Skip to main content

Now—And Then


ISSUE:  Autumn 1979

(Bringing A Man’s Theories, Hints, Entertainments, and Nuances to the women’s movement) 

By now everybody knows about the pretty cadets at West Point—and Annapolis and Colorado Springs. Well, from the men’s point of view, if Mars is going to fall into the lap of Venus sooner or later, why not put her next to him right away? Anecdotal and comic possibilities aside, however, what is really striking is the point of view of the women. They appear to be far less interested in opposing war than they are in making it—or at least in dressing it up. And what is happening at the academies seems to be happening everywhere else these days. There are women bullfighters now, too. It’s a signal fact—the spectacle of women succeeding not in the reduction or suppression of a violent and inhumane activity but in merely getting into the action.

The point is that most women activists are not interested in a transformation of prevailing values, which would be a real liberation, but only in claiming their share of the system. They are not against war but for opening up West Point. They are not against the work ethos or competition or successism but simply for more jobs and positions for themselves. In a large sense, they do not wish to be women and get their rights but to be men and get their rights. All of which is not to say that they should be denied the more important of those rights either, like nondiscrimination and equal pay for equal work; these are simple human rights. But, by and large, the sheer militancy of the movement has obscured a basic fact these years—that an enlargement or expansion is not a true change of values. Women have not become, by the happy accident of special pleading and justice, revolutionaries seeking to transform the general terms of existence, but conservatives and even reactionaries interested in maintaining the whole way of life because, at this particular juncture, they can claim its prerogatives. Therefore, in all sorts of ways, they are showing themselves more royalist than the king, more men nowadays than the men are.

We have known that for a long time now, as in the world of fashion. Did fashions for women move to radically new designs—futuristic or otherwise original robes, imaginative tunics, or whatever—away from traditional women’s skirts and dresses? Not quite. Rather, they moved merely and inexorably to men’s traditional clothing fashions: slacks and blue jeans, for instance, even—or especially—with a centered fly. One is by now quite bored with the theory of penis envy, all the more since it is as monotonously practiced as it is denounced. In any case the point is that designers—a great many women among them in the industry—have not directed their imaginations toward true originality, involving liberated redefinitions and concepts, but have instead virtually homed in on masculine standards and requirements.

One need not descend to clinical whimsicalities to confirm the point: how young women address one another as “you guys” and how many more women than men speak of going to “the John,” and so on. For every Anne Fleming who does not want to give up her “female ethnicity” there are scores who do. That is exactly what they want to be liberated from—in order to enter into and identify with man’s world, jargon, clothing, and skin. And having arrived at man’s estate and life style, they are not interested at all in making men less “aggressive”—the word is no longer a pejorative but means something in between “forceful” and “vital” now—but they wish to become more honorifically aggressive themselves. To put it the other way around, men’s supposed taboo against softness and tenderness is being adopted instead of canceled or modified by contemporary women.

Nor, come to think of it, has women’s access to political power through suffrage signaled any kind of radical difference in government—in matters of war and peace, for instance. Women constitute the majority of voters in the United States, having enjoyed the secret ballot for more than half a century, but they have had no distinctive impact at all on national policy. And I may risk gallantry but not truth to remind my audience that on the recent international scene women heads of state gave not the slightest new cast to the exercise of power. The late Golda Meier and Indira Ghandi have led important nations with power and, in the latter case, ruthlessness that would have done credit to any leader following the dictates of political machismo. At all events, the question to ask is this: have we all been converted to anything new and different? Isn’t it, rather, that women have been converted and self-recruited to man’s tiresome world of war, aggression, competition—a world they have been happy to join and lead rather than transform?

Or has simply one of the oldest jokes of history now happened to women—that of becoming like one’s enemies? In any case, talking radicalism, women have become replicas. Announcing social and psychic revolution, they are, in fact, the profoundest reactionaries.

There are other dark jokes—like reports of the increasing impotence of men, progressively unmanned in proportion as women are inverted. This is one way that equal and liberated women are ironically defeated—in the very program of sexual experience they have sought to enhance. The direst perspective in this regard is that each generation loves less; indeed, successive generations have sociologically split off from the extended family first, the nuclear family next, and the opposite sex last. Women have broken away from love of grandparents and parents, love of children, and love of men. The final subtraction will be not necessarily from overt lesbian comfort but from at least mutual feminine companionship. So that the logical end of the historical series will be an eventually loveless total isolation. That stage will be unbearable and suicide-prone. In point of fact, women’s suicide rate as a whole is climbing fast. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the writers chosen as heroines of the movement—from Virginia Woolf to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton—are models of the death-wish, the very last subtraction.

There is a next-to-the-last subtraction or arrested stage, a narcissistic or involuted or masturbatory love. Here, for instance, is Erica Jong in “Half-Life”:

When I was nine
I used to kiss my pillow
on the mouth
After I’d licked it wet.

There is a kind of lurching oral progress from this stage to frank other-directed cannibalism, as in “Divorce,” an enormously popular poem among extremists in the movement:

Under the wobbly egg white
is my first husband
Look how small he’s grown
since last we met!    
“Eat me,” he says agreeably.
I hesitate, then bite.

It is as if Emily Dickinson has become what Robert Bly calls the piranha mother, the voice of devouring hatred instead of any kind of love. This destructive appetite comes out of a whole complex of sadomasochism on the way to suicide through intermediary fantasied murder.

But it is not only a question of cumulative subtractions and a climactic death-wish that may characterize the movement but a frequent psychological arrest as well. To a great extent we have what the political reactionism and psychological fixations have been telling us all along—a girls’ movement. Maybe it’s partially due in these times to girls’ hatred for their divorced or deserting fathers but, whatever the deep-level comprehensive motive, a certain quality of hysteria or highpitched temper tantrum informs the movement. And under all the rhetoric, sheer self-centeredness: I want that job, I want that promotion, I want that privilege, just because I am I. There are a lot of basically spoiled, egotistical brats indulging themselves under a cover of “cause.”

But another development goes far beyond expected ironies in the case. Isn’t it likely that the skyrocketing increase in rape and assault on women, otherwise totally unpredictable in this age of nonrepression and available sex, is a direct consequence of increased economic and social competition and masculine hostility? In any event, more and more women are turning to pocketbook mace, karate, police dogs—and to male bodyguards or escorts. That is to say, in the jungle of modern life women are in need of the same complementary, instead of competitive, relationship that they required in the original state of nature, but they are now seeking masculine protection from the masculine monsters of their own making. It is dark comic reversalism, but only the most grotesque or unexpected in a long modern series.

II

The fact that, after all, women may still require or feel primordial comfort in men’s superior size and physical strength brings us to the Great Unanswered—and fearfully asked—Question. Is physical difference the main one between men and women? Furthermore, are there any other distinctions flowing from it, or existing in themselves?

The two obvious differences between the sexes concern sexuality and physique. I have nothing to add to the commonsensical or technical discussions of the former beyond one piquant observation. Is it possible that even, or particularly, in an age of sexual revolution the profoundest anxieties of both sexes are activated? Are man’s deep-layered fears of woman’s threatening fertility and sexual demands now duplicated by woman’s fear of man’s involuntary and continual arousal—that is, as Erich Fromm once suggested, is each afraid of the powerful other? That would explain the high charge if not desperation in women’s taking up the cause of homosexuality, even more than of lesbianism. It would also indicate why language must be neutered—from “chairman” or “chairwoman” to “chairperson,” and from “feelings” to “relationships,” etc.—chiefly at the behest of the women’s movement.

To remember that women are generally smaller than men is to strike a subversive note at once. That is because certain consequences follow that cannot be kept under discursive control, physical and psycho-economic consequences that broaden and convolute the issue maddeningly. Maybe any kind of diminishment suggests inferiority, but let us go beyond simple connotation. Women’s smaller musculature and controls better suit them, obviously, to certain skills and tasks; that is why women have constituted a more logical, though also exploited, labor pool for minute jobbery—sweatshop sewing, etc., in the old days and telephone manufacture or electronic emplacement, etc., now. Never mind for the moment the economics of small musculature. The neurology of it brings us to—not cultural submissiveness but—patience. The concomitant endurance and stamina, although making women victims in wrong economic systems, are physiologically rooted differences from and maybe superiorities to men.

There are other psychological tendencies and differences available to us through daily observation and cumulative understanding, and we need not deny what we know because cultural relativists are as strident as they are these days. I take no ideological position in these reminders, least of all the psychoanalytic argument for women’s passivity that Christopher Lasch contends comes from “a repression so thorough, and so little accessible to conscious understanding and control” that it “comes to resemble a fact of nature, an inherent attribute.” A plague on men sophists—and women nihilists both. Here are a few plain observations you may check against your own experience of the two human natures.

By and large, men worry before a decision and then gradually make up their minds to a point where they will not easily be moved. An average woman’s ideal of man, however, is the opposite: the image of someone who will come to an immediate but confident and unwavering decision, which will turn out to be right and confirm his manly no-nonsense certainty and quickness. Women themselves tend to incorporate the instantaneous half of this yearned-after model: being decisive first and then worrying—and often, as every nation’s folk wisdom tells us, changing their minds. The critic, Richard Howard, commenting on the constant variant changes in the poetic manuscripts of that undoubted genius, Emily Dickinson, puts it wittily: “Her true Flaubert was Penelope.” Through the ages, the eternal woman unravels and undecides. Never mind biochemical or psychoanalytical causes, the world’s proverbs and experiences signal woman’s temperamental difference and finally elevate it to prerogative. It is what every husband—and every merchant and merchandiser—knows. Not that there aren’t indecisive men (felt to be effeminate by women) nor decisive women (felt to be bossy and masculine by man), only that in universal history the generalization holds.

And yet women’s putative fickleness goes only so far, or so deep. At a more profound level, she is steadier and longer-loving and more outgoing than man. Perhaps, up to now at least, that has been necessary to the race. At any rate, the great romantic distinction between man and woman is that the man in his deepest being wants to be loved (a perennial son? or the species constitutionally insecure—or cut off from parturition?) and the woman wants, in the deeper reaches of her being, to love.

Are these culturally determined characteristics, particularly in the West, merely insinuating themselves as universals? I do not think so. Because if we descend from observations about mature or nubile women, we may break away entirely from Euro-American experiences. I mean that girl and boy babies in the East and in Africa as well as the West will show distinct early differences, well before cultural influences exert themselves on personality. It’s what everybody can see for himself, anywhere on the globe. Girl babies everywhere show themselves scrutinous, analytic, and fine-motored in their explorations and play; boy babies are more flingingly violent with their toys, destructive, and gross-motored. Now, how culture will abet, enhance, modify, or convert such qualities is another question, but the qualities and differences are there very early and quite apparent to any observer who simply cares to look.

None of which—again—redounds to women’s inferiority. Quite the opposite: it is boys’ and men’s tyrannical assertiveness, phallic or otherwise, that makes of them unnatural and relentless self-provers, continuously overcompensating for their felt weakness. In fact, women may very well be superior in the whole question of naturalness, freedom, and at-easeness in the world. Freud might have asked, What do men want? since men appear constituted not simply to be, but to choose tyrannical self-aggrandizement, saviorism, and still other transcendent roles—bringing us in the process the gift/curse of culture and semi-civilization. But never mind what the root causes of male conduct may have been—ordealism, including hunting and war and violent athleticism, as possibly a substitute for sex—all derived perhaps from a covert masculine fear of impotence. Men do, in fact, appear less natural, easy, and supple than women. Whichever way credits redound, boys and girls and men and women differ from one another physically and psychologically.

And in their differences they need one another. Granted that neither sex is in a state of nature any more; pregnant or nursing women, for instance, no longer need men’s protection—although, as we have noted, women may once again need anti-rapist masculine defense. But in this Second Jungle of modern industrial life, both sexes need each other in more profound psychological and emotional ways than ever. Threatened by ego annihilation, they need one another’s complementariness and reciprocal strengths to live. Survival is still the question, especially if it is internal. Loving and being loved become more, not less, important. It is already a prime matter of identity and mental health. The two distinct sexes will require increasing mutual stabilization, bringing into balance decisiveness and spontaneity, courage and tenderness, assertion and endurance. Whatever the terms of polarities involved, men and women differ in given fundamentals and in all sorts of secondary ways. Paradoxically, then, they need one another—and more now than ever.

III

Paradox is one thing; contradiction or hypocrisy another. Even at seemingly unarguable rock-bottom levels, like equal-pay-for-equal-work, we have reached a stage of reassessment caused by the self-servers who have “made it” under cover of the movement. The question has now reversed itself. How about equal-work-for-equal-pay? How about the executive, administrative, and intellectual performance subsequent to opportunity? There are countless businessmen, agency heads, and university officials who go around muttering these days about the high number of women who were hired in zeal or tokenism and, by now, should have been just as zealously fired. They are still in place only because they are women— and trading on that alone.

Well, maybe that is just normal and predictable. There is a fraudulent minority in any group. But how about the basic preachments involved.

Look at the work-fantasy itself nowadays. All “work” outside the menial has been romanticized, as if there were no dirty dishes in every job. The new work ethic does not really sponsor liberating work, after all, but liberating status—the higher status of some glamorized elitist, supervisory nonwork. This is particularly true for more highly educated women: the main point of their education has evidently been to get them out of the home at any cost.

Since the true question is not menial housework—because, when failing to secure high status, women will flee to outside menialities of any kind—then the central matter is motherhood. Real and skillful mothers, I contend, are already working mothers, working at the most difficult and basic job in the country. A mother’s birthing “labor” is the least of it; a truly humanized and competent mother, engaged in the years-long rearing of mentally and physically healthy human beings and future citizens, is our primary national resource, let alone worker. The trouble is, not only is she a rarer and rarer phenomenon, but she is a downgraded one. I emphasize the fact that I am not talking about housewives—a demeaning word and concept—but about mothers, who are entitled at the very least to social security payments made for them for a fixed number of years by the government itself.(We ought to put our money where our American mouth is.) At any rate, this is the role that educated women particularly flee—as if it were only a stereotype. In any event, motherhood is the issue—because, without it, this would simply be the end of the world. But we aren’t facing the end of the world—only these highly educated and liberated women’s extended participation in it. The only thing is, let them not prescribe and pronounce for everyone else.

In the related matter of sexual mores, more than contradiction or self-deception is involved, something pretty close to hypocrisy. Copying the Madison Avenue language of euphemistic disguise, adulterous and modern liberated women guiltlessly practice “open marriage.” Infidelity is even urged in other elaborate confidence games—abetted by quack counselors who can always be found to legitimatize whatever one wants to do anyhow—so as “to save our marriage.” These noble immoralists of the present want nothing less than a career of virtuous sin. They want life both ways, making claims under a movement that often dignifies sexual fraud just as much as it sanctions sexual escapism.

At the core of the movement—again setting aside prime questions of economic discrimination—is a central complex of confusion and slipshod thought. Women are not different from men; but, then again, they have special needs and experiences. Women are not primarily feminine or maternally oriented; but their distinctive experiences seem, judged on the evidence of the movement’s literary obsessions to date, to concern menstruation, abortion, and birth, along with rape and its subtler sexual variations. All right, biological differences may exist, but they are secondary and unimportant; still, women should be valued as innately, though not biologically, different and unique . . . and so on.

All of which brings us back to the premise that women of the movement do not want to be considered basically different from men but only special: a whole human distinction without a difference. If the thinking at the core of the movement is not hypocritical and self-serving, it is at least callow and poor. No amount of in-depth historical research on women’s status through the ages—some of it very good, by the way, as all truth is—will make up for this central confusion or imposture. Kate Millet rounds out the verbal flimflam—and no little demagoguery by now in the movement— when she concludes that women who are oppressed know so . . . and women who don’t know, or who deny it, are even more oppressed. This is very much the same line taken by bigoted men on the other side of the question. The trouble is that proponents on either side tend to remain arrested in verbal hoax and general tricksterism.

IV

Isn’t that the note we are after: Madison Avenue-ese and the neuter commodity self, retarded by the technological ethos that depersonalizes and fixates whole sections of the population and has set the very terms of our existence? Men and children, as well as women, have been damaged by vast transformations and transitions for more than three generations now, without the compensatory social mechanisms which would have been so costly to the same system that mandated the changes. The frequently hard-pressed young nuclear family never got the social support of extra Financial Allowance or Personal Aides or national Day Care centers, etc. that ought to have filled the vacuum. The untrammeled industrial rationalization of our lives never went so far as to rearrange working hours, or to afford split jobs for those women who wanted to work part-time outside or to share their husband’s work schedule, or to bring the work down to 30 or even 20 hours. . . . And now, instead of having women and men join together to plan the compensatory reforms and resistances we should have forged long ago, we are divided as never before by all sorts of psycho-sexual antagonisms, all of which exactly suit the purposes of the ongoing economic and social system. What the system welcomes more than anything else is the diversion of a women’s movement from a fundamental criticism of the system itself—from the military/industrial complex, from its perpetual margin of unemployment (and exacerbated rivalry for jobs), and from its whole ethos of competition and mindless consumption and compulsive successism. Instead of engaging in the larger significant fight, the women’s movement distracts and indulges itself in contradictory and regressive animosity toward men.

Not, I hasten to add, that the same outline of social history couldn’t be made to show reasons for male resentment and sexual antagonism, too. A course in Men’s Studies might demonstrate how women were left in charge of the American home—and school—and became the strong and often exclusive presence during children’s crucial early years. The case can be made for a covert feminine dominance, not necessarily sought after but actual nonetheless, felt by generations of youth up through puberty. The compensatory machismo or the latent homosexuality of most American men derive, then, from an initial feminine or matriarchal force, exercised where it counted, in American life. In such light, one could very well maintain an argument for women’s oppression and Men’s Liberation. No matter. Behind both sexual oppressions lies one fact: the increasing fragmentation of the family unit because of certain unlegislated but powerful effects of the industrial and corporate juggernaut in the history we all share. The solution is not to escape our varied isolations and oppressions— racial, sexual, etc.—by bonding ourselves to substitute family groups in mutual antagonism to others. Rather, we must work together for a truly radical transformation of values all of us are entitled to. This coming alliance will require intelligent discriminations far more than emotional abandonments and partial connections, and it will call upon the deepest psychological resources, best fostered by the remnant family we still have. That is our last bastion of beleaguered—and powerful— love, and it must not be discredited by rightists’ support or sabotaged by the nihilist fringe in the present women’s or a potential men’s movement.

There are any number of ways to begin equalizing and stabilizing one another’s rights and identities. For moderate as well as insurgent people of good will everywhere in the nation, the passage of ERA is the first and very least step. But progressive women and men must also support the “Martha Movement” for homemakers’ rights just as strongly as they support women’s employment rights in general, complete with a social security formula financed by the federal government. And just as much home Infant Care and Neighborhood Day Care ought to be advocated as, say, Gay Rights. I believe it would be good for women also not to be instantly, legally annihilated on marriage, by losing their old names and identities and gaining sudden new ones. Why not a universal practice of simply adding their husband’s to their own retained maiden name—and even of hyphenating the wife’s name before and onto the husband’s? More than trivial symbolism would be involved in such dignification of women’s personal and legal intactness . . . and so on and so forth, along a whole range of other economic and personal recommendations that all of us will go on elaborating.

One prime change to campaign for is the achievement of a substantial male quota in our elementary school system, chiefly by raising grammar school salaries. Unless and until 50 percent of all early grade teachers are men, we are going to foster lasting masculine resentment and general sexual warfare, as we have been doing all along in our defaulted social engineering. Women protesters may be forgiven their special insights and criticisms up to now, like their question about why there are curiously more and more men teachers in the higher and supposedly more “important” levels, from junior high through graduate school. But they also ought to start asking why grammar school teaching has not been upgraded in our society, in order to attract sufficient numbers of men. Activists must not remain locked into singular, special pleading, but should join in a combined, large approach to structural reform of our whole society.

What is basic to our country, after all, is its pluralism. Our ideal is to balance the varied and often divisive constituencies of our national life—men and women, young and old, rich and poor, black and white, and so forth. We must resist any kind of sexual, gerontological, economic, or racial homogeneity or totalitarianism to safeguard us from the chaos which has always been the special threat to our life together. We do not want one national androgynous whole, but all the proud individuated elements of our country in mutual enrichment instead of conflict and waste. In the present question, we must never concede to the very worst and most insidious of our cultural values, ravening competition, which may destroy the last family core and poison sexual love. In the name of Men’s Rights as well as Women’s Rights, we must get away from all the subtle as well as overt forms of competing with one another. Instead, women and men, leading the way for other social entities in our own future, ought to seek out ways of completing one another.

Everything depends on it.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading