Men must be strong enough and vulnerable enough to be men’s rights activists in their everyday lives.
In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, thereby giving birth to the women’s movement. Over time, the women’s movement came to address everything from political and societal reform to relationships and women finding their own voice.
The men’s equivalent, however, was conspicuously absent until the early 1990s, when the mythopoetic movement first caught the public eye. Since then, the awareness about men’s issues has grown slowly but surely. Men are starting to wake up, and in 2011, we have at least three different strands of men’s work:
- Learning how to meet women. This is the whole pick-up artist movement. It certainly has a lot of immature elements to it, but it’s leading to mature and grounded initiatives—such as the Authentic Man Program.
- What does it mean to be a man? It seems that both exaggerated maschismo and spineless New Age vibes are going out of fashion. Instead, more men are becoming curious about male identity, deep masculinity, and male archetypes. New websites such as Masculinity Movies are on the forefront of exploring what being a man might mean in the future, and right now.
- Men’s rights activism (MRA). Is it a fair generalization to say that men are oppressive brutes who beat women and live privileged lives? And what’s up with men always being the ones who sacrifice their lives for society? Men’s rights activists have started asking these questions in a profound way, turning our beliefs about gender issues upside down.
Some men are interested in all of these domains. I know I am. After all, as a man, you have your own depth and identity, your romantic relationships, and your place in culture/society.
The only problem is that sometimes these paths appear to be mutually exclusive or, at the very least, contradict each other. Especially the Men’s Rights Movement and the other two branches. Is it really sexy or masculine to demand that your wife take on half of the physical risks so that you can be more safe? Do you feel manly while complaining that four out of five homeless people are men? It’s easy to make the call that to explore your manhood and be successful with women, you’d better man up and forget about any men’s rights.
To understand this dilemma better, and hopefully get past it, we need to understand why the Men’s Rights Movement is so small compared to feminism.
Who Understands Whom?
In the early 1990s, a very interesting doctoral dissertation, “His and Her Childlessness,” was published in Sweden. The gist of the research was to investigate how men and women in childless couples communicate, and how well they understand each other. Traditional wisdom tells us that the man is more or less clueless while the woman has a good grasp of how he is feeling.
The results, however, were nothing short of shocking. What they found was that the women talked all the time about how they were feeling, which meant that the men had a pretty good grasp of how their spouses were doing. The men, on the other hand, were silent. They noticed that the woman became emotional and upset from talking about the subject, so they wanted to protect her by avoiding the issue.
The woman, not getting any input from the man, was still confident that she understood him from reading the emotions in his face. But in reality, her guesses were actually wrong most of the time, leading to the surprising conclusion that the men knew how the women were feeling, but the women were clueless about the men!
So what can we learn from this story, this research? Men don’t want to open up because men don’t want to burden women, men want to protect women. Men also don’t want to be perceived as weak or unmanly by either women or men. Throughout history manhood has been about performing, protecting, and providing—and none of those tasks lend themselves to being weak. Women don’t like weak men because historically a weak man would be unable to do those things, and that’s not a good recipe for a mother who’s raising children.
This dynamic is the very reason that the Men’s Rights Movement is so small compared to feminism. Women are used to telling men how they feel, and feel free to complain about everyday life. In this sense, feminism is a natural extension of women voicing their concerns about the limitation of the female gender role.
Men, on the other hand, are trapped in a catch-22. At the very moment you speak up about male expendability and the limitations of the male gender role, you risk coming across as weak and unattractive to women—while feeling exactly the same way yourself.