Marching Beside, Not in Front: What Men Can Do to Support Women’s Rights

Men need to show up at this week's Women's March on Washington, but not take center stage. Beyond the march, we need to make a consistent practice of acting in solidarity with the women in our lives and our world.

Men must defend and speak out about women's abortion rights and reproductive freedom, as did this protester outside the U.S. Capitol during President Donald Trump's inauguration. Lauryn Gutierrez / Rewire

If the misogyny of this election cycle and our new president have taught us anything, it is arguably that antipathy toward women is more prevalent than many of us realized or would like to admit. Some men may be more anti-woman than others, but all of us can do better.

Tomorrow’s Women’s March on Washington is focused on sending a message to the Trump administration, during its first day in office, that marginalized groups of all kinds will not be ignored. Central among these groups are the half of the humans on the planet who are women.

Despite the organizers’ explicit invitation to everyone, it’s easy to assume that men aren’t important to this event or even that we’re not welcome in this “women’s march.” After all, shouldn’t we men leave space for women to advocate for themselves?

The answer is yes. But men also play a central role in any “women’s issue,” whether we like it or not. Male privilege and sexism abound: the wage gap, street harassment, disadvantage to female political candidates, gender stereotypes that hurt women professionally, the celebration of promiscuity among men but the condemnation of it in women, and, of course, rape culture and the higher risk of sexual assault, just to name a few examples.

It’s tempting for individual men to believe that if we don’t intentionally and directly perpetuate these types of male privilege and sexism, we’re not contributing to the inequalities. This is too low a bar to set. As South African archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu said, “It is unconscionable to remain silent, or neutral, in the face of injustice. Neutrality maintains the status quo and compounds the injustice.”

Now that Trump is in office, let’s make no mistake: The No. 1 issue affecting women’s rights will be reproductive freedom. Yes, I mean abortion, but not only abortion. Reproductive justice is “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” By happenstance of human evolution and how our societies are often organized, the human being with a uterus shoulders a disproportionate share of the responsibility for the consequences of heterosexual sex. It is the pregnant person who risks death by choosing to carry the pregnancy and deliver a baby (at a rate of 23.8 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, and this number has been rising in the United States recently). Women are also more seriously affected by sexually transmitted infections (STIs) than men.

Some might say that this means it is a woman’s responsibility to make sure she is protected from unintended pregnancy and preventable illnesses. Certainly, women must have the means to protect themselves and ensure their health, and the Affordable Care Act has been an important step in that direction. First, it makes all methods of contraception available without a co-pay so women can afford whatever method fits best into their lives. Second, it stopped insurance companies from charging women higher premiums based on the justification that they are at risk for costly (and dangerous) pregnancy complications.

Since men can’t experience the health risks or complications of pregnancy, we owe it to women to help them to avoid pregnancy unless and until they want to be pregnant. And just as important, men in heterosexual partnerships have the responsibility to be an equal partner through pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting.

So what can men do? Below are some suggestions—which are by no means exhaustive—of how we can act in solidarity with the women in our lives and other fellow human beings.

First, in our own personal relationships:

  • Commit to the idea of consent in our relationships. Some college administrations have (finally) started to redefine their freshman orientations about sex that if consent is not explicitly given, it is not consensual. We can all, regardless of age, think about this and how it applies to our own relationships. There are even some videos on the subject.
  • Take responsibility for planning for contraception (and STI prevention) before we have sex. There aren’t many methods of male-controlled contraception on the market (condoms, really), but until other forms become available, condoms have some serious advantages. They’re easy to use and side effect-free (unless you’re in the small minority of people who are allergic to latex, for whom there are nonlatex alternatives). Condoms also have the added benefit of being the only cheap, prescription-free, and easily available method that also protects against all types of STIs.
  • Make a conscious effort not to interrupt the women in our lives. Social conditioning is a strong influence on all of us. In order to counteract it, we must remember to be respectful of women’s opinions and the flow of conversation. If we do not, we continue to blindly reinforce unequal power dynamics between the genders in our personal and professional lives.
  • Teach our children—both boys and girls—these same values. For those of us who have kids, we have a unique opportunity to change the culture in the long run by being mindful of what we’re teaching them.

Second—and in light of the inauguration today, this couldn’t be more important—we can act in solidarity with women in our politics:

  • Don’t let Congress repeal the Affordable Care Act’s contraception provision without making your voice heard. Despite what some lawmakers and officials on Capitol Hill spout without any knowledge whatsoever, financial barriers really do exist to contraception for millions of women, as I see every day in my practice as an OB-GYN. No-cost contraception has already been proven to lower the rates of teen pregnancies and undesired pregnancies; in Colorado over four years, this plan reduced the teen birth rate by 40 percent and the rate of teen abortions by 35 percent. This type of support is critical for all people to plan the type of families they want, when they want. Call your senators and representatives, and tell them that you want to maintain the ACA and its birth control provision. And if your legislators are supporting the ACA, please call them and thank them.
  • Donate money, if you can, to Planned Parenthood and independent reproductive health clinics. Funding is likely to get even tighter for these organizations in the coming years, and many low-income women depend on them for low-cost or free access to birth control, STI testing, and other basic health care. The move to “defund” Planned Parenthood is not only harmful, but is based on false claims that the organization is selling fetal tissue; you can learn about the issue, and again call your legislators to tell them what you think.
  • Learn more about reproductive justice. Many organizations such as SisterSong and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum are great resources and broaden understandings of the range of reproductive issues we face. You can also donate to reproductive justice organizations, which do important advocacy work to educate us about the relationship between social inequalities and health.
  • Support abortion rights. Don’t forget that 79 percent of people in the United States think abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances. Tell those who represent you in the U.S. Congress that you do not support the federal “heartbeat bill” that was introduced last week, which would effectively ban all abortions in the country. Talk with your family and friends about why abortion must be legal if they believe in gender equality. Listen with an open mind and a compassionate ear to loved ones who have had abortions or are considering having one. And if you have the opportunity to vote on any abortion-related measures directly, cast a ballot for pregnant people to have more choices and resources—not less.

Finally, we can all attend the Women’s March on Washington. This march is explicitly for anyone who believes women’s rights are human rights, and every human should want to sign on to that principle. If you can’t attend the march in person, you can go to its website or its Facebook page to look for local marches or donate to help the march be a success.

Most importantly, though, we must continue to work for women’s rights beyond the marches tomorrow. There are countless ways to make an impact, both in our personal lives and in the larger social and political arenas. We can show each other many more ways to integrate these actions and principles into our daily lives. There’s lots more to do, and we can all do better.