How to be a good man: what I learned from a month reading feminist classics

A year after the Harvey Weinstein revelations, a professor decided to do some deep reading

“He covered my mouth with his hand and introduced his penis. I thought my last hour had arrived. I had the feeling my stomach was turning.”

These are not the words of a woman testifying as part of the #MeToo movement, and they are not the words of Christine Blasey Ford, who testified against the US supreme-court nominee Brett Kavanaugh last week – although the hand over the mouth, if not the reference to the penis, mirror her words. (Kavanaugh denies the allegations.) This is, instead, the experience of a young woman as recounted by the French feminist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, her 1949 classic.

I took that book down from the shelf about a month ago; it had sat there, untouched, for years. How many times had I pretended to have read it, nodding knowingly when someone mentioned it at a dinner party, or in a seminar at the Swedish university where I work?

I knew sexual assaults were endemic, but I didn't realise they were this endemic. I also understood that the blame is often put on the victim. But I had never really seen this

A year after the first revelations about the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, I wanted to sit down and read about women's experiences, to stay silent for a while, and with luck learn something. It has been painful to listen to the stories of systematic sexual abuse that have emerged as a result of the #MeToo movement, and also an education; it has forced me to see things I had failed to see in the past. Before, I knew sexual assaults were endemic, but I didn't realise they were this endemic. I also understood that the blame is often put on the victim. But I had never really seen this, not in such a concrete and shockingly visible way.


It has been a late awakening, and, over the course of the year, a couple of overdue questions emerged: what can men do to show solidarity with women, and what can we do to address a culture of toxic masculinity and begin examining ourselves?

There is clearly more than one way to do this. The journalist Richard Godwin has described how, in his quest to examine modern manhood, he found groups where men were doing "breathing exercises, talking about their fathers, pretending to be tigers, leaning in on one another, working out which Jungian archetype we vibed with, and trying to articulate why we all felt so defensive and angry and misunderstood so much of the time".

I opted for a quieter approach, following the advice that, to show solidarity with the movement, you could begin by seriously listening to women. So I decided to spend the month leading up to the first anniversary of the Weinstein revelations reading some feminist classics, which, for inexplicable reasons, I had never got around to. I’m sure there are embarrassing and unflattering underlying reasons for this omission, but I’m not sure what they are. Perhaps it was as depressingly simple as the fact that the works of (white) male authors had always been closer to hand, through reading lists and book reviews and recommendations, than the works of (black) feminist writers.

So a list of 13 books was compiled – far from comprehensive, but including some of the most influential feminist works of the past few centuries.

In early September I started reading. Halfway through The Second Sex I came across a passage that seemed to sum up the shocking insight of #MeToo. De Beauvoir writes that almost all young women, including what she calls "well-protected" ones, have been exposed to "regrettable incidents", which, in conventional circles, are "hushed up by common agreement".

This reminded me of last autumn, and the experience of watching the evening news with my wife and eight-year-old daughter as the welter of #MeToo allegations began. The news anchor read out some of the testimonies that had been shared on social media. Usually, when horrible things are reported, we could, as a well-protected family, who previously lived in Wales, now in Sweden, calm my daughter down by saying that these things hardly ever happen in our neighbourhood. But we couldn’t do that now. These regrettable incidents could not be hushed up by common agreement.

De Beauvoir tells the story in her book of a young girl, no more than 10 years old, who is molested by her grandfather. She cannot find the courage to tell her parents. De Beauvoir writes: “Such incidents are usually endured in silence for the little girl because of the shame they cause. Moreover, if she does reveal them to her parents, their reaction is often to reprimand her. ‘Don’t say such stupid things … you’ve got an evil mind.’ ”

I remember reading the detailed allegations against Jean-Claude Arnault, the influential cultural figure who is married to one of the members of the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature; he used to casually call himself the academy's 19th member. In an article published in the Dagens Nyheter newspaper, 18 women came forward to tell their stories. In graphic detail, they described instances of abuse and rape, and, like Weinstein, Arnault was accused of exploiting his power to threaten and blackmail women. He was alleged to have targeted, in particular, those who were weak, vulnerable and "damaged". On Monday he was convicted of one count of rape and sentenced to two years in prison. The other cases were dropped for lack of evidence or because they had exceeded the statute of limitations.

Only four of the women who testified against him showed their faces. They were the ones who had rejected him outright when he had tried to grope them in bars and elsewhere. Never before had I quite grasped the shame of being the victim as I did when reading this line, from one of the women who had been raped and did not show her face: “I was ashamed I was one of those he chose as victim, to be one of the ‘damaged’ women.” Worse than simply being the victim, he had chosen her as his victim because she was “damaged” and too weak to say no.

I had known, for a long time, that blame is casually ascribed to women who are attacked. I had known this, in theory, as an abstraction. I wonder why #MeToo had to happen for this to stop being an abstraction to me. This story has, after all, been told a thousand times before. It was there, in large print, in the books I read throughout September. I mean, is it possible to read the following story, from Gay's Bad Feminist, and still think of shame as an abstraction? She writes about an 11-year-old girl who was raped by a group of boys and men in Texas, and the fact that the New York Times chose to headline its story "Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town", as if we should feel sorry for the town and the boys. "It was an 11-year-old girl whose body was ripped apart, not a town," Gay writes. "It was an 11-year-old girl's life that was ripped apart, not the lives of the men who raped her."

A few weeks after the allegations against Weinstein began emerging, a liberal columnist in Sweden wrote that we need to distinguish between real victims and fake victims, claiming that, if all women were as thick-skinned as his 19-year-old daughter, there would be no #MeToo. The problem, he wrote, was that too many women want to assume the role of victims. Their problem is that they don’t know how to say no and to stand their ground.

“It never crossed my mind to say no or that I should say no, that I could say no,” Gay writes. When she was 12 a boy she thought was her boyfriend started pressuring her to have sex. One day they were riding their bikes in the woods. She didn’t know that his friends were waiting for them by an abandoned hunting cabin. The boy pushed her to the ground and took her clothes off. She was raped by the group, who kept her there for hours. “I felt fear but I didn’t know how to say no.”

After she was raped Gay didn’t say a word to anyone. She didn’t want to get into trouble. “I was a good girl, so that’s what I did.” In class the next day one of the boys leaned towards her and said: “You’re a slut.”

A few days after the liberal columnist said women should be more like his 19-year-old daughter, hundreds of Swedish women, all actors, came together under the hashtag #SilenceAction, publishing a long series of detailed accounts of brutal sexual assault.

Here is one of the many testimonies. In a hotel, after a party, a woman is on her way into her room. A man – a world-famous actor – follows her. He pushes her to the floor and throws himself on top of her. “Now he’ll rape me,” she remembers thinking.

I wanted to ask the liberal columnist: how would your thick-skinned 19-year-old daughter deal with that?

Before #MeToo I had not really understood the connection between power and sexual abuse. I had seen it, of course. But again, only really in theory, as an abstraction.

'Dead men don't rape' read a poster that used to hang over Andrea Dworkin's desk. By the time I'd read a third of the books on my list I didn't blame her

In Men Explain Things to Me Solnit writes that she surprised herself once when she began an essay by recounting what was, ostensibly, a funny incident – a man refusing to be interrupted while explaining, in great detail, the content of a book she had actually written. That same essay ended in her writing about rape and murder. These incidents are situated on a continuum, she argues, which stretches from "minor social misery to violent silencing and death".

"Dead men don't rape" read a poster that used to hang over Dworkin's desk. By the time I'd read a third of the books on the list I didn't blame her. In the acerbic pages of Woman Hating Dworkin writes that, as a woman, you have to ask yourself a number of pressing questions: "Why everywhere the oppression of women throughout recorded history? How could the Inquisitors torture and burn women as witches? How could men idealise the bound feet of crippled women? How and why?"

There were books on my list that were not quite as brutal; books less concerned with rape and sexual oppression than with the cultural pressure on women and how to be a woman. At the end of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Wollstonecraft sets out a future "experiment", by which women would share with men "the advantages of education and government". In The Female Eunuch Greer argues that women need to stop seeing themselves as wives and mothers because, confined to these roles, their "horizon shrinks to the house, the shopping centre and the telly". By 2013, Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook, was writing from a business perspective about the need for more women in leadership roles. Her advice to women, expressed in the title of her book, is to lean in – to do what you would do if you weren't afraid.

I nodded my way through these books, recalling the discussions that started at my university about a year ago when, emboldened by what seemed like a revolutionary moment, we discussed a range of radical ideas to facilitate the career possibilities for women, from offering significant research time to women to recruiting women to senior academic positions. One year later these initiatives have boiled down to a not-so-radical mentoring programme.

If these books were familiar, written from a predominantly white, privileged perspective, the next titles were not. Davis begins Women, Race and Class by describing the life of the female slave. Davis notes that, while white women of the abolitionist movement spoke out on behalf of black women, they were unable to grasp the slave woman's condition, because the black woman, through her experience of hard work, rape, flogging and resistance, had developed traits that set her apart from the white woman. The black woman, like working-class women, worked until they could work no more. They could only dream of the life of the white housewives.

One of the problems with the women's movement, Lorde writes in Sister Outsider, is that "white women focus upon their oppression as women and ignore differences of race, sexual preference, class and age". As a consequence "women of colour become 'other', the outsider".

As I finished the last book I was thinking about all the men – and many women – who refuse to call themselves feminists. The writer bell hooks says that whenever she introduces herself as a feminist, people respond that feminists are lesbians who hate men and want to make life miserable for white men. When she then asks them about the feminist books they’ve read they go silent.

We need to "create a mass-based educational movement to teach everyone about feminism", hooks writes in Feminism Is for Everybody, and I can't stop thinking that this is what #MeToo is.

Sure, #MeToo is many things, and some feminists, including Greer, have openly criticised the movement. It has been suggested that many of the incidents are too minor to warrant serious attention and that women should be better at saying no and reacting immediately if assaulted.

I’m reminded of this when I speak to a woman friend, a few days before finishing this article. When she says she is surprised to learn I am “pro-#MeToo” I find myself responding defensively, assuring her that I do recognise some unfortunate potential side effects. As if to avoid the broader questions of #MeToo and feminism, we end up discussing the tragic case of a man who killed himself after allegations of sexual abuse that later proved false.

A year after the first Weinstein allegations, it could be tempting to look back and focus only on examples of where #MeToo went wrong. But we need to remember why the movement, first started by the civil-rights activist Tarana Burke in 2006, had to take the form it did. It is not as if these stories are new. They just hadn’t been heard properly. And that was one of the most uncomfortable insights from reading these books: that the stories of sexual abuse that emerged last year had been there all along, for centuries. They just hadn’t been discussed, publicly, in the way they have now.

A year ago the writer Emily Reynolds asked what men could do to examine themselves and show solidarity with the movement; she advised men to ask women questions and start listening. I'm sure there is much to be learned from going on a man camp and discussing masculinity with other men, but I believe the simple advice from Reynolds is potentially more powerful: ask, read, listen, widen your perspective, call your own perspectives into question.

Few people consider themselves feminists, which seems strange to me after reading these books, because the definitions I come across are open, simple, obvious – such as wanting to end sexism or supporting the “social, political and economic equality of the sexes”.

In We Should All Be Feminists the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes that when she started describing herself as a feminist she was told feminists were angry, so she called herself a Happy Feminist. Then she was told that feminism was un-African, so she called herself a Happy African Feminist. She continued to make amendments until, at some point, she was a "Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men and Who Likes to Wear Lip Gloss and High Heels for Herself and Not for Men".

We hold feminism to an unreasonable standard, Gay writes, as though both feminists and feminism must be flawless. She says she is not very well versed in feminist history. She has a wardrobe full of shoes and bags. She listens to sexist rap and reads Vogue. But so what? She is full of contradictions, like everyone else.

“I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all,” she writes, and on reading this line I see an opening, an invitation to me and all the other men who wish to be supportive. I think, If she can be a feminist, then maybe we can, too.

Even though, of course, I’m sure I’ll be a much worse feminist than she is. – Guardian

Carl Cederström is the author of The Happiness Fantasy, published by Wiley