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Men's Rights and Straw Men

by Jen Burd

September 5, 2013

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Donate I should stay away from Men’s Rights forums. The world is certainly full of well-meaning men looking for an open dialogue on gender politics. But their voices rarely appear in online Men’s Rights forums. A quick glance at the Men’s Rights page on Reddit, which currently boasts over 78,000 subscribers, reveals a smorgasbord obnoxious YouTube videos and commentary on false rape accusations. Commenters visiting from r/feminism sometimes bring up the “straw feminist,” a variation on the straw man fallacy, as a counterpoint. The straw feminist is a castrating shrew who thinks men should all be caged, women are always right, and the quest for equality ends when lifeboats come into play. I should not read the Men’s Rights forums. But I do.

That said, I would never deny that there are some very real issues concerning masculinity as we enter the 21st century, many of which overlap with women’s and LGBT issues. While women struggle for reproductive rights, fathers are often overlooked altogether as relevant members of a family. And masculinity, like femininity, comes along with its own set of harmful stereotypes and asinine rule for acceptable behavior.So why do so many people consider men’s and women’s issues mutually exclusive? Part of the reason that feminism is such a misunderstood movement derives from the reality that feminism isn’t a movement. Feminism is made up of countless subcultures and varying opinions. Loosely, feminists advocate equality of the genders, but equality means endlessly different things to different people.

There are some distinctions that are useful when discussing feminism, or at least when you want to seem well-read while you’re participating in the great American pastime of trolling online discussion forums. In this article, I will barely scratch the surface of complex gender movements, and I will mainly be discussing the American movements with which I am most familiar. Please feel free to add to the list in the comments section.


There is no universally agreed upon beginning to feminism, but scholars generally regard American feminism in terms of “waves.” The first-wave feminists rallied around suffrage and reproductive rights. Well known first-wave feminists include Margaret Fuller, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, and Margaret Sanger. Approaches to feminism varied widely between the Christian feminism of the Women’s Temperance Movement and Emma Goldman’s free love, anarcha-feminism.

As a suffrage movement, early feminism was closely linked to abolitionism and black suffrage. The nineteenth amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was first proposed by California Senator Aaron A. Sargent in 1878. It passed on June 4, 1919. Tennessee became the last state to accept the amendment on August 18, 1920.

First-wave feminists, of course, were not perfect, and some held opinions that seem outright monstrous by today’s standards. Margaret Sanger in particular was an advocate the practice of negative eugenics, which was popular in America before World War II; America was the first country to institute force sterilization. Modern scholars debate whether Sanger was earnest in her support for eugenics or simply using it to promote her reproductive rights and education platform.


The second-wave of feminism, which spans roughly from the early 1960s to the early 1980s, gained widespread attention in United States after the American translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in 1953, and the 1963 publication of Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique. The movement also garnered attention when the FDA approved the oral birth control pill in 1960.

Second-wave feminism was a part of the Civil Rights Movement. Major concerns for second-wave feminists included changing social attitudes toward gender, marital rape and domestic abuse, and integrating women into the white collar work sphere and government positions. The feminist activists of the 1960s and 70s achieved remarkable victories, such as the Women’s Educational Equality Act, Roe v. Wade, and the Equal Pay Act, which hasn’t quite panned out yet.

Unfortunately, not everyone had the luxury of worrying about whether or not society approved of women in the workplace. Poor women have always had to work to make ends meet, and critics considered feminism a movement for white, middle class women only.


The third wave began in the early 90s and, by many accounts, is alive and well in the present. Second-wavers sometimes dismiss this group as a “backlash” movement established by their well-meaning, if misguided, daughters. The Riot Grrl movement of the early 90s played an important role in third-wave feminism, but the third wave was rooted in the activism of black and minority feminists and queer theorists.

Third-wave feminists have sought to address the problem of inclusion in feminist and LGBT circles. Though social attitudes are still an important topic, they reject the second-wave concept of universal womanhood, and are more in line with LGBT and gender advocates than with second-wave feminism.

While inclusion remains a hot topic of debate for third-wave feminists, what some have deemed “post-feminism” is a challenge for the movement. Post-feminism, similar to post-racialism, is the idea that feminists already achieved their goals, and have gone “too-far,” putting boys and men at a disadvantage.

Sex-positive feminism:

Let’s go back to the second wave for a minute. In the mid-70s to 80s, radical feminist groups such as Women Against Violence Against Women and Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media, took up the cause of banning pornography, or certain violent types of pornography. American Poet and activist, Robin Morgan, summed up the anti-pornography feminist position with the statement: “Pornography is the theory, rape is the practice.”

Subsequent studies have found no correlation between pornography consumption and rape statistics. Many feminists such as BDSM lesbians felt alienated by the perceived “Puritan,” patriarchal values of the anti-pornography movement. In her article, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of Sexual Politics,” Gayle Rubin argued that anti-pornography feminists assumed that all women shared a monolithic attitude toward sex, and that the movement shared a common ideology with right wing anti-obscenity crusades. Some women have rejected sex-positive and third wave feminism as an attempt to make feminism sexy, distracting from larger socioeconomic issues.

Black Feminism:

During the first wave of feminism, white activists considered themselves advocates for racial equality as well as equal rights for women, but during the second wave, African American women felt alienated by the feminist movement and by Black Nationalist movements. Feminism focused of white women’s problems, like legalization of abortion, while many black women were still suffering from forced sterilization and abortion programs.

Women also faced extreme sexism in African American organizations. Black women began to form their own organizations, such as the National Black Feminist Organization and theCombahee River Collective. Barbara Smith, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, and Audre Lorde emerged as influential voices in the movement.

The complicated history of the interplay between sexuality and race, particularly with regard to American slavery, provides the basis for Black Feminism. Slave traffickers viewed black women and men as breeding stock. Slaves, especially women, were subject to constant threats of rape and violence. And it didn’t end with the Emancipation Proclamation. These attitudes are still prominently reflected in gendered stereotypes of African Americans. Black men are perceived as violent rapists, women as exotic sex objects.

Pro-feminist men’s liberation:

There have always been men who supported the equal rights movement for women, but we’re not always entirely sure what to call them. While some men think “feminist” suffices, some feminist organizations, such as the National Organization for Women, call male supporters “pro-feminists.”

The men’s liberation movement began in the 1970s as a response to the women’s movement. Pro-feminist men believe that gender discrimination negatively affects both sexes. Some focus on educating men as a preventative measure against rape and domestic abuse, and some focus on empowering men to overcome gendered stereotypes. Still others strive to end performance discrepancies between boys and girl in education.

Men’s Rights activists, conversely, believe that the feminist movement has had a negative impact on men. They argue that feminists only advocate for equality when it is advantageous for them, and not in cases of alimony or military drafts. Legal gender discrimination is a major concern, particularly with regard to child custody, alimony, and rape litigation.

Sure, there are some women out there who want to steal your sperm, falsely accuse you of rape, and eat your testicles for supper. But there are also entire states full of people who think that the truly pious among them will become gods on the planet Kolob. Rule #34 holds true for fringe ideologies as well as it does for porn; there is an article about it somewhere on the internet, no exceptions.

The straw feminist doesn’t just influence men’s attitudes toward feminism. Countless women reject feminism based on the assumption that feminists are only interested in transforming the patriarchy into a matriarchy. The truth is, most feminists do not hate men, and you don’t have to agree with everything Gloria Steinem says to call yourself a feminist. If you believe in gender equality, there is a form of feminism out there for you. And if there isn’t, it might be time to start your own feminism. Just stay away from Reddit.

by Jen Burd

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