Feminism and Me: A Rapid 60 Year Review

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, 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.






Completing a Career

This essay is the first in a series of personal explorations into the completion of careers.   Ending a career marks a monumental shift in a life, especially for those who have very much defined themselves through their work.  The essays will address questions like: what does it mean to be done?; how can we say that we have done enough to satisfy the desires and demons from within; how can we feel proud and at peace with ourselves so that we can meet the challenges in the next stage of our lives.


The year was 2005.  I was sixty-three years old.  I had already had a substantial career.  In the way that novelists have with book jacket bios—truck driver, cowhand, waiter, and drifter—my own winding career had its own cache: historian, therapist, consultant, writer, entrepreneur. I had adjusted well to my failure to become a professional basketball player, a Pulitzer prize winning novelist, and the leader of a social-democratic revolution. But I didn’t feel complete.  I wasn’t sure why.  And the years were whizzing by.

Part of the urgency came from my sense of living on borrowed time.  My father had died from pancreatic cancer at fifty.  I was twenty-six.  I was filled with a childlike sense of magical thinking and believed that I would also died by the age of fifty.  This wasn’t a vague notion.  I believed it with the same certainty that the sun would rise in the morning.  My friends and family still tease me about how well I prepared them for my impending death.  I seem to have survived my fiftieth birthday but at fifty-eight I got cancer, myself.  When the initial surgery failed to capture all those cruel little cancer cells, my conviction about a short life simply reignited.

The next few years again defied my expectations.  I was alive and energetic, and I was faced with the question of what to do with my life.  I had given up psychotherapy.  After almost thirty years, I was too restless to sit still listening to an endless stream of distress and rage.  I had returned to my consulting business, often working with big organizations like State Street Bank and  Honeywell Corporation.  While lucrative, the work felt barren to me.  I really didn’t care about helping rich people get richer.  I did care about supporting the work of the nonprofits to which I also consulted.  Their mission to empower the disempowered, to house, feed, and educate people living in poverty, appealed greatly to me.

If I was going to live, I wanted that ever-present “one more shot” that you hear from people who are not yet ready to cash in their chips.  And I wanted to focus on communities most in need.  I wanted a shot at doing something worthwhile.  Yes, helping couples and families resolve their difficulties had been a good thing to do.  I loved many of the people I worked with and felt gratified when their lives improved—and heartbreaking when they didn’t.  When I complained to my wife that it wasn’t enough, she would remind me of the hundreds of people I had helped and about the thousands of people that my students had helped.  But it still didn’t feel sufficient.

Sufficient for what, though?  I don’t know how to put this in psychological or professional language but I wanted something that touched my soul.  I wanted work that drew from the well of my deepest values.  Only that would permit me to complete my career and to feel that I had done enough.  At the time, I couldn’t articulate this desire very clearly.  It was more like an ache in my heart in need of fulfillment.

In 2005, I saw an opportunity.  I had been engaged with the Boston nonprofit community for some time, consulting to organizations and coaching its executives.  These are dedicated, often gifted people who work long hours for modest pay.  But they have learned their craft in a hit and miss manner, mostly by trial and error.  Maybe they found a mentor along the way, but they rarely find the time or resources for formal education.  I had some experience building training programs, in 1974 founding, with David Kantor and Carter Umbarger, the Family Institute of Cambridge to teach practicing therapists how to work with couples and families.  I believed that I could do the same for nonprofit leaders.

What made the opportunity most compelling was the potential to build a more diverse leadership cadre.  Nonprofits serve people and communities of color in disproportionately high numbers, but only 12-14% of the organizations are led by people of color.  This needs to change.  It is both unjust and ineffective.  The ability to mobilize the resources of organizations and communities depends in part on the credibility of leadership and the rapport among them.  What’s more, the time seemed ripe to make a great impact on nonprofit leadership.  Research now tells us what I knew intuitively in 2005.  The imminent retirement of the baby boomers meant that 70% of nonprofit leaders would leave their jobs within the next five years.  If we could educate and help place young leaders of color in urban centers—now minority-majority cities—powerful social progress could be achieved.

During that first year, Hubie Jones, the dean of Boston’s nonprofit community and a member of my Advisory Board, asked me a simple question: “What’s in this for you, Barry?”  With a little bit of tongue in cheek, I said “It would make my parents proud.”  Once out of my mouth, I realized that I meant it.  My parents had long championed social justice.  That was the religion into which I was born and raised; and the development of the Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership (INML) felt to me like a homecoming, a return to direct contact with the values that animated my childhood.  The possibility of feeling whole, bringing together my values and my actions, seemed tantalizingly near.


So I began.  I called lots of friends and colleagues, described the new curriculum and asked them to send students.  They did: fourteen that first year, more than half young leaders of color. I loved the teaching.  I loved just getting to know all of the young people who attended classes.  Even without knowing or, in the beginning, thinking, I could build the INML into a substantial force in Massachusetts, the work was satisfying, in itself.  I didn’t have a blazing dream nor great ambitions nor even clear goals.  I just thought that I’d start something that I liked to do and that I believed in.  Now there are over 700 graduates of year-long programs situated in four cities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island with more to come.

Building the INML meant talking and writing about it all of the time.  I had to recruit new students.  In the beginning I met with each prospective student to discover his or her goals and to explain what our program was all about.  Our connection felt—and was— personal.  I had to recruit teachers, board members, philanthropists.  There would be weekly meetings with foundations in which I had to try persuading program officers that the INML was a wonderful investment.  All of this meant that all day, every day, I was talking the language of social justice and diversity, skill and network building and gathering a cadre of strong, well-educated, well-positioned leaders of color.  I bathed myself in a world of language that spoke directly to my values and informed my actions.  I was incredibly active but often it felt like the experience was happening by itself and I was carried along in its surge.

I can’t say that I grasped the full meaning that the INML would have for me right away.  Rather the meaning spread through the days until I had to acknowledge it.  There are about 36,000 nonprofits in Massachusetts serving more than a millions people.  If we could make the leadership even a little better, they would make their services better, which would mean a great deal to those millions.  We could make a difference and I, personally, could live in the world of difference-making.

This, more than anything—joining the fight for social justice and doing so in a way that I had something to offer—was not only satisfying, it also permitted me to complete my career.  I had immersed myself for a decade in the convergence of my values and my activities.  The immersion was sustained.  It was like completing a circle, from childhood to old age:  living my values more deeply, more immediately, and to some effect.  My parents might be proud but, at last, I felt proud.  I felt at one with myself, peaceful and fierce in my work.  And ready to let it go, ready to enter the post-retirement stage of life.