This is the tenth in a series of posts in which I answer uncomfortable questions posed by nervous lefty readers. You can learn more about the series, read the other questions, and ask your own here.

Should men call themselves ‘feminists’? Or ‘pro-feminists’ or something else?

Fun question. Let’s start by saying that this is an issue on which feminists disagree — one of the many, many questions to which there’s no single feminist answer.

Which is, I guess, probably why you’re asking. So let’s jump in.

Huh. This is tougher than I was expecting. I’ve been writing and deleting ledes for a few minutes here, going back and forth between variations on “I used to fall squarely in the ‘pro-feminist’ camp, but…” and “I’m pretty much in the ‘pro-feminist camp, except…” Neither framing felt right, though, and I think I just figured out why:

I don’t think there are all that many occasions in which it’s all that necessary for men to call themselves feminist or pro-feminist.

Here’s what I’m getting at. If you’re a guy, and you’re (pro-)feminist, folks should be able to figure that out. If they’re curious, they can ask. What’s the need for a declaration?

Often it’s a way of establishing your credentials, frequently in a discussion with a feminist woman. You’re being slammed for saying or doing something a feminist took as obnoxious. You’re trying to criticize a feminist position while making it clear you’re not an enemy. You’re arguing that someone’s seeing sexism where it doesn’t exist. You’re getting piled on, or worried that you will be. So you say it:

“Look. I’m a feminist.”

And that’s not cool.

For one thing, it’s not going to work. If someone thinks you’re an anti-feminist, or being anti-feminist, saying you’re a feminist won’t change their mind. And it’s not likely to get you any slack, either — if anything, it’ll probably have the opposite effect. Because whether you intend it or not, there’s a good chance “I’m a feminist” is going to be heard as “I understand feminism better than you,” which, realistically, you probably don’t.

Because even if we say men can be feminists, we also have to say that feminism isn’t just theory. It’s something that grows out of lived experience. And a man’s (particularly a cis man’s) lived experience of sexism isn’t going to be the same as a woman’s. For starters, a woman’s lived experience of sexism is going to include a long history of men assuring her that they understand things better than she does, which … whoops, you just did.

I won’t go so far as to say that pulling the “I’m a feminist” card is an anti-feminist act, but yeah, it kind of sort of almost is.

So in that context, the answer to “Should men call themselves feminists?” is easy: No. Because it will end badly for them. But what about other contexts?

I suspect that there was probably a moment in one of my early conversations with my kids about politics that one of them asked me whether I was a feminist, and I’m sure that if that happened I said that I was. I’m pretty sure that as a guy I’ve been in conversations with other guys in which it was assumed that I was anti-feminist, and that I’ve corrected them by saying I was one myself.

So yeah, in those kinds of situations I think it’s fine. Knock yourself out. But honestly those kinds of situations just don’t come up very often.

As always, though, I’m interested in what other folks think. And if there are other contexts I’m not thinking of that anyone would like me to weigh in on, just let me know.