When we think about feminism amongst the working class, the people we usually think about are women. Feminism, after all, is understood as the struggle for the liberation of women in much the same way that industrial unionism is conceived in terms of the struggle for the liberation of the working class.
All too often, however, the role that working class men might play as feminists is not adequately defined. As Wobbly men, we might hold feminist values, but we may not know what to do with them in concrete terms. This is a frustrating experience for those of us who would like to establish real ties of solidarity to women's struggles, much like the ones we extend to other workers -- even when they are struggling under circumstances very different than our own.
Identifying our role as feminists can be less intuitive than knowing our role as unionists: as unionists, we experience class subjugation directly; but as men, our relationship to the subjugation of women is ambiguous. After all, there always exists the possibility that we are contributing to the problem, somehow, even in spite of ourselves.
Working class men should be reassured that this problem is not insurmountable. There is a necessary role for us within feminism; and what’s more, men have something to offer feminism that even women can’t provide. This is the perspective of someone who directly experiences patriarchy as a man, but who utilizes this awareness as a feminist.
Patriarchy is a big word and complicated affair. However, to afford us a familiar starting point from which to proceed, let us think about patriarchy as being not unlike the kind of hierarchy we know so well at work. At work, there is a boss that tells us what to do, enjoys privileges we don't, and who is free of responsibilities that we bear alone. Patriarchy, in other words, is a form of authority which assigns the role of “boss” to men.
Like bosses in the workplace, when a person occupies a formal position of authority over others, this doesn’t tell us everything about what kind of person they are, or what their first preferences might be. But like bosses who were promoted from the ranks of the working class by their employers, the role that patriarchy assigns to men isn’t something they choose. It is how their responsibilities are dictated by that system. But men don’t even “apply” for the job of patriarch; it is thrust upon them, and they often enjoy its benefits before they know what is going on, by the simple virtue of being “men.” Furthermore, most men don’t have the option to “quit” being men, strictly speaking -- as a manager might quit being a manager once he grasps the moral implications of class struggle.
If we think about men under patriarchy as being like managers who are forever condemned to be bosses until that system is destroyed, then the responsibilities appropriate for feminist men are easier to discern. Namely, it is incumbent upon us to actively resist our assigned role as “boss.” We can’t be neutral on this moving train -- and identifying as “feminist” is only the first step. Active resistance means anticipating what patriarchy is trying to accomplish and directing our actions accordingly -- namely, in solidarity with its intended victims. If patriarchy wants us to actively or passively endorse our boss-like authority or privileges, we need to identify what these are and reject them.
Much of the practical work of feminism for working class men begins at the individual level; it means examining our relationships with women in order to identify the ways in which our behavior might impact them like the behavior of a boss. For example, do we tell them what to do, enjoy privileges they don’t, or escape responsibilities that they bear alone? Once we start asking ourselves these questions in our relationships with women, we create the practical possibilities for modifying our behavior: we can reject the role patriarchy has assigned us as “men,” and create our own as individuals. But this takes quite a bit of work and introspection, as well as a readiness to hear the critical concerns of women as they are addressed to us.
In future installments, this column will address the relationship between feminism and the class struggle for men from a variety of perspectives; underscoring how this can contribute to the work of women feminists, and ultimately inform the feminist and class struggles at large. Specific strategies, including workplace organizing as a feminist activity, will receive special attention.
This initiative wants you to write for it so that the benefit of your direct experiences can be shared with others as they relate to the interwoven struggles of all of us within the working class.