Everyday Mansplaining: Can Men Really Be Feminist Allies? by @VABVOX

Written for A Room of our own by Victoria A. Brownworth

copyright c 2014 Victoria A. Brownworth


Every woman knows what “everyday sexism” is: Street harassment, scantily clad women in the daily newspaper on Page 3 or Page 6 depending on whether you’re in the U.K. or U.S., the insidious memes of rape culture.

But what about mansplaining from men asserting they are feminist allies? How are women, whether they self-define as feminists or not, expected to address the very real and often

blatantly misogynist behavior by men who insist they are working with and for us, not against us?

The problem of paternalism remains one no one discusses–not feminists, not men, not the larger culture. We have attempted to address it with regard to race, to greater or lesser effect depending on where one lives, but with regard to gender that discourse remains maddeningly out of reach.

Ownership of women has shifted to ownership of women’s issues. What about the men? is a familiar refrain feminists on social media are wearyingly familiar with. Few of us don’t feel compelled to add “not all men” when we write about any issue related to misogyny or violence against women. “Not all men” harass women, “not all men” abuse women, “not all men” rape.

Yet all men do seem quick to anger when women speak out about the breadth of misogyny and its violent correlatives like rape and domestic violence murders. My colleague Karen Ingala Smith has been cataloguing the murders of women in the U. K. via her project Counting Dead Women. There is rarely a day when I do not see her being harassed by men with words like “progressive” or “liberal” or “hates Tories” or “proud husband and father” in their Twitter profiles.

One night on social media I objected to the use of the word “cunt” by men as a pejorative against women. I wrote that it was one of the worst things a man could say about a woman, reducing her to nothing more than her genitalia. Dozens of men began tweeting at me, explaining to me that “cunt” was just a word and that I should step back from my “extreme” feminism. To a one they mansplained me about the importance of free speech (as if a female journalist wouldn’t know about free speech better than most). And also to a one, they proceeded to call me a “cunt.”

Yet as I went to block each one there were the profiles again: “progressive,” “left-leaning” and so forth. More than half had “father of x great kids” in his profile.

If you self-define as a progressive, why are you calling a feminist a “cunt” on social media, since feminist ally is part of every progressive platform? If you are a “proud father,” is this the example you are setting for your son in how men should treat women or worse still, is this the language you think your daughter should presume is acceptable when thrown at her?

There remains a disturbing disconnect with regard to men and women in the progressive arena. I expect Tory or in the U.S., Republican men to be dismissive and denigrating of women and treat us as second-class. The right, regardless of country, has made it their business to interfere in women’s lives by withholding access to safe reproductive freedom. The right also has stepped into our bedrooms with their anti-gay policies and their bedroom taxes. The coup de grace continues to be the pay gap, which shockingly gets ever more extreme the more education and advanced degrees a woman acquires.

Progressive men cite their pro-feminist allegiance. They argue for pay equity and reproductive rights. They assert they are pro-gay rights. And then their paternalism rears its misogynist head.

Experiences this week on Twitter reminded me yet again of how invidious this problem is. One situation seemed simple enough. A man I follow and who follows me with whom I have had many positive exchanges about feminism tweeted about how only four countries–the U.S. being one–did not have maternity leave (this was in advance of Mother’s Day in the U.S. on May 11).

I tweeted back that his comment was not entirely accurate. He asked, “How?” I said it left out the word “paid.”

The snarky reply I received took me aback. “It’s obviously implied,” he explained. “No need to state it.” I said simply, “You can’t presume people will know that,” to which he then said, “Every woman in the world knows this.”

The exchange went on for much longer than it should have done and I was stunned by both his response and my literal gut reaction to it. The implication that I, as a woman, was somehow ignorant of an issue I have been writing about literally for decades felt, quite simply, like a slap in the face.

I DM’d him to explain in more depth that I really could not understand his mansplaining me, to which he replied that he was very hurt and angered by my “accusations.”

How had a simple comment turned into a full-blown argument? All I had done was say he needed to add “paid” to his tweet for accuracy’s sake, as the U.S. has had unpaid maternal and paternal leave for more than 20 years under the Family and Medical Leave Act. I went back and re-read my initial tweet. All it said was, “not quite accurate” and I had attached an article on the issue.

So why the extreme reaction? Why the need to both dismiss my comment and publically put me down? I’ve been pondering this since it happened because this man wasn’t tweeting as an individual, he was tweeting from the site he runs, which is one about feminism.

As I said: Oh.

Why is it so difficult for men to acknowledge that women know more about their own lives than men do? Or that feminists are actual scholars of women’s issues? Or that there is an issue of privilege implied when a man says “every woman in the world” knows something because he is now speaking to a woman about “every other woman in the world,” and that is the very definition of mansplaining and also the very definition of paternalism.

Maybe every woman he knows, but likely not the women who I work with, who are under-educated, under-privileged, poor and for whom navigating governmental systems is not only difficult, it can feel both insurmountable and oppressive, as they have told me time and again. When you come from the position of educated, middle-class, white male privilege, you really cannot presume to speak for all women.

We toss the word “privilege” around a lot these days, particularly in progressive circles, to mean almost anything. But in real life, the real life where women make between half and three-quarters of what men make for the same work, the real life in which one in three women is a victim of male violence and one in five is a victim of rape, the real life in which there is no day that does not involve misogyny in every aspect of their lives from the medications they take that have only ever been tested on men to the cat-calls on the street to the inferior education to the sexism in the work place, in real life all men have privilege over all women.

I have no doubt this is difficult for progressive men to accept. What progressive man would willingly accept the mantle of oppressor of women? And yet it remains the non-objective reality of women’s lived experience. Just as those of us who are white and actively doing anti-racist work must accept that we still have privilege that accrues to the mere fact of our whiteness, people with penises have to accept that their genitalia granted them a level of privilege at birth that no one born female has ever had.

Or ever will have.

Another Twitter experience was equally, if differently, disturbing. In this instance, a U.K. man with whom I have had numerous serious exchanges about race–he is black–responded to a series of tweets I had posted about the abduction of the Nigerian schoolgirls. He insisted it was not a gender issue. I said it was. He told me I was being simplistic. I told him he was ignoring the facts.

The exchange was heated and ended when he told me I was hysterical, an idiot and imbalanced. There’s that paternalism–when challenged, even the pro-feminist progressive man feels compelled to put women in their 18th century place, despite this being the 21st century.

He also said, “Women are as much to blame for these abductions as men.”

And there it was, the consummate mansplaining argument, the obverse of women’s lived reality, but the last excuse, as it were, that a man can give. It’s not all our fault. It’s not all men.

The wearying nature of these exchanges exhausts many feminists. It certainly exhausts me. In my quest to make the world a better place for women and girls–which I fully believe would also make the world a better place for men and boys–I want allies in my struggle, not endless antagonists.

Whither the truly pro-feminist man, then? I know it is easy to dismiss this series of events on social media as contextual or examples of a bad day or maybe these guys really just aren’t as feminist as they say they are, but I reject that argument and I reject it because I have witnessed this day after day after day. It’s not just me having these “issues.” It’s every feminist I know, every feminist I follow on Twitter or other social media. There is no respite from this for women who are doing the hard work of addressing violence against women and its antecedent: male violence.

I’m not suggesting there are no pro-feminist men or that men are incapable of being feminist allies. But I do believe we are all inculcated from birth with the notion that men are superior and women are inferior. That daily reinforcement of women asless than is insidious–there is no aspect of women’s lives it does not invade. There is no Page 3 or Page 6 for men, there are no sexy outfits for boy toddlers, there are no taunts about boys being “too ugly to fuck” that follow girls or women protesting negative comments, there are no date-rapes of boys, no mass abductions of boy children to be sold into sex slavery, no boys being shot in the head for the simple act of going to school and yet even as I chronicle this tiny list in the endlessly long list of what it means to be female versus what it means to be male, I know there are people reading this and thinking, not all men or it happens to men/boys, too.

That simply must stop. Just as white people must learn to stop saying “I’m not a racist,” men must learn to stop mansplaining women. They must learn to do what women have done for centuries: hold their tongues. Listen and not speak. Learn.

I have no idea what it is to be a man in the world because I am not one. I don’t presume to know. I imagine it’s great to never have to fear certain things, but I also imagine there are responsibilities and expectations that are wearing.

Nevertheless, it’s not my place to wonder or worry about men and their feelings. Women have done this for millennia at the expense of themselves and each other. It is my job to work to make the lives of women safer and better, to illumine their circumstances worldwide and in doing so, illumine the cause of those circumstances which is always, whether men want to acknowledge it or not, men.

I don’t blame every man I meet for the oppression I experience and have experienced throughout my life. I don’t blame every man for the brutality women and girls face worldwide. But what I do expect and what I think is not over-much to expect, is that men who self-define as feminist allies, as pro-feminist, as our friends, not our enemies, not argue with us in public space about our lives. We know our lives better than you. And most importantly, you do not speak for us, you can never speak for us.

That last is likely the hardest lesson for the pro-feminist/feminist ally man. Silence. Men are used to speaking whenever and wherever they choose. They cannot comprehend what it is to be forever silenced, even by one’s self-appointed friends. But when a man declares he speaks for “every woman in the world” or that the abduction of schoolgirls to be sold as sex slaves–be it in Nigeria or Romania or the U.S.–is not an issue of their femaleness, then I must object, I will always object, and you can tell me I am hysterical, an idiot, unhinged or a “cunt,” but you will still be wrong.

To be an ally, you must listen.

To be an ally, you must learn.

To be a feminist ally you must never again say the words “not all men.”

And until and unless that happens, you will be against us, not with us, in our feminist struggle for full rights as women and as human beings.



Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA, the Keystone Award, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 Society of Professional Journalists Award for Enterprise/Investigative Reporting. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a contributing editor for Curve magazine, Curve digital and Lambda Literary Review. She is the author and editor of nearly 30 books including the award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Restricted Access: Lesbians on Disability. Her collection, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for Cultural/Historical Fiction. Her Y/A novel, Cutting will be published in fall 2014. @VABVOX


12 thoughts on “Everyday Mansplaining: Can Men Really Be Feminist Allies? by @VABVOX”

  1. A fantastically clear and well thought out article on something that affects all women, and not only online. At home, I have had things mansplained to me that I have been doing perfectly well for years.

    This ‘paternalism’ is a daily occurrance on twitter. I recently had a man explain to me that he is as much an expert on breastfeeding as I am (I kid you not).

    You rightly point out the violence and abuse women are met with if we challenge this behaviour. I have been stunned by the number of abusive tirades I have seen from men when they are told that men shouldn’t define feminism…I mean, really.

    Thank you for writing this excellent piece.

  2. I always operate as a feminist with the understanding that men who claim to be feminist or pro-feminist, or allies aren’t really allies. There’s still an invisible line with men who are progressive. Once that line gets crossed these men show their true colours and their male privilege

    It’s tiring having to separate out which men are with you and with against because most of the time the progressive men always have line that you cannot cross. So I just treat them all as men without a clue. It seems harsh but then I don’t have to go through the disappointment of watching a progressive man go into mansplaining and putting me down.

  3. THANKYOU for saying this. it’s not all men, we know that.
    But it is ALL women. It’s only takes one maim , on one woman, for ALL women to fear that maim, and all men.
    So yes, it isn’t all men. It only takes one. And the fear it instils, is of ALL men.

  4. An extraordinarily well-written and well-argued piece. If only the mansplainers would listen.

  5. Great post. I do believe men can be feminist allies, or simply feminists, if they recognize that they would be better off in a world without gender hierarchy. But that male privilege thing is apparently a hard thing to shake off.

    One suggestion: although it’s an understandable and pithy rephrasing,”people with penises” really should not be used to mean “men” or “people who get gender privilege,” since those categories are not entirely overlapping.

    1. The penis is a male organ. People with penises are men. Men have sex-based privilege, whether the ones who wear dresses want to admit it or not.

      Men can’t be feminists any more than white people can be Black Panthers. They can be allies, but they’re usually poor ones.

  6. Liberal women who are used to binary thinking, e.g. that all evil is on the conservative side of the political fence and all good is on their own side, have a hard time understanding that misogyny is a constant all over the political spectrum.

    Some of the biggest woman-haters on the planet are lefty liberals. Instead of wanting to keep us barefoot and pregnant like the conservatives do, they’d rather let us have abortions so we can be eternally sexually available to them.

    Whether it’s conservatives saying “cover that up” or liberals saying “strut, pout, and put it out,” men want to control and exploit women.

  7. Long overdue piece, Victoria.
    I too always confront the use of the word cunt as an insult by self id’d progressive men
    And to man they get mad etc ! But I will always name that for my own dignity and because if one woman hears me, then it’s worth it.
    Re the mansplaining, I really don’t talk to men at all- I speak to women, my focus is women.
    Of course there are cross gender issues NHS etc where I do unite with men, also if men are clearly aware that they must listen to women then I will engage.
    Also I’m aware of the possibilities of carrying some men with us on some issues.
    But I absolutely think it’s time we named this interpersonal misogyny with which men still relate to us.
    just power really, cannot take being ‘told’ by a woman !

  8. I like this article a lot and it articulates some particularly irritating and common things.

    Much as I want to resist doing this, I feel it’s important- as you called out the omission of ‘paid’, I feel the need to highlight the one thing that made me pause, “there are no date-rapes of boys” – I don’t think that’s true.
    Vanishingly small proportion of the total, absolutely. But women can rape. Men rape men. Silencing one group of violence survivors doesn’t really help anyone.

    It’s not the focus, and no discussion of sexual violence needs to be overtaken by ‘what about the men’, but I think we can easily avoid making factually incorrect statements.

    Moving on, this morning has included a discussion of why there’d be no #notallmuslims (and someone labelling #notallmen as a ‘sarcastic tag about all men’ – thus proving the point somewhat?), since moderates in religion often wish to other terrorism and extremism generally, and take offence to being grouped with the extremists.

    Is this what we’ve seen with Rodger? MRAs so desperate to join in with “not all men’s rights activists” – how relevant even is that? I’d argue not very. Just as men who do not speak out against misogyny and sexism are complicit or encouraging and/or participating, so moderates in religion create a space that allows the existence of extremism, and failing to challenge it does make everyone somewhat culpable for the violence that happens at the ends of the spectrum.

    Just, the thing is… men and women are almost two halves of our entire population – no religion vs not-of-that-religion comes anywhere near. It’s not the same problem. But they’re related; religion is inherently misogynistic and people who deny that have to be deluded.

  9. Brilliant, thought-provoking and somewhat upsetting that after so much effort we still have so much to contend with , thank you

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