International Women's Day

To celebrate International Women’s Day alumna and poet Rosie Johnston contemplates how to be a male feminist.

It is the best of times to be female. Women like Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel and Christine Lagarde are in world-scale jobs and Churchill College has Dame Athene Donald as Master. It is the worst of times, when far too many women and girls are still used as slaves, servants and punchbags. Feminism is back by popular demand all over the world and it’s great to see it. I asked my adult son if he’s a feminist. He coughed a bit and said of course he was, yes, but he wouldn’t want to look too extreme.

We need men who are not afraid to be feminists. Activism has always needed helpers on the inside. At the 1972 Conversation in Churchill College to celebrate forty years of women undergraduates in the mixed colleges, I thanked the men who pushed the decision through in the face of a lot of nonsense about how academic standards would tumble and the world would come to an end if the College had female loos. 

Whenever we look at the excellence of female talent being expressed today, we can’t help but wonder what the world has missed and is still missing because of women (the 52% minority) being kept from education and the freedom to use it. All evidence shows that as soon as people are given the chance, they thrive. We all thrive together. So, would you like to be a male feminist? It’s easy, though if you think that people with smaller, softer bodies than yours deserve to be pushed around, you might find it a stretch.

First, have a strong mother. A strong sister too, if you can. It’s not as difficult as it sounds. Most of us females are pretty strong. Second, spend time with women. Leave the macho posturing at the door and enjoy being among them. Offer help if they’re busy and while you’re doing that, listen with a generous heart to their perspective. I bet you’re doing this already, you just wouldn’t want to say so in the bar with your male friends.

Be kind to yourself. It is hard to be a man these days, with all that pressure to be big and tough from the moment you’re born. Redefine manly and ease off.

Read it up, the way you would anything else. If you still believe that women’s brains are full of shoes and men’s are full of sheds, start with Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. Living Dolls by Natasha Walter makes us all think twice about defining women by their looks. 

Fifty Shades of Feminism is a much better read than the sorry Twilight spin-off that provoked it. And read Pride and Prejudice. Until Colin Firth appeared in a wet shirt on television, it was perfectly respectable for men to list it as one of their favourite classic reads. You’ll find — spoiler alert — that it would have been a lot shorter if it were just about marrying money. Austen wants it to be a truth universally acknowledged that their love cannot flourish until Lizzie discovers that Darcy is deeply kind.

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Rosie Johnston (U73) is a writer, journalist and poet based in London. She is Chair of the Churchill College Association and facilitator of the Writing Group