Since I write regularly about everything from sex trafficking to maternal mortality, I’m periodically asked: What’s a man doing worrying about “women’s issues”? Sometimes this is said in a welcoming way with delight and a hug, while at other times there’s a sense that I’m trying to sneak into a sorority. So let’s think about that question: What role should men play in any women’s rights movement?
My take is that if these broad issues of justice and human rights become reduced to a “women’s movement,” then the fight will be lost. One reason gender equity issues haven’t gained traction historically is that they’ve been marginalized as “women’s issues.” Well, the Holocaust wasn’t a “Jewish issue,” and civil rights weren’t a “black issue.” By the same token, equality of all kinds should be an issue that matters to all of us.
Gay rights gained immeasurably when straights, as well as gays, spoke up for an end to gay-bashing. And frankly, I notice that when I, as a man, write about mass rape on the N.Y. Times op-ed page, suddenly it’s legitimized as a more serious issue, even though women have been writing about the issue for years. So at a pragmatic level, it seems to me that male-female coalitions will achieve more for women than sisterhood alone. That’s one reason why my wife and I wrote Half the Sky, our new book about women’s rights around the world, as a joint effort.
It’s also noteworthy that many women have never been fans of women’s rights, and that any movement needs all the allies it can get. In the 19th century women’s suffrage movement, there were some very wealthy women philanthropists – but they refused to support women’s suffrage. Instead, they gave their money to all-male schools and colleges. It was in fact men who provided they key early funding in the drive to get women the vote.
There’s another, related point. Because men undeniably engage in some pretty barbarous behavior to women around the world, there’s a tendency to conclude in a very facile, glib way: Men are the problem! Period. In fact, our research for Half the Sky underscores that it is far more complex than that.
Brothel owners and sex-traffickers, for example, are typically women. And it’s not just that they are fronts working for men – I’ve interviewed traffickers in Cambodia, India and elsewhere, and they kidnap girls and lock them up and prostitute them of their own initiative. Likewise, female genital cutting is practiced by mothers on their daughters; men in the family are rarely consulted. In India, the mortality rate for girls aged 1 to 5 is 50 percent higher than for boys that age. One of the main reasons is that mothers are twice as likely to take their sons to be vaccinated as their daughters.
Most surprising, in countries like Congo and Liberia, women are involved stunningly often in gang-rapes. For example, women soldiers may go find a girl to bring back to a military camp to be raped. Or they may hold a woman down as she is raped. This seems to be because raping women is a way that these militias bond and build trust, and that’s as true of female troops as of males.
In short, the problem is typically one of a patriarchal, oppressive culture, but women can absorb and transmit patriarchal and oppressive values as much as men. The best remedy is education, which can chip away at these kinds of attitudes. So I’m not suggesting a name change from The Women's Conference to "The California Men’s and Women’s Conference.” But I do think it’s important, for the sake of actually achieving change, to have men involved in any social movement on behalf of women.
Nicholas D. Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times since 2001, is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who writes op-ed columns that appear twice a week. Mr. Kristof will be speaking at The Women's Conference on October 27th.