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Women’s Studies and Men’s Studies:

Friends or Foes?
MARK J. JUSTAD
Vanderbilt University Divinity School
Nashville, Tennessee

The article identifies some major issues at play in the conver-


sation between women’s and men’s studies scholars and
activists. This is done from a profeminist perspective, laying
out potential points of convergence and conflict between the
two areas of scholarship. The article also renews the argument
for the place of the critical study of men and masculinities in
the movement toward gender equality on a broad scale. The
article reflects a call for a critical yet complimentary relation-
ship between men’s and women’s studies scholars and
activists.

Key Words: men’s studies, women’s studies, social location,


hegemonic masculinity

First, let me share a couple of confessions. One, I am unabashedly profeminist in


my approach to men’s studies, or what is often referred to as the critical study of
men and masculinities. I take this to mean simply that, as Sharon Welch (1999)
writes, I am committed to the “movement for the full humanity of women.” This
position, to my way of thinking, implies neither an uncritical nor an anti-male
embracing of feminism and feminist theories. Raising the profeminist flag does,
however, indicate that my scholarship is committed to moving dominant gender
assumptions and politics somehow, and somewhere, beyond patriarchy.
Second, I am soundly convinced that the journey (political, philosophical,
thea/ological) beyond patriarchy requires that significant time be given over to the
critical study of men, masculinity, and masculinities. This area of academic concen-
tration is, in one sense, equally available to persons of any and all genders. And, in
fact, recent publications show us that both women and men can produce strong and

Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Mark Justad, 3258 McGavock Pike, Nashville,
TN 37214 or mark.j.justad@vanderbilt.edu.

The Journal of Men’s Studies, Vol. 8, No. 3, Spring 2000, pp. 401-406.
© 2000 by the Men’s Studies Press, LLC. All rights reserved.

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MARK J. JUSTAD

interesting men’s studies scholarship. However, I am of the opinion that it is particu-


larly necessary, and indeed potentially liberatory on a number of levels, for men to
self-consciously incorporate their experience qua men into this area of critical
inquiry. Men, I want to argue, have a strategic advantage in seeking to understand
the slippery logic of what R. W. Connell (1995) calls hegemonic masculinity as it is
played out in their experiences and expectations of being boys and men. I hasten to
add that this confessional stance implies neither an assumption of a monolithic male
experience (which ignores the varieties of social location and the vagaries of per-
sonal experience) nor a blanket claim regarding the presence of male privilege in the
lives of all men. Now, let me turn to the topic at hand.
My own particular reading of the relationship between women’s studies and
men’s studies is somewhat conflicted. On one hand, and as suggested by the para-
graphs above, I am convinced that men’s studies necessarily involves a feminist-
inspired “turn” to the critical study of men and masculinity which seemingly
assumes a harmonious relationship to women’s studies. Here men’s studies is under-
stood simply as a playing out of the now-obvious insight that men are, like women,
“gendered,” and that patriarchy has advantaged men (as a class of people) over
women. Further, men’s studies scholarship explores the complex processes of both
being and becoming gendered male (men, masculine, manly) not simply out of intel-
lectual curiosity, but with the recognition that received ways of being and behaving
as men are either oppressive, inadequate, or both. In characterizing men’s studies
this way I am not just speaking of the profeminist men’s studies wing of things.
Indeed, as Michael Messner (1997) argues, seemingly all “men in movements”
engaged with rethinking masculinity are, in one way or another, in conversation with
feminism and arguments for gender equality.1 This way of considering men’s studies
suggests that it could be characterized as a kind of sibling ally of women’s studies in
both the recovery of gendered specificity and the movement toward more democratic
relations between women and men.2
On the other hand, there remain good reasons for women’s studies scholars and
activists (and those who support them and their work) to be wary of something
called “men’s” studies. First, the legacy of androcentrism in the active and often
mean-spirited exclusion of women from the halls of the academy make it difficult to
believe that scholarship once again focusing on men might be considered progres-
sive, yet alone pro gender equality. It does seem reasonable to question to what
extent Elizabeth Minnich’s (1990) notion of the androcentric distortion “the problem
of Man” still limits and shapes men’s studies discussions of manhood and masculini-
ties. Is it, in fact, in the best interests of women’s studies and the broader movement
for the full humanity of women to engage in substantial dialogue with men’s studies
at this point in time? Or is this request analogous to asking persons of color in the
present day United States to accept the notion that with regard to issues of discrimi-
nation and equal participation things are as good as they are going to get? Has, in
fact, the politics of gender in the academy really come that far, baby?
Somewhat ironically, the political suspicion of men’s studies by those commit-
ted to the movement for the full humanity of women is further exacerbated by the
seemingly progressive use of the term “masculinities.” It has become almost stan-
dard practice for men’s studies scholars to substitute the plural, masculinities, for the

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term masculinity as part of a well-intentioned and necessary attempt to be more


aware of diversity among men. But as Harry Brod (1994) describes so well, one
result of pluralization is that men’s studies then becomes less about men, more about
the important challenges of diversity, and effectively less invested in countering
hegemonic forms of masculinity. Men’s studies, of course, must press issues related
to social location, i.e., race, class, etc., but it must do so while maintaining its focus
on the oppressive and limiting forms of capital “M” masculinity (being “real” men,
following what William Pollack (1999) aptly calls the “Boy Code”). The suspicion
of this ostensibly progressive rhetorical move, I’m afraid, is that focusing on diver-
sity among men too easily allows men’s studies scholars to believe that masculinity
is somehow less than the sum of its parts and therefore not really all that bad.
Shifting to a more institutional perspective, there is another reason why
women’s studies might collectively feel less than generous toward men’s studies,
why women’s studies departments and scholars might not be too keen about setting
up a men’s studies section within their department. This is the potential for what
might be called the problem of academic marginalization or erasure. Women’s stud-
ies scholars and departments have, of course, had to work diligently for an official
place at academic and institutional tables. And now, it might be said, just when
women’s studies is becoming accepted, men want a place within the department. The
feared outcome, of course, is that once it is recognized that men are gendered too,
they (the guys) will (again) become the focus of attention. This fear is increased in
the face of the relatively brief period of time in which women’s ways of knowing,
being, and doing have been considered worthy of academic concentration.
I assume that all of the above suspicions of men’s studies on the part of
women’s studies are, to a certain extent, valid. However, the preceding paragraphs
also, either directly or indirectly, support three assumptions regarding men’s studies
which have long shaped my interest in the critical study of men and masculinity. I
submit that each of these assumptions suggests that men’s studies can be a vital, in
fact, necessary, conversation partner for women’s studies. And each assumption, in
its own way, reminds us that pure scholarship is not to be found and that the pursuit
of such a thing—long a mistaken luxury of the academy—can prevent us from doing
anything at all.
The first of the three assumptions is that the conversation between women’s stud-
ies and men’s studies grows out of an inevitable reality within gender politics and
studies that scholars, both women and men, must face. What do I mean by this? Sim-
ply that one of the cultural-philosophical-linguistic “facts” regarding gender in the
West is that to speak of one gender is to speak of both genders. To speak of women
requires that one speak of men—even if done so by invoking a negative silence
regarding men by focusing on women’s experience. Sadly, of course, the juxtaposition
of the genders in the West has largely been articulated via hierarchical and androcen-
tric terms and conditions. Nonetheless, even within a gender hierarchy which suggests
that men are universal and women are gendered, or within an invidious monism in
which women are inferior males, the female “other” is implied in the definition of the
male norm. Men, you can’t live with ’em, you can’t live without ’em.
The inevitability of the conversations(s) between women’s studies and men’s
studies is further underscored by the often ignored phenomenon that women and

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men are dramatically more alike than different. While gender differences, particu-
larly biological ones, continue to hold our collective interest (and I see no necessary
problem with this), the fact of our sameness remains an odd “unsaid” in our discus-
sions of gender.3 And the fact that women and men share abilities, concerns, and
interests filters into our women’s studies and men’s studies scholarship and makes
the conversation between the two areas a logical and inevitable occurrence.
The second assumption that I hold regarding men’s studies is that it has the
potential ability for making men’s lives a part of the academic conversation in ways
previously avoided or excluded. Men’s studies draws the particularity of men’s
experience qua men into the arena in which men-as-universal-human (Man) has his-
torically had a starring role. Thus men’s studies renders problematic assumed mani-
festations of androcentrism in the academy by its very existence as a critical form of
inquiry. That is, men’s studies builds upon women’s studies’ success in drawing
female and feminist forms of knowledge into the academy by insisting that men’s
ways of knowing and doing are also ensconced in the particularities of being and
becoming gendered.4 This, of course, suggests that men’s studies is both an institu-
tional and a political ally of women’s studies and that it is to women’s studies schol-
ars’ advantage to view it as such.
My third assumption regarding men’s studies is simply that it is a good thing for
boys and men. Men’s studies can, I believe, play an important role in helping to
identify and move beyond the limiting and destructive expectations of hegemonic
forms of masculinity as they shape our individual life chances and choices. This is
something which women’s studies scholars and activists should celebrate. Why?
Because largely missing from the drive toward gender equality have been significant
efforts to articulate constructive models of male identity that are anchored outside of
our inherited understandings of masculinity. While the effort to liberate “from” has
been emphasized (what boys and men shouldn’t be and do), discussion of liberation
“to” has been harder to find. This is understandable given the history of patriarchy
and the energy of the women’s movement and feminism, generally speaking. How-
ever, it is now in the best interest of women and men, girls and boys, to include in
the discussion of gender the ways in which we can now expect boys and men to
think and behave as boys and men. Doing this can both help open up boys and men
to fuller lives and simultaneously promote more democratic relationships between
women and men.
My discussion has largely been about men’s studies and how women’s studies
scholars and activists might best understand it. I suppose it would be fair to say that I
have written a kind of apologia for men’s studies vis-à-vis women’s studies. It
occurs to me that some readers will consider this tactic unnecessary at this point in
time. First, some who are sympathetic to my arguments will be aware that others
have written much more elegantly and exhaustively on this same topic. Second, oth-
ers will find in my writing a kind of blind allegiance to feminism, which reflects
either an anti-male bias or a simplistic reading of feminism. I believe, however, that
the defining and contextualizing of men’s studies in relationship to the movement for
the full humanity of women continues to be necessary as we begin the new millen-
nium. Why? Simply because it has been the impetus of the women’s movement and
feminist theorists which have largely given rise to the men’s studies attempts to

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move beyond traditional forms of male socialization.5 Men’s studies should retain a
sense of what Catherine Keller (1986) calls a “compensatory gynocentricity” so that
our scholarship can, if at all possible, avoid the lessons of patriarchal history. This is
not because women are inherently superior, or because men are inherently patriar-
chal, but simply because we are charting new territory here and we have few guide-
posts on which to rely. Men’s studies is a relatively young area of scholarship and
must continue to seek out the voices marginalized by traditional forms of masculin-
ity in doing its own work. And because the voices of feminist resistance have been a
primary voice in this category, and if we want to seek out the full humanity of men,
men’s studies must continue to hold itself accountable to the feminist movement for
the full humanity of women.

NOTES

1. This does not mean, of course, that all groups of men engaged with rethinking
masculinity are, in fact, profeminist in orientation. Rather, what Messner seems to be
suggesting, and I agree with, is that at least on a rhetorical level, the current conver-
sations about masculinity (this is specifically speaking to the U.S.) occur within an
assumed social context in which equality between women and men is either assumed
or affirmed. This does not mean that the Promise Keepers, for example, exist to pro-
mote equality between women and men. However, even the Promise Keepers take
significant pains to let the public know that they, in their own opinion, are not anti-
women or sexist.
2. I assume that women’s studies can be characterized as committed to the polit-
ical and personal goals of the advancement toward the full humanity of women. I
realize, of course, that not all women’s studies scholars and/or departments would
agree on much of anything—including how to define feminism or what it means to
be a woman. I am, however, willing to go out on a limb and suggest that the goal of
equality between women and men remains a consistent and rather uncontroversial
marker of women’s studies scholars and departments.
3. Fausto-Sterling’s (1985) discussion of the overlapping bell curves makes the
point that the intra-gender differences in behaviors and characteristics are dramati-
cally more significant than inter-gender differences in the same areas. Women and
men are perhaps “opposite” when assuming heterosexual reproduction. We are not,
however, “opposite” in much of anything else. The notion of “opposite” genders
takes on an even less salient tone when the topic of transgendered individuals and
experiences arises.
4. I am not making the claim that humans are simply and finally limited by their
gender identity. Nor do I wish to argue for any necessary epistemological superiority
for women’s experience. Rather, men’s studies helps to draw the whole of men’s
lives into academic conversations and thus helps to remind us of the limited and con-
textual nature of all of our scholarship. Patriarchal assumptions regarding the univer-
sal aspects of (some) men’s experiences have, in part, remained in place because of
the ability to shield men’s lives from being considered gendered in the same way as
women’s. Men’s studies stands as a corrective to this blindness in insisting that men
attempt to speak and write qua men.

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5. The women’s movement and feminism are, of course, not the only cultural
and intellectual precursors to men’s studies scholarship. The rise of social sciences
in this century, primarily psychology and sociology, have led to increased scrutiny of
the influence of cultural influences on gender and individual identity. And trends
within western philosophical discourse have brought the notion of a given and uni-
tary selfhood under serious attack as well. The end result of these and other influ-
ences has been to shift Western notions of selfhood to include for most of us some
sense that we, as individuals, are socially constructed beings. This shift in anthropo-
logical thinking has made for a much more receptive intellectual and cultural climate
for entering into thinking about being male.

REFERENCES

Brod, H., & Kaufman, M. (Eds.). (1994). Theorizing masculinities. Thousand Oaks,
CA: Sage.
Connell, R. W. (1995). Masculinities. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Fausto-Sterling, A. (1985). Myths of gender: Biological theories about women and
men. New York: Basic Books.
Keller, C. (1987). From a broken web: Separation, sexism, and self. Boston: Beacon
Press.
Messner, M. (1997). Politics of masculinities: Men in movements. Thousand Oaks,
CA: Sage.
Minnich, E. K. (1990). Transforming knowledge. Philadelphia: Temple University
Press.
Pollack, W. S. (1999). Real boys: Rescuing our sons from the myths of boyhood.
New York: Henry Holt & Company.
Welch, S. D. (1999). Sweet dreams in America: Making ethics and spirituality work.
New York: Routledge.

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