Can a Male Feminist Lead?
Clash of the Models
Interview with NOMAS Boston by Kathy Ferguson
Organizing Men to Stop Men’s Violence Against Women: A Possible Five-Step Plan*

Clash of the Models

I am a professor of psychology and a member of the National Organization for Men Against Sexism- Boston chapter ( Our chapter bases its membership on the following values: profeminism, racial justice, lesbian gay bisexual transgender equality, and the enhancement of men's lives. We are an activist and social organization whose goal is to ally and support the work of other like-minded organizations and to provide a space in which people who wish to subscribe to these tenets can be safe and form meaningful relationships.

Recently, I attended a meeting organized by the Men's Initiative for Jane Doe ( The meeting brought together a unique group of people who were interested in discussing how to engage men in work intended to stop violence against women. In the very last session of the day, we were discussing models for doing this kind of work, and in particular, the wonderful community work that has been done by the Men's Resource Center for Change ( The facilitator of the group asked me how NOMAS-Boston might differ from this model.

I proceeded to explain the advantage and disadvantage of having a group that was committed and active in the four tenets we subscribe to. One advantage I emphasized is that it provides a space for many people who would otherwise not have a community. It provides a place in which men and other genders who wish to push themselves to grow in these areas can find camaraderie and a community. In a sense, it has provided an opportunity for people who have often felt disconnected from others to join together and ally to assist other marginalized groups. I also expressed that our dedication to attempting to realize all of these principles and the ways in which we might undertake to do so might not be the best for all people.

Before I could fully explain the disadvantages of this approach, audience members began to provide commentary and launch into the clash of the models. In other words, arguing about what model is best to engage men. One woman expressed concern that in the traditional Latino community she worked in, we would not likely have much success. She expressed that men in her community would not attend our events due to our adherence to our tenets (particularly around gay and trans issues). Another woman warned the group of the potential re-creation of a white privileged movement which would alienate people of color.

Both of these concerns are very legitimate. Every approach is likely to be useful in some ways and not in others. When I was explaining NOMAS and our goals and basic approach, it could have been heard as "we are not interested in working with people who are not like us" rather than what was intended to be conveyed (discussed below).

Also, white people have dominated progressive social movements in the past and the concern that this could happen again is very understandable and should be addressed. However, I was actually suggesting something that is very compatible with that concern and in my opinion one way to avoid that potential outcome.

These two criticisms launched at NOMAS addressed two important issues when thinking about engaging men (1) How much of our 'true selves' do we promote when seeking out and working with diverse communities and (2) How might the methods we use to engage men be mere reflections of ourselves and not likely be ones that will reach diverse groups. NOMAS Boston for example, while diverse in age and gender expression and identity is not racially diverse and events are attended by primarily white-identified folks. Certainly we want to be able to reach out to many communities and not replicate white middle class privilege in our efforts to engage men, but are there any strengths in these past efforts that seem to primarily attract white-identified people?

While the concerns from audience members were very relevant, they also need clarification. First, they both implied that there are not men of color who identify with NOMAS tenets, this is of course not true. Second, they implied that there must be A model for engaging men that looks to the diverse needs of the communities we hope to reach and matches their perceived needs assuming that methods used by white, middle-class men, would not/could not be useful in this progressive men's movement.

I have been guilty of this "model fighting" as well. In fact recently, I debated back and forth with another NOMAS member about whether we should post an advertisement for an event on our list-serve that was not explicitly profeminist (but was clearly dedicated to some of our tenets). Like my colleagues that provided criticism of NOMAS, I have also provided politically charged and logical arguments that are model bound and move us nowhere.

I don't think we need A model. We certainly don't need to keep arguing about models if it is just keeping us stuck and not motivating us towards our goals of ending violence against women, femininity, and ending violence in all forms. Healthy debate is wonderful, but I think we can spend more time debating and demonstrating our "intellectual prowess" than actually working towards justice (and by we, I mean all of us).

We do need more diverse leadership. We do need to challenge white privilege. But do we need one model that requires all men to engage men in one particular way?

What we need is a coalition of men and all genders to join together with a common set of goals of ending violence against women and femininity in all its forms. We need men who can act as role models such as the men that work for the Mentors in Violence Prevention (, people that can do outreach to diverse communities and work with men regardless of where they are developmentally such as the Men's Resource Center Western Massachusetts (, religious and spiritual leaders who can influence their congregations, and we also need ideological and politically-driven ally activists who proudly wear our identities on our sleeves.

We have finally come to realize that the men we hope to impact with our message are diverse and have diverse needs. Why can't we do the same with the men who want to be agents of change? We are diverse people who have diverse strengths and abilities. What we need to do is spend less time arguing about which model is "right" and more time appreciating and supporting the many strengths that we can all bring, bring these diverse people together (much like what MIJD is now already doing) with a diverse leadership, create a shared mission and use a multi-modal approach to first engage men and then expose them to our rich coalition working together to end violence and improve all of our lives.

Organizing Men to Stop Men’s Violence Against Women: A Possible Five-Step Plan*

Consciousness-Raising: Organize an event – get names and contact information of the men who attend by passing around a sign-up sheet. Note: this event doesn’t have to be specifically aimed at men. For example, many men respond well to a survivor speaker like Katie Koestner ( or others.

Initial Action: Ask those men to do a specific task. Many men say they haven’t spoken against violence against women because they feel like they haven’t been asked, and they’re not sure what to do or what is their place. Men tend to like feeling useful and liked to be asked for help, but it’s easier if that help is specific. Instead of “Please join our movement,” try “Please sign this Men’s Pledge that we’ll publish in the local newspaper” (see the Men’s Resource Center in Amherst, MA for good examples – ( Or ask them publicly sign the White Ribbon Campaign ( Ask them hang up flyers from Men Can Stop Rape’s Men of Strength Campaign ( Where appropriate, ask them to participate in Take Back the Night marches (any Internet search will give examples – some marches are women-only and that should be respected). Where appropriate, ask them to participate in community service or fundraising events (walk-a-thons) for a local domestic violence program and/or rape crisis center. Or cooking food, etc. for such an event. Ask them to wear a button or putting a bumper sticker on their car (example at in events for Sexual Assault Awareness Month (April) and/or Domestic Violence Awareness Month (October)

Internalization: After the initial action, ask the men who agree to the specific task to commit to a longer training on issues of violence prevention. Many men won’t, but some will. The training can be an ongoing advocate’s training, a class for credit or simply several group meetings (ask for a specific time commitment). A good model for such a class is on the Family Violence Prevention Fund’s website –

Integration: After the training, identify one or a few potential leaders in that group. Make a relationship with them – mentor them. Invite them to conferences where they can meet other leaders in the movement and network with them. Encourage them to not only take leadership publicly, but be accountable privately to their own sexism – warn them that in this movement, they may very well be challenged on their sexism and it will help if they are not defensive. Urge them to be accountable to the women in this movement who have done this work longer than they have. Have them sign up for the Men Against Violence Yahoo Group – and select “menagainstviolence.” Have them form or join a group such as the National Organization for Men Against Sexism, Boston chapter.

Leadership: Encourage those men (or that man) to organize an event! and then the cycle will hopefully continue. This cycle can take place over a semester if you’re in a college, over a year, or whatever works best. A good organizer’s manual is available at the White Ribbon Campaign website – again, If they like, they can form a group such as a chapter of the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (, or a Men of Strength (MOST) group (

* With thanks to Bailey Jackson and Rita Hardiman’s model of social identity development. Of course, all men are different, so this may not work for some groups of men. If you try this cycle and it doesn’t work, please let me know – if you find that other techniques work better, or more ideas for #2, please let me know that, too. Ben Atherton-Zeman,, 978-263-3254. Good luck! J

Ben Atherton-Zeman is a spokesperson for the National Organization for Men Against Sexism. He is the author of a one-man educational comedy, “Voices of Men,” which educates campuses and communities about men’s violence against women through humor and celebrity male voice impressions.

Source: By Ben Atherton-Zeman, NOMAS Co-Chair,

Can a Male Feminist Lead?

The intention of this piece was three-fold. First, it was to emphasize that our work as feminist/pro-feminist men is a part of our daily lives in addition to our political/activist-oriented work. Second, it was written to emphasize that our personal work is a work in progress, not ever a completed task. Last, it was written to emphasize the importance of being vulnerable and honest with yourself and with others as you continue to develop as a person and as a feminist.

Approximately three years ago, I began working on the Women’s Studies (WS) committee at a small college in the Boston area. The WS committee is responsible for various tasks, including overseeing the courses in the minor (at the moment there is no major in WS), advising students, planning WS educational and activist-oriented events, and advocating for students regarding issues pertaining to women.

Not surprisingly, the bulk of the members of this committee are women. Most of them are faculty members in various departments including biology, fine arts, nursing, English, and sociology/criminal justice. There are also student members who are almost exclusively women. In the past three years, there have been three full-time members who have been men and one male student for a brief time. While there have been men and women members, leadership positions have been filled by women.

As a member of this committee and as a participant in several campus activities, I have been very active and outspoken about my concerns about various areas of college life. Recently, I was invited by one of the deans to be on a task force made up of various people on campus to examine issues of safety across the campus. At first I assumed that they wanted me to represent Women’s studies, but through some discussions we all decided that another member of the WS committee would act as the official committee representative on this task force. However, it was understood by the WS committee that I would be one of two people that also represented WS concerns.

Recently, I was invited by one of the deans to be on a task force made up of various people on campus to examine issues of safety across the campus.

Being placed in this position brought about some anxiety for me.

Being placed in this position brought about some anxiety for me. The question of how to take on a position of leadership and continue to develop a feminist identity brings up some difficult contradictions and past experiences. I wondered how does a male feminist act in a way that is assertive and in accordance with his own needs without reasserting typical patriarchal behaviors? In other words, how do we make sense of being in a leadership role without participating in the dominating and dismissive qualities often associated with men who are ‘in-charge’? Can a male feminist lead?

I took my role on the task force very seriously, attending all of the weekly meetings. I researched what other colleges are doing (and not doing) in response to sexual violence. Progress on the task force had been slow and difficult, but we drafted and submitted proposals for policy changes to the administration. Some changes are already being implemented and we are hopeful that the rest will be implemented soon. The whole process has been overwhelming, but I survived. It often felt like an exercise in frustration, disempowerment, and alienation, quite the opposite of how I feel when working with the WS committee.

Throughout the semester, I have also been updating the WS committee on the work of the task force and concerns that I have had. In these meetings, I have often been very pessimistic and presented myself in an overwhelmed fashion. Looking back, I feel that this daunting task of being on the task force contributed to my presenting information in a deterministic/fatalistic way. I often reported information as if further intervention would not change things for the better. WS members certainly had the opportunity to ask questions or request that I (or my colleague) do certain things differently, but my presentation may have set a context for people to censor input. Why would they get involved when the tone of my message was seemingly so negative?

For example, one member requested that we collect data on students’ concerns about these safety issues. In fact, the WS committee had previously developed a survey that particular committee members wanted to utilize. But rather than genuinely pursue the idea, I argued that the survey was irrelevant by citing numerous examples from the past to prove my point. Looking back, I feel that my tactics in this matter were too heavy handed and inappropriate. As someone concerned about the voices of others, especially those of women in the WS committee, I realized later that I may not really be hearing and representing others’ needs well. Granted, I technically wasn’t the WS committee representative on the task force, but I wasn’t pro-actively trying to understand and voice what the WS committee members needed. I wasn’t acting in a way that is in accordance with the kind of feminist man I want to be. Why did this happen? Did the other WS committee members perceive it this way?

It wasn’t until I started writing this piece
that I even realized that I may have been
alienating my allies....

It wasn’t until I started writing this piece that I even realized that I may have been alienating my allies in the WS committee. I do believe I had been a strong advocate for women’s issues and certainly was extremely assertive on the task force. However, the process made me feel overwhelmed, negative, confused, and even appalled at times. I should have asked for support. I did chat with one of my colleagues about the task force, but more often the chats focused on my frustration, rather than how ineffectual, alienated or dehumanized I felt. Because I didn’t reach out for emotional support from my colleagues, I ultimately stayed feeling that way.

Some of this experience for me seems to be about how men often don’t want to ask for help. Men suffer in silence because we think that we should be able to handle any hurdle that comes our way. This ‘tough guise’ (to borrow Jackson Katz’s term) contributes to all kinds of health related problems, both physical and psychological. Let’s keep the concept of ‘asking for help’ as a type of vulnerability, often more associated with women, in the back of our minds for the moment.

Admitting that I need help sometimes does feel like I have failed in some way. Perhaps I felt like less of a feminist because I wasn’t meeting some expectations I had of myself. And the irony is that this pressure does NOT come from the group of women in WS who I work with, but rather it comes from me. I put the pressure on myself to be able to do something, to change something, and when I am unable to meet the expectation in a way that is satisfactory, my identity as a feminist man suffers. But that isn’t the primary reason for my feelings of discomfort.

I felt like less of a feminist because I wasn’t meeting some expectations I had of myself.

For me, the core concern is the fear of what will happen if I ask for help and it isn’t given. So the reason for not asking for help isn’t so much feeling vulnerable but being concerned about how others will react to my vulnerability. Being vulnerable in this way can be particularly difficult for men because others often don’t know how to respond to it. In this sense, a man is actively and purposefully choosing to behave in a way that is more associated with behaviors expected from women. I have had numerous instances in my own life where I have been mocked, humiliated, and denigrated for taking such a risk. Such experiences make it difficult for me to take such a risk. I did not imagine that the WS committee would humiliate me in some way had I asked for help (since my past experiences have been very positive with this group), but because at a deep level I am very aware of how often the culture responds negatively to this kind of behavior from men I may not take this risk as often as I could.

Some feminist men struggle with a conscious desire to challenge patriarchy in the culture and in their own lives, and may also be concerned that when they incorporate more feminine qualities in their lives that they may relive some of the shame and humiliation they have suffered in a world that is misogynistic towards both women and the qualities associated with them. I know several feminist men who have taken these kinds of risks and have been denigrated, or perhaps at a lighter level ‘teased’ by their partners and friends. So not only does the culture at large reject you, but at times, it can feel like your allies are rejecting you.

Returning to my task force experience, I think that this fear kept me from asking for emotional help and ultimately contributed to an atmosphere where I could not be the person I truly want to be. I don’t think that people on the WS committee are furious with me and ready to kick me off, at least I hope not, but I do think that I could have been a better representative and advocate.

So perhaps this piece seems to argue that a feminist man can’t do well in a leadership position (or at least this one isn’t doing so well). But that is not my conclusion. Being a feminist man does not mean I need to be perfect. But it does mean that I need to continue to be aware of the process of challenging myself and to hold myself responsible for my interactions with others. Perhaps that is the element of leadership that becomes the most important.

All of us must examine the conditions that keep us distanced from one another.

It also means that if feminist men are going to be able to continually develop and challenge patriarchy within ourselves and within the culture that we will need our men and women feminist allies to be open to challenging their own discomfort with men being ‘feminine’. We must work together on this in order for it to improve. By including women here, it is not an attempt to blame women for patriarchy or to put the burden of responsibility of men’s emotional needs on women. Men must take responsibility for their dominant role in maintaining this unjust system and recognize how women have historically been viewed as being responsible for caretaking men. However, women must also examine their own internalized misogyny which can become apparent when men attempt to be more ‘feminine’. All of us must examine the conditions that keep us distanced from one another. I feel very fortunate to have wonderful men and women allies in my personal life, on the WS committee and through NOMAS that are committed to this goal.

As you are reading this piece, I have already begun discussing my concerns about my perceived lack of pro-active inclusive behavior with the WS committee (I have spoken with two members already) and plan to officially discuss it at our WS meeting in January. The work continues. I would love to hear how other feminist men have struggled with this issue. Please feel free to write to me at the address below.

Interview with NOMAS Boston by Kathy Ferguson

Coffee shops are great for listening in on other people’s conversations. In case you weren’t at the Central Square Toscanini’s on a particular Monday night in December, I’ll let you listen in here on the conversation I had with five men about their feminism. Interesting idea, right? A lot of women don’t call themselves feminists for fear of being seen as “whiny” or “too serious.” Here are men coming out of the closet as feminists, right in the open on Mass. Ave.

These particular profeminists are the members of the Boston chapter of the National Organization for Men Against Sexism. (Profeminist is the preferred term for male feminists with due sensitivity to the danger of men taking over feminism and its language for themselves.) NOMAS has been around since the early 1970s as a network of activist men and women who believe that masculinity would benefit from losing its sexist and hyper-macho sides. I talked with Matt, Robbie, Kevin, Ben and Jack to learn why they got involved with NOMAS.

Matt is a link between NOMAS and the Unitarian Universalist young adult community; he works with UU men against domestic violence. After the traditionally masculine response of U.S. culture to 9/11, he identified profeminism as a great way to work against the “culture of revenge or whatever else you see in those shitty movies.”

Robbie does LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender) advocacy work. Though Robbie is a gender queer trans guy and doesn't identify strongly as male, Robbie came to realize that based on physicality people saw a white, probably straight, possibly gay, man. NOMAS allows Robbie to bond with men who don’t have a narrow expectation of what masculinity should look like.

Robbie sees feminism as a powerful tool that opened up the range of socially acceptable gender roles for women that can now help broaden the acceptable identities and behaviors for all genders.

Kevin is getting his doctorate in counseling psychology and is focusing on understanding racism in white men. He stumbled across NOMAS in his search for an anti-racist group that was anti-homophobic. He saw that NOMAS was also feminist and thought, “Feminism is a good thing…”

Ben has worked in rape crisis centers and domestic violence programs for fifteen years. He became profeminist because "violence against women is a men's issue, since men commit most violence against women." He never felt like a guy who fit the definition of masculinity, though he wisely points out that even "super jocks" feel pressure, questioned if they do anything 'out of the ordinary.'

Jack is an associate professor of feminist studies. When he was young, like many men he felt outside of things but didn’t know exactly why. His women’s studies classes in college made him feel energized, and looking back he attributes that energy to his identification with women. He empathized with women’s marginalization because of his “own personal feelings of marginalization for not conforming to dominant views on masculinity – in other words, by others’ standards, for acting like a ‘woman.’”

Their entry points differ, but they all found feminism. This is because – as NOMAS’s goals of “profeminism, gay-affirmation, anti-racism and enhancing men’s lives” state – all forms of oppression are linked. For example, Kevin points out that disdain for gay men is disdain for their perceived femininity; thus homophobia and sexism are related. And Matt points out that the feminist struggle is not about just one issue; it’s about a whole culture. The constraints of masculinity affect who gets what jobs, what emotions are “okay” for someone to express, the way our government interacts with the world; it all traces back to the revered goal of being a certain type of man. NOMAS-Boston supports many different struggles; you may have spotted them at the Vagina Fair, the first same-sex marriage ceremony in Cambridge, or the Selma March (a Roxbury to Boston Common route commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic 1965 march).

Beyond being a group of activists, NOMAS-Boston is a place to find connection and support. You don’t easily meet a profeminist every time you walk down the street; an intentional community is needed. The group is a therapeutic space where people can bond about not wanting to be (or be with) “typical,” oppressive men. It’s also a total party. The most striking thing for me is what good energy these men have together. It was so fun to talk with them; they are so comfortable around each other and clearly have a great time. Sure, they have serious discussions, but they are also just another group of pals when they need to simply relax and talk.

NOMAS-Boston currently has about 80 people on their public list and 15 active members. This is a good size for a local chapter, and of course they always welcome more members. I wonder what you, the reader, think about the idea of joining this group. For example, if you are a man, you may feel attacked by the idea of NOMAS; you may not think – or want to think – you have privilege to examine. Male privilege may not be something you sought out, but by living in society you have it. The current members agree that it is often difficult at first to want to do the work to be a profeminist.

Kevin admits he originally didn’t think he benefited from male privilege because he is gay-identified and “lived in the periphery of masculinity.”

Before joining NOMAS he understood his white privilege, and through group discussion and support he came to understand his male privilege too.

The prospect of truly recognizing and rejecting your privileges may sound intimidating, but what’s great is that NOMAS members have all been through it, and are excellent guides. And more than guides, they are companions, as they emphasize that every member has something to teach the group as well as something to gain from it. As Ben puts it, they are about “connecting and confronting at the same time – with more connecting.”

Okay potential NOMAS members, are you still stuck on the “sorry, it’s not my issue” tip? Let me put it another way. You may have bought this edition of Whats Up Magazine to support the street vendor selling it. You didn’t have to support that vendor, but you want to, because it feels good and helps equalize the world. Supporting women feels good by the same token, and when women’s perspectives and ways of being are equally valued, men won’t feel the same pressures and burdens their currently constrictive gender places on them (such as feeling like you have to prove you’re “tough” all the time, be it on the football field or at work). Feminism promotes equality and opens up more ways of being for all of us; now doesn’t that sound like a good time?

Damn. I spent one hour with these five men and here I am doing an unsolicited membership pitch. Being in their presence was so uplifting and inspiring that now I want a world full of NOMAS addicts. I think that says it all.

--Kathy Ferguson encourages you to check out for more information.

©2010, NOMAS - Boston

Pro-Feminist Ally Organizations

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Jack Kahn is currently co-chair (internal relations) of the Boston chapter of the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS). He has published articles and presented numerous workshops on topics of diversity and is currently doing research exploring the identity formation of men that embrace feminism. or E-Mail.

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