Review of Against the Tide: Pro-Feminist Men in the United States, 1776 - 1990


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MEN FOR WOMEN

A Review of AGAINST THE TIDE: Pro-Femininist Men in the United States, 1776 - 1990 – A Documentary History

edited by Michael S. Kimmel and Thomas E. Mosmiller

Boston: Beacon Press.

Review Copyright © 1993 by William A. Henkin

Originally published in Spectator

 

As the Presidential election of 1992 falls farther and farther behind us, we hear less and less media-babble about the Year of the Woman. And now that Dianne, Barbara, Carol, and others won Senatorial seats we may begin to ponder: was it their ground-breaking prominence that lent them such star status that we could recognize them by their indistinctive first names alone? Or have we not yet learned, colloquially, to call them Senators Feinstein, Boxer, and Braun because we are still a society that condescends to women and indulges them familiarly like children? After all: other than Ted, a name-brand superstar of hugely childlike proportions, the only male Senators whose first names most of us know are those with singular monikers like Newt and Arlen, or those who have somehow smeared their identities across the face of our national attention like Jesse. We are more likely to know of the powerful Bob, John, and Henry by their formal honorifics in conjunction with their last names.

Do women get less respect in our society than men? Honey, do you have to ask me that? It's actually worse in many parts of the world, but here in 1990s America, as Michael Kimmel reminds us in his Introduction to Against the Tide,

 

women still earn less than seventy cents for every dollar earned by men. Men are still overly represented in all professional and graduate schools in this country (except for those, like education, librarianship, nursing, and social work, that are gendered as "female") and still compose an overwhelming number of the legislators, judges, and school administrators at every level. More than half of all women have experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact while on a date, and 25 percent of college women in one survey had experienced date rape. One in three women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime; one in six will be raped....

At home, women still do the overwhelming amount of housework and child care, although the percentage of that work done by women has decreased in the past twenty years from 80 to 70 percent of the total.... Marital rape is not even considered a crime in some states; legally, the woman "belongs" to the man sexually, her consent to sex implicit in the marriage contract.... Each year, thousands of women are battered or murdered by their husbands or lovers.

 

Woman is still, as John Lennon observed 20 years ago (the lyrics are all on pp. 378-9 of this book, between early 1970s essays by Gore Vidal and Herbert Marcuse), the nigger of the world.

But in the long, ignoble course of their treatment at the hands of men, American women have had some conspicuous male champions. Those men – often regarded as traitorous, weak, or effeminate by their more stereotypically masculine brothers – have had various reasons for providing aid and comfort to their sisters, mothers, daughters, wives, lovers, and female friends.

Some pro-feminist men, for instance, have held that women are, simply, clearly superior biological specimens: after all, despite menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause, not to mention debilitating social and financial disadvantages, women still live longer, on average, than men. Some men have had a psychological or spiritual predisposition to honor, to worship, or even to be women. Some have felt that men made such a botch of things for the past few thousand years, women could hardly do worse. Others have believed that regardless of any gender-specific individual's special abilities, all people are equal as human beings; and that men, who hold most of the temporal power these days, would better serve themselves if they stopped penalizing women who do not hold power, just for being what they are. And many men, pro-feminist or otherwise, have thought that whatever else might be true, it was sheer suicidal insanity to discount the intelligence and experience of half the nation's population when the needs of our society are so prodigious and profound.

Upon examination, despite the pugnacious attitudes and projective myths promulgated by proponents of macho bravado, the ranks of pro-feminist men turn out not to be composed of wimps after all. Instead, they include thoughtful and influential representatives from the worlds of politics, business, law, medicine, education, psychology, sociology, religion, and the arts. This book alone runs nearly 500 oversized pages, and includes excerpts from a veritable library of longer works. It begins with 18th century debates about womens' rights, including the right to own property and the right not to be property. These topics are addressed by authors like Thomas Paine, best remembered for his Revolutionary War document, The Rights of Man, and Benjamin Rush, a physician who was among the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The book ends with a series of 1980s documents advocating gender equality, including statements by Senator Joseph Biden, Justice Harry Blackmun, and the National Organization for Men against Sexism.

In between, familiar names are plentiful. Among more than 130 authors represented in the book, Horace Mann, John Dewey, and Matthew Vassar, founder of Vassar College, write on women's education; Horace Greeley, Joe Hill, and Woody Guthrie write about women in the workplace; Frederick Douglas, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Eugene V. Debs, W.E.B. DuBois, A. Phillips Randolph, Max Eastman, Lincoln Steffens, and Henry Wallace advocate women's political equality; Walt Whitman, Ramon Sanchez, Thorstein Veblen, William Sanger, Upton Sinclair, and Walter Lippman address the struggle for social equality; Ed Asner, Alan Alda, Jesse Jackson, Walter Reuther, Isaac Asimov, the aforementioned John Lennon, Gore Vidal, and Herbert Marcuse, and even the redoubtable Howard Cosell write supporting women's equality in the contemporary world.

If this line-up makes the L-word ring in your ears, well it might: freedom and justice for everyone has been a fundamental liberal social cause among all major American political parties since long before Michael Dukakis ran from George Bush's taunts with his ACLU card tucked between his legs. It was a founding principle when this nation was conceived, and even in regressive times under repressively-inclined rulers, it has been a guiding principle ever since. It is the chief reason more emigrants want to come to the United States that to any other country on earth.

Indeed, one notable feature of this book's contributors as a whole, and of the authors represented in its nearly 40 pages of bibliography, is the large number of pro-feminist men who are also well known for their stands in favor of racial equality, broadly-based economic opportunity, worker's rights, and artistic and religious freedom. The radical demagogues who have achieved power and high office in the United States over the years on platforms of suppressing individual liberties have put us all in jeopardy, but they have been right in one regard: once a person starts up the philosophical road toward freedom of any kind, she or he is likely to go farther. The reasons people do so is not the draw of anarchy, however, as the frightening pundits would have their frightened sheep believe: instead it is that the more a person struggles for freedom, the more apparent it becomes that no one is truly free until everyone is free.

Many of the articles, lectures, and letters that make up Against the Tide are philosophical in nature. Emerson's essay, "Woman," for example, is just the sort of reflection of which the great transcendentalist was master. He begins by disagreeing with Plato's contention that women are "the same as men in faculty, only less in degree," and proposes instead that women have strengths of their own fully equal to men's. And because their strengths are as critical to the success of civilization as men's are, Emerson writes, women must be treated equally. But as he reads the lists of names of upright men who have cleverly rationalized their tyranny over women, he thinks "no community was ever so politely and elegantly betrayed." Arguing loudly in favor of women's suffrage – Emerson wrote his piece in 1855 – he warns that "Slavery it is that makes slavery; freedom, freedom."

While philosophy informs some of the book's selections, others are simple reactions to the ever-present spectre of political repression. Byron West's 1930 article, "You Can't Do This to Women," for instance, is specifically a warning about a form of anti-choice activism prevalent in those days, masquerading – as political repression often does – in the national flag. West reports on an unnamed organization which

 

has launched a campaign destined to be nationwide in scope to deny all married women the right to work for a living. It would not only drive married women out of jobs they now occupy, but would deny them the right to get jobs should those unfortunates find it necessary to work – lest they starve. Its unblushing slogan is, "Put the Married Women Back in the Home.' Its folder [is] printed in red, white and blue.... Its sponsors are not so chivalrous that they want to put the woman back in the home that she might be sheltered from the rudeness and cruelties of a cold and sordid world.... [Instead] it would protect all jobs for men.... [But] If man cannot meet the competition of women – then it is time to put the men back in the home and let the women work.

 

As a pro-feminist man myself, I found only two aspects of this book unsuccessful, but they are not without consequence. First, the broad concern with freedom in Against the Tide makes conspicuous one of its oddest and most disappointing features: while this book concerns many phases of the struggle for gender equality, written and edited from the perspective of men who already hold the unequal power of their gender, there is not a single selection in the book that specifically addresses sexual equality, or acknowledges the importance of balancing sexual power.

Even Walt Whitman does not solve this problem. He writes that women are "not one jot less than I am," and asserts that

 

Sex contains all, bodies, souls,

Meanings, proofs, purities, delicacies, results, promulgations,

Songs, commands, health, pride the maternal mystery, the seminal milk,

All hopes, benefactions, bestowals, all the passions, loves, beauties, delights of the earth,

All the governments, judges, gods, follow'd persons of the earth,

These are contain'd in sex as parts of itself and justifications of itself....

 

Nonetheless, with regard to women Walt still sees himself as "stern, acrid, large, undissuadable ... I do not hurt you any more than is necessary for you...." (italics added) and so in his big bardic fashion he too contradicts himself as, elsewhere, he celebrated doing.

In some of the book's most contemporary selections, pro-feminist men – usually protected by the anonymity of group identification – defend themselves proactively against charges of homo-eroticism; a few pieces, such as Harry Blackmun's dissent in the decision of Webster v. Reproductive Services, are explicitly concerned with abortion rights; several individual men describe the inner turmoil they confronted when they went against male traditions and placed women's opinions, beliefs, or careers before their own; and a couple others discuss the politics of rape and its relation to a patriarchal power structure.

Yet, although the inequality between men and women is as apparent and important in the bedroom as it is, say, in the boardroom, no one writes here about the repression of sex workers, who are mostly women; no one writes about women who have used sex as a political, educational, artistic, or social instrument; and no one writes about the power of womens' sexuality. The question remains not only unanswered, but also unaddressed: if women ran the fuck as a rule, instead of now and then, would the balance in economic and other power spheres shift?

Certainly there are men who have written enthusiastically about women's sexual power, and about sex as an important part of women's freedom, so I can only conclude their absence from this volume is a sorry result of editorial ignorance or some sort of exclusionary bias. Either way, it diminishes the book.

My related concern is that the contributors to Against the Tide have made no distinction between sex and gender. That failure is hardly a legitimate objection to essays written a hundred years ago when barely a single serious inquiry into the nature of gender had been made; even twenty years ago the question was arguably new. But by now even Vogue magazine has considered it, and contemporary intellectual editors might also be expected to do so, if more deeply. That Kimmel and Mosmiller didn't, in addition to failing to address sex directly at all, points up my second concern, because it completes the identification of this work as a noble and important but awfully respectable effort of liberal academic proportions and credentials.

While that set of attributes leaves me very glad that somebody compiled this book – it really needed to be done – it also leaves me with a nagging, nasty question: who, I wonder, is going to read it?

 

 


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