Hugo Schwyzer talks with Warren Farrell about the White House Commission on Boys to Men.
Helping boys become healthy men is a woman’s issue too. That’s a key part of the message of the proposed White House Council on Boys to Men, an initiative currently currently under consideration by the Obama Administration.
Chaired by Warren Farrell, the author of the controversial The Myth of Male Power and many other books on men, women, and relationships, the Council includes 34 authors, practitioners, and educators from across the ideological spectrum. All share Farrell’s concern that “a nationwide crisis of boys and men already exists,” and that that crisis manifests itself in unemployment, fatherlessness, diminishing educational achievement, and poor physical and emotional health.
Articles and books about the “The End of Men” have proliferated in recent years. One of the hottest trends in publishing is explanations of and solutions for the “masculinity crisis.” Some authors (like commission member Christina Hoff Summers) blame feminists for fighting a “war against boys,”others (like Farrell himself) see the problem as more complex and nuanced than that. Though some advocates for traditional masculinity and gender essentialism are on the large board of advisors, the proposal for the Council rejects both feminist-bashing or a simplistic return to 1950s values:
Leadership for the future must both question and honor traditional masculinity. As our history of male-as-sole-breadwinner fades as downsizing and outsourcing burgeon, both sexes will need to be prepared to raise money and raise children. Our daughters have learned to do both; our sons have not.
The commission proposal is less a clarion call for men’s rights than it is a thoughtful plea to the country to help men and boys make the same transition to modernity that their sisters, wives, and mothers have already made.
To find out more about the Council, I spoke with Warren Farrell for nearly an hour one afternoon in late July.
Farrell was famously elected three times to the board of directors of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women in the early 1970s. An ardent feminist in his earlier years, he became troubled by the way in which many of his fellow activists ignored the very real struggles of men and boys. Most men, Farrell concluded, don’t have the power that women often imagine they do. And women’s belief that men are more powerful than they are leads to a culture in which men’s pain is often overlooked.
Though Farrell is a darling for many in the Men’s Rights Movement (some even think of him as one of the instigators of the anti-feminist backlash), Warren remains firmly committed to gender equity. This shows in his commitment to progressive politics and to egalitarian values, and it’s at the heart of his work to create this new White House Commission.
When we chatted, Warren was eloquent about the ways in which the “boy crisis” is misunderstood and misrepresented. Not least of those misrepresentations is the idea that focusing on gender-based problems is a zero-sum game. Too many, including both feminists and men’s rights activists, assume that devoting more attention to boys will mean paying less attention to girls. I mentioned Laura Bush’s famous and unfortunate 2005 remark that “it’s time for Americans to sort of shift our gaze to boys and see what we can do to nurture boys.” A shifted gaze implies shifted resources, and that understandably makes those of us who advocate for girls and women concerned that the hard-won gains of recent years will be lost.
To his credit, Farrell adamantly rejects the Laura Bush framework. He sees the proposed White House Commission on Boys to Men as working closely with the extant White House Commission on Women and Girls, established by President Obama in 2009. The difference between the two names, however, catches the eye. Why not call it the White House Commission on Men and Boys? Wouldn’t that be more complementary and consistent?
“‘Women and girls’ as a phrase stimulates a protective instinct,” he said. “Men are biologically programmed to compete to solve women’s problems. But there’s no equivalent in reverse. Women are repulsed by the idea of men asking for help. So when we originally proposed a White House Commission on Men and Boys, women were turned off. But when women, especially mothers, hear the focus on ‘boys to men,’ their protector instinct is catalyzed. Hence the name ‘Boys to Men.’”
Indeed, much of the proposal seems targeted at women, particularly mothers of sons. I ask if this focus on moms is intentional, and Farrell readily concedes it. Many mothers have both sons and daughters, he points out, and are equally concerned with the health and well-being of each. But they’re likely to notice that there are more resources available for their girls than for their boys. Farrell wants to tap into that hunger so many mothers have for tools with which to raise healthy, happy sons. Moms want to help their boys become well-adjusted adults, and they need more resources to help make that happen.
But it’s not just moms to whom the Council appeals. It’s straight women who bemoan the scarcity of good men. Just as the culture of perfectionism has become insidiously destructive in the lives of so many young girls, the rigid manhood ideal with which our sons are still raised has straitjacketed their potential and limited their humanity. The proposal notes that “we have the opportunity to create more flexible expectations for our sons rather than the pressures of the male role that too frequently lead to emotional distress or suicide.” Farrell is certain that a culture of more flexible expectations will lead to a tremendous payoff: emotionally competent, fully grown-up, self-aware men who can and will be better partners and fathers.
The focus of the proposal’s final paragraph is unmistakable:
(The Council) can provide leadership to help us help our sons row on both sides of the family boat—so our daughters may have equal partners. It can co-ordinate the nation’s best efforts to parent, mentor, and teach each of our sons to discover who he is. It can end the era of boys and men as a national afterthought. It can provide leadership to raise young men our daughters are proud to love.
Leaving aside the heterosexism (what about what lesbians and gay men, and what they want?), it’s clear that Farrell and his colleagues recognize that getting “buy-in” from women is an absolutely critical part of getting the Council established and funded. Men and women, as Warren has often pointed out, may not have strictly complementary roles; as he says, we all need to learn to “row on both sides of the boat.” But we do want each other, and we need to give our boys the tools to become the men of whom mothers can be proud, and to become the happy, resourceful, and flexible partners for whom our daughters long.
The initiative in its entirety can be found on the Council’s website. According to Farrell, the submitted proposal now rests in the White House Office of Public Engagement, where it remains under consideration. Farrell asks for phone calls, letters, and emails to both President Obama and to Congress, urging the Administration to move forward and approve the White House Council on Boys to Men.
—Main image toolmantim/Flickr
—Photo of Warren Farrell courtesy of warrenfarrell.com