Over the years, that elusive figure -- the male feminist -- has often been regarded with suspicion by his contemporaries, male and female alike. In fact, it has sometimes been thought that any man who dared to get involved with the feminist movement was either intrinsically self-hating or just looking for sex.
But pro-feminist men have begun to crop up in the unlikeliest places. From laborers on building sites, to policemen, nightclub bouncers and soccer players, male feminists have been asserting their support for women, railing against sexism, challenging domestic violence and encouraging their more laddish peers to change their ways.
Colm Dempsey, for instance, a police officer in Ireland, became so convinced of the need for men to combat the culture of male violence against women that he collected 365 anti-domestic violence posters from around the world, and is currently showing them in Belfast. The exhibition, which highlights some shocking statistics -- every 20 seconds a woman is the victim of domestic violence in the UK, and two are killed as a result of domestic violence every week -- will also tour.
"The best compliment I have yet received is to be referred to as a male feminist," says Dempsey. "It's vital for women to see that there are men committed to women's rights."
While he is challenging the stereotype of sexist police officers, the Considerate Constructor's Scheme is working to transform the sexist image of a whole industry: the building trade. The scheme is a voluntary code of practice that states that those signed up to it must ensure there is no lewd language or behavior on site. There are more than 3,500 sites in the UK adhering to the code -- since its launch nine years ago, more than 18,000 have signed up.
Edward Hardy, general manager of the scheme, says: "As part of being a considerate constructor, you shouldn't have chaps hanging off scaffolding and whistling at girls. It's also [about] inappropriate calendars and so on."
The original pro-feminist men's movement, which emerged in the US, the UK and Australia in the late 1960s and early 1970s, grew out of the progressive left's frustration with traditional masculinity. In Britain the movement was driven by anarchic publications such as the Men's Anti-sexism Newsletter (Man) and Achilles Heel.
One pro-feminist man told me that Achilles Heel soon became "a little touchy-feely," espousing the theory of "we're all wounded men, blah blah blah." But while some criticized pro-feminist men for being, well, not man enough, the irony was that it was exactly the macho stereotype that the movement originally set out to challenge.
"Now," argues Michael Kimmel, a US academic and spokesman for the National Organization for Men Against Sexism, "groups such as Amnesty and Oxfam -- the heirs to the pro-feminist men's groups in the 1960s and 1970s -- are also developing projects around men and masculinity, because we have found that gender equality is not going to be possible without men."
To underline this very point, Amnesty International (UK) and Womankind (UK) recently hosted conferences that explored how to involve men in combating sexism and male violence against women. They brought together organizations as diverse as Men Can Stop Rape, an American campaign group co-founded by John Stoltenberg, Andrea Dworkin's widower, and the public service workers' union Unison. The focus was on engaging men, not demonizing them.