What exactly does it mean to say that feminism has no obligations to men? First, feminism as a movement does not need to include men; and second, feminism as a project does not need to “save” men. While men may certainly choose to identify as feminists, and while abolishing the constructs of femininity and masculinity may well help everyone, there is a difference between possibility and obligation.
In recent articles and speeches from pop culture feminists, a trend has emerged wherein women feel compelled to ensure men’s inclusion. In Emma Watson’s speech at the UN, she declared, “Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too.”
She argues that we must include men in the feminist project because “[i]f men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled.”
Yet, these statements undermine the very feminist consciousness she seeks to raise. In framing the consequences as “if/then” statements in which men’s subjectivity is always the cause, while women’s freedom remains the effect, Watson allows men to remain the universal subject, the invisible norm.
Furthermore, the idea that all men need is a formal invitation ignores what it would mean for men to give up their power. Contrary to Watson’s speech and the ideas presented by commenters across the Internet, sexual inequality does, in fact, benefit men. While individuals may feel confined by the constructs of masculinity, men as a whole do not face systematic oppression. Sexual inequality hurts all women as a class of people demarcated as “other” in our patriarchal society.
While different intersectional identities make that oppression more or less obvious, women as a whole cannot benefit from the existing system in the same way that men do. For the female, “privilege” of not paying for a first date will never equal male privileges — feeling safe walking home alone at night, earning a higher salary regardless of experience, running the vast majority of companies and governments, shaping policy that affects every human being.
Just as any identity — class, race, sexuality — might be said to “hurt” those in the privileged classes by holding them to certain standards of behavior, these individuals will never face oppression in a systemic fashion.
As such, the members of the “othered” group fighting for justice must never be beholden to their oppressors.
Throughout the history of the women’s movement, Simone de Beauvoir explains, women “have gained only what men have been willing to grant; they have taken nothing; they have only received.”
Thus, to make the argument that feminism has an obligation to include men falls into the trap of “needing” men, of relying on men’s benevolence to extend privileges and dole out the rights that they have always possessed. Yet to count on this continued magnanimity is to deprive women of the power that comes in demanding that the very system of gender inequality itself must fall.
While there may be practical advantages to playing by the rules of existing organizations, this question of obligations takes us to the level of the ideological. What does it mean to say that even in the normative realm, feminism should have obligations to men and should operate within the existing system? By asking those in power to extend to us the rights that should have been ours, we deem the patriarchal regime legitimate.
To refuse to participate in their system accomplishes something far more symbolically important for women—it demands the end of patriarchy itself.
Emily Coccia is a senior in the College. Resolved appears every other Monday at thehoya.com. Join the Philodemic Society this Thursday at 8 p.m. in Healy 208 as they debate “Resolved: Feminism has no obligation to men.”