With International Womens’ Day being celebrated across social media, our phones and computer screens are resplendent with pictures of female icons, inspiring messages and news of IWD-themed events. And with it, there come the usual voices from the wings, exemplified by comedian Richard Herring asking on twitter when there will be an International Men’s Day.
These grumpy calls are often met with derision, as if they are actually attacking the idea of female equality, but they actually represent a cry for help, an almost desperate response to a gaping void in men’s lives.
There’s no doubt that women still face financial equality – battles over equal pay and conditions pay continue to be fought, while sexual violence and sexism in the media are ever-present. And that’s just the UK. Globally, the oppression of women in many countries has not changed in centuries and in many cases is getting worse – we all know about Boko Haram. But the idea that global patriarchy only damages women is the great myth of feminism.
From the dawn of humanity ‘men’s work’ has always been the most dirty and dangerous, with the highest rates of death, injury and illness. Male workers are invariably at the sharpest end of costcutting and lax safety standards around the world. During the 34-year construction of the Panama canal, an estimated 28,000 workers lost their lives, many due to malaria. And this is not just a historic phenomenon; almost 1,000 workers were killed in Chinese coal mines in 2014 (and that was one of the safest of recent years), while a similar number have died in Quatar building facilities for the 2022 World Cup. I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of these would have been male deaths.
This is the legacy of a system that has historically used men as the primary providers in the family. It’s a system that gives no choice of options, any more than women are given the option of whether or not to bear children. Men, as a result of their gender, have been locked into a brutal regime of back-breaking and particularly dangerous toil. But it is not just men’s bodies that have been sacrificed in such huge numbers; men’s roles in the industrialised era have subdued the nurturing and compassionate side of their nature, diminishing their ability for self-care, and creating a world of damaged and dysfunctional behaviour.
For the intensity of mens’ torment, you only have to look at the suicide figures – in the uk three times as many men kill themselves as women.
In general, women have a wealth of support systems to call on, both officially and through age-old family and friendship networks, whereas mens’ camaraderie often only extends as far as back-slapping and friendly bravado. The suppression of the nurturing, feminine side in men is perhaps the biggest, unspoken, loss that patriarchy inflicts on us.
Most men only find an outlet for sensitivity through the women in their lives and their male culture gives them no access to this. Men know that their societal role leads them to suffer worse mental and physical health than women. Herring’s envy over IWD – a widespread one, I believe –reflects a male need for the kind of solidarity and self-love that women do so well.
What might a men’s day look like? The most high profile recent mens’ movement, Fathers for Justice (a charity demanding rights of access to children of separated fathers) was, rightly or wrongly, perceived as an outlet for a vindictive kind of male anger. Any celebration of mens’ empowerment needs to acknowledge that anger itself is one of challenges that many men need to overcome.
Such a movement would need to acknowledge, without guilt, the impact that that mens’ dysfunction has had on women and at the same time celebrate the leadership and inventiveness that men bring to the world. These characteristics don’t have to be seen as solely inherently male, just as nurturing and co-operation are not the sole preserve of women. What we need is a new vision of manhood and womanhood that softens these gender constructs.
Men are not the winners in the patriarchal system, and women are not the only ones that need to transcend it. No more talking sides; we have to advance together.