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What can we learn from the lives of male feminists?

In the span of one week at the beginning of February, two of the largest cultural events in the United States featured prominent messages about ending violence against women. The NFL gave away coveted air-time to run this ad from the NO MORE campaign. During the Grammys, President Obama encouraged artists to “take a stand” and activist Brooke Axtell shared her story of domestic violence.

These moments have been hailed for drawing public attention to violence against women, a social problem that has long been marginalized. At the same time, they have been called out for being more flash than substance.

But one aspect of these moments received little attention: they put men front and center in campaigns to end violence against women. After all, it was President Obama, who holds an office never occupied by a woman, and the NFL — arguably the bastion of American manhood — who delivered these messages.

That this barely rates as news today is radical. And at the same time, it is old news. Some men have always identified with anti-violence work. Beginning in the 1970s, some went to work on the front lines at feminist anti-violence agencies, others made a name for themselves speaking about violence, and some marched for policy change. They weren’t celebrities—they were men who shared a belief that violence against women mattered and wanted to work to end it.

The lives of these men who established careers and lives doing anti-violence work matter: fathers, football players, actors, gay, straight, trans, black, latino, white, activists, entrepreneurs, twenty-year-olds, and seventy-year-olds. Not because they tell us about some great and rare men, but for what they can show us about the tensions and possibilities of allies fighting, winning, and falling short in movements which aren’t theirs.

Why do some men from diverse backgrounds and values take actions to end violence against women when most men don’t? How do these differences matter in their work? How do allies navigate being put on a pedestal when men’s privilege is at the core of gender inequality? How do they connect with other men when masculinity itself is risky? What keeps them going in work that can seem hopeless or even harmful? What is at stake for these men, and for the ongoing movement to end violence against women? If major public messages are to have any hope of getting beyond the flash, we need to understand.

Image Credit: “A Women’s Liberation march in Washington, D.C., 1970” by Leffler. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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