Ben Weinberg first learned about feminism in high school, and he wasn’t impressed. To him, the average “feminist” equated with a raging, braless bitch with an inferiority complex and a pixie-cut. But once he arrived at college at Drake University, he found himself sitting in the back of a women’s and gender studies class. By the end of the semester, he opened up to the idea of fighting for equality and breaking gender norms—and he decided to take ownership of the F word.
“[Beforehand], there were a couple passionate women I was friends with, who somewhat deterred me from identifying as a feminist because their views seemed stigmatizing,” Weinberg said. “They said things like, ‘You wouldn’t understand, because you’re a man.’ It seemed like it was a female movement, for females only, so I didn’t really deal with it much.”
Ben’s previous outlook wasn’t—and isn’t—uncommon. And that’s thanks to the most obvious depictions of feminism in history and pop culture: women burning bras, aggressively rallying for the right to choose, for equal pay. Through it all, men’s voices have seemed drowned out. But today, that’s changing.
Starting with Emma Watson’s HeForShe campaign, a movement that aims to engage men as agents of change in order to achieve gender equality. In the fall, she gave a 13-minute speech before the United Nations, noting that, errantly, “fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating,” and advocating for the breakdown of the harmful gender-oriented stereotypes that have caused this. “It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum, instead of two sets of opposing ideals,” she said. “If we stop defining each other by what we are not, and start defining ourselves by who we are, we can all be freer, and this is what HeForShe is about.” So far, 224,696 men have joined the movement.
Though male feminists are on the up track, there is still a lot of work to be done. Only about one-fifth of Americans Identify as feminists, and only 16 percent of these people are men, according to a 2013 YouGov poll Though numerous men do support equality, as well as other feminist issues, they shy away from adopting the actual label.
Peter Johnson, film studies student at the University of Iowa, understands this hesitation to boast the feminist label. Though he believes in gender equality, he feels that some feminist tactics have gone about achieving advancement in equality in the wrong ways, specifically at the expense of younger men.
“It’s hard to identify as a feminist, because, to be blunt, feminism conjures up images of extremists,” Johnson said. “It seems to have a very negative connotation. I believe in the goal of classical feminism, and I think that goal is achieved when women reach the same level of economic and social opportunity of men—but not at the expense of men.”
Jennifer Perrine, who’s been a professor of women’s and gender studies for nine years, doesn’t buy that feminism is negatively affecting young men, or any other group for that matter. She’s a proponent of “plural feminisms,” a combination of theories and practices that seek to prevent sexism, against both men and women. “Feminism can help young men just as much as it can benefit women: It expands our society’s capacity to shape different kinds of masculinities,” Perrine says. “In a feminist world, men aren’t forced into limited roles of the macho guy. They can be who they want to be, not who society dictates they should be.”
Perrine believes that educating people of all genders about what feminism really is the first step in diminishing the stigma around feminism. It’s exactly what worked for Ben Weinberg.
“It changed my perspective to realize that it’s not about putting men down to the level of women,” Weinberg said. “It’s about putting women up to [equality with men], and about uplifting every one. We should be passionate about the same issues.”