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Where the Men Are
At St. John's College, Host to Historic Conference

Where the Men Are:
Historic Feminist Conference Convenes In Minnesota

By Shira Tarrant

What does the feminist movement need from men?

That was the question posed at the outset of the first National Conference for Campus Based Men’s Gender Equality and Anti-Violence Groups, convened on the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN., last weekend.

St. John's UniversityThis was no drum-beating, fire-in-the-belly, touchy-feely gathering in the woods; it was serious business. Can men really work toward a feminist agenda?

Longtime activist-scholars Michael Kimmel, Michael Kaufman, Harry Brod and Gar Kellom think so. They organized the event, which brought together more than 200 men—and women—from 40 college campuses. Among the participants were representatives from 24 community groups, including Men Can Stop Rape, V-Men and White Ribbon.

Gender justice filmmakers Byron Hurt (Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes) and Nancy Schwartzman (Where Is Your Line?) were on hand to screen videos about pop culture, sexuality, masculinity and assault. Speakers emphasized accountability, authenticity and continued hard work, and no one could ignore the heat generated by unresolved issues of race, class, gender and sexuality. The second plenary session was interrupted by angry shouts from the floor by men tired of carrying collective guilt for other men’s violence. Several attendees conceded that the movement has yet to figure out constructive ways of grappling with men’s power and their fears in order to work effectively in partnership with women.  

The fact this conference happened in the first place, and with such a robust response, is a sign of a sea change in feminist politics. “There’s a new generation of men coming to the issues,” said one of the old-timers among male feminist allies, Rob Okun, editor of Voice Male magazine.

Among the younger men were Patrick Schroeder and Luke Hendrickson, both college sophomores. The management and mathematics majors are just beginning to understand issues of masculinity and gender politics. They’re now realizing they must consider their own responsibilities as bystanders when faced with male violence, asking “What would I do?” Plus, the pair explained, learning about sexual consent helps them read women better. At the conference they learned that “hooking up” sexually without a “no” from a woman is not the same as hearing that woman say “yes.” Before the conference, said Schroeder and Hendrickson, this nuance of sexual consent hadn’t crossed their minds.

Joseph Lawless came to the event to learn how to expand the work fellow male students are doing at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s already involved with the sexual-assault prevention group 1 in 4, but wants to engage more college men in the effort, especially those in fraternities.

Another activist at the conference, Jimmie Briggs—founder and executive director of Man Up-- is helping lead a global campaign to engage young leaders in ending violence against women, using music, sports and technology. The project will formally launch at the World Cup 2010 in South Africa, and Briggs used the conference to learn more about the foundations of feminist campaigns.

With “men’s rights” groups launching attacks against feminist progress and rates of violence against women remaining outrageously high and massively underreported, the gender justice movement needs strength in numbers. Schroeder and Hendrickson want to help recruit. “If you think feminism is bullshit, go check it out for yourself and then talk to me,” is one of the lines they plan to use. “Be open-minded enough to hear it and man enough to get involved. Just try it. What do you have to lose?”

SHIRA TARRANT is an assistant professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at California State University, Long Beach, and author of several books, including Men and Feminism (Seal Press, 2009).