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Women's Studies and Men's Studies: Friends or Foes?

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 concentration 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 interesting men's studies scholarship. However, I am of the opinion that it is particularly 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 personal 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 paragraphs 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 understood 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 intellectual 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 progressive, 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 masculinities. 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 discrimination 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 committed 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 standard practice for men's studies scholars to substitute the plural, masculinities, for the 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 diversity 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 studies 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 Studies 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? Simply 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 androcentric 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 men are dramatically more alike than different. While gender differences, particularly 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 discussions 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 historically had a starring role. Thus men's studies renders problematic assumed manifestations 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 institutional and a political ally of women's studies and that it is to women's studies scholars' 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. However, 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-a-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, others 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 millennium. 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 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 patriarchal, but simply because we are charting new territory here and we have few guideposts 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 masculinity 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.


(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 conversations 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 promote 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 political 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 dramatically 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 contextual nature of all of our scholarship. Patriarchal assumptions regarding the universal 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.

(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 unitary selfhood under serious attack as well. The end result of these and other influences 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 anthropological thinking has made for a much more receptive intellectual and cultural climate for entering into thinking about being male.


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.

Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Mark Justad, 3258 McGavock Pike, Nashville, TN 37214 or

Mark J. Justad, Ph.D., has been studying and writing in the area of men's studies for several years. He is an active member of the American Men's Studies Association and has served as both program chair and program coordinator for past AMSA Men's Studies conferences. Justad's areas of scholarly interest include thea/ology, gender theory, and religion and culture. He is currently the associate dean for academic affairs at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his partner, Joanne, and their two sons, Cole and Cade. (
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Publication:The Journal of Men's Studies
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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