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Reading: Masculine Feminism

To any guy who thinks Against the Tide: Pro-Feminist Men in the United States 1776-1990 is just another man-hating screed, all I can say is: don't be a dick.



For the five years I've been married I've led a triple life, complete with a string of aliases. At work I'm known by the name my father gave me, Dennis Rodkin. Other times, like when I leave clothes at the dry cleaner's or add my name to a restaurant's waiting list, I use Dennis Hunt, slipping into the last name of my wife, Penny Hunt. It's a simple way to break the unspoken rule that a married man's last name always takes precedence--even if his spouse keeps hers for herself. But when I really want to let my hair down, when I really want to identify myself as I'd like the world to see me, I go by Mrs. Penny Hunt.

In our household the woman brings home the bacon substitute. She's Ms. Penny Hunt (and she's not about to be Mrs. Dennis Rodkin--one of those already lives with my uncle Dennis in New Jersey), and I'm the missus. My role as Mrs. Penny Hunt, of course, involves much more than just wrapping myself in Saran Wrap to greet her at the end of a workday.

I'm June to her Ward, Carol to her Mike--but I have chest hair.

Everybody who lives in a home like ours knows that it's not really a flip-flop of gender roles, what some alarmed guys were warning against 15 years ago as women were crowding into the work force. She doesn't smoke cigars (at least not in the house), and I don't wear high heels and lipstick (at least not in the house). Instead, it's a very comfortable division of labor, with each person doing what she or he is most qualified to do. I'm good at dusting the tops of bookcases and mopping the kitchen floor; she's not. She's good at having a job; I'm not--and I have the resume to prove it.

The thing is, I like mopping the kitchen floor. Mopping is my hobby. I can't explain why, but I get a real feeling of accomplishment from wiping away all the dirt and food bits and grime that build up in a week. (OK, a month. My other hobby is exaggerating how hard I work around the house.) So if I want to mop, I'm free to mop. I don't have to be the king of my profession. I'll settle for being the queen of clean.

According to some of the writers and activists quoted in Against the Tide: Pro-Feminist Men in the United States 1776-1990, I've been liberated from the traditional role of the married man as Success Object.

Yes, Success Object, the male counterpart of Sex Object. In a 1978 manifesto urging men to support the ERA, a group called Men Allied Nationally for the Equal Rights Amendment explained that by liberating women from their role as sex object and allowing them to pursue whatever profession their intellectual skills urged them into, heterosexual men would simultaneously free themselves from the burden of having to hold on to dead-end jobs just to support families.

They weren't suggesting that these freed men should cut loose to spend all their time beating drums in the forest; they were just making the point that under the old rules men were as limited by strictly defined gender roles as women. Just as some women don't feel capable of raising children and decorating a house, some men can't balance a checkbook.

Fortunately, most of those men found jobs in the U.S. Congress.

For a few years when it was as hip as paying off credit cards is now, feminism was called women's liberation. It could have been called gender liberation, because its whole point has always been--as even the 200-year-old essays in Against the Tide argue--to make everybody's lives better by giving everybody more choices.

Women's lives have changed dramatically as they've gotten rights to vote, receive an education, own property, and control their bodies--but men's lives have improved, too. The idea that men would only be really free if women were runs through the lectures, essays, songs, and pamphlets reprinted in this 477-page book. It's all reprints, tracing the course of male feminist thought, starting with Thomas Paine's 1775 essay "An Occasional Letter on the Female Sex" and ending with a 1990 "Statement of Principles" from the National Organization for Men Against Sexism. In between are dozens of reasoned examinations of how men can support women's struggle and of the all-important guy question: "What's in it for me?"

Some women who've read this far have probably decided Against the Tide must be the latest effort by men to co-opt a movement for their own purposes. Not true. Almost every writer cited in Against the Tide carefully avoids making his goals anything more than a supplement to women's own progress. Some of the usual guy talk does creep in, though. Right in the middle of Howard Cosell's 1975 defense of the ERA, he tosses in a little ego stroke by describing himself as "perhaps the number one sports communicator in this country."

And for any man who figures the book is just another antiguy screed, all I can say is: Don't be a dick.

Take a look at "Uncertain, Coy, and Hard to Please," an essay Isaac Asimov wrote in 1969, soon after he grew his famous outrageous sideburns. (Asimov mentions them proudly in his essay, noting that facial hair is one of the few biological sex differences: "My wife, poor thing, couldn't grow sideburns if she tried!") Asimov points out that historically men, the "big-muscle" members of the species, came to dominate because there was so much big-muscle work to be done--like killing wild animals. "Women, after all, would be . . . handicapped by a certain ungainliness during pregnancy," Asimov writes. "It would be convenient for a woman to have some man see to it that she was thrown a haunch after the hunting was over. . . . A primitive hunter would scarcely do this out of humanitarian philosophy; he would have to be bribed into it. I suppose you're all way ahead of me in guessing that the obvious bribe is sex."

Thanks partly to the industrial revolution but much more to this century's computer revolution, Asimov says, there's much less big-muscle work left to be done anymore. (Asimov was writing before American Gladiators came on TV, of course.) Machines do the big-muscle work, leaving men to do little-muscle work, just as women have done all through history.

"The world is being computerized," Asimov explains, "and there is nothing a man can do in the way of pushing paper, sorting cards, and twiddling contacts, that a woman can't do just as well. More and more, women will learn they need only offer sex-for-sex and love-for-love and nevermore sex-for-food."

Asimov also figures little-muscle attributes might be more in demand as computer keyboards become the primary tool of civilization. Most of his essay boils down to a simple economic look at the inefficiency of asking 51 percent of the species to sit home and knit while the remainder plays fierce breadwinner. In a 1914 speech, George Middleton described feminism as "opposed to parasitism in either male or female as a habit of thought. It asks equal opportunity to work." Economics is the cornerstone of arguments made in their time by Thomas Paine, Frederick Douglass, Jesse Jackson, and even Alan Alda.

We've rehabilitated Richard Nixon and Dan Quayle. Now it's Alan Alda's turn. When the feminism fad of the 1970s deflated, Alan Alda became an instant relic. Now everything weepy and wimpy associated with men overdoing the sensitivity thing in those days has been heaped on his head. All the man ever did was write (or commission somebody else to ghostwrite) a smart, fact-filled article for Ms. magazine called "Alan Alda on the ERA: Why should men care?" Like the dozens of writers before him in the book, he just suggested that maybe men should consider handing over some of their power. Most of the specifics he offered--like changing child-custody laws that automatically favored mothers regardless of their parenting ability and recognizing that some fathers might want to be primary care givers for their kids--have since been accomplished or are being dealt with now.

The book's mostly chronological order makes it a good historical record of men giving up their power bit by bit. In the middle of the 19th century, writers fretted over whether women should be allowed in American colleges. Over time the issue became whether women should have their own colleges; then how to find women qualified to teach in women's colleges; then much later, whether men should be allowed to teach women's studies courses; and most recently whether there's any need for men's studies courses that probe how men's psychology is shaped by society.

In his essay, Asimov says men won't willingly give up their advantage over women, but the evolution of just this one issue demonstrates they have--very slowly.

There's much more ground to cover, as everybody knows. It's going to take several Senator Carol Moseley Brauns and at least one President Braun before American men can say they share power with women and not have women groan in response. Along the way, there are still hundreds of big and small questions to be settled.

One of the stickiest is surnames, a mess of an issue that's been troubling parents for years now. We don't have any children yet, but my wife and I have already worked out a way to eliminate all the trouble progressive parents have giving their kids nonpatriarchal last names. Hyphenated last names were popular for a while, but parents figured out that they were just postponing the problem by hanging it on their kids' shoulders. When Maryann Fitzwater-McInerney marries Joel Rosenberg-Steinmetz, what will they call their kids? Under our innovative plan, that's no problem. When we have a child, all three of us will take a new, independent name.

The birth announcements will say: "Wayne Newton and Wayne Newton proudly announce the birth of their first child, Wayne Newton."

Against the Tide: Pro-Feminist Men in the United States 1776-1990 edited by Michael S. Kimmel and Thomas E. Mosmiller, Beacon Press, $40.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Patti Green.

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