Feminism as a Gendered Space — “Gendering Feminism”

Feminism isn’t really a space—but it’s certainly an ideological terrain of sorts.  It’s an identity people “adopt,” a stance people “take,” and insult people “hurl,” a set of theories people “cite,” a part of a movement people “join,” and more.  British suffragist Rebecca West famously stated: “Feminism is the radical notion than women are people.”  Feminism—to me—is the revolutionary idea that gender inequality exists, but that it doesn’t exist of necessity or inevitably.

In my research on men’s participation in marches dedicated to raising awareness about issues of violence against women (here), I came to think of feminism as a gendered space—as gendered ideological terrain.  Men’s adoption or support of “feminist” views or issues often seemed to be implicitly understood as a gender transgression.  This was all the more interesting, because, at the particular events I observed, men were required to transgress other gender boundaries as well—they dressed in drag.

Walk a Mile in Her Shoes®” marches require participants to walk one mile wearing “women’s” shoes—which are almost also understood as high heels.  The event is gender segregated by design: men walk, women watch.  Playing on the adage that to truly understand someone else’s experience requires walking a mile in her/his shoes, this event makes literal that which was perhaps never meant to be taken literally.  The movement-sponsored shoe is a 4-inch, red, patent leather, heel.  Men (not all, but some) at all of the marches I attended referred to these shoes as “stripper heels”).  Some men wear traditional masculine attire aside from the shoes (business suits, sports team uniforms, jeans and shirts, etc.).  But many men take the event as an opportunity to dress in drag.  And when these–primarily heterosexual–men dressed in drag, they often also performed stereotypes of women and gay men that seemed directly opposed to the message organizers sought to send with the event.  Although I did see examples of women (and less often men) uncomfortable with some of the men’s behaviors, the majority of marches and audience members laughed with and at them.

It was interesting to me because—as I came to find—many men saw themselves as doing drag because of the shoes (and sometimes clothes, wigs, fake breasts, and more) they wore, but I also saw them doing drag in another sense.  Participating in a cause labeled “feminist” was—for many—symbolically also understood as a form of drag.  Many men framed their participation as a gender transgression—and often a momentary transgression disconnected from their “regular” lives.  In doing so, I believe they likely missed the opportunity to meaningfully reflect on what the event was actually about.

Michael Kimmel has published a great deal on the history of men’s involvements with and in the feminist movement (see here, here, here, and here).  In fact, there’s historical evidence that men supporting “women’s” issues have been framed as transgression the boundaries of acceptable masculinity.  Men supporting the suffrage movement were referred to as “skirts,” “Aunt Nancy men,” or told that they “should be made to wear a dress.”  These examples illustrate the fact that when we “do” feminism, we’re also doing gender—we’re just doing it poorly.  It’s a powerful illustration of the ways in which contemporary articulations of masculinity are tied to structures of power and inequality such that when individual men actively resist those structures, they’re cast as symbolically outside the bounds of masculinity.

One of the more fundamental dilemmas concerning “gendering feminism” is the fact that support for feminist issues of causes is sometimes contextually understood as a gender transgression regardless of who’s “doing” it.  Women’s participation in feminist agendas or adoption of feminist identities are often socially cast as gender transgressions as well.

Much of my own work has focused on the gendering of men’s participation in feminism.  It can potentially seem like a small issue, but I argue that it’s problematic for at least three reasons.  (1) It confirms our worst fears that men’s participation with feminist politics or agendas is inauthentic in some way.  (2) It resituates gender inequality as “women’s problem,” and in doing so casts women alone in search of solutions.  (3) “Gendering feminism” reproduces understandings of gender differences as natural, and through this, it helps conceal the ways that inequality and ideologies of difference are deeply connected.

I’m not necessarily opposed to “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes®” marches, but I do think that it’s possible to demand more from men’s participation in these events.


Kristen Barber is in the process of researching “Slut Walks” and discussing the cultural dynamics of these events.  It’s some research that I’ll be eagerly anticipating.

4 thoughts on “Feminism as a Gendered Space — “Gendering Feminism”

  1. “Gendering feminism” also excludes the participation of people who don’t identify on the gender binary. “Women’s shoes” are not high heels (“men’s shoes” are not not high heels). The issues you’ve pointed out here are extremely troubling, but not surprising I suppose. Do you think they’re symptoms of the progress women have made in the US in the past 50 years? Growing pains?

    • Hi Kathy, You’re absolutely right. The march is organized a very particular “symbol” of femininity–one toward which not all women identify. I don’t think that this is necessarily indicative of the “progress women have made in the U.S. in the past 50 years.” I think that it’s a great example of how power and inequality are often perpetuated in subtle ways. One of the things I found most interesting about the marches I attended during which men participated in some problematic behavior is that most people (men around them, march organizers, women in the audience) felt that it was funny. The presumption about men’s discomfort with high heels floated around and it was casually equated with what many seemed to frame as men’s “natural” discomfort with equality. Discussions of gender inequality that fail to discuss the intense pleasure that we experience when we “do” gender misses the ways that gender and sexual inequality can often be perpetuated in ways that are ironically experienced as both pleasurable (e.g., having a laugh while walking in “women’s” shoes) and painful (e.g., survivors of sexual assault witnessing, supporting, or benefiting from events like this). It’s a tricky process to talk about.

  2. It’s gotten to the point that I feel safest participating in feminist spaces either online or at general club meetings. I don’t feel that I am wanted in most activist events. Even “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” which is “designed” for people like me (men) feels odd, like at the end of the day all I really am is a sideshow. Like the basic assumption that I can’t really contribute to the movement is still staunchly in place.

    Fine, I wont. That’s OK. I still enjoy the philosophy and I still enjoy a lot of the analytical tools. I can still implement both in effective, useful ways.

    Actual gender activist events though? Despite our best efforts, the experiences I have had tell me that at least in my area, those are still women only.

    • PsyConomics, I think this is actually a misreading of the intention behind this observation. There are lots of ways men can get involved, and “Walk a Mile” marches might even be a good one. Yet, it’s also true that they might promote a lot of bad behavior as putting groups of heterosexual men who may not dress in drag often (or ever) and telling them that this is how to “do” feminism can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Not all men participated in these ways, but the men that didn’t (like women in the audiences who may have disagreed) remained pretty quiet. I’d really encourage you to get involved if it’s something you care about. I’m sure you’d agree that more gender segregation is probably not the answer. Thanks for writing.

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