Emily Carian

“Research across the social sciences documents how much has changed in this country for women in the last century. Structural and cultural changes—including the expansion of the service sector, the decline of the male wage, greater access to birth control, and the adoption of no-fault divorce laws—prompted massive shifts in women’s behaviors and outcomes.

But research also shows that the so-called gender revolution is far from complete. On some measures, our once rapid progress toward gender equality has plateaued and even reversed.

What is more, the gender revolution has been uneven. Among women, those who are cisgender, middle-class, white, straight, non-disabled, and citizens have benefited the most. And there has been very little change among men. Men’s labor force participation and hours of paid work have not declined to match the increase in women’s.[1] While men do more household labor than before, their time spent on housework and childcare is still not equivalent to women’s.[2] Unlike for women during this time, men’s behaviors and priorities have remained relatively consistent, which ultimately limits progress toward gender equality.

Four in ten American men identify as feminists.[3] With all the power, status, and resources these men bring to the feminist movement, why has so little changed among men and why have we been unable to reignite the gender revolution? For my forthcoming book, Good Guys, Bad Guys: The Perils of Men’s Gender Activism, I interviewed 31 self-identified feminist men about their trajectories into feminism. I found that their subconscious motivation for becoming feminists limited the effectiveness of their fight for gender equality.

Why do men become feminists?

Through my interviews, I learned that soon-to-be feminist men came into contact with feminist claims that women are disadvantaged and men are privileged because of their gender. The idea that they benefit as men from gender oppression troubled them: does that make them bad people? To navigate these negative emotions, they adopted feminism as a strategy for forging a new and morally uncompromised identity. Identifying with feminism allows them to portray themselves as exceptions to the rule that men are bad. Through feminism, they remake themselves as and show others they are good men. In other words, a relatively self-centered identity project invests men in feminism.

How is men’s feminism limited?

I find that this subconscious motivation limits men’s feminist allyship in three important ways. First, most of the feminist men I interviewed did not practice activism. They may post on social media or sign a petition occasionally, but they define being a feminist as a lifestyle or aesthetic choice. Simply identifying as a feminist was enough for them to feel like and portray themselves as good men. This is a problem, of course, because feminists recruit men to the movement hoping they will devote their time and effort (and power and status and resources) to achieve movement goals. The men I interviewed largely did not.

In keeping with their subconscious motivation, when feminist men did engage in activism, their activism often centered the concerns of privileged people like themselves. One interviewee, for example, created a space for men to discuss their masculinity and privilege. These discussions helped men to learn to live with their privilege and navigate the tensions of being an ally; they never progressed to dismantling their privilege or organizing for the liberation of others.

Finally, in an effort to be and be seen as good men, feminist men often compared themselves to other, non-feminist men. They used masculine-typed traits, like agency and rationality, to position themselves as supremely moral. As one example, an interviewee told me that other men might have a hard time navigating feminist spaces, but he had learned to rise above his privilege. This boundary-making process links masculinity, morality, and superiority together, reinforcing inequality between masculinity and femininity and among masculinities.

Despite feminist men’s intentions, then, they did not effectively challenge gender inequality because their subconscious motivation got in the way.

What can we do to jumpstart the gender revolution?

This Women’s History Month, what can we do to jumpstart the gender revolution? Despite the limitations of men’s feminist allyship, the fact that so many men do identify as feminists is promising. Feminist organizations, practitioners, and activists need to leverage men’s feminist identities by providing them with accessible opportunities to “do the work.” Through low-stakes activism, feminist men can learn that feminism is something one does rather than something one is, and we can leverage men’s time and labor for movement goals.

Importantly, feminist men must reflect on the self-centered if subconscious motivation for their feminism. They must reflect on what feminism does for them and what they in turn can do for the movement, women, and gender liberation.”

---

Emily K. Carian is an assistant professor of teaching of sociology at UC Irvine and author of the forthcoming book, Good Guys, Bad Guys: The Perils of Men’s Gender Activism. She studies gender inequality and why it persists, despite an increasing number of men who identify as feminists. Carian joined the UCI faculty in fall 2022. She has a bachelor's in sociology from Dartmouth College, a master's in urban education policy and administration from Loyola Marymount University, and master's and doctorate in sociology from Stanford University.

---

UCI School of Social Sciences perspective pieces offer faculty an opportunity to share their expertise and opinions. Read more at https://www.socsci.uci.edu/newsevents/news/index.php.

---

[1] Bianchi, Suzanne M., John P. Robinson, and Melissa A. Milke. 2006. The Changing Rhythms of American Family Life. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

[2] Parker, Kim. 2013. “Chapter 5: Americans’ Time at Paid Work, Housework, Child Care, 1965 to 2011.” Retrieved February 7, 2024 (https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2013/03/14/chapter-5-americans-time-at-paid-work-housework-child-care-1965-to-2011/).

[3] Barroso, Amanda. 2020. “61% of U.S. Women Say ‘feminist’ Describes Them Well; Many See Feminism as Empowering, Polarizing.” PEW Research Center. Retrieved August 26, 2020 (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/07/07/61-of-u-s-women-say-feminist-describes-them-well-many-see-feminism-as-empowering-polarizing/).

connect with us

         

© UC Irvine School of Social Sciences - 3151 Social Sciences Plaza, Irvine, CA 92697-5100 - 949.824.2766