How Can Men Be Feminists?

Ann Newmarch, Women hold up half the sky 1978 and We must risk unlearning 1975. Installation view, Unfinished Business: Perspectives on art and feminism, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art 2017. Photograph: Andrew Curtis

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Key Idea

How can men be feminists, and support feminism? This is a complicated question because for each different type of feminism, there is different ‘correct’ answer. So, the answer will differ depending on the particular feminism practiced by the person to whom the question is being addressed.

  • Essentialist Feminists believe that there are innate, essential differences between men and women from birth, and that therefore men can never be feminists. This position also negatively impacts trans people, as their gender statuses are taken to be ‘less valid’ than those born female.[1]
  • Separatist Feminists believe that feminism is for women only, and it is impossible for men to positively contribute to feminism because even well intentioned men cannot avoid enacting the dynamics of patriarchy, and therefore cannot be feminists.[2]
  • Liberal Feminists practice a more open feminism. It sees a place for men as equals, who can operate as allies to women, and are mindful not to favour men over women based on reasons of gender discrimination.

Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” – bell hooks

The above quote defines feminism as having a set of essential goals, as American author and social activist bell hooks understands them. Significantly, there is no mention of any gender.[3]  This opens up possibilities for both benefits and responsibilities of such work to achieve these goals as being shared by female, male and non-binary individuals equally across society. According to this model men, indeed anyone, can be a feminist.

Can men make feminist art? Here are three key perspectives on the definition of feminist art that each suggest different answers to this question.

  • Feminist art must be made by women. Art made by others cannot be considered feminist. This is an essentialist view and primarily associated with earlier generations of feminists.
  • Feminist art must be made with feminist intentions. That is, to create an artwork that makes a point for feminism.
  • There are no feminist artworks only feminist readings of artworks. This position states that the work of feminist understanding happens entirely in the mind of the viewer, regardless of the gender of the artist or their intentions.

In an art context, being a male feminist might translate as helping and supporting female, trans, genderqueer, non-gender binary or other non-male identifying individuals to realise artworks for which they need assistance, support or participation. Or it might entail working to ensure representation of artists of all gender identifications in the programming of gallery, performance and festival programs.

Historical Touchpoints

Victor Burgin, Office at night (detail) 1986. Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal

Mike Kelley, More love hours than can ever be repaid and The wages of sin 1987. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


  • If you made a drawing to show one way that men and boys can be feminists, or help feminism as a cause, what would that drawing be of?
  • List three examples each of times when you have seen men from your life behaving in ways that, firstly, you think support feminism, and secondly, do not support feminism. These might relate to sharing work equally with women, giving opportunities to women, reversing gender ‘roles’ or interacting with women in respectful ways. Are most of the men you know feminists, or not? Share experiences.
  • This information demonstrates the range of equally valid, yet contrasting, opinions around whether men can be feminists or not. What do you think? Have a round table discussion with your peers where each person begins by briefly stating their own opinion – be prepared to (respectfully) disagree!


[1] ‘Essentialism’, Geek Feminism Wiki.

[2] Hoagland, Sarah Lucia. 1989. Lesbian Ethics: Toward New Value. Palo Alto, California: Institute of Lesbian Studies.

[3] bell hooks doesn’t capitalise the pseudonym that she writes under. This is an effort to place emphasis on what she writes and her ideas, rather than her name and identity.

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