Few figures are so universally mocked as the male feminist. Dalston Mens Group seemed too good to be true when I chanced upon it. An almost perfect artefact of “right on Hackney”, like the satirically elitist “Stoke Newington Jazz Club” in The Mighty Boosh tv comedy series.
But Dalston Mens Group was a real and fascinating example of the plethora of radical organisations in the borough in the 1970s. Its oddness and the feelings of awkwardness it raised with me made it even more interesting.
Breaking through the cringe
Looking into the embarrassment people feel about male feminists is a scab worth picking. So here is a summary of what I reckon are the problems people have:
Earnestness. The idea that male feminists overstate the importance of their area of interest (and that it is better to not talk about it, probably). That it’s embarrassing and unmanly to be interested in feminism rather than traditional manly pursuits. Especially if it means that you veer into “feminine” territory, like expressing your feelings. And that all this is unattractive to “real” (i.e. not feminist) women anyway. Alongside this, there is a feeling that male feminism is an indulgence for middle class people who have too much time on their hands.
Virtue signalling/Insincerity. That basically male feminists are broadcasting their niceness for the benefit of feminist women as they think it will help them gain credibility and perhaps get laid. In doing this, male feminsts want to appear to be superior to “normal” men who are untainted by feminism. There is an overriding suspicion that male feminists don’t actually believe any of it. At its most extreme there is the idea that men are genetically predisposed to be bestial gropers and male feminists seek to deny this is the case.
Most people reading this have probably been irritated by people who are simply too “right on” to be enjoyable company. But many of us would also concede that occasionally being challenged on our behaviours and language has been a good opportunity for learning and reflection. So there is a balance to be struck.
All of the above has meant that I would probably call myself someone who was a supporter of feminism and women’s rights, rather than a feminist. It’s clear to me that the struggle for gender equality is real and ongoing, so we all need to play our part. And I try and do what I can, but I’m not some kind of super-enlightened mega-activist crusader or anything.
There is something in all of this about what masculinity is and what being “a real man” entails, which I have struggled with myself. As a straight cis man, I have taken pride on several occasions in the past with the suggestion that I was “not a real man” from various people (some of whom were probably well-meaning and some definitely not), but these days I’m less sure if that’s helpful.
Being a “real man” is as unattainable for most of us as being the sort of perfect embodiment of womanhood suggested by mainstream culture is for women. It’s probably better, in the short term, to radically expand the definition of what masculinity can be and so try to make it less important, rather than jettison it entirely (as suggested by John Stoltenberg in his provocative book Refusing To Be A Man: Essays On Social Justice (1989)). As well as supporting the feminist and LGBTQ+ movements, obviously.
Alongside this inspiring upsurge of feminism there has been a regrouping of anti-feminism on the alt-right. The very online world of disaffected young men can be a recruiting ground for far right movements. The 2016 documentary The Red Pill (directed by Cassie Jaye) has been a lightning rod for some men’s grievances against what they see as feminism and the problems it has caused them.
The film makes a reasonably compelling case for the problems men face in western societies in the 21st century, but then blames these difficulties on the gains of the feminist movement. In fact many of the issues raised by the men in the film could be resolved by feminism.
For example men not being able to express their feelings does lead to mental health issues and a greater likelihood of death by suicide than in women. Feminism seeks to deconstruct the binary divide of macho men / feminine women, so that all human beings can express themselves sincerely and authentically.
And many of the issues men face could be solved by socialism. Men are more likely to die in workplace accidents than women – and the solution to this is a strong trade union movement rather than whining about feminists.
So men organising as men is both necessary and rife with all sorts of problems. And examining mens groups during previous waves of feminism might help us with unpick some of the issues of today. Or give us a laugh. Or maybe both of these things.
The origins of Dalston Mens Group
The British Library has a helpful audio interview with Dalston Mens’ Group founder Dave Phillips. It’s clear that the sort of reservations I have set out above were also present in the 1970s:
There was a men’s conference, which I didn’t go to, held somewhere I think in the Seven Sisters Road, it must have been about 1973 or ’74. So we were aware that there were these men’s groups starting up, but we were very suspicious of them, innate personal conservatism being one reason, but… [laughs].
What else? Subterranean homophobia, I don’t know, I mean the sense that these were kind of all a bit sissy and a bit sort of.. but then we were trying to sort of work out what the different kinds of strands around were, there seemed to be one strand around which was very much about trying to do something to assist the women’s movement. These were people who called themselves anti-sexist men.[…]
There were about ten of us all told. And we were trying to fit together a kind of, you know, our commitment to Trotskyist politics, as we thought it was, and feminism, and trying to fit our response to feminism.Dave Phillips
Dave and several of the other founders were also members of the International Socialists (I.S.), one of the larger Trotskyist groups in the UK. (I.S. became the Socialist Workers Party in 1977). Dalston Mens Group was not an official I.S. group or front – indeed several comrades I’ve spoken to about this have expressed their surprise at this connection. For me, one of the most striking things in the texts of Dalston Mens Group is their openness about their doubts and insecure feelings – something that is anathema to the cast iron certainty of most Trot papers and groups. In fact I’d say that their attempts to organise without hierarchy and to combine the personal and political had more in common with some anarchist groups.
What does a Mens Group do?
Dave goes on to mention their activities:
All these groups in effect, with the benefit of hindsight, were quite limited in their effects, but they were into things like setting up crèches and looking after the kids while the women went to give out leaflets and stuff like that.
[…] there was another strand which was very much into personal exploration. The Brixton men’s group, were very into Reich and Gestalt therapy and stuff like that and were into exploring their own selves and were quite good, much better than we ever were, at being critical of each other, and exploring the kind of contradictions inside people’s personal positions.
There was a kind of position that we termed the guilt tripping, which was the kind of men who felt they were personally responsible for sexism, and were very into kind of trying to change themselves. So as we went on we became quite critical of that position, we felt you couldn’t really strip out sexism through an act of will, or self-development. They were people who were into developing a lifestyle, you know, a non-sexist kind of lifestyle, which took various forms, you know, a lot of sandal wearing and brown rice, nut rissoles and that sort of stuff.Dave Phillips
The group apparently also published at least five issues of Mens News, which is how I came to find out about them. I’ve only managed to obtain one issue, which I have scanned and made available as a PDF here. (Leave a comment below if you have access to other issues or know where they can be found?)
The contents of Mens News are a mixed bag. “Dalstons Mens Group – A History” is reproduced in full below and covers the origins and anxieties of the group. There is more mention of the consciousness raising than the practical support given to the feminist movement.
“Ideals & Reality” contrasts socialist and mens groups and how the practice of both falls short of the theory. It has some, frankly, slightly dodgy passages like this one that veers towards “Nice Guy Syndrome”:
“I remember the parties I went to, the girls I lusted for, the impossibility of matching the charisma of [musician] Jet Harris, the unattainability of the women, who now 15 years on tell me that I exploited them, when I couldn’t get near them.”
“Sixteen Thoughts” is a political/theoretcial analysis of the history of feminism with some interesting conclusions about seventies culture (for example the “ham masculinity” punk rock and horror firlms). I thought these bits were good:
“Feminism shows us yawning holes in present day socialism’s ways of organising and lack of popular appeal and has a critical contribution to make to tjhe creation of a new revolutionary movement.
Mens groups are not inherently anti-sexist, it is all-male groups which administer most of capitalism.
The point finally is not a purely mental effort to abolish our sexual conditioning, but the abolition of the material relations which give rise to our condition.”Dalston Mens Group – Sixteen Thoughts
There are also three articles on the difficulties of parenting in a nuclear family:
And finally an article on Islington Mens Group from 1974 which was allegedly “found in a disused squat”.
This probably all sounds quite dry, but there is self-deprecation in Mens News #5 as well as some amusing collages and graphics:
Menswear: male feminist style & fashion
“I think we all had long hair, but then, everybody in the 70s, almost everybody had long hair, I mean coal miners had long hair, everybody had long hair, footballers had long hair. There was one strand amongst men’s groups, I mean I seem to be centred on Wandsworth, who were trying to construct an androgynous lifestyle, which went as far as, you know, they removed their body hair and they waxed their chests, and [laughs]…
But remember, this was the period of glam rock and the glam period, so I can remember being in this men’s conference we organised. Well there we all were, we’d be wearing our kind of bell-bottomed baggy trousers, a lot of sandals. I think we were into nail varnish a bit. I used to have a toenail that was always a very, very, I don’t know what colour you’d call it, not turquoise exactly, but quite strikingly coloured toenail. Not too much, but you know, a real hint. [laughs] There was quite a lot of wearing of kind of ethnic neckwear and stuff like that about at that time.”Dave Phillips – from an interview for The British Library
The back page (above) lists a number of kindred groups around England. As usual there is scant information about what happened to them, how they fizzled out etc. I think it’s reasonable to assume that some people drifted away and others got involved with other campaigns.
Perhaps traces of the 1970s mens groups can be seen in 1980s/90s organisations like Men Against Sexist Shit. I was also inspired by seeing large numbers of men supporting the 2019 Womens Strike rally in London with cooking, childcare etc.
In Their Own Words: Dalston Mens Group – A History (from Mens News #5 1977)
Our group really started in January 1976 out of a nucleus of 5 men, who had been meeting together for 3 months. We had only hazy ideas of why we wanted to be in a group, some of us had heard, or read about other mens groups or been to the early mens conference in London. We wanted to try and create the sense of community that many women seemed to have in the Womens Movement, and which we as men seemed to he lacking, lost in a world of ritual personal isolation. We had all been influenced by women in Womens Liberation and were very much aware of the personal limitations of ‘comradeship’ in most socialist groups.
The 8 of us in the group are involved or connected to socialist political groups, mostly to the Socialist Workers Party (or IS as it then was) and heavily involved in trade union branches at work plus the usual left campaigns. We know we are opposed to Reformism and Stalinism. But we don’t have a definite ‘line’ about personal politics, we are not trying to function as a mens’ cell inside political groups, or as an organised grouping inside the mens movement.
We do believe that part of the process of linking the personal and the political involves bringing together socialist politics and personal and sexual politics. That means, at this stage, straight Marxist men need to be a lot more emotionally honest with each other. We are critical of and get upset and depressed about the way left groups have traditionally resisted or opposed developments in personal politics, especially the Womens and the Gay Movements in recent years. But we also criticise those who reject left groups and socialist politics as one focus of an assertion of personal politics.
We have all recognised the impact of our experience as socialists and the role of the Womens Movement on our lives as men. In the group we have tried to bring these two strands in our lives together. We don’t claim we have had any conspicuous success at doing it – it’s not easily done and the two worlds of experience continually resist each other – but in the end that is at the centre of what we are aiming to do. It would be nice to produce a neat theoretical analysis of all the questions and issues that we’ve raised and discussed, but we’re still muddled.
As a mens group, we are not activists, we don’t go out into the world and do things around mens politics, nor are we a reading group, holding theoretical seminars. Consciousness-raising is the best way to describe our meetings. What we have discussed has always started from our own personal accounts of our experience. Through sharing our personal experience of sexuality we have tried to understand our experiences and to change the way in which we see the world in terms of how we relate to other men, women and kids. From our personal experience of lives and relationships, loves, problems, fears and hopes we’ve set out to connect what we have in common with the rest of our politics. This has been vary erratic – mainly, sometimes with great intensity, we have discovered each other in new ways and gained a lot of strength and support from being together and sharing our personal feelings with other men. This comes as a great relief after many years of ‘relating’ in traditional blokish ways.
Four of us have kids, one very recently. Three or us have been married at one lime, but all have split up from their wives, one recently while in the group. We are all straight with a spattering of gay experiences. And we’re all in the ‘educated middle class’ now, professionally employed… or unemployed, although we came from a much wider class background in the working and lower middle class with parents who wouldn’t have dreamt of going to college themselves. Which defines some important limitations about our group. We meet once a week for about two or four hours, with lapses and sometimes month-long breaks owing to problems of time, work and other commitments. We have mainly been a closed group, and there is no formal structure – it’s a leaderless group and though meetings usually have a main theme decided on at a previous meeting we don’t often keep to it. Sometimes we just start talking around what has been happening to us the previous week. Or wait till someone says something everyone else picks up on.
Most of us have known each other for some years – some of the relationships in the group go back over a decade! Surprisingly, this didn’t cause difficulties – in fact being in the group helped open up relationships which had got stuck in old grooves and being friends outside the group has helped us stay together as a group through times when we felt very unclear about our aims. When we can’t think of anything to talk about, or we are all tired or fed up, we can always just have a drink together. But the meeting provides the institutional framework in which we talk about mens politics and try to develop our political understanding of men and the male role. At times it is a very frustrating and stagnating process but by and large we go on feeling that we benefit from meeting and that it has changed us in the way we function with other women and men outside the group in the rest of our lives. Though often it is difficult to put your finger on some of these changes or to find words to describe them.
At first we talked about our selves – personal histories of what our childhoods were like, parents, schools, learning about fucking, our current sexual states and the way we were living. This helped us get to know each other and put everyone in the same positon – those who were new to the group as well as old mates. We went on to discuss a lot of topics that we variously thought were important adolescence, fucking, nuclear and multiple relationships, having children, work, jealousy, the women’s movements, sexuality and sex objects, male relationships, loneliness, collective living, drinking, pornography, fascism.
It is impossible to summarise what we discussed and learnt in all this. Usually we just learnt about each other’s ideas and experience. We hardly ever felt we got to the stage of working an issue right out so that we all ended up sharing a particular analysis or conclusion about something. Two themes did keep cropping up repeatedly – one was the importance of kids when you start thinking about almost any of these matters, how having them affects you totally and comes to influence your relationships and what you can give and take from them. Secondly, we talked a lot about monogamy and multiple relationships and their different problems in the context of seeking some sort of change from the limitations of nuclear set-ups, their closedupness and resistance to change. Multiple relationships in which most of us have been involved sometimes for several years and sometimes with women who are also with other men in the group have their own problems, to say the least.
These discussions, have not got us to a position of formulating any grand theories – in fact we’ve often felt bogged down and confused about where we are supposed to be going. We constantly discuss the nature of the group, whether it ought to exist and where we are at, usually in terms of whether the group should set out to be supportive or ideological or interventionist. We’ve tried to be supportive within the limits of our own personal psychologies and our experience, and we’d like to develop a clearer ideological grasp of ourselves.
Mainly, we’ve been led on to asking more questions about what we aim to get out of the experience. How do we get away from the pragmatism of our approach to issues in order to develop a socialist critique of men, masculinity, chauvinism and sexual oppression? How do we do this without losing a lot of what goes on in the group that is new and exploratory? What should be the relationship of men to feminism and the Womens Movement? How do we avoid colluding in our own forms of mystification? How do we get to be more critical of each other? How can mens issues be raised on a more general political basis — in trade unions and political groups? Unless we can begin to generate specific demands around the experience of being men in a sexist and capitalist society, for instance, demanding rights in our conditions of work that recognize men have relationships with their children, mens groups risk remaining small, inward-looking and irrelevant to the outside world.