This is Mark Mattison. I didn’t know Mark at all, until very recently. But I was completely taken by his pathway out of the thicket here. Read this and tell us what you think!
Despite gross mischaracterizations to the contrary, historic feminism is unquestionably about equality, not gender domination; equal access, not special privilege; love, not hate. Consequently, why wouldn’t anyone and everyone who believes in full equality want to identify themselves as feminists?
I admit, there was a time when I comfortably thought of myself as a male feminist, but I’ve since reconsidered claiming that label in recognition of the disagreement among feminists as to whether the designation should extend to those of us who by definition cannot truly know the experience of female/female identified people, regardless of our degree of sympathy for women’s concerns. As biblical scholars have long recognized (and feminist biblical scholars have always emphasized), our experience necessarily shapes our biblical hermeneutics (i.e., theory of textual interpretation). So the idea of a middle-age, middle-class Caucasian man (such as myself) meaningfully practicing feminist hermeneutics strikes me as inherently problematic insofar as I obviously approach the issue from a position of privilege. To state the obvious, a man simply cannot appropriate women’s experience which is the very basis of feminist hermeneutics. Wouldn’t it be pretentious even to attempt such a thing?
I recall a debate several years ago in one historic feminist organization to which I belong. The debate was over the perennial question of whether men should still be permitted to be full members or whether we should be allowed to be no more than associate members. I admittedly don’t recall the exact context of the debate, but I do recall that many of the voices argued in favor of continuing full membership for men. However, some expressed reservations from the context of their own experience of feeling marginalized by the voices of “male feminists” claiming to speak for the movement. That in itself, if nothing else, gives me pause. And if I consider myself a supporter of women’s rights in any case, why would I need to insist on being a “full” member instead of an “associate”?
As I consider that question, I think about the many pitfalls of unreservedly identifying myself as a feminist. Could claiming the mantle of feminism ironically enable us as men to absolve ourselves of guilt (by our own authority) and seek a shortcut to social justice without doing the hard work of struggling with our sisters through the pain and agony they’ve endured in the face of our historic patriarchalism? To seek a “free pass,” as it were, because we’ve publicly affirmed women’s rights, even though we may not have done anything more than claim a label?
Of course, labels are still important. So what label should pro-feminist men claim? The question suggests its own answer: “Pro-feminist” is a term that’s more than sufficient, and certainly more descriptive and precise. Alternatively, “feminist supporter” or “feminist ally” are equally helpful.
Now this isn’t to suggest that men’s voices don’t have a place in feminist dialogue; quite the contrary. But it arguably speaks to what should be the self-evident fact that only women can, in the final analysis, speak for women.
Could it be any other way?
To articulate these reflections more specifically with reference to my own biblical work – particularly with respect to my involvement in the Christian Godde Project’s Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament – I don’t really see myself as contributing new insights to feminist theological discourse. I do see myself as having the ability to articulate insights that I’ve already learned from feminist, liberationist, and postcolonial authors, and to strive to implement their ideas by helping to re-envision the text of the New Testament, perhaps even exploring new frontiers as a result – but I don’t really see myself as innovating either feminist or liberationist hermeneutics.
We men can (and should) seek a place at the table of feminist dialogue, but it should be counterintuitive to imagine that we can continue to dominate the agenda or set the terms of the debate. So to that degree, I do believe that men’s contribution to feminist theological discourse is necessarily prescribed by womens’ deliberations.
I’ve found that female/female identified feminists really appreciate sympathetic contributions to feminist theological discourse by men – but such recognition must necessarily be conferred, not claimed. And if we men are ever tempted to invoke the charge of “reverse sexism,” then we’ve forgotten that our role at that table is to listen and learn and help heal, not to dictate the terms on which our sisters may seek to be heard. Unsolicited attempts by men to preach to women about feminism necessarily amount to no more than the reinforcement of the same destructive power structures that feminism is all about deconstructing.
And that’s why I no longer call myself a feminist, but rather a pro-feminist man instead.
Mark M. Mattison is co-editor of “The Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament” and the author of “The Gospel of Mary: A Fresh Translation and Holistic Approach ,” now available on Amazon.
You’ve been reading DAY THREE of the series #CanAManBeAFeminist.