Who decides who is a feminist? I don’t know, but I do know that the answer isn’t as obvious as some might think.
For example, I know that when men claim to be feminists there immediately exists the danger that, because of the inherent power and privilege that accompanies being a male (particularly a white male) in Western society, men will tend to assume authority over feminism and the feminist movement. An example of such danger would be when a white male, who holds a position of some stature and respect within the academic community, proclaims who is or is not a feminist, according to standards he himself has articulated, when such standards conform only to his own peculiar ideology. Obviously, women may rightfully take exception to such a man’s proclamations, wondering exactly what in his experience gives him the authority to tell them who and what they are.
What in any man’s experience can prepare him to be a feminist? I don’t know that either. But I do know that no man can understand what it’s like to be a woman in Western society, just as no human can know what it’s like to be a bat. It’s simply not the case that any man can understand “from the inside” what the experience of being female is like, and what the experience of living as a woman in patriarchal society is like.
R. W. Connell has written extensively about “hegemonic masculinity” and how males in Western societies must always measure themselves against the image of the quintessential male – think “Marlboro Man” plus “James Bond” plus the Brady Bunch’s “Mike Brady” and you’ll be on the right track. Men of color, men with disabilities, gay men, and other men who don’t fit the stereotypical image of a “real man” navigate life constantly aware of how they aren’t what society has determined that they ought to be. But no matter what, men are still men, and all men, even those who deviate most from the “hegemonic” ideal, still benefit from the power and privilege of patriarchy. A man, in the Western world, is still a man, after all.
Whatever men may think of themselves, whether they call themselves feminists, or think of themselves as “profeminist”, or simply as supportive of women who are feminists, men can never escape the fact that, however much they may empathize with the women’s movement they can never truly walk in a women’s shoes. Perhaps one doesn’t have to be a women in order to be a feminist, but how can anyone who hasn’t felt the sting of prejudice understand what it is to be discriminated against? How can men know what it’s like to a woman?
As I said, I don’t know. But I do know that any man who claims to be a feminist would do well to know that he can only make that claim humbly and with deference to those who have lived with and struggled against an oppression that he can only think about. He will not pretend to know more than women know, he will not use the very power and privilege of patriarchy to perpetuate that which he claims to be against.
Who decides who is a feminist? Perhaps no one does, and we only know one when we see one.