As part of the “Women Against Feminism” campaign that launched in 2014, social media posts have featured young women holding placards with the message “I don’t need feminism because…” listing various reasons ranging from “I respect men” to “I am not a MAN-HATER”.
This perception of misandry – a hatred of men – is perhaps the most prevalent and enduring stereotype about feminism. By this account, feminism is not really a movement to end sexism and bring about gender equality, but rather it is wholly concerned with dislike of men.
While “Women Against Feminism” was ultimately eclipsed three years later by the #MeToo movement, it reflects a wider reality that stereotypes about feminism have caused women to spurn and even publicly denounce the movement.
But is it actually true that feminists tend to dislike men? Not according to our recent research.
A root cause of hatred
The idea of the man-hater also animates hatred of feminism and of women in the manosphere – websites that promote masculinity and misogyny – where it is used to promote opposition to gender equality and to justify acts of violence.
Of course, there are reasons to suspect that at least some feminists might hold negative attitudes toward men. A few even advocate misandry as a rational and authentic response to men’s violent, degrading and oppressive treatment of women.
In a way it would make sense for feminists to dislike a group that threatens their welfare and dignity. We know that negative feelings toward advantaged groups in society can actually be an important driver of protest and other forms of collective action.
But feminists, at least those subscribing to mainstream liberal beliefs, often see men and women as relatively similar to each other. And we know that perceived similarity promotes attraction and positive attitudes toward individuals and groups.
Feminists might therefore be expected to have positive attitudes toward men. Such views have been reflected in the words and actions of some prominent feminists.
Despite its longevity and impact, the misandry stereotype has been subject to little scientific scrutiny. The studies that have been done, like most in psychology, are limited by small samples that are often drawn exclusively from populations of university students from the US.
Previous investigations have also been hampered by the relatively few women who identified (at least openly) as feminists in these samples (as low as 17%).
What’s more, the measures of attitudes toward men often conflate the overall positivity and negativity with stereotypes and ideological beliefs. For example, researchers may use statements such as “Men act like babies when they are sick”, to measure hostile attitudes to men.
The problem here is that research participants might agree with this statement even if they are very fond of men. They may just endorse specific social stereotypes about how men (over)react to illness.
In our research, we recruited 9,799 participants across the US, China, South Korea, India, Japan, Taiwan, the UK and Poland.
We included various measurements of attitudes to men, and feminism itself – including the extent to which someone identified as feminist, their specific beliefs and their participation or support for feminist social action.
We generally included a way for participants to indicate whether they had positive or negative attitudes in absolute rather than just relative terms. For example, we often included “feeling thermometers” in which participants rated how they felt about men on a sliding scale, ranging from 0 (“very cold”) to 100 (“very warm”), with 50 being neutral (“neither cold nor warm”).
We found that feminists overall had positive attitudes toward men, scoring well above the scale mid-point on feelings of warmth, liking and trust. Feminists and non-feminists barely differed in their attitudes. These patterns were largely consistent across nine countries in three continents.
Similarly, participation in feminist action was associated with anger about the mistreatment of women, but not with negative attitudes toward men. Feminists’ attitudes toward men were in fact about as positive as men’s attitudes toward men.
In some countries, we asked people to tell us how positively or negatively they thought “feminists” felt toward men. This allowed a direct comparison of what feminists actually think and what people think they think - a true test of the accuracy of the misandry stereotype. People incorrectly stereotyped feminists as having more negative attitudes toward men than feminists actually reported.
On average, participants believed that feminists’ attitudes to men were negative in absolute terms. Feminist participants were not quite as wrong about the attitudes of fellow feminists, but still massively underestimated their peers’ warm feelings towards men. Importantly, this finding was replicated with a nationally representative sample of adults in the UK (a gold standard in research into social attitudes).
Origins of the stereotype
If the stereotype that feminists hate men is unfounded, where does it come from? Our results suggested two possible reasons. First, believing that feminists hate men is a convenient way to dismiss what they have to say.
This possibility was backed up by the fact that participants who scored highly on a measure of hostile sexism, viewing women as trying to usurp men’s power, were most prone to seeing feminists as man-haters.
Second, even pro-feminist participants made an important mistake. They thought that feminists see men and women as largely dissimilar to each other. In fact, feminist participants tended to see men and women as largely alike.
This makes sense given that women have historically been discriminated against on the basis of fictional gender differences, such as not being “rational” enough for certain jobs.
Ultimately, we hope that by showing that feminism is not synonymous with man-hating, we can contribute to a more informed and accurate discussion about gender relations.
After all, people should be making judgements based on fact, rather than fiction.
Aífe Hopkins-Doyle is Lecturer in Social Psychology, University of Surrey.
Aino Lilja Petterson is Postdoctoral Fellow of Psychology, University of Oslo.
Robbie Sutton is Professor of Social Psychology, University of Kent.
This article was first published on The Conversation.