Feminism first entered my lexicon as a student in the late 1970s. Since then pretty much every female friend I’ve had has defined herself as a feminist. I can’t really imagine having a female friend who isn’t a feminist. Yet I’ve never called myself a feminist. And I'm not about to wear a t shirt.
That may seem odd given that the dictionary definition is ‘a person who advocates equal rights for women’. I hope I do that. But I’ve never called myself a feminist because as a man I prefer to be a supporter, a pro feminist perhaps. Do we need to be feminists too? Surely there are some things we don’t have to be or own. Isn’t it what we do that really matters?
Take for example the current Ched Evans scandal at Sheffield United. Like many others I have applauded the stance taken by Jess Ennis. As an athletics fanatic I already loved Jess. And it’s made me love her even more. But how powerful would it have been if high profile sports men had taken the same stance. And in particular if the footballers at the club had simply said, no we won’t train with him. They wouldn’t have to call themselves feminists, they’d just have to take responsibility.
Back in the early 1990s I was briefly chair of a small voluntary organisation called the Everyman Centre in south London. The centre provided counselling services for men who were violent to women. Part of the contract with those men was that they received treatment on the basis that they wanted to stop being violent. It was about them taking responsibility.
When I joined the centre’s management committee all the staff and the management committee were men. I left after the organisation became embroiled in a conversation about equal opportunities. I wasn't against equal opportunities but I implored the other men to focus on what we as men should be doing about violence perpetrated by men. That was why I’d got involved.
The same motivation was behind my willingness to sign a pledge recently refusing to participate in all male discussion panels. The point of the pledge, as I understand it, is that it’s made by men. I was astonished therefore when a man who claimed to support the very change the pledge is seeking to bring about refused to sign it on the basis that he would consider it ‘condescending’ and ‘chauvinistic’ of him if he ‘gave up’ his slot for a woman. His slot? Talk about missing the point!
Earlier this year I was asked to speak at a meeting at one of the party conferences. I was delighted to be asked because it was a great opportunity to talk about the work of my organisation and contribute to an important debate. But I was concerned to learn that the panel being proposed was all male and said I would be very reluctant to participate.
It wasn’t about suggesting that I might give up ‘my slot’. It was about ensuring that an important issue affecting women and men was debated by a panel of women and men. The organisers realised that they needed to do something and did. The solution was a bit of a compromise and the panel was still mostly men on that occasion. But the point was made and something happened.
The objector to the pledge raised various other concerns. Ultimately he said he preferred ‘organic’ rather than ‘enforced’ change. For goodness sake, it’s a pledge. It’s hardly about putting men in chains! Is it too much to ask men to say that we are prepared to do something to quicken the pace of change we claim to support?
In practice of course we need to go much further than panels. As men in board rooms and institutions we need to look around and take responsibility. Change won’t happen just because we say something. It will happen because we do something. And that might involve not doing something. It might be a compromise or even counter intuitive on occasions.
But is it really that difficult? I hope not. So I’ll continue not to call myself a feminist. And I’ll do what I can to make change happen.