The idea that men cannot be feminists is one that is constantly justified by the claim that men don’t understand the lived experience of women. After all, how could men truly fight for women’s equality if they cannot understand what it means to be a woman or what it means to live through the oppression of the patriarchy? This idea predictably garners a lot of animosity and anger, though these reactions usually arise from mutual misunderstandings. The idea that men don’t understand the lived experience of women suggests that men cannot understand the social oppression of women. This belief is necessary because if men could understand the social oppression of women without knowing their lived experience, there would be no problem with men being feminists.
Those who argue that men cannot understand the social oppression of women, and those who are on the receiving end of it, assume that the other side will fully understand the intention behind its use. But often, they see the assertion and denial of this claim as an intentional insult with little to no actual truth behind it.
But is there truth behind either the claim or its denial? If there is, what exactly is it?
The belief that men cannot understand the social oppression of women is both true and false. It is true that a (cis) man can never fully understand women’s oppression. Oppression often brings with it emotional responses that are purely subjective and individualistic. Because of this, it is difficult enough for two women to fully understand each other’s individualized responses to social oppression, never mind a man attempting to understand this without first-hand experience of it. Furthermore, the nature of a patriarchal society makes understanding women’s oppression especially difficult since women are forced to handle the effects of oppression, with many women facing it on a daily basis.
The constant need to respond to oppression leads to women having individualized emotional responses to the majority of these methods, and their responses to a certain method will influence their response to others. What this means is that an individualistic response to one method of oppression will influence how a certain woman responds to other methods, which will become even further individualistic and unique. So, beyond being extremely difficult for others to understand the emotional responses of women to certain methods of oppression, these responses affect and shape one another in unique ways.
But, if this is all true, is it not true that women are essentially emotional and men are essentially logical? The short answer: no! The ideas put forward here also work in reverse. It has been convincingly argued by many that men are also oppressed by the patriarchy in multiple ways. Because of this, men will also have individualistic responses that are difficult for other men to understand and impossible for women to understand. The issue is not that women are emotional and men are logical, it is that emotions are subjective. Emotions that rise through phenomena that only affect some cannot be understood by those who do not experience these phenomena.
Even more problematic, though, is that these emotional responses to oppression can become both character–and identity–defining. Because of the way that women and men are oppressed, it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, to create a character or identity outside of the oppression they are forced to endure. So this brings us to the most difficult truth to accept, especially for men wishing to actively support feminism: men simply cannot understand the parts of women’s emotions, character, and identity that directly result from a patriarchal society. As much as a man may want to understand, no amount of imagination or putting himself in a woman’s shoes will actually succeed. It is a hard truth that many of us desperately like to deny but must come to understand and embrace.
However, just because men are incapable of understanding these aspects of women (and vice versa) does not and should not result in their exclusion from feminism. It also does not mean that men can never offer progressive feminist insights. There is a fundamental difference between how society shapes the character and identities of women and how women face oppression. To explain this, let us turn to some examples: the pay gap between men and women, the problematic sexualization of women, and the dependence on feminine emotional care all oppress women in unique ways. Unfortunately, these shape the character and identity of women through their emotional responses to them, whether these be coping, accepting, or resisting.
But the difference between how women react to and shape themselves according to these methods of oppression is different from the methods themselves. These methods are instantiated through certain problematic stereotypes, laws, and cultural norms, which can be identified and understood by anyone. Thus, despite the way women are affected by methods of oppression being unreachable, what these methods are and how they function are understandable through research and observation.
The ways that the patriarchy works to oppress women can be understood logically and rationally, and to deny that anyone can ever understand this is to deny their ability to reason logically and rationally. To truly make this claim is indeed insulting and hurtful, as it essentially denies one of the most defining features of humanity.
But, anyone who claims men cannot understand the social oppression of women intends to claim that men cannot think or reason rationally.
When it is claimed that men cannot understand the social oppression of women, I believe what is being said is that men cannot understand the characters and identity of women as they are shaped by the patriarchy: they cannot understand how the patriarchy affects women. This is true. But this claim can become insulting if it is assumed that the claim is instead saying that men can never understand the methods that oppress women and can never work to correct these methods. This is false, and understanding the claim this way comes from a harmful misunderstanding that risks obstructing progress.
Of course, it must be stressed again that just as men cannot understand how the patriarchy affects women, women cannot understand how it affects men. However, this is not to say that women cannot understand how these methods operate. Women can also logically and rationally identify these methods, and solutions to them, because they have advanced rational and logical understanding.
Okay, this is all well and good, but what does this actually mean for feminism? Well, this depends on what is understood by feminism. If feminism is conceived as the fight for equality, surely men can be feminists without understanding the lived experience of women. After all, men, too, are oppressed by the patriarchy, and both men and women need to work together to understand the full breadth of how the patriarchy affects men and women differently.
If feminism is believed to be the fight for the equality of women, men can still be feminists and join this fight, but they must accept that they cannot understand how the patriarchy affects women. Male feminists must instead focus on identifying and dispelling the methods of oppression the patriarchy abuses. If feminism is believed to be the emancipation of women, men can still be feminists and fight for this emancipation by focusing on the methods of oppression.
The only way that men can truly and conceptually be excluded from feminism is if the single and absolute goal of feminism is defined as the reshaping of female identity. Only then can men not be feminists because the reshaping of the female identity cannot be done by men who cannot understand how the patriarchy affects women and the female identity. However, conceiving feminism as the reshaping of female identity forces the movement to be rather exclusionist and ignores the issues of things like the pay gap, which are more about oppression and domination than identity.
There is a way forward through mutual understanding. We need to accept the shortcomings we have and work past them. As men and women, we cannot understand how sexism affects one another, as this includes far too many complex emotional responses that become individualistically unique. This situation is something we need to accept. Men cannot empathize with the social oppression of women, and women cannot empathize with the social oppression of men. However, everyone can understand, identify, and work towards a mutually satisfactory solution by focusing on how sexism operates.
What needs to be focused on is what methods allow the oppression faced by both men and women to continue. This is the area in which people can effectively work towards a solution. Of course, the solutions can and should, be influenced by the emotional responses of both men and women. That men cannot understand the social oppression of women, and vice versa is not an insult, and it is not a fault of feminism or even us as people—it is a reality. Accepting this reality and using it as a strength in order to move forward is something greatly beneficial to feminism.