Feminist Masculinity

Feminist masculinity presupposes that it is enough for males to have value, that they do not have to “do,” to “perform,” to be affirmed and loved. Rather than defining strength as “power over,” feminist masculinity defines strength as one’s capacity to be responsible for self and others. This strength is a trait males and females need to possess. In The Courage to Raise Good Men, Olga Silverstein stresses the need to redefine male sex roles in ways that break with sexist norms. Currently, sexist definitions of male roles insist on defining maleness in relationship to winning, one-upmanship, domination: “Until we are willing to question many of the specifics of the male sex role, including most of the seven norms and stereotypes that psychologist Robert Levant names in a listing of its chief constituents–’avoiding femininity, restrictive emotionality, seeking achievement and status, self-reliance, aggression, homophobia, and nonrelational attitudes toward sexuality’–we are going to deny men their full humanity. Feminist masculinity would have as its chief constituents integrity, self-love, emotional awareness, assertiveness, and relational skill, including the capacity to be empathic, autonomous, and connected.” The core of feminist masculinity is a commitment to gender equality and mutuality as crucial to interbeing and partnership in the creating and sustaining of life. Such a commitment always privileges nonviolent action over violence, peace over war, life over death.

Olga Silverstein rightly says that “what the world needs now is a different kind of man”–she posits that we need a “good” man–but this binary category automatically invests in a dominator model of either-or. What the world needs now is liberated men who have the qualities Silverstein cites, men who are “empathic and strong, autonomous and connected, responsible to self, to family and friends, and to society, and capable of understanding how those responsibilities are, ultimately, inseparable.” Men need feminist thinking. It is the theory that supports their spiritual evolution and their shift away from the patriarchal model. Patriarchy is destroying the well-being of men, taking their lives daily.

When Silverstein does workshops focusing on changing sexist gender roles, it is women who question her about whether a male with the qualities described above can survive. She responds to their fear by pointing out these truths:

Men aren’t surviving very well! We send them to war to kill and be killed. They’re lying down in the middle of highways to prove their manhood in imitation of a scene in a recent movie about college football. They’re dying of heart attacks in early middle age, killing themselves with liver and lung disease via the manly pursuits of drinking and smoking, committing suicide at roughly four times the rate of women, becoming victims of homicide (generally at the hands of other men) three times as often as women, and therefore living about eight years less than women.

And I would add that many men striving to prove patriarchal masculinity through acts of brutal and unnecessary violence are imprisoned for life. Clearly, lots of women survive happy, fulfilling lives because we do not embrace an identity which weds us to violence; men must have the same choice.

Women are not the only group who cannot imagine what the world would be like if males were raised with wholeness of being. There seems to be a fear that if men are raised to be people of integrity, people who can love, they will be unable to be forceful and act violently if needed.

A Masai wise man, when asked by Terrence Real to name the traits of a good warrior, replied, “I refuse to tell you what makes a good morani [warrior]. But I will tell you what makes a great morani. When the moment calls for fierceness, a good morani is very ferocious. And when the moment calls for kindness, a good morani is utterly tender. Now, what makes a great morani is knowing which moment is which.” We see that females who are raised with the traits any person of integrity embodies can act with tenderness, with assertiveness, and with aggression if and when aggression is needed.

Men who are able to be whole, undivided selves can practice the emotional discernment beautifully described by the Masai wise man precisely because they are able to relate and respond rather than simply react. Patriarchal masculinity confines men to various stages of reaction and overreaction. Feminist masculinity does not reproduce the notion that maleness has this reactionary, wild, uncontrolled component; instead it assures men and those of us who care about men that we need not fear male loss of control. The power of patriarchy has been to make maleness feared and to make men feel that it is better to be feared than to be loved. Whether they can confess this or not, men know that it just is not true.

The fear of maleness that they inspire stranges men from every female in their lives to greater or less degrees, and men feel the loss. Ultimately, one of the emotional costs of allegiance to patriarchy is to be seen as unworthy of trust. If women and girls in patriarchal culture are taught to see every male, including the males with whom we are intimate, as potential rapists and murderers, then we cannot offer them our trust, and without trust there is no love. When I was a girl, my father was respected as the patriarchal provider and protector in our family. And he was feared. That ability to inspire fear was to him the sign of real manhood. Even though the knowledge that our dad could take care of his own was comforting, the moment he unleashed that will to do violence on us–his loved ones–we lost him. We were left with just our fears and the knowledge that there was no emotional connection great enough to soothe and transform our father’s violence, to keep him connected.

How many men have lost this bond of love via acts of relational violence, acting out the notion embedded in patriarchal masculinity that in every male there is a predator, a hunger hungry and ready for the killer? Silverstein argues that men suffer by the patriarchal insistence that they enact rituals of alienation that lead to “estrangement from women.” She states, “As anybody who works with the elderly will tell you, when octogenarians utter their dying words, it’s ‘Mama’ the men call for, never ‘Daddy.’ These men may not even be calling out for an actual mother but for the symbolic mama who stands for nurturance, care, connectedness, whose loving presence lets us know we are not alone.”

Patriarchal masculinity insists that real men must prove their manhood by idealizing aloneness and disconnection. Feminist masculinity tells men that they become more real through the act of connecting with others, through building community. There is no society in the world made up of one lone man. Even Thoreau in his solitary cabin wrote to his mother every day. When John Gray tells readers in Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus that men will go into their cave–that is, that men will disassociate and disconnect–he is accurately describing patriarchal masculinity. But he never suggests that men can be fulfilled living their lives in the cave. However, many men caught in patriarchy’s embrace are living in a wilderness of spirit where they are utterly and always alone.

Feminism as a movement to end sexist domination and oppression offers us all the way out of patriarchal culture. The men who are awakening to this truth are generally younger men, who were born into a world where gender equality is more a norm. Unlike older generations of men, they do not have to be convinced that women are their equals. These are the young males who take women’s studies classes, who are not afraid to identify themselves as advocates of feminism. They are the feminist sons of feminist mothers. Hence in his afterword to his mother’s book The Courage to Raise Good Men, Michael Silverstein praises his mother’s work: “The notion that men who have lost touch with their mothers have lost touch with parts of themselves is a powerful one–powerful enough to provoke change. I am proud that my mother has had the courage to open these issues for me and herself, and for other mothers and their sons.” These men are the living example of the ways feminist masculinity liberates men.

Older generations of men who have shifted from sexist thinking to feminist masculinity were often moved by the women in their lives to make changes in thought and action, but for many it was the experience of assuming an equal parenting role that really transformed their consciousness and their behavior. I have had many conversations with men who in parenting daughters suddenly find themselves enraged by patriarchal biases that they had been unaware of or cared nothing about until the moment when they saw sexism began to threaten their daughters’ action and being. Feminist theorists argued from the onset of the movement that were men to participate in parenting in a primary way, they would be changed. They would develop the relational skills often seen as innate in women. Parenting remains a setting where men can practice love as they let go of a dominator model and engage mutually with women who parent with them the children they share. Male domination does not allow mutual intimacy to emerge; it keeps fathers from touching the hearts of their children.

As long as men dominate women, we cannot have love between us. That love and domination can coexist is one of the most powerful lies patriarchy tells us all. Most men and women continue to believe it, but in truth, love transforms domination. When men do the work of creating selves outside the patriarchal box, they create the emotional awareness needed for them to learn to love. Feminism makes it possible for women and men to know love.

Visionary feminism is a wise and loving politics. It is rooted in the love of male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other. The soul of feminist politics is the commitment to ending patriarchal domination and coercion. Males cannot love themselves in patriarchal culture if their very self-definition relies on submission to patriarchal rules. When men embrace feminist thinking and practice, which emphasizes the value of mutual growth and self-actualization in all relationships, their emotional well-being will be enhanced. A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving.

“Mutual partnership is the foundation of love. Feminist thought and action creates the conditions under which mutuality can be nurtured.”

A true comrade and advocate of feminist politics, John Stoltenberg has consistently urged men to develop an ethical sensibility that would enable them to love justice more than manhood. In his essay “Healing from Manhood” he shares that “loving justice more than manhood, is not only a worthy pursuit, it is the future.” As Stoltenberg explains, “Choosing loyalty to manhood over selfhood leads inevitably to injustice . . . loving justice more than manhood relocates personal identity in selfhood–relationally, reciprocally, realistically.” He, like other male advocates of feminist thinking, knows firsthand that it is no easy task for men to rebel against patriarchal thinking and learn to love themselves and others. Feminist masculinity offers men a way to reconnect with selfhood, uncovering the essential goodness of maleness and allowing everyone, male and female, to find glory in loving manhood.”

hooks, bell. 2004. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. New York: Washington Square Press. [Pp. 117-124. From Chapter 7, “Feminist Manhood,” pp. 107-124.]


3 thoughts on “Feminist Masculinity

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  1. Sounds great and all. In reality nearly ALL men want to be this man you described. Problem is that it will land you straight in the friendzone until a women who is done fooling around with “toxically masculine” men now wants such a man described in this article.

    Women are the architects of male expression. Toxically masculine men exist solely because that’s the man that primally arouses women.


    1. This quote is from bell hooks, not me. Do you have any sources to your claims or am I suppose to take your argument as face value?


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