Why Boys Need Feminism Too

Libby Anne gives us a great primer on how patriarchy hurts both sexes.

If I took time off of my career to focus on my children, that wouldn’t be seen as odd. If my husband did the same, he would face questions. Women are encouraged to express their emotions, but men are expected to be strong. It is seen as natural for a woman to cry in a stressful situation, but men who cry are seen as weak.

Suzanne Venker Wants a Truce

The author of Fox News’ terrible “War on Men” piece wants you all to know that she didn’t really mean to be gender-essentialist. Her new article, “Let’s Call a Truce in the War on Men” (title case added, because—despite my maleness—I am not some kind of barbarian) clarifies what she was really trying to say:

Here’s what we know: Females, in general, are nurturing and relational beings. They like to gather and nest and take care of people. They like to commiserate with other females—a lot. That’s why girls can talk for hours on end. It’s why more women stay home with their children than men. It’s why the teaching and caregiving professions are still heavily female. Not every single woman in the world falls into this category, but that doesn’t make the generalization any less true.

Males, on the other hand—in general—are loners. They’re content to mill about in their man caves. They like to hunt. They like to build things and kill things. If you don’t have a son, this may sound strange. But again, that doesn’t make it untrue—nor does the fact that not every single man in the world is like this. Men also take pride in caring for their families. They can’t carry babies or nurse them, but they can provide for them. So let them.

See? Not gender essentialism at all.

Venker also wants to be sure you realize she was not telling all you ladies you have to stay home cooking and cleaning and cranking out babies; she just thinks you should de-emphasize career a little.

Just because you make your own money doesn’t mean your guy can’t pay the bill. Just because you value independence doesn’t mean you can’t take your husband’s last name. Just because you can do the same job a man can do doesn’t mean you need to let him know it.

Surrendering to your femininity means many things. It means letting your man be the man despite the fact that you’ve proved you’re his equal. It means recognizing the fact that you may very well want to stay home with your babies—and that that’s normal. It means if you do work outside the home, you don’t use your work to play tit-for-tat in your marriage.

So in this case, de-emphasizing your career just means pretending you don’t have one even though you do. Also, consider not having one but staying home and having babies instead.

Insidiously, those last couple paragraphs from Venker’s piece contain a number of quasi-truths. You shouldn’t necessarily be the one writing the checks to the utility company. You shouldn’t feel compelled to keep your last name if you get married. You shouldn’t rub it in if you have a better job or make more money than your boyfriend or husband. You shouldn’t feel compelled to keep working full-time if you would really rather have children and stay home with them. And you certainly shouldn’t foster a domestic relationship where you keep score against each other to see who wins the game of doing the most to keep the machine running.

Of course, Venker is actually implying that you should change your name, overtly or implicitly lie to your man about your career success to make him feel more “manly”, let him manage all the money, quit work or work less after you have children, and expect that if you do keep working your husband will not lift a finger to do any of that pesky “woman’s work” so you won’t turn into a crazy person.

I’d be much more cranky about this whole thing if it weren’t for one important realization:

The one calling for a truce is usually the one who’s losing.

They're Mostly Not Strangers

Mary-Rose MacColl tries to emphasize consent and appropriate touch over “stranger danger” when she teaches her son about sexual abuse:

We embarked on what has been an ongoing conversation with our son about his body, privacy and sexual abuse. He’s now ten. We’ve moved on to sexuality, pornography and other issues he will need to negotiate in the world he inherits. At first, my rule was going to be, ‘old enough to ask, old enough to know’, but now I see the folly of that. Until I started the conversation, he didn’t ask, but once I started, and he saw me as a non-judgemental and reliable source, the questions came pouring out. They pour out still.

One of my greatest fears about becoming a parent is that my children may see me as too much of an authority figure to come to me with their scary problems and questions.

♀ The Happy Housewife Heroine


This is the second post in my chapter-by-chapter analysis of The Feminine Mystique, as I read the book for the first time in an effort to educate myself about the roots of modern feminism. You can read the first post here.

Having drawn a rough image of the problem facing American women of the 60s, Betty Friedan backs up two decades to explore the transition from the optimism and potential of the earlier women’s movement to the malaise and restrictions of her day. A journalist by profession, Friedan naturally turns to her own field for answers, analyzing magazine stories from four women’s magazines in the year 1939: Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, and Woman’s Home Companion.

In contrast to the July 1960 issue of McCall’s, whose contents Friedan handily lists (Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique. Norton & Company, 1997, pp. 34–35), magazines of the late 30s and early 40s did not revolve entirely around cooking, housekeeping and child-rearing while shunning politics and world issues. What they did contain was fiction—story after story of feminist role models: tough, smart, adventurous women who put career over romance in a way that seems almost moralistic: “If she kept her commitment to herself, she did not lose the man, if he was the right man.” (38–39)

Friedan posits that these stories represent fantasy fiction for the housewives and mothers of the day:

These magazines were not written for career women. The New Woman heroines were the ideal of yesterday’s housewives; they reflected the dreams, mirrored the yearning for identity and the sense of possibility that existed for women then. And if women could not have these dreams for themselves, they wanted their daughters to have them. They wanted their daughters to be more than housewives, to go out in the world that had been denied them. (40)

Women in the 1930s saw the world opening before them, their potential expanding, seemingly without limit. But over the next decade, the narrative of “The New Woman” began to disappear from women’s journalism, to be replaced by a different set of scripts. The last such story Friedan can find dates only back to 1949. “Suddenly”, as Friedan puts it (redeeming this magical-thinking expression with only a partial explanation)[1] magazines began printing stories about housewives with inferiority complexes. (41–42)

Well-rounded but not career-driven, educated but not intellectual, obsessed with producing children and managing a household to the exclusion of all else, the Happy Housewife Heroine may doubt the significance of her station, but only so she can later repent and joyfully re-accept husband, family, and home as her chosen work. Friedan recounts, for example, the story of a woman tempted away from her “duty” by a career-woman friend. At the friend’s urging, she gives up breast-feeding and begins to ignore her baby when he cries. She even considers taking a job outside the home. Naturally, she realizes the error of her ways when her husband discovers the baby crying and shivering because the window has been left open in her room. The moment is so powerful that her mannish friend also repents and returns to her own home and child. (46–47)

The “career woman” thus put in her place, magazines moved on to stories discouraging women from too much community activity—or even having minds of their own. Friedan points out that “The end of the road, in an almost literal sense, is the disappearance of the heroine altogether, as a separate self and the subject of her own story.” (47) Life Magazine, in a June 1959 profile, quotes a housewife: “If he doesn’t want me to wear a certain color or a certain kind of dress, then I truly don’t want to, either. The thing is, whatever he has wanted is what I also want… I don’t believe in fifty-fifty marriages.” (62)

Having discouraged women from having lives or thoughts of their own, women’s magazines correspondingly grew more and more vapid and inane, leading Friedan to wonder if women were being conditioned into imbecility. (65) She notes a hopeful sign, though:

The growing boredom of women with the empty, narrow image of the women’s magazines may be the most hopeful sign of the image’s divorce from reality. (66)

By the time of Friedan’s writing, women had already begun to revolt, even if only subconsciously and without a definite goal to revolt to. As a stunt, Redbook in September 1960 asked women to write in if they felt trapped, promising them $500 for the response. They received 24,000 responses.

Looking back over the transition, Friedan asks:

Why did so many American women, with the ability and education to discover and create, go back home again, to look for ‘something more’ in housework and rearing children?

The 50s and 60s were great periods of discovering and expansion for mankind, but women shrank and retreated from the world. (67) The closest Friedan ventures to an explanation (in this chapter) is to tie the shift to the return of the G.I. “‘Most of the material used to come from women writers,’” says an older female magazine editor Friedan interviews. “‘As the young men returned from the war, a great many women writers dropped out of the field. The young women started having lots of children, and stopped writing.’” (54)

This editor (not identified by name) claimed that the stories of “the spirited career girl” came primarily from female writers and editors, while the fluffy housewife protagonist sprang from the minds of the men who later replaced them. No surprise, then, that the scripts being dictated to women conformed to the fantasies of soldiers returning home in hope of a comfortable domestic life. (54)

But Friedan seems reluctant to lay much of the blame for propagating The Feminine Mystique at the door of the press. Indeed, throughout the chapter she reports the frustrations of many (male) editors with the limited subject matter and points of view available to them. The editors of McCall’s claimed: “‘The irony is, what we meant to do was to stop editing for women as women, and edit for the men and women together. We wanted to edit for people, not women.’” (50)

In fact, in 1956, McCall’s tried a short article called “The Mother Who Ran Away”. It set a record in readership for the magazine. “‘It was our moment of truth,’ said a former editor. ‘We suddenly realized that all those women at home with their three and a half children were miserably unhappy.’” (50) In general, though, the editors of magazines accepted axiomatically that women were not interested, and indeed, could not even comprehend, issues or pure ideas. (50–51)

Whether from bias as an industry insider or because she accepts the sincerity of such reports, Friedan seems a little too willing to believe that the alteration in the narrative was the effect, rather than the cause, of the Mystique’s growing influence—at least at first. She admits that this attitude grew to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, citing a 1960 study that showed women to be truly uninterested in politics. (51) And even if she shows a little deference to her own colleagues, her implicit point remains valid: literature reflects culture more heavily than creates it. Friedan ends the chapter with unanswered questions:

“What gives the mystique its power? Why did women go home again?” (68)

  1. While I am reading this book more as a history lesson than for any other reason, the lackluster quality of Friedan’s storytelling abilities has proved a source of surprise and mild disappointment. She tends to ramble or editorialize without explanation, and to plant ideas that never pay off. For example, early in this chapter she draws an analogy between the Victorian repression of sexuality and the modern woman’s repression of her unmet desires: “A woman might not know what it was, any more than the Victorian woman knew she had sexual needs.” Friedan never revisits this idea, except in the vaguest and most implicit—and possibly unintentional—way.  ↩

If you appreciated this post, you might also like my new series of fantasy short stories featuring the immortal woman whose adventures we now know only through scattered myths and legends. Read them for free starting at the Her True Name story archives!

A New Grandparent's Take on Modern Parenting

I recently cleared my calendar for nearly a month, deleting it all: work, meetings, appointments, dinners, movies, and even workouts at the gym. It felt at once liberating and luxurious, and a little bit scary. I had done this a few times before, twice for much longer times when our sons were born and once for a sad, open-ended time when my father was dying.

This would be a happy time. Our son and daughter-in-law had arranged to bring their first-born across the country for two separate two-week visits. They would both have work; could I take care of Jack? “He’s really active for a one-year-old!” warned our son. “You forget I raised you and your brother at the same time,” I replied.

The Megapram

Baby tech, in general, has been optimized for women. Diaper bags often feature floral designs. Burping cloths tend toward the pastel. The aesthetic assumption of most infant-care devices is that even the things that could be done by either parent will be done, ultimately, by women. Products’ appearance subtly tells men, “Sorry, guys, this is not for you.”

Not the Megapram, though!

(You’ll just have to read it.)

I'm Not a "Mother First"

Jessica Valenti at The Nation:

The sentiment may seem innocuous, but there’s a danger in returning to an ideal where women’s most important identity is relational rather than individual. If we want equality, women with children would be better served calling themselves people first, moms second.

I don’t think the implicit choice being offered here is “Mother first, person second”; it’s “mother first, insert job title here second”.

I agree substantially with Valenti’s point, though, and I wonder whether this would even be a problem if men described themselves as “fathers first”—which they probably should (if they’re fathers).