The Me Too Movement, the latest wave of the feminist revolution, finds me, once again, a supporter and a slightly wary bystander. It’s easy to cheer on the fight for equality and safety, but this is not a revolution that men like me experience at a distance. We live and work with women. We raise girls. As with any fight, there are some bruising times with the most intimate people in our lives, even as we struggle to be on the right side of justice.
The dawn of the struggle for me came early. I was a teenager when my mother decided she would go to work. My father opposed her. To me, his opposition seemed wrong, foolish, even stupid, and hard to even fathom until I looked more closely at how fragile his ego was. I strongly supported my mother but, in some darker side of my psyche, I could identify with his fear of losing her love—who might she meet out there?—and his control of her once she was free. Still, I vowed, even then, that I would never follow in his footsteps.
The struggle emerged again in force during the late 1960’s, when I was in graduate school, in the form of consciousness raising groups. Women gathered to surface and discuss the many forms of their oppression in male-dominated societies. Again I cheered, but I hated being singled out as a generic man, man the oppressor. I hated anger directed at me, knowing some was legitimate, even as I wanted to explain how I was better than most. During the next ten years or so, conversations among friends, colleagues, and public intellectuals kept the pot stirred. Even while being on the side of justice, it was hard to relax around gender-based issues.
It was during that time, 1970 to be precise, that my daughter was born. Unlike my current wife of forty plus years, my former wife was not drawn to the traditional mothering role. There was little in my early life to prepare me to be the parent most involved in her early years, to feed her and change her diapers, to walk with her late into the night to soothe her crying. Nor, as time passed, to arrange my schedule and finances to pay for her child care. I never thought to give up this role but it forced me to work less and, as I watched other men and their single-minded devotion to work, I did wonder if it would slow or stunt the development of my career. Eventually, though, I came to love my role. I loved taking care of daughter, and I believed that it had taught me incalculable lessons about nurturing, dedication, discipline, and intimacy.
I thought that I had bought myself a pass, insulated myself from feminist criticism—even though I knew there was some truth to it, too. I was a different kind of man, more like a woman. But most women couldn’t see into my heart. Most knew nothing of my parenting role. For them, I was a man, maybe a nice man—a family therapist, after all—but a man, who liked to be the center of attention, who expected that society would treat him and his ambitions well. I knew this. I understood. But it wasn’t fun. And there was work to be done in active support of the revolution.
I could be what in modern parlance is called an “ally,” an outsider who sympathizes with the cause of diversity and equal justice. Instead of just reacting to women, I decided to add my voice. So I wrote a long paper called “The Psycho-politics of Coupling,” though never published, which enjoyed a good informal run in the Boston-Cambridge area.
I argued that, right along with social and political changes, the structure of intimate relationships was shifting dramatically, that women’s quest for equality would diminish men’s place—or, at least, that’s how men would feel about it. They would be threatened by their loss of control and their loss of centrality. In response they would lash out or, more commonly, pull away. Instead of confronting the changing dynamic of power, men would grow interior and resentful. They would secretly nurse the impotence they felt in the face of the assault. No matter their outward or stated values, there was no way to fully avoid this experience. Women, even those who had been encouraged by men’s explicit statements of support, would feel betrayed, resentful, adding fuel to their original anger. And it would be arduous negotiation for those couples who wanted to both heal the rift and rekindle the flame.
As with my efforts to father my daughter, I naively hoped that the paper would insulate me from feminist criticism, and it did, but not enough to avoid the bruising. When one group of people seize the initiative, the other becomes reactive or at best, responsive. Some men formed an early men’s movement that bifurcated in two opposing directions; the first affirmed a primitive, loin cloth-wearing masculinity, with drums and chants around the fire, and the second adopted an excessively passive, apologetic posture that belied the complexities of gender differences and the possible avenues for redefining them. I could join neither, sought a middle way, and kept searching for ways to join hands as a partner in the feminist revolution. I wasn’t always welcome.
Over the years, as is true of successful revolutions, there has been wave after wave of criticism and aspiration in the feminist revolution. With each wave, men – including those like me — have had to find a way to take in and learn from the criticism, learn to be better partners, and at the same time, both nurse our wounds and define a just and sensible masculinity. It has been easy to deal with the broad aspirations of the women’s movement. Its values are wholly compatible for all of us who have supported equal rights for Blacks, Latinos, immigrants, and oppressed people of all kinds. It has been harder to deal with the revolutions in our own homes, to manage our own defensive reactions, and to find ways to affirm the transformations.