Michael Kaufman Won’t Stop Campaigning for Gender Equality
“Feminism is the greatest gift that men have ever had,” says Toronto-based author Michael Kaufman, quoting a line from his latest book, The Time Has Come: Why Men Must Join the Gender Equality Revolution. “I really believe that.”
For more than three decades, Kaufman has worked to encourage men to get involved in feminist causes. In 1991, he co-founded the White Ribbon Campaign, a movement dedicated to engaging with men and boys to combat the epidemic of violence against women. He’s authored or co-authored nine books. He’s taken his message to dozens of countries and teamed up with groups like Oxfam, Amnesty International, and even the United Nations. His work is thoughtful, insightful, and just as necessary today as it was when his breakthrough article, “The Construction of Masculinity and the Triad of Men’s Violence,” was first published in 1987.
From the casual observer’s point of view, the fight for women’s equality seems to be going well; in many ways, it is. The #MeToo movement has changed the way we discuss sexism and harassment in the workplace. The recent session of the U.S. Congress began with the most female senators and representatives ever elected — and an especially diverse group of women at that. In May of last year, the people of Ireland voted to repeal a constitutional amendment banning abortion, and a month later, Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving was finally lifted. Though none of these examples prove that the world has reached some sort of post-gender period of equality — it most certainly has not — these are all important steps forward for women’s rights.
“We’ve made incredible advances as a society, and those advances have been led by women, pushed by women, against incredible odds,” Kaufman says. “But in spite of real progress, women are still earning significantly less on average than men, and men still control most companies, religions, governments, the list goes on and on.”
Yes, we live in a male-dominated society, but it’s more complicated than that. “If you were to go up to men on the streets of any city in the U.S. and say to men, ‘Excuse me, sir. Tell me about all of your power.’ They’d think you were crazy,” he says.
“Right now in the U.S. there are men with very little social power. Men who are desperately worried about their jobs, their families, their financial futures,” he says. “Men who are feeling that the very ways that they’ve defined manhood are being stripped away, that the things that are core to their identity are now being challenged and written off.”
Feminism, Kaufman believes, can be a powerful force for good for not just women, but men, as well. Many men feel as though society has failed and forgotten them, and might be under the impression that the push for gender equality is just another way to tell them they don’t matter. Kaufman believes that society has failed men and boys in a number of key ways, and he’s probably right.
“From birth we say to boys, ‘You will be strong, powerful, in control. You will never back down. You won’t show too many feelings. You will never be weak. You will show no fear,’” he says. “What that means is that we have these expectations on our boys and men. We humiliate boys who can’t live up to those things. We say to the boy, ‘Big boys don’t cry. Suck it up. Be a man.’ The bottom line is that we set boys and men up for failure.”
Those messages hurt women and men alike.
“When we grow up, we take these messages right into our developing brains,” says Kaufman. “We internalize them, we become gendered. Those values shape a sense of who we are. And those things are getting challenged not just by women and feminism, but by a society that’s increasingly unequal, a society where men are feeling tossed aside.”
The end result of this is an increasingly isolated world where men feel closed off and unable to ask for help when they need it, where they view things like going to the doctor or seeing a therapist as an affront to masculinity itself. Men, in turn, are more likely to commit suicide, end up in prison, or take on unnecessary physical risk just as a way to live up to some definition of what it means to be a man. Given that so many of these attitudes about masculinity are what lead to gender inequalities in the first place, breaking the cycle means allying with the fight for women’s equality. Kaufman has a few simple tips for men interested in getting involved.
“ The key things is to learn to listen,” he says. “If I as a man want to understand the lives of women, want to understand the concerns and barriers that women face, then I have to really listen. That does not mean necessarily agreeing with everything I hear, but it does mean listening thoughtfully with respect.”
Beyond that, he believes it’s important that men learn to use what platforms they have for doing good. “Speak out when you hear sexist jokes or comments. Step in when you see someone acting in an abusive way towards their partner or someone you work with.”
Finally, men should take time to examine their own behavior and make necessary adjustments. Kaufman gives an example of a change for the better: “In my generation, if I couldn’t do something at night because I was looking after my kids, someone would say, ‘Oh, you’re babysitting,’ or, ‘Oh, it’s great how much you help out.’ I’d be pissed off and say, ‘I don’t help out. I don’t babysit. I’m a parent.’ Well, now these days, if you talk to younger fathers, men in their 20s and 30s, and if anyone were to say this stuff to them, they would instantly take offense, and rightly so. We’re seeing a huge shift in men’s sense of their responsibilities as fathers, as partners.”
But to make further advances, he says, “We need paid parental leave to support all parents. And we need couples to work hard to make sure that dads are doing half the care work.
Kaufman’s message is simple and positive. “For the benefit of the women we care about, for our children, and for men ourselves, the time really has come for men to join the gender equality revolution.”
Parker Molloy is a writer whose work — centering on media, culture, and politics — has appeared in outlets such as The New York Times, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and Upworthy. She lives in Chicago, IL, with her wife, dog, cat, and two rabbits.
Photographs by Paola Kudacki