Why Feminism is Good for Men
Last November, at the Grace Baruch Memorial Colloquium sponsored by Wellesley College's Center for Research on Women, self-described feminist men discussed "Why Feminism Is Good for Men." Here are some excerpts from that discussion.Allen Brown
Attorney and psychologist; instructor at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital:
Feminism is about breaking down arbitrary barriers. I remember, as a child, driving cross-country with my family and being told in a Texas restaurant, "We don't serve your kind of people here." I think about all the limitations of opportunity that people experience because of arbitrary difference like race or gender. Just because there's an arbitrary rule, we're not going to let you do certain things or be certain things. We're going to limit your education and work, and commit violent attacks on you because of some arbitrary external characteristic.
There are lots of parallels between racism and sexism. So when I started thinking about why feminism is good for men, I thought, "Why is feminism good for this man?" I don't want people to tell my daughter Sophie, "No, you can't do this because you're female. No, you can't act that way or go into that profession because you're female." And all the other little insults that go along every day and which are hard to put your finger on. Feminism is a way of fighting that, while getting society and men and our whole culture to go beyond that.
Steve Bergman Gender Relations Project, Wellesley College's Stone Center and psychiatrist on the Harvard Medical School faculty:
Usually, it's very lonely as a man talking about things like this. I'm so grateful to have three other men here. What could be better for men than feminism? Maybe AA! Being in feminism has changed my life.
Healthy growth is through and toward connection. There's a male relational paradox that happens at age 2, 3, 4, 5. After a few years of experiencing growth and connection, there's a fork in the path. All the pressures in the culture demand that the little boy disconnect from his relationship with his mother to become a man. The culture says only in disconnection can you become a strong self that can grow.
People tell me, "You're just talking about the feminization of men! You just want men to become like women." We're not talking about the feminization of men, but about the "relational-ization" of both genders. If that, in this culture, is taken as feminization, we are in big trouble. That's what we're up against.
In our work, we ask thousands of eighth-grade boys, "What do you want girls to know about you?" It rips your heart out to hear what they say: "I'm not really like this. I'm a nice guy underneath. I act like a pervert, but I really care. Don't believe my behavior and my actions."
Emeritus English professor, Assumption College:
On one of her CDs, Ella Fitzgerald sings a famous Irving Berlin song that Fred Astaire sang to Ginger Rogers in the movies. It goes, "Must you dance every dance with the same fortunate man? Won't you change partners and dance with me?" Now, it makes no sense for a woman to be singing that song. But I've heard Ella sing a good number of songs that were meant for a man to sing. I have never, ever heard a man sing a song that was intended for a woman to sing. Never. It's not done.
That awareness of the effects of "tradition" is one of the things that feminism can do for men. Feminism is a buttress for true masculinity. There is no male equivalent for the word "feminism." That there isn't one highlights the difference between the situations of the two genders.
Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) Project, Northeastern University Center for the Study of Sports in Society:
Feminism is the best thing that ever happened to men. A key feminist phrase is "The personal is political." It's really important that men share our own more complicated and complex emotional and personal lives, which is something men rarely do. We spend so much time posing and fronting and putting on incredible, ridiculous acts. One of the political acts that men with a feminist sensibility can do is to be honest--to break down some of that nonsense and pretense that so often passes for male agency in the world. Feminism is at the cutting edge of nearly all major intellectual disciplines. Guys, if you don't understand feminism, it's not because it's not true. It's because you haven't allowed yourself to think about it yet.
Feminism isn't a social movement that you might agree or disagree with. It's one of the key transformative movements in the history of the species. The train has left the station. If you're not gonna get on, that's your option. But things are never gonna be the same. It's a profound change which is already affecting your life, even if you don't know it.
Calling gender issues, like violence, "women's issues" is a problem. Those issues affect all of us, and we're all in this together. How many of you men have women you care about? By definition, what's good for women we care about is good for us. Violence against women isn't an abstract concept, or a "women's" issue--it's about our sisters, mothers, partners, friends, colleagues.
My sister is four years younger than me and arguably the best female athlete in our town's history. I was her athletic mentor, and from an early age I saw the difference between the way I had no conflict between being an athlete and being popular, and the way she had all kinds of struggles. She was the first girl to play majors in Little League and in Babe Ruth. She was at the cutting edge of the women's sports movement, which is one of the biggest success stories of modern U.S. culture and feminism in particular. So, I could see directly the difference, and that was one politicizing thing for me.
How do we maintain and sustain our feminism as men? I'm not sure I have the most hopeful answer. How did women do it? They started with support groups. Somehow, the spark lit and the groups were going everywhere. Writers and speakers and power came out of that. There was no turning back.
That's hard to do with men. We have a 5-year-old daughter. I looked up one day at her preschool, and noticed there were four other 50-year-old fathers of 4-year-old children. So I said, "Gee, let's get together and talk about this!" And we started something called The Old Farts Group. This is the third men's group I tried to form around different issues; the first two petered out quickly.
Last night, there was a meeting of our group at my house. One guy never called back to say if he was coming, and he didn't. Another guy was doing a story on Cape Cod and his wife called; he couldn't get back in time. The third guy said he was sick, and I think he probably was. Now, I had gone the further step that morning with the fourth guy, who said he had a problem with child care that night. I said, "Bring her over. Katie and she can play together with our child care." It turned out that the same night, my wife Janet was having a meeting of her "writing a book on motherhood" group, and so 30 women had descended on our living room downstairs.
The fourth guy never showed up. So, there I am, sitting there with the Doritos, listening to Janet's group having a great time. About 15 minutes later, he calls from a pay phone at a pharmacy with his daughter. He says, "Well, I came over, and I looked in, and there were all these women there. I figured I must have the wrong night or something, so I turned around and left." He hadn't even come in to ask if maybe we were someplace else. The point of this is that it's been very, very difficult to have a sustaining men's group for men who don't jump out of airplanes or go whitewater rafting. To sit and talk and try to puzzle out some of this stuff in a feeling way is very hard. I think the solution in any historical movement is small groups which then merge and produce writers, speakers, etc. We have to be honest: we men have a big problem. We can't sustain the groups.
That's where leadership comes in; men taking risks and standing up very publicly. This can't be a conversation just in elite circles and therapeutic settings.
I'll tell a little anecdote about the potential for men changing. In 1972, Miller Brewing bought the rights to Meister Brau Light, which had been unsuccessfully marketed to women as a diet beer. Miller's research showed that men wanted a beer that wouldn't fill them up, but not one that could be seen in any way as feminine.
So what did they do? They hired a series of macho football players, including Dick Butkus and Bubba Smith. They put them in a bar, surrounded by their buddies, and put a Lite beer in their hands. What was the message? Dick Butkus can drink Lite beer and no one can accuse him of being a wimp! You can drink it too!
The result was the most successful ad campaign of the 1970s. Today, Lite beer is the official beer of the National Football League.
All this happened because of a simple insight: if you empower some men (especially men of status, like football stars) to take risks, and say, "This is another way to be a man," then it gives other men with less confidence and status a way to be similarly empowered. To maybe think a different way.
I think this is true about crying, about emotional life, about supporting feminism. If young men see other men in powerful positions--as well as in their families--speaking out, it will become more and more acceptable. But the leadership has to happen.
So, I say to the men here, you have an incredible platform in your families and your communities. And, yes, you do have to step out sometimes and sometimes you'll be ridiculed and feel lonely. But, hey, that's just the way it is. To men who say, "I'm not gonna get support, and I'm gonna be taking risks," I say, "You do what you have to do to be able to look yourself in the mirror in the morning and know that you're speaking your truth and you're walking your walk. Whatever anyone else says to you doesn't matter."