Men's Movement

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Men's Movement

Prior to the men's movement of the 1970s, few American men thought consciously (or at least publicly) about what it meant to be a man. Masculinity seemed to be a solid (if not precisely defined) social construct. Masculine norms were defined by a loose constellation of characteristics rooted in Judeo-Christian traditions and scriptural stories, and transmitted to all children through such codes as the Boy Scout Law; stories emphasizing the importance of strength, endurance (physical and psychological), and competitiveness; and acceptance of and support for the gender status quo. Deviating from these norms, or failing to live up to them, was regarded as—depending on the era—tantamount to being a heathen, a Communist, a sissy, or any number of other terms reflecting individual failure.

This fairly uniform view of gender was severely fractured by the cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s, specifically the growth of the counterculture, the rise of the women's liberation and gay liberation movements, and the ongoing "sexual revolution," all of which openly challenged and rejected previously accepted standards for gender-appropriate conduct, expectations, and values. Writing in the journal Liberation in the autumn of 1970, in one of the first public statements made concerning what would become known as the men's movement, Jack Sawyer in "On Male Liberation" challenged men to "free themselves from the sex role stereotypes that limit their ability to be human." The stereotypes included the ways men related to women, questions of power and dominance in both private and public life, and freedom for full emotional expression. Sawyer and colleague Joseph Pleck would later expand this discussion in their 1974 work Men and Masculinity. The year 1970 also saw the foundation of the Men's Center in Berkeley, California, which became the base for the discussions that would coalesce into the first men's liberation groups. By October 1971, men's discussion groups had come into being in Boston, New York, Madison, Wisconsin, Chicago, and Seattle, as well as in California. In 1971, educator Warren Farrell helped form the National Task Force on the Masculine Mystique within the National Organization for Women, an idea which quickly spread to over fifty local NOW chapters and provided a framework for the further development of the men's movement. Farrell's more lasting contribution to the growth of men's awareness of their culturally limited options was his influential 1975 book The Liberated Man: Beyond Masculinity, which quickly assumed for men the place occupied in women's liberation by Betty Freidan's The Feminine Mystique. Its publication sparked the beginning of a separate men's literature concerned with offering theories of and solutions to male oppression. Two viewpoints characterized this body of writing: acceptance of feminist criticism of masculine status and behaviors, and calls for the restoration of "traditional" masculine social roles. Among the more important works produced at this time were Herb Goldberg's antifeminist The Hazards of Being Male: Surviving the Myth of Masculine Privilege (1976), and the anthologies The Forty-Nine Percent Majority: The Male Sex Role (1976) and For Men against Sexism: A Book of Readings (1977).

Many of these early debates took place within the structure of consciousness-raising groups, enabling like-minded men to begin the redefinition of their identities, a process which became more formally institutionalized after the first annual Men and Masculinity Conference in 1975, held in Knoxville, Tennessee, and sponsored by the National Organization of Men Against Sexism. While useful as forums for increasing awareness, these conferences did little to spark local political organizing on men's issues. Instead, they allowed men to formulate philosophical responses to culturally entrenched sexism and male class privilege, responses that would identify them as the men's liberation, pro-feminist segment of the diverse men's movement. Basic to the men's liberation philosophy was the renunciation of racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes and behaviors. It was this branch that heavily influenced the content of the academic field of men's studies and much of the formal literature prior to the rise of the popular mythopoetic approach in the 1980s.

Although discussions of men's issues continued in small group meetings at community centers and private homes throughout the 1970s, it was not until the early 1980s that the men's movement expanded significantly as an institutionalized cultural phenomenon in the United States. This decade witnessed a major cultural preoccupation with appropriate role models for male life, the appearance of men's periodicals such as M, Gentle Men for Gender Justice, and the Men's Studies Review, and the emergence of several major organizations centered upon various men's issues. While earlier bodies such as the Male Liberation Foundation had existed since 1968, these new groups, such as the National Organization for Men (formed by Sidney Siller in New York in 1983), developed in the midst of the emergence of a "New Age" view of men which emphasized the development of such qualities as sensitivity and vulnerability. Readily identifiable and traditionally masculine behaviors were questioned in favor of more "sensitive" masculine traits (which critics called "wimpiness"). This last issue created a dilemma for men: how did they give up their negative masculine traits without losing what they knew as their masculinity? It was a dilemma that the next wave of the men's movement sought to resolve, by defining and reclaiming a valid masculinity that was not reliant on male aggression and dominance.

A recognition of the diverse male psyche and the validity of male spiritual needs and values, drawn from the lore of many cultures (but especially Native American cultures), characterized a second major branch of the men's movement, the mythopoetic. Due to its popularity and the frequent media appearances of some of its prominent writers and philosophers (especially Robert Bly and Sam Keen), it became identified in the public mind during the early 1990s as the standard image of how the men's movement thought and functioned. Its signature events were weekend or weekly retreats featuring the use of social forms such as the sweat lodge, the medicine wheel, public councils and giveaway ceremonies, and the use of drumming. The mythopoetic men's movement emphasized the reclamation and revitalization of structured ceremony as a vehicle for the definition of essential qualities of manhood, and the conscious generation of a contemporary male-centered mythology suited to modern society. The best known writings to emerge from this stage of the men's movements were Bly's widely read 1990 book Iron John, which stimulated a whole genre of mythic writings and interpretations during the following decade, and Keen's Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man (1991).

Another kind of men's organization, modeled on the twelve-step programs of Alcoholics Anonymous, approached masculinity by examining individual relationships with the father, using such concepts as "woundedness" and "toxic masculinity." The idea of man as victim was also promoted by the fourth major division of the movement, the men's rights and father's rights groups, which centered their sometimes militant attention on issues of child support and custody, the rights of unmarried fathers, and abortion issues. Organizations such as the Cambridge-based Men's Rights, Inc. centered their lobbying activities on equitable treatment of male rights in divorce and opposition to an all-male draft. The rhetoric of this small but vocal segment of the movement was characterized by reversing the logic of many arguments used by feminists, particularly on such topics as sexual harassment.

The major differences between the men's movement and the other social movement's emphasizing consciousness raising and role explorations lie in its scope, participants, and leadership. In contrast to the women's movement, whose message was readily understandable and many of whose issues were valid for women from every social class and background, the men's movement appealed primarily to middle-aged white men. Moreover, group leaders emerged either from the academic or religious communities or from a segment of the community of hurt men. Movement leadership was thus perceived as offering limited intellectual and emotional perspectives, which hampered their ability to appeal to the majority of American men. Popular reaction to the men's movement has ranged from confusion over the concerns which stimulated its existence and the archetypal figures being offered in the new male-centered mythology, to snickering at the spectacle of middle-class men participating in weekend sessions of chanting and male bonding.

Though the men's movement(s) never achieved the kind of organizational momentum or public profile that allowed the women's and gay liberation movements to achieve many of their aims, they did set the stage for other social actions that focussed on recognizing the needs and issues facing American men. The Million Man March, held in Washington on October 16, 1995, centered on reaffirming the spiritual needs, authority, and duties of African American men. A similar emphasis on parental responsibility and obligations to family and spouse was a central principle of the controversial Christian men's political, religious, and cultural organization, the Promise Keepers, which was founded in 1990 as a spiritual reaction against the perceived decline of the secular men's movement and fueled by unease with the faintly pagan flavor of mythopoetics. These events reflected a maturation in the American men's movement, for they indicated that concern for the character and content of the cultural education of men had become a central concern of many social groups by the 1990s.

—Robert Ridinger

Further Reading:

Bly, Robert. Iron John: A Book about Men. Reading, Massachusetts, Addison-Wesley, 1990.

David, Deborah S., and Robert Brannon, editors. The Forty-Nine Percent Majority: The Male Sex Role. Reading, Massachusetts, Addison-Wesley, 1976.

Farrell, Warren. The Liberated Man: Beyond Masculinity; Freeing Men and Their Relationships with Women. New York, Bantam Books, 1974.

Goldberg, Herb. The Hazards of Being Male: Surviving the Myth of Masculine Privilege. New York, Nash, 1976.

Harding, Christopher, editor. Wingspan: Inside the Men's Movement. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Keen, Sam. Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man. New York, Bantam Books, 1991.

Kimmel, Michael S., editor. Changing Men: New Directions in Research on Men and Masculinity. Newbury Park, California, Sage Publications, 1987.

——. Manhood in America: A Cultural History. New York, Free Press, 1996.

Pleck, Joseph H., and Jack Sawyer, editors. Men and Masculinity. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 1974.

Snodgrass, Jon, editor. For Men against Sexism: A Book of Readings. New York, Monthly Review Press, 1977.