Feminist Men: We Need You. But Be Cool.

A starting point for mindful public behavior would be some discussion about the training men get as street canvassers working for progressive organizations.

It’s a whole new day in America as feminists race to contain the damage forthcoming from a new Trump administration. Women in particular face threats to legal abortion, to lesbians’ rights, and to immigrant mothers’ rights—not to mention fresh pushback against the Black Lives Matter movement from newly empowered white nationalists. On both a personal and political level, many of my students and friends are still appalled by the President-elect’s casual endorsement of sexual grabbing, remarks which did not prevent his swift ascendance to power. And so women are mobilizing to construct a very visible platform: a Women’s March on Washington, planned for the day after Inauguration, January 21st. For that event (and other scheduled rallies) to proceed safely, here are a few things male feminists should consider.

We need every male ally to take a stand for women and with women, just as it’s incumbent upon white people to stand up for/defend black lives. However, we can’t afford any random acts of violence at events meant to address women’s safety, and just a few anarchists acting with the white male Left can hijack the outcome of a carefully routed, nonviolent demonstration. We’re already seeing post-election street protests shut down and designated as riots when an excess of testosterone drives the mood, as in Portland recently. Men coming to the Women’s March on Washington, where both security and space to move will be tight beyond imagination, must understand that any aggressive taunting of police or a single smashed window will swiftly shut down the event’s efficacy and moral arc.

As a child peace marching in 1967, I experienced a nonviolent protest turn into a tear gas melee when a tiny minority of activists broke with agreed-upon guidelines and threw bottles at [armed] police. As an adult, I saw women peacefully protesting George W. Bush’s Inauguration end up being put into plastic handcuffs when a group of young men around them decided to tear down security fences and smash bottles. And at the various World Bank protests staged in D.C. over the years, I’ve seen otherwise progressive male students leave our streets littered with garbage (in one case, a provocatively placed bag of manure), which a primarily African-American corps of trash collectors then had to clean up. None of these behaviors should happen in D.C. on January 21. Men can help keep other men in line, particularly in terms of etiquette when bodies are unavoidably packed together in the streets. Many women I know are already hesitant to join a million-person event for fear of being fondled opportunistically in a crowd; for others, collective frustration over being grabbed is a motivator to show up and protest. Close proximity in this instance will require the highest of standards.

A starting point for mindful public behavior would be some discussion about the training men get as street canvassers working for progressive organizations. Not a day in D.C. goes by without my being hailed by well-meaning dudes holding clipboards outside Whole Foods or Starbucks. Greenpeace, Save the Children, HRC, Planned Parenthood all seem to have trained male volunteers the same way, because the public pitch is consistent: a zealous “Can I get a hug?”, “You look like someone I’d get along with!” or “I know we’re meant for each other!” While this probably began as a harmless conversational approach meant to invoke kinship, at this historical moment women are fed up with being handed anything that sounds like a “line,” and it’s an interesting failure of intersectionality that progressive groups don’t take into account women’s daily experience with street harassment. It would be great to have men’s help as we organize getting women to Washington, housing them in reliable spaces, and making them feel safe in streets that will be lined with smug Inauguration celebrants. Some terrific guys from Florida have already volunteered to construct a human buffer zone between women marchers and the (likely) presence of pro-Trump counter-demonstrators. It’s just a raw moment for assumed intimacy, even from fundraisers for causes we all believe in.

Women and men are hitting the streets with much spirit in common. But we need to feel we can trust one another in packed crowds at this raw moment for physical intimacy between strangers, even as we unite and march for the same causes. In the weeks to come, ongoing dialogue around best practices for feminist brotherhood sure wouldn’t hurt.