In 1989, Ursula K. Le Guin spoke at Simon Fraser University. During the question period, amid a lively discussion of feminism, a young woman – probably a grad student – asked with an intense earnestness, “But, Ursula, where do men fit in?”
I’ll never forget Le Guin’s answer. With a shrug that gently but firmly dismissed the entire question, she said, “Why, where ever they want.”
She had nothing against men, she went on to explain. There were many men in her life, including in her family, and she would never dream of telling them what to do.
However, what stays with me is that initial response. At the time, I noted that the questioner had forgotten that, although Le Guin was a feminist, she was also an anarchist.
More recently, however, I find myself remembering Le Guin’s comment as a contrast to the comments on certain modern feminist blogs that seem all too eager to tell male supporters exactly what they must do.
I am not talking, of course, about the common sense changes that a male sympathizer needs to make if their convictions are to be taken seriously. So far as I am concerned, learning how to avoid monopolizing the conversation is not only a sign of feminist sympathies in a man, but a sign of maturity in anyone. It seems only common sense, as well, that having a man as a representative of a feminist group is poor tactics and creates credibility problems.
What I am referring to is the viewpoint that implicitly excludes the idea of male feminism by referring to male supporters as allies. In the circles I am talking about, you can be homosexual, transsexual, or queer and not have your feminist credentials questioned, but only men need to be referred to by a euphemism – a habit that marks them permanently as outsiders.
Allies, this school of thought makes clear, are supposed to be well-disciplined subordinates, accepting instruction in the proper way to be supportive, and never questioning or criticizing feminist perspectives. “You’re not being a good ally when you’re telling members of the oppressed group you’re supposedly allied with how to behave,” Julie Pagano states, but, at the same time, “Being an ally does not shield you from criticism when you make mistakes.” The fear seems to be that allies have no sense of discretion, and, if left unchecked for a moment, every single one of them would burst into an opera of mansplaining and interrupting their betters.
Allies are good for swelling crowd shots, and for giving money, but any sense that they might belong is never considered. As for the idea that they could make any intellectual contribution – that is an absurdity dismissed out of hand.
Whether Le Guin today would reply in the same way to that long-ago question, I have no idea. Nor do I particularly care. What matters to me is that it reminds me that I have had an emotional and ethical stake in feminism since I was fourteen, and that I am long past the need to twist myself into an obedient ally to meet someone else’s standard.
It reminds me, too, that you can’t associate with any activist group without realizing that everyone who supposedly shares your views is not necessarily likable. No doubt the circles I am talking about suppose that their lectures on being an ally will produce better supporters, when their real result is likely to force potential supporters to the conclusion that nothing they do will ever be good enough. But who cares? Feminism has survived eco-feminism, so it can certainly survive the idea that allies can be controlled. Such things simply happen from time to time. Besides, there are still plenty of other feminist individuals and causes I am happy to support.
At any rate, I am not dependent on belonging to a group to make a contribution. As a writer, my most immediate contributions to a feminist future are to be an observer of women in computing, and to do what I can to see that the accomplishments of women get the reporting they deserve. These are tasks that not many people are doing, and ones that I do well, so I am proud to continue doing them.
So call me a partner if you like. Call me a supporter, a sympathizer, or even a fellow-traveler. If your world view allows, call me a male feminist.
But, whatever you do, don’t call me a feminist ally. I’m here for a cause, and that cause is not to obey you.