Re-thinking Gender, Part 2

THE UPS AND DOWNS AND SIDEWAYS OF GENDER POLITICS Pt. 2

Posted Aug 06, 2015

....Meanwhile the pill was approved by the FDA for birth control in 1960. It had been approved earlier for regulating cycles, and the birth rate was already declining, but after 1960 it plummeted. This enabled women to enter the labour force, earn money, get an education, and become autonomous and independent. By creating a new population of free women, free from their biology, the pill facilitated the women’s movement demanding new rights. Enfranchisement was not enough.  

Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” (1963) was a trailblazer, with its question by so many Smith University graduates as they ate peanut butter sandwiches with their darlings: “Is this all?” So the bored housewife syndrome. But more than that, she says: “They have been sold into virtual slavery by a lie invented and marketed by men.” SLAVERY? Seriously? This was unconscionable. And she described suburban domestic married life as a “comfortable concentration camp” (1970:271). The husbands are the SS guards.   She deeply insulted the slaves and the Jews, and escalated the demonization of men.

This was followed by the formation of the National Organization of Women (NOW) in 1966, co-founded by Friedan, and the demonstration in 1968 against the Beauty Pageant at Atlantic City, which formally initiated the women’s movement.  

Coincidentally the American anthropologist Ashley Montagu published “The Natural Superiority of Women” in 1968. So at the beginning of the feminist protest, Aristotle and Tennyson are shot down, as are men, and the gender rankings are reversed. (Actually they had been reversed earlier by such as Montessori  and Stanton, but parenthetically rather than publicly).

But just when the social structures appeared to be, and were, becoming more equal, the rhetoric became even more bitter. This was war. It began with Marilyn French and “The War against Women” (1992), and continued with Susan Faludi “Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women” (1992). Naomi Wolf kept going with “Fire with Fire” (1993). It was not just the debate about rights here, this was war, hatred and misandry.  Paradoxically, since it was men in the patriarchal establishment who controlled the power, it was of course the men who liberated the women to a huge degree: men and the pill, which enabled women to liberate themselves from their bodies.

Critical feminists and masculinists soon returned fire: Warren Farrell with “The Myth of Male Power” (1993), looked for a compromise peace with accurate data to note that men are also victims, a point that feminists had amazingly but conveniently overlooked. Women may be victims but men too are victims of many adversities: homelessness, homicide, suicide, work-place accidents, war, higher childhood and adult mortality rates and shorter life spans: points that victim feminists had largely ignored in their quests for equal rights.  Indeed Farrell shifted the construction of men in general from villains to victims

 A very powerful critique of this militant feminism was Christina Hoff-Sommers with “Who Stole Feminism?” (1995), followed by “The War against Boys” (2000), and inevitably “The War against Men” (R. Hise, 2004); and then another “The War on Women” (B. Vallee, 2007). The immense social changes in North America particularly, where the rhetoric has been most violent, have been relatively non-violent: really a war for women, not against. But none the less, the wells have been poisoned for many people, convinced of their victimization.

These ideological divisions have been institutionalised in men’s groups: the National Organization of Men against Sexism (NOMAS) – male sexism that is – and the National Coalition of Free Men (NCFM); the former, associated with Michael Kimmel, addresses men’s wrongs, the latter, associated with Warren Farrell, addresses men’s rights. Too bad that they too cannot join forces.

The latest books to stoke the fires have included more misandric books with such titles as “The End of Men” (H. Roisin, 2012), “Are Men Necessary” (M. Dowd, 2006), “The Decline of Men” (G. Garcia, 2009) – while others plead: “Save the Males” (R. Doyle, 2010), and another “Save the Males” (K. Parker (2008).

Nathanson and Young have produced a series of volumes documenting misandry in the media, education, law and popular culture. Their works are scholarly rather than journalistic, so they have not received the best seller status of Greer, Millett and Roisin. None the less they have made the point, for those who care, that the gender coin has at least two sides and may be viewed in multiple lights. A remarkable youtube clip shows the reception to a talk they gave at the University of Toronto which clearly proves their point and gives me pause about how this will be received!

The latest constructions of men and women are particularly interesting as negating the old binaries. One is the current fascination with evil women, negating (or qualifying) the positive stereotype of women as warm and nurturing, and/or innocent victims of men and masculinity. (Evil men have been researched endlessly, and are far more common – but not alone). These include “The Most Evil Women in History” by S. Klein (2003), “The Most Evil Men and Women in History” by M. Twiss (2002),    “The Encyclopedia of Women Killers” by B. Lane (2006), “The Violent Woman” by H. Neroni (2005) and “When She was Bad” by P. Pearson (1997). But on a different note there is Elizabeth Wurtzel’s “Bitch. In Praise of Difficult Women” (1999) – but that’s not evil, maybe assertive, in the new vocabulary of aggression. So we have graduated from the wars of the 90s to the evil women of the 00s to the end of men by 2012. Great!

The other countervailing fascination is with good men, negating the usual demonization. These would include the following works: “The Code of Man” by W. Newell (2003) and “What is Man?” by the same author, (2000); L. Hughes-Hallett, “Heroes” (2005); H. Mansfield, “Manliness” (2006); S. Montefiore, “101 World Heroes” (2007).  Most of the heroes are male. Perhaps we are beginning to move towards a more positive definition of men, even a positive one. How that would shock the Dworkins, Stoltenbergs,  Milletts and Solanases of this world. From villains to victims to heroes in 50 years, or maybe the end of men.

The latest re-definition of men is evinced in the lead article of a recent issue of the Economist: “The Weaker Sex. No jobs, no family, no prospects” (30 May 2015). Some blame the changing economy, or the education system, the break-down of families, in the U.S. the punitive penal system (the subject of a later lead article on June 20), and men themselves for failing to adapt to the new world. Victims again. Oh well.

Still and all, the patriarchy is not dead and men still command the heights of the economy, politics, the military and, less so, the academy. The latest news is that inequality is getting worse in the U.S. where: “58% of new American income goes to the top 1%” and the wealthiest 0.1% are wealthier than the bottom 90%. (Time 20 July 2015: 42). From inequality of wealth to racial inequality: “White households are now 13 times as wealthy as black ones, the largest gap since 1989”. And despite similar patterns of drug use, blacks are 21/2 times more likely to be arrested than whites (Time 20 July 2015:26). So Gender, class and race intersect in this growing inequality, but gender inequality is decreasing as women are succeeding much better in education than men, and switching from part-time to full-time work, and male employment rates and wages have fallen.

In all the ups and downs of the constructions and reconstructions of men and women as opposite sexes and, says John Gray, from Mars and Venus respectively, arises the debate about how different are they? Or we? Different planets? Complementary? Both? Or at war? One can ponder this stuff in all its contradictions and wonder if we are all living in the same world, because we are certainly not living in the same ideological worlds. And ideologies are far too blinkered.  Whether our gendered difference are more biological or cultural, (and what percentage? How measured?) the only point on which many seem to agree is that the differences within each sex are probably greater than those between them. Add the intersectionality with race, class, sexual orientation etc. and we can move on.

Finally, in all these gender wars, for or against men or women, and equal rights for all, it begins to seem that gender is now not a question of biology and sexy bits and pieces but of identity. If so, are the wars obsolete? Is gender obsolete? Could we all have a pleasant and peaceful human identity please?