What is the role of men in the struggle for gender equality? As Nikki van der Gaag reports in her new book, Feminism and Men, “The devil is in the details.” Van der Gaag describes the Goldilocks-like dilemma of engaging men in feminism. Too much involvement and men in positions of authority may end up dominating the conversation. Not enough involvement and women are left trying to tango solo. Van der Gaag is clear on the need for men to be engaged. As she writes, “the struggle for gender equality depends on it.” The book uses a combination of personal stories and broader social and economic analysis to make this point. She begins with the social roles that structure our relation ships to each other and to our own gender identities. If girls are reduced to pink and purple princesses from their earliest years, then boys are equally contorted into the padded muscle suits of hyper-masculine super heroes. As van der Gaag points out, those male roles may turn out to be even less malleable than the female roles – girls who are ‘tomboys’ are cool, but ‘sissy’ is still an insult. Men are expected to play the breadwinner role. At the same time, many of the men van der Gaag interviews assume their family responsibilities end with their participation in paid work: “my thinking was that I would earn money and everything else was her responsibility,” reports one interviewee. The result is a disproportionate burden of unpaid care work for women – who haven’t seen that unpaid work diminish at the same rate that their participation in paid work has increased. The result is also a loss for men, argues van der Gaag. The same man who used to view himself as a breadwinner alone records how his life is enriched by greater participation in caring for his children: “Of all the things in the world that money can’t buy, one is the love of a child.” In Canada, too, there is clearly an unmet need for fathers to spend more time engaged in caring for their children. Consider that when Quebec introduced targeted paternity leave with a significant replacement of men’s incomes, the percentage of men taking parental leave rose to 76% compared to 26% in the rest of Canada. (See” Children’s Welfare: A comparison of Nordic and Canadian approaches” on Page 30.) The book also addresses the ugliest aspect of gender inequality – violence against women. Here too, van der Gaag emphasizes the benefits to men of leaving violence behind. Here, too, the participation of men is essential to the well-being of women. Men, after all, make up the majority of perpetrators of violence against women (and against men, as van der Gaag also notes). Trying to end sexual and domestic violence by only speaking to the victims of that violence is about as helpful as aiming a campaign against drunk driving at pedestrians. Van der Gaag’s book assumes the best of men and of women. It makes reasonable arguments about how gender equality is in the best (self) interest of men and women. Yet many of the personal and political systems van der Gaag critiques come with significant benefits for men. Higher rates of pay and promotion come to mind. Less unpaid work sounds pretty good too. Beyond these rational incentives to continue with an unequal system that is of benefit to (some) men, there is also the irrational to consider. The personal and political are more than symbolic bedfellows. Men, and feminists, are moved by irrational desires – for power, for pleasure, for love. Many of the personal anecdotes related in the book have a slightly evangelical flavor, as in ‘I once was misogynist but now am feminist.’ The path to salvation in these stories is less often about reasoned self-interest and more often about finding new ways to love and be loved. Where is the sweet spot for men in feminism? It lies in men’s participation in renegotiation of the distribution of power within political, familial and intimate relationships. It lies in how men react when they find that feminism has already broken into their house, eaten their porridge and slept in their bed.
— Kate McInturff is a senior researcher at the CCPA and director of the Making Women Count initiative.