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Let’s hear it for the man who sticks up for women’s rights

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Alison Clarke
WVoN co-editor

A while ago, a men’s rights activist posted the following comment on WVoN:

“Let’s be honest here …. A woman wants a real man. Women of the world, I ask you this, how many times have you felt attraction towards a man who was a feminist?”

The answer, sadly, is not very often, but only because there are so few men who not only talk the talk, but who also walk the walk.

There are a few exceptions, and one of them could be Mikael Gustafsson.

He has just taken over from Eva-Britt Svensson as the new chair of the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee in the European Parliament.

But why, you might ask, is a man chairing the women’s rights committee?

Acknowledging that this could be “a bit of an issue” for some people, he says: “For me, it’s not a big deal because I’m a feminist.”

Okay, maybe I’m a cynic but I’ve heard this before – so many men on the left make the claim but so few deliver the goods – that I can feel my heart sinking.

But then I start listening to him and begin to wonder if he could be for real.

“I look around the world and I see a power structure where women cannot lead the life they want. I want to help change that,” he says.

“It would be really strange if, as a man, I say that is not my problem. If as a man I say – yes, I understand that women are discriminated against but I am going to stand on the sidelines.

“I’ve been fighting for gender equality for my whole political career so for me the important thing is to have a person who’s a feminist to take the committee’s work forward.”

Following a decade of activism as a local councillor in Sweden, Gustafsson was voted in to the European Parliament following the 2009 elections as a member of the Swedish Left party.

The party has a long tradition of gender equality and  – UK Labour party please take note – has a constitution dating back to 1990 that requires all party boards to be 50 per cent women.

So Gustafsson has an impressive pedigree.

He also has a wife and two children. I have obviously no idea whether she would endorse his claims to feminism, but the fact that he and his wife split their parental leave so that he could also “stay home with our kids” is pretty telling.

He then makes an interesting observation – an observation that usually only a feminist would make – about gender stereotyping.

“I was the only man in the maternity group”, he explains. “A little boy started to hit my daughter. His mother intervened, saying: ‘No, no, you’re not allowed to hit a girl’. And I asked myself – really? He’s not allowed to hit girls? Surely he’s not allowed to hit anyone.

“And I just thought, you know, this is such typical gender stereotyping and it has such negative effects. We carry it around our whole lives and most of the time, we don’t even know we’re doing it. And it limits us all.

“I know I do it too, as I have been influenced all my life to ‘be a boy’ – to take control, to speak louder than girls – so I have to try to resist it as much as I can.”

This is the turning point in our conversation. Much as I had warmed to Gustafsson from the outset because it was obvious that he ‘got’ feminism intellectually and was passionate about it, I now realised that he also ‘got’ it on a personal level.

Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the areas of work that he wants the committee to consider over the next few years is gender stereotyping.

“This is not something that you can legislate for as it’s so deeply entrenched within all our cultures, but I hope to discuss it within the committee to decide what work we can do,” he says.

He also wants the committee to continue tackling men’s violence against women, discrimination against women in the employment market – such as the gender pay gap – and the gender perspective on climate issues.

But, as he hasn’t discussed these things yet with the members, he can’t be sure what work they’ll agree on for the long term.

And that’s something else that strikes me about Gustafsson. He seems genuinely modest and not at all the sort of person who would decide anything unilaterally.

But there’s still one question that’s bugging me: if he’s that modest, how come he put himself forward as chair of the committee?

“Oh, I didn’t put myself forward,” he says immediately. “I didn’t go up and ask to be chair. No, no, I didn’t think I should be chair but I was the choice of the left group in the parliament and so they nominated me.”

As no one else stood for the post, he got the job.

And although we can criticise him for not encouraging a woman to put herself forward, I think we should applaud him.

I don’t know how the women’s committee is viewed in the parliament but I’m willing to bet that it comes in for a lot of stick.

So not only is he standing up for equality, he’s also challenging the gender stereotype that only women should chair the women’s committee.

A real man? There’s no doubt in my mind.

  1. vicki wharton says:

    I would hope it will show other men that gender discrimination is as much a man’s issue as it is a women’s, after all, they are 50% of the problem. And possibly he might be listened to as another man where a women would be dismissed. Who but only knows but I would be willing to give him a shot, after all, something needs to move us forward.

  2. Another self-proclaimed faux feminist. Our standards are so lax, but then, that’s because we are women.

    Would we have a white woman chairing the Black rights committee? Acceptance of a white candidate scoring the job in a Black community’s restoration? (No, the people of Africville Nova Scotia restoration rebelled and we would not question their stance one iota.)

    Why do women hand it over?

    This man, NO MAN, can ever be a feminist anymore than a white person can be Black. No man should be chairing or heading a women’s rights initiative. For shame.

    • I think it’s great that this guy is standing up for women’s rights. Otherwise, what are we saying? That men can’t do anything high profile in terms of feminism?

    • I don’t think that’s a good comparison, ‘feminist’ isn’t something one is born after all. I’d like to see how this man gets on, he does sound like he knows what’s what. It does feminism no good to reject the few who want to ‘convert’ simply because they happen to not be women. I mean, I wouldn’t advocate handing the movement over to them or anything but there has to be a place for them, surely?

      • Surely. Just not the head of women’s rights orgs. Thanks. By the way, the white woman was booted out by the Black community, who do have the support of the left to stand against appropriation. Unlike women.

        • I can see what you’re saying, I honestly don’t know what I think about this.

          On the one hand, it’s divisive to insist men *can’t* do something when a lot of feminists have fought so long to prove that women *can* – seems to hand the haters easy fodder, y’know? Plus it doesn’t seem like a step forward to perpetuate division.

          On the other hand, yeah it’s a bit odd/uncomfortable/frustrating that there were no women proposed for this or that, once again, a man is seen as doing something better than a woman.

          On the other other hand (yes I have three hands here, I borrowed one for this comment), maybe this individual is the best individual for the job and it’s irrelevant what gender presentation or performance the individual has and we’re wasting valuable thought space even worrying about it. Like I said, I really don’t know what I think about it. I don’t know if it can be compared to the side-lining of Black women and their particular concerns, which seems a more serious issue; or, am I failing to appreciate that it is just as serious? Hmm.

          • I guess it comes down to how you view feminism and how you want to go about things. If it’s a struggle between opressors and opressed, then for sure having a man is strange. But if you consider it a problem for both genders (or all rather), then I think it is less so.

  3. Surely, if we assume that feminism is about equal opportunity, saying women have the same rights as men is equal to saying men have the same rights as women. Or should there be a separate organisation, Men’s rights and gender equality committee, working for the diminishing of men’s rights, led by a man?
    Saying there can’t be a man leading it, to me means that we don’t trust men or that it’s none of their buisness. But then I’d also like to think that we’ve come far enough that having a man leading it shows maturity and not that its just a for show committee.
    I would also like to think that having a man lead it will make other men think that maybe gender equality isn’t such a threat.
    But I may be naive.

    • I’m slightly curious as to why you reckon a men’s rights organisation that would *diminish* men’s rights, straight after you mention equality – do you think that’s what women’s rights groups do?

      Your thoughts there, I think I have shared all of them. It seems a complicated thing, and it also seems a shame that it is so complicated.

      • This was meant to be a response to riv’s first comment.
        but yes, if you look at privilegies as a zero sum game, then increasing women’s rights will diminish men’s rights. So with that perspective I think men’s rights should diminish.
        In this case though, I was merely using it as a way to ask if a man can lead anything. There are of course men’s groups trying to change the male role, but i think that on a EU level there only needs to be one. For gender equality.

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