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Pretorius, Engela (2018) – Men’s Role in the Quest for Gender Justice – A Historical Overview of Antifeminism and Profeminism


Gender is central to social life. Yet, throughout human history, the social order has been characterised by gender inequality. The first active steps towards creating an equitable society can be traced to around 1792 when Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A vindication of the rights of women” was published. An integral part of her advocacy for all human rights was her rejection of slavery and she often drew an analogy between the positions of women and those of slaves. From the outset, endeavours at achieving gender justice were either supported or loathed by men. In the mid 20th century, the responses to the effects of feminism and those of women’s struggles for equality culminated in a so-called “men’s movement”. A distinction is generally drawn between two types of men’s movement that lie at the opposite extremes of a continuum, namely, at the one end, conservative or anti-feminist (the men’s rights movement) and, at the other, liberal/progressive or profeminist (the new men’s movement).

Men’s rights groups reject women’s liberation, claiming that women cover up the reality that men are most oppressed and that they (women) actually possess the power. South African examples of anti-feminist movements include Promise Keepers South Africa and the Mighty Men Conference Movement.

Women, in their turn, either welcomed men’s involvement or regarded it with suspicion. Even if, during the 1960s, the women’s movement welcomed male activists, some feminists were sceptical of this development and, by the mid 1970s, radical feminism surfaced. It largely rejected men’s support of the women’s movement, its premise being that all men benefited from gender oppression.

During the 1990s, discontent among feminists became apparent. Criticism against what was regarded as hegemonic feminism was expressed by women of colour. These women rejected the idea of a universal sisterhood. Although black women in South Africa had actively participated in the liberation struggle since the 1950s, a distinctly feminist consciousness was totally lacking. The first steps towards establishing organisations geared exclusively towards women’s liberation only followed late in the 1980s. African feminists, because they are not only concerned about women’s issues but about social issues, generally accept men as allies.

While several justifications for engaging with men have been advanced, some concern has however been raised as regards the involvement of men or the so-called “men-streaming” approach advocated by international organisations. Several provisos have consequently been advanced in this regard, the most fundamental of these being that such inclusion/involvement should be seen to advance the overarching feminist aim of gender equality.

The male activists in Britain and America who supported women’s suffrage at the beginning of the 20th century are viewed both as the initiators of the men’s liberation movement and the pioneers of the profeminist movement that gained prominence during the 1960s. In South Africa, Sol Plaatje and Steve Biko are regarded as having been profeminist.

Although profeminist groups are found globally, they are more common in countries with relatively longer traditions of gender-equity endeavours. South Africa, because of its relatively short democratic history, does not feature among such countries. Although profeminism developed in the American and European contexts, it eventually ‒ like feminism ‒ migrated to Africa. Several reasons have been advanced as to why profeminism has lately gained momentum in South Africa, the main being that the country is confronted by two major public health issues, namely gender-based violence and HIV/Aids – both being issues inextricably related to gender inequalities. It would moreover seem that, in the little more than two decades of the new democratic dispensation, very little has actually been accomplished in terms of achieving gender justice. South African women remain the poorest of the poor and are subjected to some of the highest levels of gender-based violence in the world.

Against this background, there is an increasing insistence that men and boys be involved to achieve accelerated change. Current debates no longer revolve around whether men should be involved but around the precise nature of their involvement. Apart from the involvement of both women and men, there is a growing awareness that civil society should be actively involved. Activism of this kind at grass-roots level by non-governmental organisations ‒ termed NGO-isation ‒ has increased.

Sonke Gender Justice, a local profeminist non-governmental organisation, attempts to counter the anti-feminism of a new youth movement (influenced by Julius Malema) and traditionalists like Jacob Zuma. In light of the apparent anti-feminism and also the fact that gender justice has as yet not nearly been achieved, the struggle for gender justice is now more compelling than ever. Though profeminist men who support the cause are indispensable partners in the struggle, their numbers are still relatively small. Ideally, all South African men (and women) should accept the gravity of the situation. If this conviction is accompanied by a commitment to the central values of the Ubuntu philosophy and the Constitution, both women and men will embrace the feminist model for social reconstruction and react positively to the fundamental aim of feminism, namely the elimination of all injustices.


Pretorius, Engela2018. “Men’s Role in the Quest for Gender Justice: A Historical Overview of Antifeminism and Profeminism.” Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe 58(4-2):887–904. doi:10.17159/2224-7912/2018/v58n4-2a2.





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