‘Boys should have the right to say no to feminism’. That was the headline on Glen Poole’s article for the Telegraph’s ‘Thinking Man’ blog earlier this week. It was meant to be provocative, of course, playing into fears of political correctness stifling free speech and free thought. As with Dan Bell’s piece on anti-sexist education for boys, published on the same site back in the summer, it prompted mixed feelings in this reader. I found myself sort-of-agreeing with half of it. But the other half I felt was profoundly misleading and unhelpful.

The catalyst for Poole’s piece is a Swedish initiative to give every 16-year-old boy a copy of the book We Should All Be Feminists, which is based on a speech by the Nigerian novelist and campaigner Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. For Poole, this is just the latest evidence of ‘the evangelical drive to teach boys to be feminists’. But is there really such a ‘drive’? This happened in Sweden, a country with very different (and some would argue much more paternalistic) welfare policies to our own – and Poole doesn’t provide evidence of anything similar happening in Britain.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (via vogue.co.uk)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (via vogue.co.uk)

Never mind, this Swedish initiative provides Poole with a useful straw man (woman?) and a platform from which to pose this provocative question:

So should we welcome the crusaders who wish to convert our male progeny to the “one true Goddess” of gender politics, or should we teach our boys to become free-thinkers who can choose for themselves whether they want to be feminist or not?

It’s a rhetorical question, of course – and it’s a bag of familiar rhetorical tricks and journalistic scare tactics. Just who are these unnamed ‘crusaders’ to whom Poole refers, beyond a few over-zealous individuals in the Swedish government? Do they actually exist: would Poole like to name names? Like the words ‘evangelical’ and ‘convert’, ‘crusaders’ is meant to evoke fears of an army of quasi-religious fundamentalists imposing their ideas on children, while reference to ‘our male progeny’ is designed to bring out the protective parental streak in readers. As for that phrase about the ‘one true Goddess’ of feminism: if it’s a quotation, it would be useful to know who said it (was it one of these nameless ‘crusaders’?). But I wonder if it’s even genuine.

And of course the question being posed is a no-brainer: who could possibly disagree that boys should be ‘free-thinkers’ who can ‘choose for themselves’ what they think and believe? But is anyone really suggesting otherwise? I don’t see any compulsory feminism classes on the school timetable in the UK (in fact, the government has recently reduced the emphasis on feminist pioneers in the history curriculum). And, although I personally think the Swedish initiative is misjudged (partly because boys, as I suggested in my post on Bell’s article, are likely to reject any pious advice that’s forced on them by officialdom), I’m not sure that giving away a free book is the same thing as a ‘conversion’ programme.

Poole softens his criticism of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book with some admiring words about the woman herself. He applauds her for refusing to apologise for her femaleness and femininity, but then goes on to wonder whether he, ‘a straight, white male from working-class roots living a fairly middle-class lifestyle’ , or any other man, would get away with being equally unapologetic about their maleness and masculinity.

Firstly, this completely overlooks the long history of gender inequality and the huge differences between the everyday experiences of men and women. Of course men shouldn’t have to ‘apologise’ simply for being men, but that’s not to say there aren’t some manifestations of masculinity that disadvantage women, and that men should certainly not be proud of. But secondly, exactly who is it that’s asking men to apologise for their maleness? In many years of working as a man alongside feminists, I’ve never been made to apologise for anything.

Poole moves on to the tale of his own conversion – into ‘an unapologetic, card-carrying non-feminist’. Here, as elsewhere in the article, ‘feminist’ and ‘feminism’ are being used to mean a particular kind of thing that it’s OK, as a man, not to identify with. It’s a specific (and I would argue untypical) strain of feminism that Poole seems to have in mind, rather than any general campaign in support of gender equality – with which I presume (?) he would want to identify.

And yes, of course, there are problematic elements in contemporary feminism, as there are in any large social movement. It’s not difficult to find examples of this, in a week that has seen a university feminist group lend its support to religious fundamentalists who shouted down a secular feminist speaker –rather than to the speaker herself. And then again, the past year has witnessed numerous instances (mostly in the US, but occasionally in the UK too) of feminists, along with other political activists, attempting to shut down debate on campus by disinviting speakers with whom they disagreed or who might make some students feel ‘unsafe’.

(via @Govt_Women)

Barclays/Women’s Business Council seminar on ‘Engaging men for gender equality’ , January 2015 (via @Govt_Women)

But these examples, worrying though they may be, are hardly typical of what passes for feminism in Britain or elsewhere – and by feminism, I mean the broad movement for equal rights for women and girls. Over the past year, I’ve been involved in a number of initiatives (scroll down through this blog for details)– sponsored by government and by business leaders – concerned with engaging men for gender equality, and in all cases I’ve felt that women welcomed men’s involvement, and free and open debate of the issues was strongly encouraged.

These initiatives can be seen as part of a wider movement that is gathering strength: witness the popularity of the HeforShe campaign launched by Emma Watson’s inspiring speech at the UN, a number of conferences organised by the international MenEngage movement, and by the growing support among male politicians, business leaders and celebrities, for the White Ribbon campaign against domestic violence. If this is feminism, or more accurately male pro-feminism – and I would argue that it is – then what does it mean to want to stand outside it?

Surely touting yourself as a ‘non’ feminist and tarring all feminists as intolerant, because of the actions of a few, is simply playing games with labels and striking empty poses? Wouldn’t it be better to get stuck in, and as a man lend your support to the growing movement to ensure equal chances for all?