of staying silent. Thank goodness they’re upsetting the status quo. Thank goodness they’re waking people like me up to what is going on around us every day.”

    Agreed. Awareness campaigns should be eager to introduce the sociological data gathered on the subjects of harassment and sexual assault as well. Most people do not have any idea of how prevalent these crimes are. (To summarize, the vast majority of women on street experience some level of harassment on nearly a daily basis, and roughly 25% of all women are sexually assaulted at least once in their life.)

    “I fear for our future when I see adolescent and college-age guys being spoon-fed rapacious porn and jocular yet overtly sexist advertising that just feed into their levels of testosterone at that age. Couple this with how we continue to muffle women’s voices about sexual needs and desires, and we are raising another generation of coarse, close-minded men who rally around Daniel Tosh and don’t think twice about their sense of privilege or entitlement. Basically: bad lovers, bad fathers, absentee husbands. ”

    This is a bit different, as it implies a casual relationship. Is it the case that porn and advertising are primary causes of bad lovers, fathers, and husbands?

    It seems fairly clear to me that there would be some correlation between media depictions and social attitudes, and there are more than a few sociological studies that show this to one degree or another. Correlations aren’t necessarily causation. It’s entirely plausible, for instance, that sexism in the media and sexist attitudes in people have a common cause. Indeed, if we look at this subject from the historical perspective, there’s no doubt that this is true. A sexist media didn’t create the problem here, because it arose long after there was a problem to begin with. Sexism in the media is a symptom of a patriarchal system with far deeper roots.

    “The stereotypical male is a sexist pig. He sees women as merchandise to be gazed at, and groped at. He sees himself as the master of his domain, and sex as HIS enjoyment, or even as his conquest. He may know of boundaries, but often feels they don’t apply to him. He laughs at sexist jokes, he gawks at pretty ladies like a slobbering schoolboy, and he is enabled and empowered by an advertising industry that gears its print and television ads at him – because, after all, the stereotypical male is the head of household, the breadwinner, and the decision maker.”

    When you say ‘stereotypical’ here, it tends to read more as ‘average’ or ‘typical’. Although I expect you are attempting to describe the image of man as presented by authorities or the media, it’s not entirely clear from the wording.

    That said, the image is pretty similar to what you describe. It’s a rather insulting trope to have imposed on one’s character.

    This may be a good place to introduce statistics on the actual breakdown of households. Few families have a sole, exclusive breadwinner anymore. There’s also a good opportunity here to talk about wage disparity; men and women are not paid the same even for identical jobs. Further, women are encouraged to enter fields which ‘coincidentally’ pay less on average and often carry less social prestige.

    “I know this firsthand. I ran numerous websites and published a sexy cheerleaders calendar years ago that pandered to this demographic, and did it well. I gave no consideration to the fact that I was feeding the sexism machine, subjugating and objectifying women in the interest of making a buck. After all, the models I worked with were professionals who were thrilled to be on the sites or in the calendars, and my target demographic was those stereotypical white males who buy the merchandise.”

    It’s all past tense, so it seems you left the industry a while ago. I’m curious, what’s your proposed solution for dealing with the sexist media? Should everyone who works there quit their job and find something else to do, as you did?

    I raise questions because I’ve yet to run into anyone who presented an effective solution to this issue. (Yeah, that’s fairly circular, as if there was an effective solution, we wouldn’t need to talk about it, would we?)

    Here’s one way to approach it: has the media become more sexist over time, do you think? Less? It’s about the same as it always was from my perspective, but I’m not as old. However, if it has changed, we ought to go looking for the reasons why.

    Personally, I don’t see the approaches which try to eliminate this problem by crushing the industry in question as likely to work. Almost invariably, any approach to stop objectification through government regulation or controls would be portrayed as an attack on capitalism, freedom, et cetera unto infinity. We’ve seen exactly that sort of rhetoric in many other industries.

    However, if you take any government intervention out of the picture, how does change happen? Through the capitalist system? People just stop buying these products? You can organize protests and boycotts specifically, but how much has the general culture actually shifted from that? What percentage of the population do you figure would need to be actively involved in such a movement, for how long, to exact lasting changes? I would guess more than ten percent, for a decade or more.

    Now, the low likelihood of success doesn’t necessarily indicate anything about what someone should do. People can advocate and agitate for any sort of society they want to see. My intuition, however, is to look for easier and more powerful ways when the existing framework doesn’t seem to be having the size and scope of effect as large as desired.

    There’s also a question of whether we are or will enter a new economic model in the not-so-distant future. Much has changed with the growth of the internet, such that industries such as the newspaper business have had their fundamental assumptions challenged. With time, will a large segment of the current media simply cease to exist due to dramatically high levels of competition? Certainly, this is a threat for the commercial media space. It may be premature to draw any deeper conclusions.

    “It’s time for feminism to be mainstream.”

    In my opinion, it was a mainstream movement during the 60s and 70s. So if it isn’t now, what exactly changed? Does mainstream refer merely to numbers of activists?

    There are some clues in the media portrayals of feminism. Often what you see now is a more of a caricature than an actual representation. It would be more appropriate to call what some in the media think of as feminism “female supremacy” or “separatism”. It’s a very extreme conception, more akin to the most radical forms of gender theory than what feminism ever represented. We have to be very careful about what we’re taught by media organizations today, since they’re nearly all interested more in how they can maximize profit by manipulating people than discussing the truth. That kind of bad reasoning can be used to discredit — almost literally — any group of people.

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  20. Bravo! Great post. I really like the line “It’s far past time that men start listening, instead of always expecting to dominate the conversation. Only then will we be able to start ridding ourselves of the shameful stereotypes that we’ve been saddled with thanks to the brutish ways of many of our species.” My white male feminist friends are definitely so because they started listening to the experiences of women–not just on the news, but their female friends, relatives, and lovers. It’s hard to contextualize something if you have zero experience in it, which is why we all need to listen. Thank you for this!

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