Obama Isn't the First Male Feminist

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Arianne Chernock is Assistant Professor of History at Boston University. Her latest book is "Men and the Making of Modern British Feminism" (Stanford, 2009)

A year ago, Ms. Magazine made the controversial choice to place a newly-elected President Obama on its cover, dress shirt and tie ripped open, with the words "This is what a feminist looks like" emblazoned on his T-shirt.  After an historic election in which Republicans and Democrats alike mobilized feminist politics in unprecedented and often unexpected ways, the Ms. cover, and story that followed, aimed to console those supporters of Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton who had hoped to see an advocate for their concerns in the White House.  One didn't need to be born female, the article suggested, to advance women's interests.  In this day and age, men, too, could lead the charge.

What a clever claim, and one which the Obama administration has used to great effect in its first year of operation.  As Obama has stressed on numerous occasions, what have traditionally been regarded as "women's issues" should be of as much concern to men as to women.  In establishing the White House Council on Women and Girls last March, Obama underscored this sentiment:

[I] want to be clear that issues like equal pay, family leave, child care and others are not just women's issues, they are family issues and economic issues.  Our progress in these areas is an important measure of whether we are truly fulfilling the promise of our democracy for all our people.

Yet the irony of this unfolding feminist conversation is the degree to which it overlooks centuries of coordination between men and women.  We treat Obama's feminist outreach as a novelty – here's a man who seems to genuinely care about women's rights! – when his framing of women's rights as human rights, with direct impact on the family, the economy, and society generally, comes on the heels of hundreds of similar efforts stretching back to the seventeenth century.  As historians in recent years have begun to reveal, feminism has, more often than not, been a story of collaboration between the sexes, and of repeated attempts to promote the notion that "The Woman's Cause is Man's," in the words of the poet Tennyson.  Indeed, a new generation of historians is in the process of rewriting the history of feminism, focusing less on the heroic efforts of pioneering women – a tendency borne of the women's movement of the 1960s and 70s – and more on women in conversation with men.

This emerging historiography makes a convincing case for longstanding male interest in "The Woman Question" and for the early recognition that attention to women's status would have direct repercussions on the larger polity.  In the seventeenth century, learned fathers devoted considerable energy to educating their daughters, acknowledging that such education would enrich their family life.  By the late eighteenth century, it was not uncommon to hear reform-minded men and women on both sides of the Atlantic advocating "the rights of woman" on the grounds that ignoring the plight of females would imperil the progress of their nations.  As the English reformer William Hodgson explained with stirring words, in the "general struggle" for freedom it would be "a scandalous omission to overlook the injuries of the FAIRER PART OF THE CREATION."  Nor were John Stuart Mill and Henry Ward Beecher particularly exceptional in their commitment to helping women secure the right to vote.  The very term "feminism," in fact, was first defined in English by a husband-wife team, Ben and Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, who were searching in the late nineteenth century for a word to capture their joint desire to elevate the position of men and women.

To be sure, collaboration between the sexes was not always easy – men and women alike clashed at times over their goals and strategies – but they did share a fundamental recognition that feminism was an aspiration that transcended women's purview.  It would behoove us, in this particular moment, to remember that lesson.  Wouldn't feminism's future, after all, have a much stronger foundation if built on a long history of cooperation between the sexes rather than on Obama's late-stage arrival in a superman outfit?

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