In 1978 John Irving published The World According to Garp. In this work of fiction, Garp’s mother, Jenny decides to have a child without a husband and after publishing her autobiography feminists idealize her as a woman who does not depend on a man. She works with the Ellen Jamesians, a group of women named after an eleven-year-old girl whose tongue was cut off by her rapists to silence her. The members of the group cut off their own tongues in support of the girl. This is an extreme fictional portrayal of one form of feminism in which women reject men and identify with the victim thereby victimizing themselves. I was educated on another alternative view of feminism.
I am a child of the seventies, raised by an activist yet modest mother and heavily influenced by the Ms. Foundation for Women’s 1972 “Free to Be You and Me” in which The Ms. Foundation very wisely pushed the feminist movement not to be about women, but about gender neutrality. “Free to Be You and Me” shattered multiple stereotypes and reinforced many boy’s feelings that it’s OK to cry, have a doll, and wear an apron. “Free To Be You and Me” was not a message to girls by women, but to children by adults who wanted to reframe the narrative and change society.
When NFL legend Rosey Grier plays guitar and sings It’s Alright to Cry saying “I know some big boys who cry too” it is a very sophisticated message which is much more likely to engage men and change society than extreme feminists who exclude men or makes demands of them. It also creates an alternative vision of what a man can be to women and girls who have had men in their lives who have damaged them.
Exclusion is a poor choice when trying to effect change, especially if we are trying to empower a weak segment of the dominant society. The feminist movement was in a transformation in the mid 1980s when I was a student at Columbia University. Women had just been admitted to Columbia College for the first time in 1983 after 300 years. As Barnard came up on its 100th anniversary, it was still very much a women’s only college. However, Columbia students were allowed to take (some) courses there and in fact I was on Barnard’s campus at least as much as I was on Columbia’s if not more.
This is when I was first called a feminist. A female graduate student who was the teacher’s assistant in a history class I was taking had written “Good Feminist Critique” on one of my papers. I didn’t know a man could be a feminist. It was transformative and I was published in Barnard’s feminist journal. Not everyone at Barnard agreed that a man should be able to publish in the feminist journal and it caused a campus controversy.
The transformation to include men in the women’s movement also took place within the “Take Back The Night” events. Originally, these events were meant to speak out against violence against women and raise community awareness. Some organizers still feel that these events are meant to create a “safe space” for women and for them this means the exclusion of men, even men who are transgender or victims of sexual assault. Other events not only include men, but feature men and men’s groups in the narrative including their stories of sexual abuse.
Today, the official mission of “Take Back the Night” has grown to encompass all forms of violence against all persons, though sexual violence against women is still the top focus. Beyond this, “Night” has evolved beyond the literal meaning to also represent fear so that such elements of the struggle as domestic violence are included.
In Israel where I have lived since 1990, “Take Back the Night” was transformed in 2009 when it took place right after the worst attack on homosexuals in Israel up to that time when a gunman opened fire at a gay nightclub in Tel Aviv injuring 10 people and killing two. About ten years earlier, I marched in the first “Take Back the Night” in Tel Aviv. I did not march to negate a safe space for women. I marched not as a man, not as a feminist, but as a member of Israeli society because all people in my society deserve to be safe.
Similarly, this year, the Jerusalem Pride Parade was transformed after last year’s murder of a 16-year old straight girl. This year 25,000 people showed up and many, if not most, were straight supporters of the cause. There were noticeably more people wearing religious head-coverings than ever before. I had attended the first Jerusalem Pride Parade in 2002 so this, like “Take Back the Night” was not new to me as a religious heterosexual man, but it was noticeable and refreshing to feel the air of inclusiveness which I believe to be the maturity of the movement organizing such events as they recognize that they are not alone in a struggle which is not theirs, but ours.
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