How not be an ally

He sat down behind me and as the room waited for the talk to begin he spoke loudly to the woman he was accompanying.

The thing is, I’ve been to a few of these things with you now. We’re in a room of what, two, three hundred people? And I’m one of only maybe 10-15 men? It’s preaching to the converted…

I sighed, shifted in my seat, and didn’t bother to disguise my eye-roll – not because I’m confrontational (I’m extremely well-trained in being British and a woman) but because I had my back to him. But I did think, oh god you’re one of them. You want everyone to know how amazing you are because you’re here. Urgh. Then my better self berated me, telling me to give him a chance and actually he had a point – where were all the men?

The speech started and was excellent. Laura Bates is an engaging, knowledgable speaker with all the statistics to support what she’s saying, some provocative imagery to back it up, and a searing line in anecdote to really drive the message home. I recommend you go and listen to her should you get the opportunity. And then she opened the floor up for questions.

Guess who was first?

Yep, Mr-gimme-the-cookies-for-having-a-penis-and-being-here. Completely without irony that he was about to literally speak over a room full of women, he took the mic and asked his question, blah blah blah I’m a hero blah blah blah… How do we get more men to come to talks like this?

Laura didn’t give my unspoken answer, which was a haughty WE don’t, YOU do, but her reply was lost in the haze of my annoyance, so I honestly haven’t got a clue what she said and the questions moved on.

A few minutes later Mr-I-self-identify-as-a-feminist-now-gimme-my-medals asked the room host to have the mic returned to him so he could follow up on someone else’s point. Thankfully she refused, indicating that there were many people with their hands up who had not yet had their chance to speak.

A few minutes after that, he regained the mic. Note: in a room that was over-whelmingly female, one of the only men present had requested the mic for a third time.

Now, this probably isn’t going to be a popular question but… blah blah blah I’m a hero, I’m here, other men are not blah blah aren’t I wonderful blah blah… suicide rates for men… cancers that affect men get less attention… what are women going to do for men to make them more likely to support feminism…?

He fumbled his way through the question and by the time he finished there was discernible muttering and rustling around the room. I had turned to smile widely at this man because I was perversely enjoying the irony of what I was witnessing – it was a laugh or get mad kind of situation. No one heckled. No one shouted SHUT THE FUCK UP even though I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who wanted to. We looked at Laura and waited for her response.

She smiled genially and said, Well, as I said in the presentation… and launched into the same explanation of how men stand to gain from feminism that she had already given. She refrained from shouting, WHAT WERE YOU LISTENING TO FOR THE LAST 45 MINUTES? I’VE ALREADY ANSWERED THIS GO AWAY which is what I was inwardly screaming and is probably why she was on a stage and I never will be.

Shortly afterwards, the man and his companion left the hall, before the question and answer session finished…

If he had stayed I know I wouldn’t have said anything to his face, partly because I hate confrontation (well trained British woman, remember) but also because emotion often over-rides my ability to think and speak clearly in the moment.

But as I always say to my kids – when you start something it’s usually hard, to get better you have to practice, so…

Hey, Mr Ally-Cookie-Monster, I just want to speak with you about a few things you raised today… 

First of all, thanks for coming and I hear your concern about the small number of men here, but what I’ve realised today is that we need these spaces. Why? Well, in a room full of women you still thought it appropriate to ask for the microphone three times, so what are the chances that if more men were here, fewer women would get the chance to speak about their experiences? We also need these spaces in which to feel. We need to be able to sit in silent solidarity as our eyes fill with tears of recognition and empathy at the stories we are hearing. We need to not have to wipe those away because we’ve been taught to value men’s comfort over our feelings. And as the tears spill over and run down our cheeks we need to feel sure that the strangers around us are experiencing the same overwhelming urge to scream. We need to feel safe and heard.

Pointing out how few men are present might fit your self-serving narrative of being the “good guy” as though their absence reflects kindly on your virtue, but that’s just one more example (like we need any more) of how you are centring yourself. Having these conversations with men is important so go, have them – do your work. 

And as for suggesting that women should offer men something in return for their support? That, my friend, is called conditional ally-ship. And you can keep it.

I would like to say more but at this point I think he would have interrupted me a hundred times, and perhaps even walked away.

But if he gave me the chance I’d explain some of the ways how feminism already scratches the backs of men.

I’d explain how women are more likely to gain custody of children because they’re also more likely to have given up work to look after them. I’d explain how that is a knotty issue, difficult to unpick, but that gendered roles of child-rearing and also the gender pay gap, certainly contribute. Close the gender pay gap, redefine who is responsible for raising children, ring fence paternity leave so it is a use it or lose it model, and change attitudes so men are just as able to access flexible working as women, and let’s see where that leaves us with custody arrangements.

I’d explain how the toxic gendered norms that feminism fights against are the same ones responsible for the terrible rates of male suicide. Dismantle the gendered norm that expressing emotion and talking about feelings is feminine and weak, and let’s see how the mental health of our boys and men fairs.

I’d explain how the disproportionate attention that certain cancers – in particular breast cancer – get is also a feminist issue. Why do we feel so motivated to talk about breast cancer but not so driven to talk about prostate cancer? Are we saying something about how important breasts are to our society? Are we saying something else about our attitudes to women and how they need to be protected? These are just thoughts. But they’re thoughts prompted by the words of a woman who has bowel cancer who talks about her cancer as being typified by “shitting blood” – it doesn’t quite have the same appeal, does it? The point is that of course all cancers deserve more of our attention – but perhaps we need to think about why certain cancers dominate the headlines. And we need to wonder whether other cancers might get a fairer share of the attention if we stopped sanctifying the female form.

I’d explain and I’d explain and I’d explain. As long as he was prepared to listen. Which, based on the evidence doesn’t look very likely, does it?

But at least now I’ve practised.

 

Illustration credit @ceclie.dormeau (Instagram)