Women’s Work: Self – Definition

by Jen Thorpe

Last week after a talk at IDASA on feminism, one of the audience members asked me “how do you reconcile the idea that feminism should engage with men, with your belief that they are still after us?” The reason she had got the idea that I believe that ‘they are still after us’ was from this quote that I shared:

“It is a dangerous thing to assume that just because we were raised in a feminist [and in SA a democratic] era, we are safe. We are not. They are still after us.” Ellen Neuborne

Perhaps holding this belief (that men are still after us) whilst assuming that as feminists we must engage with what I like to call the ‘problem of men’ might seem oxymoronic to some of you. Maybe this is more complicated because I am heterosexual and involved in a long term relationship with a man who I don’t believe is after me at all. Let me explain why I find holding both of these beliefs incredibly useful and workable.

What is central to the ability to hold both of these beliefs simultaneously is an understanding that power is not something that can be owned or held. Nobody has ‘the power’. Instead, we all exist along a spectrum of various power negotiations that require us to engage with them daily to ensure that we feel empowered. This continuous reflection need not result in an existential crisis – in fact, it results in a thriving sense of where you are in the world and what work you might still need to do to get where you want to be.

That being said, there are essential social structures that make this negotiation of power extremely difficult. One of these is the belief in gendered social roles. The engagement with these structures is made more difficult by their invisibility. It isn’t written anywhere that all men should do x, while women should do y, z and abc, yet often these roles are assumed and that makes them incredibly pervasive.

Feminism does not equate to man hatred for every feminist. I won’t deny that there are feminists out there who are not at all interested in working with men, in talking with men or in having relationships at all with men. This must be understood as a reaction that relates to the treatment of women historically. This is not madness, perhaps this is rationality. On the other end of the spectrum there are those feminists who insist that engaging with men is the only way that positive change for women will be achieved. In the same way that we don’t expect all liberals or marxists to feel the same about all issues, we must not expect all feminists to believe the same thing.

Feminism is a political position, that is tempered by the change we want to see and our ideological commitments to other political positionings. What I believe is that we must constantly evaluate the action that we’re taking as feminists to assess whether we are practising feminism or masochism.

So, in my involvement with men, and my belief that in order to achieve real change we must engage with men and masculinity, I am still entitled to the belief that ‘they are still after us’. It is undeniable that most violence against women is committed by men in South Africa (and that most violence against men is committed by men too). Men’s violence is a symptom of broader issues with power negotiations that have been necessitated in the move towards democratic norms. Essentially:

“War does not break out suddenly in an otherwise peaceful society; sexual violence is not the disturbance of otherwise equal gender relations…” Susan Kappeler.

What I think must be clear is that in the process of power negotiations some compromise is necessitated. The level of violence against women in South Africa is indication that these processes are complex, that men are not ready to negotiate nor are they socially encouraged to, and that there is an understanding of power that is power as power over rather than power to.

What must be clear is that women are not asking permission for power in SA, we are demanding it. Much of the power we are demanding is fundamental power to negotiate the conditions that we live in, our control over our own bodies and sexuality, and the power to be considered equal.

Men’s issues are not the responsibility of feminists, the same way that white people’s issues were not the responsibility of the black consciousness movement. This is not an attempt at exclusion. This is an attempt at self-definition. There is a need for us to define ourselves and for men to define their own role in the move toward gender equality. This does not mean that we hate men, only that if they have managed to successfully build up problematics of power, they must take responsiblity for their role in dismantling those same gender restrictions.


1 thought on “Women’s Work: Self – Definition”

  1. I love this article! It is so true that we all have our own beliefs regarding feminism and gender equality. I am happily married and we both portray opinions about the opposite sex that we cannot seem to rid ourselves of, no matter how many time we justify the opposite.
    But it should be about getting to the root of gender inequality, which rides a lot on perception and stereotypical assumptions.
    Thanks Jen.


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