Today a former critic of International Men's Day (IMD), Joseph Gelfer, says it's time for feminists to cautiously embrace the day. Here our news editor and UK Co-ordinator for IMD, Glen Poole, explores feminism's evolving relationship with the day.
It’s International Men’s Day next month (Saturday 19th November). Launched in its current format in 1999, the annual day of observance, shines a spotlight on some of the issues facing men and boys around the world.
The binary nature of gender is such, that traditional women’s rights advocates have positioned themselves in rigid opposition to the day, but we are beginning to see a backlash within feminism, from a younger generation of more fluid and inclusive feminists, who see no conflict in expressing concern for both men’s issues and women’s issues.
In an article for insideMAN, Joseph Gelfer, a researcher on men and masculinities explains why he has shifted from opposing International Men's Day (IMD), to saying he would "rather take the good with the bad than reject IMD in totality". This marks a break with the position taken by many leading male feminists who have consistently opposed the day's existence.
Back in 2004, the feminist scholar Michael Flood, published an "an open letter of rejection" saying that IMD was at best naïve and “at worst hostile anti-feminist” and called for men’s organisations and their allies to boycott the day.
This feminist-led opposition to International Men’s Day has continued for more than a decade now. Last year, the University of York’s Equality and Diversity committee was forced to withdraw plans to mark IMD after academics, students and alumni complained that by saying “gender equality is for everyone” the committee was echoing “misogynistic rhetoric” about women’s rights being given greater priority than men’s issues.
While leading male feminists, such as Michael Kaufman, founder of the global White Ribbon campaign to end men’s violence against women and girls, have acknowledged that that IMD focuses on some of the very real problems that men and boys face, they still oppose the day.
Both Kaufman and his fellow commentator on men and masculinities, Michael Kimmel, have observed that IMD’s support for gender equality has grown over the years, but argue the annual event should be scrapped or replaced, because it isn’t feminist enough.
For Kaufman and his colleague, Gary Barker of Promundo, an NGO dedicated to transforming masculinity, “the problem with the IMD idea is that men’s vulnerabilties” are not placed within the context of “the ongoing oppression of women”. Kimmel also takes issue with the framing of IMD, wondering if it is “inspired by feminism or opposed to it”, as if there were just two binary choices when it comes to gender politics.
But asking if IMD should support feminism, is like asking if Easter or Fathers’ Day or Wednesdays should support feminism. It’s a date in the global calendar, that long outgrew its founder in Trinidad & Tobago and neither he, nor anyone else, has the power or authority to control how millions of people around the world mark IMD.
Like feminism and masculinity, it is unhelpful to think of International Men’s Day as a singular, homogenous thing. If there are “feminisms” and “masculinities” and “femininities”, then there are also “International Men’s Days”.
So the question of whether IMD should support feminism is an irrelevance, the question for feminists all over the world, is what does your International Men’s Day project look like and how will you “do” your feminism on IMD this year?
Since taking on the role of national co-ordinator for IMD in the UK, with the support of the day’s founder, our aim has been to create the day as an open and inclusive platform, where we can focus on the many different issues that men and boys face.
In 2011, we hosted a national conference in the run up to IMD, where our aim was to look beyond the view that “women HAVE problems and men ARE problems” and explore the problems that men and boys have, in addition to, not in opposition to, the problems women and girls have.
After the event, around 100 individuals and organisations who either attended or were supportive, signed a joint letter to Government. The signatories included charities dealing with male victims of intimate violence; organisations helping separated dads; people working with gay, bisexual and transgender men; advocates for black men and boys and a campaigner for equal paternity leave, who now supports the Women’s Equality Party.
It was a diverse mix of non-feminists, pro-feminists and a few anti-feminists; each with their own unique views on how to address men’s issues, but united in the belief that we can and should do more the help men and boys.
In the UK, this is what International Men’s Day is all about. It is a piece of inclusive public theatre that invites everyone to take part and create their own unique International Men’s Days.
As such, anyone is free to take the stage, hide in the wings, sit back and watch or heckle from the sidelines, but whatever choice we make will shine a spotlight on how we “do” our gender politics.
For the MP, Jess Philips, for example, “doing feminism” on International Men’s Day last year, meant opposing a debate about men’s issues in parliament and engaging in what one commentator described as “politically inept”, “cowardly flipflopping”.
Others decided to do their feminism in more constructive ways. The feminist director, the South Bank Centre, Jude Kelly, moved the “Being a Man” festival to November, to coincide with IMD and said:
“Events like International Men’s Day and Southbank Centre’s Being a Man festival are helping men to investigate what conflicts the modern man faces in a world where everything is changing: work, family, image and gender balance.”
Then there was the student in York, Ruth Morris, who showed the 200 academics, students and alumni signed an open letter opposing IMD that they weren’t doing feminism in her name. Ruth set up a petition that that garnered over 4,000 signatures by declaring:
“True feminists should be fighting for gender equality for both men and women. To cancel men’s day is simply hypocritical. Equality is not just for women and should concern all genders. All feminists are being wrongly portrayed here which is simply unfair. We are not man-haters and the university should go ahead with plans to celebrate all diversity, not just one gender.”
And for me personally, most heartening of all, was the decision of University of Surrey’s Feminist Society, who invited a male student to research and present a talk on men’s issues. In response a spokesperson for the society said:
“There are clearly a great many issues which men face today, and a great many which are almost invisible to the public at large, and I believe that is much that Feminism as a broad movement can do to solve, mitigate and highlight these issues.”
Yes, there are many different feminisms and yes, there are many different International Men’s Days and what Joseph Gelfer, Jude Kelly, Ruth Morris and the University of Surrey’s Feminist Society show us, is that it is entirely possible to do your feminism in a way that is supportive of International Men’s Day, without compromising your principles or commitment to gender equality.
Glen Poole has recently published his latest book, You Can Stop Male Suicide, which is available to buy online from www.StopMaleSuicide.com.