ABOUT THE NEWS- LETTER
RADICAL MIDDLE, THE BOOK:
OUR CONGRES- SIONAL SCORECARDS:
OUR POLITICAL BOOK AWARD WINNERS:
RESPONSES FROM OTHERS:
WHO WE ARE:
Issue No. 36 (July / August 2002) -- Mark Satin, Editor
feminists and soft men;
Most of what’s really important in this world takes place beneath the headlines. Thus it is that, even as reporters lament the dearth of “big news stories” today, the feminist and men’s liberation movements have changed our thoughts, feelings, expectations, and desires in ways that were unimaginable two generations ago.
And those movements aren’t done yet. Those of us who still associate the women’s movement with what Naomi Wolf sneeringly calls “victim feminism” -- and the men’s movement with middle-aged guys in pony tails pounding drums in the woods -- are missing the latest and most important twist in the gender transition story line.
In the early 1990s, a new wave of thinkers and activists (of all ages) began powerfully critiquing traditional feminist and men’s liberationist dogma. And from the mid-1990s to the present, promising new concepts like “equity feminism” and the “standup guy” have been proposed . . . most of them converging at the radical middle.
I started out wanting to give you a brief, “objective” picture of these new developments. But I concluded, after many tries, that there’s something fundamentally misleading (even dishonest) about covering this stuff in a clipped, bloodless, above-the-fray way. So here’s the article in the form of a not altogether nice letter to Catherine (nee Kathy), my girlfriend long ago, and a confidante and long-distance lover until 1998, when she gave away all her possessions, cut off all her hair, and entered a Buddhist monastery.
Dear Kathy (Cathy? -- oh, all right: Catherine),
Strange writing you now, you’re so far away -- “a different world,” you called it, proudly, the last time we spoke on the phone. And of course I imagine you wanted to say, “A better world.”
But you’ve been on my mind a lot these last few weeks. How couldn’t you be? I’ve been re-reading all these feminist and men’s movement classics and wondering whether things might have worked out better between us (I mean, like, marriage, babies, normalcy) had we NOT been exposed to that stuff.
The animosity was everywhere
Remember in ‘69 how you made me read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962) -- all 600 pages of it -- and how guilty it made me feel, as a man? (You swore I was a spittin’ image of that sleazy “Saul Green” character -- remember?) Have you gone back to it lately and seen how much animosity toward men Ms. Lessing packs into those 600 pages? We were both so caught up in that way of thinking in those days that I don’t think either of us truly knew what we were imbibing.
The animosity was everywhere -- even in the savvy radical feminist books we both happily swore by, such as Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970) and Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex (1970). It was a part of the air we breathed, and I imbibed it as much as you.
Remember that time you came to Vancouver to visit me and got so angry you couldn’t speak? Finally, after we walked all the way out to Wreck Beach, you told me how your mother had abused you as a child, made you feel ugly and inept and Bad, routinely threatened to kill herself “because of” you.
Well, you’d forgiven her, you said (waves pounding on the shore, your head resting on my shoulder). Your real grievance was with me. But you could never say, clearly, what I lacked or what I’d done wrong.
(Now, 30 years later, it’s pretty obvious: You needed a rock to lean on, and I was hardly that! But feminism didn’t allow you to talk like that in those days, and God knows how I’d have reacted if you did.)
In a way, your lack of clarity didn’t matter. Probably nothing you could have said would have induced me to become what men’s writer Michael Segell recently called a “standup guy.” By the time I was 25, I’d learned to distrust myself as much as any radical feminist could have.
Such a liberated man!
And many men felt the same way. In The Liberated Man (1974), Warren Farrell -- board member of National Organization for Women-New York -- famously argued that everything angry women were saying about us was true. In The Male Machine (1974), Marc Fasteau argued that most of us were about as feelingful and insightful as our beloved automobiles.
And those were just the books for the liberals! The radical stuff -- the “real deal,” in those days -- went further. Remember Jack Litewka’s essay “The Socialized Penis” in Liberation Magazine (reprinted in all those men’s anthologies in the 70s)? His basic idea was that men develop erections because of thoughts of domination and conquest, so the only “good” sex begins with a soft penis.
God, Cath, we spent hours trying to get Litewka’s theories to “work.” And we were so damn serious about it!
At least you were back in the U.S. when I moved on to John Stoltenberg’s essays in WIN Magazine and elsewhere (later collected in his book Refusing To Be a Man, 1989, rev. 2000, still a staple of many college “gender studies” courses). Stoltenberg, long-time roommate of Andrea Dworkin, not only thinks men’s sexual impulses are ugly; he thinks all men’s impulses are bound up with power and control, and that we desperately need -- for the sake of All Humanity -- to do away with manhood as we know it.
For as far back as I can remember, I’ve avoided stepping on insects. I gave up my country to avoid serving in an unjust war. But as soon as I read Stoltenberg, I knew I hadn’t gone nearly far enough in curbing my aggressive, power-mad ways.
I put my new insights to work almost immediately. I’d been living with Lisa, a bisexual grad student I adored; and when she began drifting away from me, I refused to “fight for” her, as any conventional man might have done. Instead, I happily encouraged her to pursue her interest in other men and -- especially -- in women.
At the same time, with Stoltenberg’s help, I packaged my life in a way that could have appealed to her. Men are the Oppressors. My whole life -- from walking away from an all-expenses-paid graduate fellowship in American history, to washing dishes part-time for a living, to refusing to wear mainstream clothes, to refusing to douse myself with thick gobs of deodorant -- was one long refusal to be a man, to shoulder the Poisonous Power of being a man.
Therefore, I wasn’t an Oppressor, was I? And I was “trying” to be so much more. (By demonstrating on behalf of the Quebec Liberation Front, for example.)
Lisa said supportive things, but continued drifting away. Finally, just before summer vacation, she told me she’d decided to move into a lesbian-feminist commune that fall. She’d be “sponsored” there by a lesbian named Susan, whom she’d met in one of her classes.
Here’s what I was like in those days, Cath -- here’s what probably a million “soft men” in their 20s were like:
“That’s great about Susan,” I said as nonchalantly as I could. “Um, if I stay in Toronto can I visit you at the commune?”
“They don’t let men in the door,” she said proudly.
“But I’m not a man,” I said. “I’m an effeminist.”
“You’re a man,” she said.
My eyes welled with tears. “I’m embarrassed to say it,” I said. “But I love you. I want you to stay with me.”
“How do I leave thee?” she said mockingly. “Let me count the ways --.”
“Lisa, tell me something. Would it have been different if I had a real income, and a place of my own, and a regular job -- teaching American history maybe?”
“I’d have spit at you,” she said, with less conviction than her words warranted.
“Didn’t you tell me Susan wants to be a teacher?”
“That’s different!” she said. “Women are pioneers in this world.”
I sat down, folded my arms on my lap, and cradled my head in them. Lisa came over and rubbed me behind the ears.
“I cared for you,” she said. “I cared for you a lot.”
"Saved" by a mission
Cath, that was my love life in a nutshell during the Seventies. No matter how much I denied my ambition and suppressed my power, the kinds of women I wanted -- the women who’d been galvanized by Doris Lessing, Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone -- always seemed to drift away in the end. I didn’t understand it.
And I’m including you, too, Cath. We got together several times during the Seventies, you always said such nice things about my “integrity” and such, but you never stayed for good.
The Eighties was phenomenally different. With my popular book New Age Politics and my hugely successful newsletter, New Options, I was on a mission, and women always seemed to be by my side, no matter how inattentive I was to them. I didn’t understand that either, until I read Michael Segell (below).
But those women always seemed to fight with me. The relationships weren’t sweet and doomed like they’d been in the Seventies. More like painful and doomed. (Of course, we were all 10-20 years older in the Eighties.) There was so much anger coming from those women, and it was never very far beneath the surface.
I’ll “always remember” the one who accused me of rape and later recanted; the one who accused me of making an obscene phone call, rebuttable only because someone else was with me at the time (thank God); all the ones who lost it because I was working so hard at New Options. . . .
You were seething too, Cath. Remember the time you visited me in 1986, I think it was, and we were walking down the street, and you started screaming at me because I was wearing a suit? Remember the time you visited and kept track of the number of minutes each of us spent talking about our work?
Remember the time -- after you gained those 40 extra pounds -- you bought me a box of chocolates, and went ballistic when you discovered I was only eating one or two a day?
On each visit, you seemed more and more convinced I was a terrible person. You seemed to take a certain comfort in that fact! But by the late Eighties, I’d gotten far enough away from the Millett-Litewka-Stoltenberg view of the sexual universe to not buy into your shtick.
I knew you’d made some transparently wrong-headed personnel decisions (an emotionally closed ex-husband, an emotionally unstable radical-activist boyfriend who eventually hung himself in your bedroom). I knew you’d spent your whole life being underemployed, and that you blamed everyone and everything but yourself for finding no real home for your awesome IQ.
I loved you dearly. But I didn’t see myself as an Oppressor any more, and I didn’t see you (or any of the other multitalented, angry women I knew) as a Victim of what you still occasionally called “patriarchal society.”
By the early Nineties, I’d had enough of angry women for a while. For the first time since my Stoltenberg daze I turned to feminist and men’s movement writings, this time to get a read on the larger sexual culture.
What I discovered wasn’t pretty.
I’d assumed I’d find all sorts of books sensitively examining the contradictory wants and needs that were (I felt sure) behind the bitterness I’d encountered.
Instead, the most popular feminist books still saw women (or at least, feminist women) as noble dears and men as the enemy . . . more powerful and conspiratorial than ever! And the most popular masculinist books were still in thrall to the soft man!
Susan Faludi’s Backlash (1991) may have been the most talked-about feminist book since the Seventies.
In the midst of the biggest explosion of career and lifestyle options for women this country (or any country) had ever seen, Faludi offered up a 500-page brief for the thesis that clueless men, powerful conservatives and “popular culture” were attempting --- through “codes and cajolings . . . whispers and threats and myths” -- to drag women back to the Dark Ages.
An alternate explanation for the failure of U.S. society to uncritically embrace every jot and tittle of the feminist revolution was that many people (most of good will) had begun to worry about certain second-order effects of the New World we were creating -- the soaring number of single-parent families, for example.
But Faludi not only rejected that explanation, she spent over 100 pages cruelly ridiculing (not just criticizing) those who didn’t see things as simplistically as she did.
Betty Friedan, for example, was accused of raising doubts because she wanted to pay more physically attractive feminists back for not “following her orders.” Warren Farrell (see above & below) was accused of moving away from the NOW line on men because he was an obnoxious narcissist who wanted to acquire a larger following.
Naomi Wolf’s first book, The Beauty Myth (1991), was almost as popular as Faludi’s -- and the conspiratorial tone was even stronger.
“It is no accident that so many potentially powerful women [are obsessed with looking beautiful],” Wolf wrote. “We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement. . . .
“As women released themselves from the feminine mystique of domesticity, the beauty myth took over its lost ground, expanding as it waned to carry on its work of social control. . . . [I]n the modern age in the West [beauty] is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact.”
I don’t know, Cath. Many observers think beauty standards for women are more varied today than ever. (I did cringe at those 40 extra pounds, but 10 would have added just a fun new fleshy dimension.) The emerging aerobics- and humanistic-psychology-inspired standard for women and men is whether you look like you take pride in your physical self. And who can object to that?
Men’s movement books in the early Nineties seemed stuck in a time warp.
Robert Bly’s Iron John (1990) made the bestseller lists, even though its intended audience was the kind of “soft man” I’d been in the Sixties and Seventies. How I wish I’d had Bly’s book back then! Forgive me for saying this, Cath, but if I’d read it then (and understood it), we’d probably be married with three kids now. And if we weren’t, then Lisa and I would be teaching at some university somewhere.
By cleverly examining old myths, Bly shows his male readers that you can’t find love or happiness by trying to be pleasing to women -- or useful to The Revolution.
Instead, you’ve got to start by getting in touch with the “grief” you feel as a man (often a result of growing up with an emotionally distant Dad). Once you do, you can begin to develop a rich, Dionysian inner energy.
Then you’ve got to find something to do and someone to love that connects with your rich inner core.
Then pursue that calling and that person like a mythic warrior, with “true strength,” resolute but non-aggressive.
The problem with Bly’s book is that it provides little practical guidance. It’s like those abstract Marxist tomes we used to read in the Sixties: They had all the “answers,” but the answers couldn’t be translated down to street level.
In the wake of Bly’s book, other books tried doing the translation. The best of these is Sam Keen’s Fire in the Belly (1991). But, tellingly, Keen’s picture of the truly liberated male -- the “husbandman” -- is still a lot closer to the “soft male” of the Seventies than it is to the “standup guy” of our time:
“A husbandman may or may not plow and sow crops, but he certainly must take care of the place with which he has been entrusted. . . . Psychologically, the husbandman is a man who has made a decision to be in place, to make commitments, to forge bonds, to put down roots, to translate the feeling of empathy and compassion into an action of caring.”
Note the passive construction (“been entrusted”), the fixation on fixedness in the most dynamic society on earth, the exclusive use of words like “care” and “compassion” as opposed to mixing them in with more heady words like “ambition” and “achievement.”
Admit it, Cath: Too narrow, too cloying, too P.C.
Beyond little Ms. Victim
If I hadn’t trundled off to law school in 1992, I’d have stopped reading feminist and men’s movement literature. (No “husbandman” was I.) But I didn’t want to lose touch with the cultural visions that were informing my young classmates’ lives.
Thank God I kept on reading. It was around 1992 that many feminists and masculinists began publicly rethinking their movements.
The result was one of the most dazzling outpourings of movement literature in my lifetime, and it hasn’t abated yet -- although certain old-style feminist and men’s liberation leaders are doing everything they can to pull the plug on it (e.g., Gloria Steinem called CBS to try to pressure it into not airing a show on Christina Hoff Sommers, author of a book praising “equity” feminism).
One of the first major books to strike this new chord came from outside the conventional sex role circuit: Patricia Aburdene and John Naisbitt’s Megatrends for Women (1992).
Aburdene and Naisbitt are, of course, the authors of the painstakingly researched best-seller Megatrends; and in Megatrends for Women, they presented reams and reams of credible, objective data on women’s progress -- in politics, sports, corporate affairs, religion, law. . . . absolutely giving the lie to all those feminists theorists, like Faludi and Wolf, who argued that American women were being stymied by a mean-spirited, male-identified, quasi-conspiratorial backlash.
“The remnants of male domination [will fail],” the authors concluded. “And the reason is critical mass. . . . There are simply too many powerful women [today] with too many male allies.”
Meanwhile, from out of virtually nowhere (the “University of the Arts” in Philadelphia -- a working-class school not on the usual feminist circuit), Camille Paglia brought forth her first book of essays, Sex, Art, and American Culture (1992) -- a passionate cry to feminists to drop their reliance on French postmodern male theoreticians (according to Paglia, the intellectual source of their dark theories of victimhood) and pay more attention to the extraordinarily rich, complex, and open-ended real lives of women and men in America today.
“It’s very, very bad to convince young women that . . . their heritage is nothing but victimization,” Paglia said in a dramatic hours-long extemporaneous rant at MIT (reprinted in the book). “You do not [just] have this endless series of atrocities through history.
“Men have also protected women. Men have given women sustenance. . . . Men’s creation of the technological world of today has made me possible. . . .”
If Paglia brandishes a shotgun, Christina Hoff Sommers, a professor of moral philosophy, wields a scalpel. Her book Who Stole Feminism? (1994) carefully dissects two strains of feminism -- one life-giving, the other victim-centric -- and their effects on America today.
“Equity feminists believe that American women have made great progress and that our system of government allows them to expect more,” Sommers writes. Equity feminists do not believe that women are “subordinate” to men in any meaningful sense today. Equity feminists celebrate the enormously wide range of beliefs and sensibilities among women today.
By contrast, gender feminists “believe that modern women are still in thrall to patriarchy,” and that most men support the patriarchy, either overtly or covertly. Therefore, men are deeply suspect. Moreover, radical women’s beliefs and sensibilities are assumed to be near-perfect and exemplary for all women (and men).
Especially on university faculties, Sommers says, gender feminists are winning out. At many elite schools, their brand of feminism has served to suppress not just obnoxious speech but honest intellectual inquiry and debate.
Cath, if I hadn’t gone back to university in the Nineties I’d have thought Sommers was dreaming. But the atmosphere in classrooms today is dramatically less free-wheeling than it was 30 years ago. It’s like a pall comes over you and everyone when class starts.
There are so many things you can’t say when you’re discussing subjects like abortion law, pornography law, family law. The only time in my life I felt a need to censor myself was the three years I spent being “educated” at a so-called Top Five law school.
Big bad Wolf
Sommers does leave readers with the hope that equity feminism may now be resurgent, and one piece of evidence she gives is the appearance of Naomi Wolf’s second book, Fire With Fire (1993).
Yes, it’s just a book. But it’s an extraordinarily inspiring, forward-looking, gender-healing book. And it’s even more significant for having been penned by the author of one of the most prominent woman-as-victim books, The Beauty Myth (discussed above).
The title Fire With Fire is indecipherable and may represent a failure of nerve -- I understand that the working draft was called something like “Power Feminism Versus Victim Feminism.” And sometimes Wolf spends paragraphs, pages, prefacing her points by painfully reassuring gender / victim feminists (her former allies) that she hasn’t stepped off the feminist reservation.
Which is true. She’s still a feminist! But she’s now the kind of feminist that rails against the “glamorization of the marginal” and against such “bad intellectual habits” as “ideological purity,” “consensus thinking,” and “litmus tests.”
She’s the kind of feminist that criticizes feminism for failing to develop a “vocabulary in which a woman can celebrate sex with men” -- then spends pages rhapsodizing about her own good sex with men. (She confesses to writing The Beauty Myth in part “because of my own struggles to resist my temptation to treat men like beautiful objects.”)
She’s the kind of feminist that wants women to pay less heed to their wounded “inner child,” and more heed to the “inner bad girl lurking in the female psyche.”
She’s the kind of feminist that tells women to fess up to the “complexity of their own human struggle between merging and autonomy.”
“Victim” feminism, to Wolf, “casts women as sexually pure and mystically nurturing, and stresses the evil done to these ‘good’ women as a way to petition for their rights.”
By contrast, “power feminism sees women as human beings -- sexual, individual, no better or worse than their male counterparts -- and lays claim to equality simply because women are entitled to it.”
Because victim feminists see power as “male,” says Wolf, they’re often ambivalent about having power and deeply distrust mainstream power apparatuses such as corporations and the professions.
Power feminists, by contrast, relish the opportunities for social influence that mainstream institutions now routinely offer to qualified women.
Cath, remember meeting M.C., Sylvia and Shelley, three of my part-time assistants at New Options? In 1992, each of them decided to leave The Movement and go to graduate school (at ages 30-41). Now M.C. is an environmental lawyer at a top-tier law firm, Sylvia is an environmental scientist with the federal government, and Shelley is about to be recognized by Fortune Magazine as one of the “25 most influential ‘out’ gay and lesbian executives in corporate America.”
Power feminism (aka equity feminism) is on the march!
Beyond guilty Mr. Softman
While many feminists were leaving their “innocent victim” personas behind, many men’s liberation types were abandoning their “soft guy” personas. It wasn’t pretty.
Warren Farrell’s Myth of Male Power (1993, repr. 2001) is the most important book of this genre -- and a favorite target of gender studies classes taught by victim feminists.
When we last saw Farrell (above) he was defending women’s lib. Here he’s doing something more difficult -- trying to demonstrate that most men today (a) have fewer life choices than women, (b) are treated less kindly by economic, social, and political institutions than women, and (c) are less able than women to articulate or defend their interests, because of a pervasively anti-male bias in both popular and elite culture.
The book makes a better case than you might suppose. Especially compelling are Farrell’s efforts to demolish certain social “myths”: It turns out that, according to some sources, equally qualified women aren’t paid significantly less than men for comparable work, don’t work more hours per week than men (housework, child care, and commuting time included), are just as physically and psychologically abusive as men, etc.
Neither sex has “power,” Farrell concludes. Both have “roles.” And men’s roles are even more self-defeating than women’s. What if girls (or, for that matter, Jews or blacks) were singled out and told they had to register for the draft? Would they call that “power”? What if girls were told they had to play football and risk broken limbs to get love and attention from boys?
On and on and on Farrell goes, nonstop, for 400 pages. At some point you realize what’s bothering you: Not the information, but the tone. It’s almost completely without empathy for the opposite sex. It’s victim feminism for guys! Sometimes it even reeks of the resentment and paranoia of victim feminism, as in this passage:
“When it works, it’s called courtship; when it doesn’t, it’s called harassment.”
By the late Nineties, the ground ploughed by feminists like Aburdene, Paglia, Sommers, and the Naomi Wolf of Fire With Fire had begun to bear extraordinary fruit.
At a relatively tame level, young feminist Karen Lehrman came out with The Lipstick Proviso (Doubleday, 228 pp., 1997, $24), a thoughtful declaration of independence from victim feminism (which Lehrman calls “ideological” feminism) and an assertion of the right to be As Proudly Femmey As I Wanna Be.
Lehrman’s theme: Each woman is unique. All women don’t think alike and there’s nothing “feminist” about pressuring them to do so. Hence the lipstick proviso: “women don’t have to sacrifice their individuality, or even their femininity -- whatever that means to each of them -- in order to be equal. . . . We don’t have to jettison all of traditional femininity, romance, and the nuclear family just because they existed before the Sixties.”
Victim feminists pounced on Lehrman as quickly as they pounced on women at my law school who wore miniskirts to class. A nasty, months-long debate between Susan Faludi and Lehrman on the webzine Slate (http://slate.msn.com, then enter “Revisionist Feminism” in the Archives box) can give you the flavor.
But Lehrman’s book was just a warm-up act for an even younger cadre of feminists, who burst into prominence in the late Nineties through “girlzines” such as Bitch, HUES, and (especially) Bust.
Cath, if you weren’t in an abbey I’d send you an issue of Bust along with this letter. (You can view parts of it online, at www.bust.com, or read selected articles in the comfy 100% linear confines of an anthology, BUST Guide to the New Girl Order, Penguin, 376 pp., 1999, $16 pbk).
No, I’m not trying to make you feel uncomfortable -- it just haunts me, wishing you’d had in the Sixties and Seventies the rage to be Up Front With Everything that these gals do. Our lives (yours and mine) might have been dramatically different.
True, on one level the material may seem juvenile. The anthology includes articles with titles like “Thanks for the Mammaries,” “How To Be as Horny as a Guy,” “The Curse of the Mama’s Boy,” and “Bad Like Me.” The most delightful piece I read in the magazine (some time in ‘98) was a poem celebrating all the different kinds of women’s breasts.
But there’s a very serious and wonderful core to all this.
For two decades, Seventies feminists had preached that the liberation of women meant driving the girl out of them. Girlie culture does two things: (a) following Paglia and Wolf, redefine “girl” as bad-as-well-as-good, Dionysian as well as Apollonian, and (b) validate everything that’s delightful and complex about being a girl (“when we played with Barbies it was complex and interesting,” says a Bust editor). Then Girlie gives strong women a mandate to carry that energy around with them from ages 12 through 120.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Two recent books, both by young feminists, plumb Girlie culture in exquisite, loving detail -- and even try to find a politics there.
Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Rich- ards’s Manifesta (Farrar Straus, 416 pp., 2000, $15 pbk) has received more ink so far, in part because both women are plugged into the elite media culture of New York -- Baumgardner writes for The Nation, Richards is an editor at Ms., and much of the book was composed while the authors were camped out at Gloria Steinem’s pad.
It’s an enormously intelligent explication and defense of Girlie culture, though the authors’ insider politics is subtly always on view (e.g., they trace Girlie back to Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl, 1962, which appeared -- they pointedly tell us -- one year before the book most people say kicked off the Second Wave of feminism, The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan . . . Gloria Steinem’s long-time rival).
The authors differ from many Girlie enthusiasts, though, in arguing that there’s nothing particularly political -- or even feminist -- about Girlie. At one point they call it “feminism lite”; at another point they say “feminism needs Girlie and Girlie needs feminism.”
The real business of their book, it turns out, is coming up with a politics for Girlie. But the politics they spell out has no organic connection to Girlie culture. It’s the politics of Ms. and The Nation, as a 13-point agenda toward the end of the book makes clear.
Girlie & the human condition
I prefer the other recent book on Girlie culture and politics, Susan Jane Gilman’s Kiss My Tiara (Warner, 205 pp., 2001, $13 pbk). In fact, I’m in love with it.
Gilman is former editor of a West Coast girlzine, HUES, and is in some ways as much of a lefty as Baumgardner and Richards. But there’s no sense that she’s trying to hijack Girlie culture for her own (or others’) purposes. She writes utterly from inside that culture, is its product as much as its champion. (Just as I was of New Age culture when I wrote New Age Politics, Cath.)
And she writes beautifully. Which is to say, she sustains that Girlie attitude for over 200 pages! Here she is on her intentions:
“[M]ost women today want two things: (1) some smart, no-nonsense advice about how to navigate the world, and (2) to laugh. Ideally, we want both these things at once. . . . And instead of casting us as victims, we’d like a manifesto -- excuse me, a womanfesto -- that draws upon our strengths. . . .”
Here she is on men: “We girls get the message and we get it early: Strong women don’t get the guys. Stand up for yourself and you stand alone. . . . Let’s flip through our reality checkbook for a moment, shall we? Just who are all the famous, lonely, bitter feminists that the world is so quick to vilify? . . . Oprah Winfrey? Naomi Wolf? Patricia Ireland? . . . These women are living proof that bodacious feminist broads who speak their minds get their goodie bags, too.”
Just like Baumgardner and Richards, Gilman has a political agenda at the end of her book -- but it’s less programmatic than theirs, more open-ended. One of her agenda items is “Give leftie attitudes a makeover.”
Then she hits you with a conclusion that derives straight from Girlie’s humorous, diffident, superrealistic take on the world -- and promises to turn feminism into something truly exciting: A 21st-century take on the human condition.
Face it, girls (she says, in so many words), there are no perfect feminist “solutions” to living one’s life. She runs through all the current possibilities, from “Marry & have kids young, launch career late” (right-wing feminism’s preferred solution) to “Be trophy wife to really rich guy” to “Be countercultural,” and everything in between.
And she lists the pros and cons of each possibility. (For example, one pro under “Single mom” is “Piss off Dan Quayle.” One con is “Harder than anything else in world.”)
Her immediate, quasi-humorous point is that life is hard and it’s the human condition to be “kvetching, existentially insecure, anxious,” etc. Her larger, political point is that feminism is not about making the world failsafe for presumptively pure and perfect women. It’s about “grow[ing] up and tak[ing] charge.”
If there’s a parallel to attitude feminism among men, then it’s the kind of thinking -- and feeling and longing -- embodied in Benjamin DeMott’s book Killer Woman Blues (Houghton Mifflin, 235 pp., 2000, $26).
DeMott is a distinguished elderly professor at prestigious Amherst College. But this book is a cry from the heart.
DeMott is convinced that something’s gone terribly wrong with the feminist movement: Women are becoming more and more like crude, self-centered, ruthless, “kickass” (DeMott’s word) men. And he can’t stand it!
His book is full of examples from popular culture, from women giving men the finger in Chevy Camaro commercials to op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd’s relentlessly mean-spirited pieces in the New York Times. Probably every man can come up with examples from his own life experiences (I’ll spare you mine, Cath).
How to explain this devastating turn? According to DeMott, feminism and then the larger culture bought into the concept of “gender shift” -- the notion that, in order to succeed, women have to become as ruthless and self-centered as (the feminist caricature of) men.
DeMott pleads with the feminist movement to stop the gender shift and return to the original feminist concept of “gender flexibility.” The notion of gender flexibility is as compelling to DeMott as the notion of Girlie is to attitude feminists:
“[Gender flexibility] required of both sexes readiness to explore fresh concepts of human identity. . . . It taught that releasing the sexes from imprisonment in fixed gender roles would mean richer, more amply imagined lives for all. . . .
“It taught that ending hypocritical elevation of the ‘purer sex’ [was crucial. It taught that] the major issue at stake in the historical struggle for liberation [of both sexes was] how to achieve fullness of being. . . .”
DeMott finds it ironic and sad that many men may now be happier with the original feminist ideal than feminists themselves.
He’s right with regard to victim feminists. But he’s laughably off base with regard to equity feminists, as three recent books make clear.
Men & women together
In the teeth of victim feminism’s propensity to continue seeing men, white men, dead white men, divorced fathers, etc., as the enemy, three recent books have powerfully argued that it’s time for women and men to listen carefully to each other, acknowledge each other’s difficult truths (not just the New Age or feminist “line” of the day), and join together in a movement for true gender equity for both sexes.
The three books are especially significant because each comes from a very different kind of thinker.
Susan Faludi’s Backlash (discussed above) was the bible of victim feminism. But in her recent book, Stiffed (Morrow, 662 pp., 1999, $16 pbk), she stunned her supporters by saying that “[b]laming a cabal of men has taken feminism about as far as it can go,” then offering up 600 pages lamenting the plight of the American male.
Woe is men! says Faludi. We’re not the terrible creatures some feminists make us out to be. We really are bewildered -- partly because women are taking some of our economic importance away, but partly because we’ve been given a raw deal by Society.
During World War II, we liked to think of ourselves as “heroically selfless,” and after the war we expected to continue being “quietly useful” in the civilian arena. We’d work hard -- we’d be loyal to our employers -- and in return, we’d be rewarded, just as we were when we were dog soldiers in Europe.
Well, things didn’t turn out that way (according to Faludi). Individualism won out over the communal teamwork stressed during the war (and, before that, the New Deal) -- loyalty and hard work were increasingly not rewarded -- and men found themselves competing against gangsta rappers, action heroes, and superathletes for societal respect. It was a competition 99.9% of men were destined to lose.
Both women and men lost out to “glamour” in the end. And now it’s in our own best interests, men’s as well as women’s, to revolt against the demands put upon us by the culture and figure out new ways “to be human” in the 21st century, with a new politics to match.
You can object that individualism is what America at its best is all about, that most men never only wanted to be loyal drones, that the pursuit of exemplary achievement is fundamental to them too. You can object that role models ranging from General Colin Powell to Justice Stephen Breyer are more compelling than Snoop Doggy Dogg to guys who’ve got their heads on straight.
But the fundamental contribution of Stiffed is to mark a sea-change in feminism. Many feminists now accept that, as Faludi puts it, “[m]en and women [now] hold the keys to each other’s liberation.”
Enter Warren Farrell with a very similar message.
Farrell’s Myth of Male Power (discussed above) was the bible of the men’s movement. But in Women Can’t Hear What Men Don’t Say (Tarcher/Putnam, 372 pp., 1999, $15 pbk) he astonished some of his acolytes by repudiating the tone of his earlier book: “[I]t neglected a method of communicating . . . that could increase love without sacrificing honesty to do it.”
Much of Women Can’t Hear repeats the insights and information in the earlier book. Even some of the examples are the same.
But instead of coming off as an attack on feminism (or women), the new book is carefully couched as an attempt to help women and men see that men haven’t yet found their voice . . . and when men do find their voice, they’ll come across much like Farrell . . . and if women listen to those men, really listen, with the skills Farrell suggests in his first 80 pages . . . and then if men really listen to women’s responses . . . we’ll be on our way to what Farrell calls “the next evolutionary shift: the expectation of equal protection.”
We’ll be ready to create a world in which society cares equally deeply about men’s and women’s “feelings and self-fulfillment.”
Is it good for both sexes?
Into the benign force-field created by Faludi’s and Farrell’s new books swaggers Cathy Young’s Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces To Achieve True Equality (Free Press, 360 pp., 1999, $25). The sub-title makes it sound like more of the same, but it’s actually light-years beyond those books.
For Young isn’t a well-known gender writer trying to alter her position to accommodate the new century. She IS the tempest-tossed new century come to prepare the ground for the woman and man reunion. She spent her first two decades in the Soviet Union (see her memoir Growing Up in Moscow), and if she had one-tenth the media connections of a Faludi, her book would already have been recognized for what it is, the most galvanizing feminist book since Fire With Fire.
Instead of just saying men’s and women’s perspectives should be brought together, Young devotes her book to actually bringing them together. And she writes so brilliantly, she pulls together so many different voices and perspectives, and her arguments are so nuanced and yet so clear, that even when you find yourself disagreeing with her (as I did at times) you’ll realize you’re being kicked and dragged to a place you’ve always wanted to be.
Young shows us that women’s “real source” of anger at men -- in the year 2000 as distinct from 1970 -- more often has to do with the “tensions of intimacy” than the reality of oppression.
She argues that Wolf’s “power feminism” can become exploitative -- women don’t always deserve more. She argues that the men’s movement according to Farrell is very close to being a male equivalent of victim feminism. She devotes an entire chapter to skewering conservative versions of feminism.
And every word builds toward her conclusion -- that we need a philosophy that’s not “pro-woman” but “pro-fairness,” and a politics that stresses not “solidarity with women” but “fairness for everyone.”
If we need a movement, she says, “it should be an equal rights movement -- not a National Organization for Women, but a National Organization for Gender Equality. . . . Such a movement would not ask, ‘Is it good for women?’ but, ‘Does it bring the sexes closer together?’”
Ambition needs a movement
Among those thinkers and activists who still identify with distinct men’s and women’s movements, there’s a new desire to speak difficult truths.
Cath, I still kick myself for not finding the right words, doing the right things, to inspire you to find a profession that made use of all your extraordinary gifts. And if it makes you feel any better, I’ve failed at that with several other women as well.
Now comes Susan Estrich’s lively and entertaining book Sex & Power (Riverhead/Penguin, 285 pp., 2000, $25), which is about many things, but primarily about women’s persistent unwillingness to “go for the gold.”
If anyone has the authority to write about this subject, it’s Estrich -- first female president of the Harvard Law Review, first woman to run a major presidential campaign (Dukakis’s), etc.
She’s by no means unattentive to the “subtle” (her word) prejudices women still face, or to the fact that the work world is often a difficult place. But she’s convinced that today the ball is largely in women’s court -- and they’re not taking full advantage of their opportunities.
The book can be read as a long meditation on the question, Why are women dropping the ball? Her answer boils down to this: “We don’t want it, or we don’t want it enough to pay the price, push up the mountain, do what it takes.”
And she’s not happy with this state of affairs. “[H]ow are you going to take over if you’re all dropping out?” she laments. “You can’t change the rules if you’re not in the room. You can’t finish a revolution without getting in there and fighting. . . .
“[D]ropping out, pulling back, letting niceness get the best of you [is] a selfish decision, from the collective perspective of feminism. It negatively affects other women. It retards change. . . .
“[M]otherhood doesn’t need a movement anywhere near as desperately as ambition does.”
Meanwhile, on the men’s movement side, Michael Segell is doing the best job of pushing the envelope.
More than any men’s writer I know, he’s broken with both the New Age image of the “husbandman” or “soft man,” and the Warren Farrell image of man as misunderstood and unappreciated victim (though he’s incorporated plenty of insights from both camps).
I haven’t read Segell’s just-published anthology of men’s writing, A Man’s Journey to Simple Abundance (co-created with Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of Simple Abundance). But that’s because I’m still digesting his extraordinary book Standup Guy: Manhood After Feminism (Villard, 234 pp., 1999, $13 pbk).
The book isn’t exactly welcome reading. Like Estrich’s book, it tells unpleasant truths, and trusts the reader to be mature enough to deal with them.
It tells men that, yes, women do care how tall you are, how good a provider you are, how socially adept you are. Always have, always will.
It instructs men to be less concerned about women’s sexual fidelity (many of today’s young women stray more than men), and more concerned about the quality of intimacy you’ve established with them.
It informs men that there’s a visceral connection between a loving home life and a successful professional career.
A “standup guy” is someone who’s begun to change in ways that equity feminists might like -- but also understands that much of what women expect from men is timeless, unchangeable.
Warren Farrell might whine that that means a standup guy is someone who’s adept at walking a tightrope with a smile. A standup guy might agree -- and smile during the verbal exchange. Here’s how Segell puts it:
“[A standup guy supports] modern political and economic gender justice while honoring the prehistoric, sometimes anachronistic, impulses, instincts, feelings, and desires that have ever animated men’s and women’s private lives.”
Segell spends the entire book looking for bits and pieces of the “standup guy” -- at men’s gatherings, in locker rooms, in the literature of sociobiology, at a Promise Keeper’s rally -- most of all, though, in his own heart (the chapter on his coming to terms, sort of, with his own distant and psychologically abusive father -- and on the standup guy’s obligation to keep pursuing one’s father -- is the emotional heart of the book).
Here’s what Segell finally concludes:
“[T]he new standup guy [is] emotionally independent, sexually sophisticated, committed to fatherhood, . . . and possessed of an ego unthreatened by accomplished women. . . .
“[But] women still want a man who is competitive enough to prove his love to be greater than that of a rival, strong and tough enough to protect his children, and aggressive enough to amass the goods he will later give back to [his family and others]. . . .
“The new standup guys and the old alpha males [also share] a willingness to live up to their personal potential, no matter how modest and within whatever socioeconomic niche. This fact should not be lost on those men . . . who have embraced an unthreatening and watery brand of androgyny.”
For the children
Cath, I enjoyed sharing these thoughts, emotions, and materials with you. I’m sure you don’t read much feminist or men’s movement literature out there in the abbey, and I hope this letter gives you a sense of what you’ve been missing.
Although I miss you, I certainly don’t want this letter to discourage you from your present course. You’re a lot closer to God now, and I suppose that’s who you wanted all along. God or a better mother.
Me, I prefer it out here. I enjoy watching the next generation take up the clarion call of the best of these authors -- to pursue the deep reconciliation of men and women in the real world of carnal love and mutual ambition.
It would have been nice if things had worked out differently between us, and the next generation had included our children. But I’m sure our deeply felt, freely shared, and recklessly experimental lives contributed to the social milieu that made some of the insights above possible.
History will record that that was our way of bringing new life to this world. God will usher us out with a smile.
In the meantime -- as Girlie might say, thanks for the mammaries.
ABOUT THE RADICAL MIDDLE CONCEPT
GREAT RADICAL MIDDLE GROUPS AND BLOGS:
SOME PRIOR RADICAL MIDDLE INITIATIVES:
SOME RADICAL MIDDLE LESSONS:
SOME PRIOR WRITINGS BY MARK SATIN:
NOT JUST RADICAL MIDDLE: