“Make no mistake about it: Women want a men’s movement. We are literally dying for it. If you doubt that, just listen to women’s desperate testimonies of hope that the men in our lives will become more nurturing toward children, more able to talk about emotions, less hooked on a spectrum of control that extends from not listening through to violence, and less repressive of their own human qualities that are called “feminine”–and thus suppressed by cultures in which men dominate.
If this anecdotal evidence isn’t enough, consider some random facts:
- One in four women is sexually assaulted in her lifetime, and not usually by a stereotypical criminal. In one recent survey, 51 percent of college men said they would rape if they could get away with it.
- Domestic violence is the single largest cause of injury to women in the United States. The most dangerous place for a woman is not in the street but in her own home. More than half of battering husbands also abuse their children.
- Battered women are most likely to be killed after an attempt to escape; yet 40 percent of women who apply for shelters for themselves and their children can’t find room because such programs are low in the list of tax priorities for male-dominated legislatures.
- One in four female college students experience rape or attempted rape, and 84 percent know their attackers, but only 5 percent have enough faith in the system–or belief that it wasn’t somehow “their fault”–to report it to the police.
- According to a study done by the organization 9-to-5 even before the Thomas-Hill hearings had educated the country on this issue, about half of women in the paid labor force had experienced some form of sexual harassment.
- Among those divorced men who seek custody of their children, about 70% are successful, often due to their greater earning ability, better chances of remarrying, or to judges’ unwillingness to believe sexual abuse charges brought by a mother and testified to by a child–and this remains true even when there is medical evidence of such child abuse.
- The single most common occasion for female homicide is not robbery, gangs, or drugs, but an argument with a man.
- Even where there is a concern for men of color–for instance, the current move to create all-male schools so that African-American boys will have role models–there is rarely an equal concern for girls.
As Donna Britt recently wrote in an essay in the Washington Post “What About the Sisters?”:
Who’s worried about the mounting numbers of black women raising their kids alone; and those getting the life knocked out of them by angry, frustrated brothers? Who supports career women, whose difficulties with being black and female in an often-hostile work world are denigrated by certain black men–who suggested each sister’s success is bought at a brother’s expense? How about the myriad guys who suggest that while racism is real, sexism is a frivolous, white-girl notion?
As Britt points out, even when black women have jobs, their earning power is far less than that of employed black men (and somewhat less than that of white women), yet they are solely responsible for 64 percent of the nation’s black children.
Remember such facts when you read the mix of skepticism and hope in the voices gathered here. We both want to believe in male change, and have little reason to do so. Remember, too, that women experience more subtle versions of men’s distance from nurturing and empathic roles; for instance, the killing double burden of working in and outside the home that has always been a fact of life for poor women is now one for middle-class women, as well. Perhaps the psychic leap of twenty years ago, Women can do what men can do, must now be followed by, Men can do what women can do.
In short, the question we must ask–and both men and women must keep asking–is not why women can’t escape male violence, but why men do it. Is the men’s movement uprooting the politics of patriarchy, or just giving them a new face?
To the nuances of our answer, each of us brings our own unique experience within the politics of this culture. We must be conscious of that. For instance: I’m more optimistic about men’s willingness and ability to change–and also about their enlightened self-interest in doing so–because I happened to have a nurturing father. Since he made a living as an itinerant antique dealer who worked out of home and car, he could take the place of my mother, who was often ill. Not only did my father make clear that he enjoyed my company in his vagabond travels, but both my parents believed that children should be respected, never hit or humiliated. That’s a very different experience from what seems to be the norm: growing up with a father made to seem distant by society’s work pattern if nothing else, or one who treats daughters in some differential way that varies from benign neglect to seduction and abuse. On the other hand, I also grew up seeing evidence of a male-dominant culture all around me, from women so deprived of self-esteem and attention that they sometimes bragged about their husbands’ violent rages, to the assumptions of my male classmates that caring for home and children could never be their proper concern.
Perhaps this wide range in my own life is why I see such diversity under the umbrella of what might be called the men’s movement. I know longtime allies like John Stoltenberg, author of Refusing to Be a Man, and such pioneering projects such as the New York school program that delighted sixth-grade boys by teaching them to care for babies (reported in Ms. and a television special as “Oh Boy, Babies!”). I also know tried-and-true groups like the Oakland Men’s Project, which for thirteen years has acted on the motto “Men’s Work: To Stop Male Violence.” It not only provides nonviolent male role models and strategies to boys in the East Bay, but has also created a community of men of different races, ethnicities, and sexualities who provide for each other the kind of support and intimacy usually found only in women’s groups. Furthermore, just this week, I met a new group in Manchester, Vermont, whose members–white and mostly middle class, like that community itself–were surprised to find that not one of them was interested in the atavistic “masculine” values proposed by Robert Bly in Iron John. No matter how scary and new, they wanted to explore their “feminine” side and thus their androgynous potential as whole human beings.
At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve encountered “father’s rights” groups that support men’s custody cases without regard to evidence of sexual abuse, condemn the reporting of facts like those in this foreword as “male bashing,” and insist that men are oppressed as “wimps” (or “success objects,” as Warren Farrell says). That’s no more (and no less) true than saying white Americans are oppressed by racism. As for Robert Bly, though he seems to have started out with some idea that men should explore the full circle of human qualities within themselves, perhaps like Freud, whose testimony to childhood sexual abuse was so unpopular that he presented it as children’s wishful thinking instead–Bly seems to have returned to the easier sell of old warlike language of kings and battles, closeness only to males and measuring adulthood by men’s distance from mothers, thus reconstructing patriarchy albeit in a supposedly gentler form.
We have to use our own good instincts when deciding what among this diversity to trust, learn from, and nourish. We need to ask questions. For instance, does the group (or book, or person)
- use atavistic words of hierarchy and warfare instead of new language that breaks down boundaries between women and men?
- make us feel safer as women?
- make men feel more able to cross boundaries of homophobia, racism, class, and distance from women (including mothers)?
- include activism that puts money and time where its principles are, especially with the diminishing of violence?
- perhaps most of all, encourage men to take responsibility for nurturing children?
When the answer to these questions is yes or even trying hard to be yes, then women can find allies in a shared struggle toward a new future.
After all, if it’s fair to say that there is more virtue where there is more choice, then men who choose to reject male privilege may be more virtuous than the rest of us. They will earn our trust. They will also discover the full circle of human qualities within themselves.
The truth is this: For both women and men, completing our full circle lies in the direction we have not been.
Gloria Steinem is a cofounder of Ms. Magazine and is now its consulting editor. She travels widely as a feminist organizer and speaker. Her most recent book is Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem.”
Steinem, Gloria. “Foreword.” 1992. Pp. v-ix in Women Respond to the Men’s Movement: A Feminist Collection, edited by K. L. Hagan. New York: Pandora. [Steinem pictured.]