by John Brougher
(CNN) — Feminism’s gotten a bad rap lately. For many, even just the word itself conjures up images of radical ideology.
Pop music star Taylor Swift and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, to cite two famous examples, asserted that they’re pro-equality, but won’t identify as feminists.
Explaining her position in February of this year, Mayer noted that she didn’t have the “militant drive” or “chip on her shoulder” that comes with feminism.
I’m not particularly militant, nor do I have a chip on my shoulder (I hope), but I get my share of weird reactions nonetheless. See, not only am I feminist, I’m a male feminist. People aren’t always sure what to do with that.
“You’re a man. Isn’t that a contradiction?”
“Wait, are men allowed to be feminists?”
“Are you even a man at all?”
As far as I know, men are absolutely allowed to be feminists. And when I declare that I’m a feminist, I should explain what that word means to me.
My feminism is a simple belief in equality. I’m a feminist because I believe that men and women are and should be equal, but we’re not treated equally right now.
We see it in a distorted conception of female beauty, we see it in dehumanizing portrayals of women in film and on television, and we see it when the response to rape all too often isn’t support, but consists of loud cries of “she was asking for it!” and “her skirt was really short!”
The basic sexism undergirding our world is so pervasive that I (and others) have grown up with it and see it at every stage of our lives.
From the much-discussed pay gap to constant street harassment to denying of basic rights to women and girls, we see it everywhere.
I’ll never forget the meeting I was in a few years ago because the visitors to our office never made eye contact with my female manager.
I’ll wager that they thought, perhaps unconsciously, that because I was a man, I was the boss. As an incredibly junior staffer, that was a wildly inaccurate assumption.
Some counter that men and women used to be unequal, but we’re passed that.
A few even foolishly assert that this increasing focus on equalizing the playing field has spelled the “end of men.”
And there’s no doubt that we’ve made progress: in area after area, in country after country, we can point to some concrete signs that with advocacy and hard work, we’re slowly getting closer to gender equality.
But for many women, this progress doesn’t mean that sexism’s gone, it just means that it’s different.
As E.J. Graff, writing for “The American Prospect,” describes, for a lot of folks, sexism isn’t a “deadly cancer [anymore]; rather, it’s a steady low-grade fever that wears you down by degrees.”
It’s the hostile work environment that makes you feel unwelcome, it’s the strange sports metaphors that don’t resonate with everyone equally, it’s the deferral to men as “authoritative” while women must still walk the line to avoid both being viewed as “passive” while not crossing over into “bossy” territory.
And even though sexism doesn’t always cry out at the shrill pitch it once did, even though attacks on women can be increasingly subtle, men still have a crucial role to play.
Not only do we help create the inequality, gender norms, and messages that hurt and objectify women, but critically, we suffer from its barbs as well.
In a world that blames victims of rape, not rapists, our societies fundamentally don’t value the humanity of half of us.
In a world that pays women far less than men for the same work (or denies women the opportunity to work at all), we ignore the possible contributions of countless leaders and entrepreneurs.
Hell, in a world that valorizes men who sleep around while shaming and seeking to control female sexual power, relationships of all kinds are stunted by false, inhuman understandings of who and what men and women are.
Sexism doesn’t just hurt women, it breaks our very humanity.
And ultimately, that’s why I’m a feminist. Because women deserve to be treated as equal human beings, and it hurts every single one of us when that’s not the case.
And until we get a more equal world, I’ll claim that title of “feminist” proudly and shout it from the rooftops.
I’ll try not to get a chip on my shoulder, though.
Editor’s note: Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time. Each month, we meet two women at the top of their field, exploring their careers, lives and ideas. John Brougher is the founder of MaleFeminists.com and the VP of marketing and nonprofit community at NGP VAN, a technology company. Follow him on Twitter.