Being a man can be beautiful and freeing. But first, men have to eschew a toxic notion of masculinity that pushes them to set up emotional boundaries.
Michael Kaufman, a Canadian writer and educator specializing in masculinity and gender studies, is working to end the “enormous isolation” that often comes with traditional manifestations of masculinity. He’s the co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign to end violence against women, and the sole male member of the G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council created by Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. He’s the author or editor of eight books on gender issues, including A Guy’s Guide to Feminism and the forthcoming The Time Has Come: Why Men Must Join the Gender Equality Revolution, and he’s a senior fellow at Instituto Promundo, a Brazil-based NGO engaging boys and men in the fight for gender equality.
Speaking with Quartz, Kaufman explains why feminism is the greatest gift to men, and how he’s grappled with toxic masculine standards in his own life.
1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?
For the past 35, 40 years, I’ve been a writer, speaker, educator, adviser, and activist focused on engaging men and boys to promote gender equality, end men’s violence against women, and positively transform men’s lives, including the transformation of fatherhood. In 1991, I co-founded the White Ribbon Campaign, an effort of men working to end violence against women—this has spread to 80 or 90 countries. I’ve developed programs to end sexual harassment at work and have teamed up with UN Women, corporations, and unions to promote women’s advancement in our workplaces. So I guess my answer to the first question would be “yes.” The main lessons for men from the Me Too movement? Men need to continue to listen to the voices and experiences of women. We need to do a lot of soul searching, and we must speak out.
Definitely, in the sense that feminism is the theory and practice of gender equality and supporting women’s and girls’ rights. And definitely in the sense that in spite of the challenge to men, I believe feminism is the greatest gift men have ever received. Feminism is also about women’s voices and experiences—so in that sense, over the years I’ve often referred to myself as pro-feminist rather than a feminist. But given attempts by some conservatives and religious fundamentalists to roll back the clock on women’s rights, I’m proud to stand up and say I’m a feminist.
At a professional level, that is all I do: speaking, consulting, and volunteering. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year writing my next book about these themes. This is also a very personal question. I’ve always strived to do at least half of the domestic work, I interrupt sexist and homophobic comments and jokes, I find myself talking with total strangers in supermarket lineups. I try to stay aware of the privileges I enjoy as a man, in particular a man who happens to be white, straight, and middle class. This isn’t about collective guilt, but rather a determination that everyone should have the same rights and privileges I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy.
Patriarchy. My work over the years explores the paradox of men’s power—the very ways we’ve constructed a world of men’s power and how privilege brings not only huge benefits but also severe costs to boys and men. That’s why I say that feminism is a great gift to men. (Although even if it wasn’t, it should have our support!) When I say patriarchy is the greatest threat, I mean the diverse economic, political, religious, and familial institutions that historically grew out of patriarchy and reinforce it; I also am referring to the men—and women—who resist change and threaten women’s rights. And I’m also referring to the imminent threat of climate change. Patriarchy is not only a system of men’s power over women and the power of some men over other men, it is also the quest for men’s power over nature. And that quest is leading us quickly to a dead end.
5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what inhibits you from doing so?
All the time. We now have a strong evidence base of what works to reach other men: challenging, but positive messages. Avoiding collective guilt or blame. Avoiding generalizations about men. Understanding that men can play (and many men are playing) a positive role in advancing gender equality and ending violence against women. And encouraging men to listen to the voices and concerns of women, but also to speak out as men.
Like all men, I carry some deep fears about not living up to the armor-plated expectations that go with being a man. Although most of us reach an age where we start letting go of this and just accept who we are and that we’ll never tick off all the lines in what gets called “the man box,” there are sadly some older men who still work hard to prove they’re a real man and use this to mobilize hatred against courageous women. Not to point any fingers toward the Oval Office, or anything like that.
That I try and I struggle. (I think they already know I make mistakes!)
8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?
Sure, we sometimes catch some flak, but so does anyone who speaks out against injustice. I don’t think Nelson Mandela ever said, “I better not speak out against apartheid and racism because some white people won’t like it.” There are diverse women’s voices and diverse opinions; even among feminists, opinions can clash. We listen with respect and then we take action based on our own beliefs and abilities. Our goal is to be allies with women, just as, as a white person, my goal is to be an ally with people of color, or as a straight person, with LGBTQ people. Doing so sometimes involves taking some flak—but that’s one consequence of no longer monopolizing the airwaves.
9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?
When my son was a baby and a toddler in the early 1980s, I aspired to do half the parenting work. But I now realize that I sometimes took the work of my partner of those years for granted and didn’t realize how we needed to discuss and negotiate all our parenting work.
10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?
This may sound like a cliché, but during a homesick moment when I was about eight, an uncle told me that it was okay to cry. It was a revelation! And my advice to young men today: You are lucky, you have a chance to join the greatest revolution in human history, the gender equality revolution.