Following in the footsteps of Nike’s Colin Kappernick commercial, Gillette recently released a two-minute ad that, recieving wide viewership, calls on men to step forward into manhood in a new way. A friend who knows I write about gender and social change sent it to me. Tears welled up as I watched something happen on a screen that offered a much longed for window into how our broken culture may yet be able to offer a pathway forward for my twin, 9 year old boys. Finally.
For a mother concerned not just with the modeling my sons are getting from the White House, but with the abounding crisis of masculinity largely responsible for Trump’s election and the alarming (and related, to my mind) climate change denial, it is hard not to fear for my children and the world they are inheriting.
The election of Donald Trump created — or perhaps highlighted — a man-shaped-hole at the core of our country. Trump’s election, described by some as the “last gasp of patriarchy”, begs a question I have been asking almost from the day after he got elected: What kind of new man might fill that hole? What does post-patriarchal masculinity look like?
As I have dug deeper over the last two years (partly as a survival strategy) into feminist writing about patriarchy, through my own, sometimes harrowing, personal journey, and through the challenging recesses of my own marriage to a man I love, I am clearer than ever that the root cause of the mess we are in is not men, but what patriarchy has done to them.
Gillette’s ad finally breaks the silence on the elephant in the room waiting to be named: Men aren’t bad, it’s just the way so many of them have gone about it that is.
What I found is that the problem isn’t just Donald Trump’s unabashed, machiavellianism, nor just Harvey Weinstein’s and Brett Kavanaugh’s arrogant denial, nor is it the extremely distressing opioid epidemic among white (cis)men, it’s in the emptiness and emotional numbness patriarchy offers to all men, including the progressive, liberal (cis)men who voted for Bernie and Hilary.
Men have been taught in this country that they are no more than their paycheck, their ability to “be the best”, (as Gilette encourages), above and against one another, they have been taught not to have feelings and needs and to be ashamed when they find they have them. On top of this, in recent years, these men have been left in the dust by the progress made by women thanks to the feminist movement. More and more women have entered the professional world, the territory where men were raised to get most of their worth, more women are finding a voice, able to articulate their needs, feelings and thoughts. Across the board, men are suffering, whether they are able to acknowledge it or not, and women, our country, and our children are suffering for it.
I saw this in my own husband when his attention two years ago turned to a book called The New Manhood by Steve Biddulph. Now in its 20th anniversary edition, Biddulph’s book lays out in tragic detail the extent to which so many men today feel a sense of emptiness, void of real purpose, mildly depressed, often without realizing it. (It’s ultimately a very empowering, uplifting read, but it minces no words.) My husband turned page after page, while, with no small amount of relief, I watched him recognize just how much this book spoke to his version of Betty Friedan’s “problem without a name.” In this context, while Gillette’s ad is such a heartening downpour of rain in a drought, its call to men to “be the best”, belies a deeper story of insecurity, the deeper loss of an inner-compass so many men are experiencing today. In so doing, also, it also leaves many of the underpinnings of the patriarchal trap in place, leaving us, as a whole, many men down in the battle against the prevailing tide!
Which returns me to my a question: if Trump is the “last gasp of patriarchy”, what do men actually look like on the other side of this last gasp?
What is men’s journey, through the weight of patriarchal conditioning? How do they come to define their version of Betty Friedan’s “problem without a name”, and find their more authentic voice? What is their story?
Women’s anger and purpose have seen a metoeric rise in the last two years through the Women’s March and #MeToo movements, meanwhile, the man-shaped-hole has only widened. With so many women’s saying “no!”, “enough!”, the blame is slowly shifting away from victims of sexual abuse towards the men who perpetrate, and yet so very little in our public discourse points to what women actually want to say yes to, to what they expect from men … post-sexual revolution, post-four phases of feminism, post-Trump, post #MeToo?
Add to this that the mainstream media’s response to the vacuum that’s waiting for men to re-define the prevailing winds of masculinity has been …crickets. It is like a state of suspended animation, or an awkward nothingness that no one want to talk to much about. (More on this later.) There are, of course, the few articles like two in the New York Times on new APA guidelines for masculinity and on the work of the Mankind Project (and other organizations). But relative to the size and significant of the real story, the coverage is surprisingly sparse.
These questions — about what a post-patriarchal masculinity might look like- led me back to books I hadn’t read in decades about patriarchy and its origins, to online forums where these discussions are beginning to happen, and to newer feminist publications that, incorporating psychological insights, open up greater understanding about our conditioned state of impasse. This journey also led me to see that the changes we want to see in men — not just Trumpian men — are essential if we are to turn the course of current history. They are changes that require support and, importantly, they are changes that are undeniably helped when women have a deeper understanding of their own embroilment in the patriarchal catastrophe and learn to walk away.
In this article, I share some of what I have learned about the discussion that is happening and about the deeper journey that is calling to us all to address the roots at the base of our current state of affairs. What I have found is there’s a front line of resistance, a way to engage in challenging the power plays of our times that is more immediate and available than our bi-annual walk to the polls, (as essential and indispensable as that is!).
In fact, when people talk to me about how overwhelmed and despairing they are about our current political situation, I want to know about their relationships, about the risks they are taking in themselves, with their partners, therapists and support communities.
Because one of the many important invitations at hand in our current mixed up world is to grow into the kind of humans that can support a future worth living, a future worthy of our children. And the front lines of that growth happen in relationship. However, as with any real problem with deep roots, (say, around 4,000 years old), the solution requires more than a quick fix. It asks us to care… about our own suffering, if not others’, and to follow the thread of this caring inward, to face our gendered-demons, to risk opening up to our losses and to wrestle the dragon of shame to find its wisdom.
(Cis)men and (cis)women are being asked to make a choice that carries deep personal and civic significance. Moving forward, will we choose unresolved conflict, “shut-downs”, isolation from one another, solutions that mandate domination and submission, or — equipping ourselves with a deeper strength and a fiercer knowing — will we choose love?
Here, I’d like to be clear right off the bat about the debt heteros owe to the queer folk who have been at this, doing an incredible job if it, for more than a few decades now. If I refer to (cis)men and (cis)women in this article, it is because, arguably, the mantle for dismantling patriarchy may be getting passed on to the frontiers of hetero-culture where straight (cis)women and (cis)men collide. I say this not to suggest the LGBTQI movement is in the clear, (hardly!), but, as a women who was, myself, a lesbian/queer activist but who is now married to a (cis)man, the work is undeniably here. In Trump’s America, things have heated up. And if this leads to the growth we need, we may have him to thank for it! And with that said, here beings my tale…
Where the Dialogue about Masculinity IS Happening.
I can’t quite remember now, how I came across the magazine Voice Male some time after Trump’s election. First published during feminism’s second wave, this magazine has been publishing articles by men (and women) about post-patriarchal masculintity for decades. It was started by men who allied with women friends of theirs who were working to open some of the nation’s first battered women’s shelters. These women needed men to begin thinking and writing about the kind of support and transformation men, themselves, needed in order to stop the violence. The post-patriarchal voice in this magazine, leveraged long before any of the current kerfuffle and fury, deserves recognition as one of the first, courageous efforts by men to carve out a more authentic voice and confront the limitations of patriarchal manhood.
Heartily championing forward with an on-line presence, Voice Male is joined by other, newer forums, like The Good Men Project. This dynamic website tauts the bi-line: “the conversation no one else is having” and, as such, echoes my point, but its content gladly refutes it! The Good Men Project posts a lively and provocative stream of articles daily. Its interactive, membership platform calls for discussion about what it means to be a man today, about masculinity and its transformation. With posts written by men, women, and queer folk who have their finger on a quickening pulse, you find articles like: An Open Letter to Lonely Frustrated Young Men, where young men are invited to take up a path of self-reflection, or Life in Reverse : The Little Things We Can Do To Get Our Lives Together, where Medium writer Crystal Jackson raises the question for men: maybe it’s not about bravery after all? Taking all into account, then, Gillette’s ad doesn’t come entirely out of the blue. It rests on roots and is part of a movement that, every day, grows shoots, anew. As such, Voice Male and The Good Men Project are two of several frontiers where the conversation everyone-needs-to-be-having about post-patriarchal masculinity is happening.
This is an essential development: The very engagement of men (and women) in a conversation about what a new manhood actually looks like and what is learned (seperately and in relationship with one another) when they lean into this question.
Behind these articles — and sometimes directly in them — we begin to see accounts of the lived experiences that opened our eyes to the distressing reality that what-we-were-raised-with-as-normal has been part of a great betrayal. This deeper work, the work of facing the truth about ourselves, acknowledging the hurts caused by those we have loved, the work of a gender (r)evolution to find ground, resilience and a voice moving forward, this is the story beneath the stories.
Carol Gilligan, author of the groundbreaking feminist classic In a Different Voice, has wrtten two recent books in partnership with colleagues Naomi Snider and Dave Richards, that chronicle dimensions of this deeper story at the root of patriachy. In Why does Patriarchy Persist and Darkness Now Visible, Gilligan and her colleagues explore the emotionally charged terrain of narcissism and shame, and many of the cultural precedents of patriarchy. They call on what they have learned as researchers, teachers and therapists about how patriarchy crafts us out of our childhood into the binary, and compromised “men” and “women” we become. While their work is theoretical and heady in parts, what is shared in these pages has everything to do with questions that go straight to the heart of the matter in our personal lives and as citizens. In both books, the authors look at how our culture and our gender identities — who we take ourselves to be at the deepest levels — allow patriarchy so successfully to perpetuate itself. In doing so, they stake out the guidepost to the only, real work we are invited to do on ourselves and with each other that can lead to deeper change.
How patriarchal conditioning separates us from ourselves and each other.
In Darkness Now Visible, Gilligan and Richards point to the gender binary in patriarchy that “divides human capabilities into either masculine” or “feminine” where masculine qualities align with rationality, intelligence, autonomy and what is “real” and feminine qualities align with emotions, relationships, and “goodness”(DNV, 2) This binary, which the authors persuasively suggest has its roots in trauma, elevates the mind above the body and creates a “loss of voice and of memory [such] that patriarchy become[s] mistaken for nature.” (DNV, 15). Seemingly innocuous and ‘rooted in nature’, these two sides of a pole, (which are identified throughout feminist theory), are far from the innocent descriptors they appear to be. In a patriarchal culture, (which covers pretty much most cultures these days), when boys and girls experience their feelings and behave as children do, adult responses are infused (unconsciously) with ideas about how “boys” and “girls” should feel and behave. Even in the more conscious of us, this conditioning exists.
The conditioning goes something like this: When young boys experience hurt and loss in their early relationships they are taught to stifle their all-too-human emotions and be “strong”, they are told, directly or indirectly, that boys/men shouldn’t have feelings or needs, they should think their way through problems and sort them out on their own. This may seem formulaic and passe in liberal circles, but consider the discomfort among a group of adults when, after being really upset by something, a 9 year old boy starts crying in public. By contrast, when young girls feel hurt and loss in their relationships, they are taught to stifle their anger and told that “good girls” don’t get angry and stand up for themselves, they “get along”. Picture a really angry, little girl fighting back, in public, against a real, perceived injustice from an adult. (Tellingly, this one may actually get more sympathy these days than the example with the boys.)
Because of how deeply sensitive we are as children and the power of patriarchal inculturation (which lives in our fathers AND our mothers), in the absence of waking up from this binary, this “normal” state of affairs becomes the water we swim in: Boys lose their capacity to feel their tenderness and hurt (feminine qualities) and girls lose their capacity for strength and self confidence (masculine qualities).
Perhaps this is the place where I ought to interject that any set of generalizations has exceptions. Many boys also internalize the message that they should not be angry and, girls, the message that they should not have any feelings and needs. The gender-bound norms are prevalent, but there are plenty of children who grow up with a double-layering of patriarchal rules. I should also say that, in the imagined absence of this patriarchal conditioning, I would not suggest that boys would be just like girls or girls like boys. Rather, the outcome of childhood wouldn’t have us feeling quite so starkly different from one another — we would each have inner access to qualities we are taught to deny in ourselves because they belong to an “opposite” gender. A bridge could be crossed where in the current arrangement, it’s more like a cavern.
What this amounts to in adulthood is a a business-as-usual that is more troublesom than the world of patriarchy would have us believe. As men and women, we take these differences as normal and “natural”, thus solidifying, through our separate identities, our inability to access the parts of us that can help us relate to one another difference. Here’s the more than familiar shape it takes in adulthood: Men close off their vulnerability, often appearing to not really care about, or be as impacted by, relational hurts. Tragically they are taught to betray their own hearts and join ranks in a male culture that provides comfort, through solidarity, in ‘toughness’.
From this vantage point, the entire patriarchal edifice offers its victors a prized, “real man” identity to defend against feelings of loss, a “victory”, nonetheless, that comes at very high price. By severing men from their inner world, the place where their emotions teach them about what works for them and what doesn’t relationships, patriarchy, betrays the very men it is set up to advantage.
Meanwhile, for women, this system is kept well in order when in facing feelings of hurt and loss, they come to doubt themselves, losing trust in their intuition, they question their worth, and lose access to their clarity, confidence, strength, vitality and voice. Women “step down” in an effort to be good.
There’s an important twist in here beyond the way in which access to all of who we are gets limited by these gendered prescriptions. In this compelling part of the tale, Gilligan and Richards point out how the very tools we would need to dismantle this state of affairs are effectively ‘stolen from us’ (until and unless we re-find them) by patriarchy itself. Childhood conditioning, as I have suggested, cuts off both boys and girls (but in different ways) from expressing their all-too-human childhood feelings of hurt and loss (this is the primary trauma). Then, by failing to provide empathic (non-shaming) parenting (secondary trauma) that supports a mutual understanding in working through or healing the hurts/loss, boys and girls grow up without learning the tools necessary for resolving conflict.
In case you missed that, this is a big deal. Gilligan and Richards write: “In the name of becoming or being recognized as a “real” man or “good” woman, our relational abilities come to be compromised or rendered ineffective.” (Darkness Now Visible, 3). Conflict resolution requires at some point a softening, an ability to relate to one’s own feelings and those of another, (be they anger, hurt, rage, grief), if access to critical feelings is cut off, conflicts remain un-resolved, leading us to develop a hardened heart, build walls between ourselves and each other, vowing to never love fully again.
This, then, is where we find, as Gilligan and Richards point out, the insidious, Roman divide-and-conquer strategy, which renders us un-able to work through conflict to reach resolution in our marriages, in our participation in a diverse democracy, and in the hard work of governance. With the latter example, we wind up with a polarized, ineffective government, peopled with politicians unable to grok the value of collaboration, compromise, or even healthy debate.
When the means necessary for resolving conflict (the capacity for empathy, mutual recognition, gained through a familiarity with our own inner emotional world and the world of others) are taken away, the separations and the misunderstandings, the shut-downs (no pun intended) continue unabated.
(For another beautiful and intelligent (psychoanalytic) inquiry into patriarchy, mutual recognition and gender, see the work of feminist psychoanalyst, Jessica Benjamin, Bonds of Love.)
What we get from this whole mess is that, instead of access to mutual recognition, empathy and the ability to see another’s points of view, our culture perpetuates an immature, contrived and isolating alternative: dominate (resolve the conflict on one’s own with the “right” answer, heartlessly) or submit (get along). Here, then, we return to the father-lode, gordian knot at the broken-heart of patriarchy, the one that’s given us patriarchy’s ‘last gasp’ in the form of Donald Trump, his base, Mitch McConnel, and the whole, obedient, loyal-to-the-father, GOP. But we also get the everyday misunderstandings and hostilities between men and women, and between each of us and those we hold different. Across the board, the means for regaining love in our relationship is foreclosed by the inner compromises in our souls that were forged in a patriarchal upbringing.
Wrestling Shame: The work of un-doing necessary for post-patriarchal humanity
What we can clearly see here, through Gillegan, et al’s work, is that the battle at hand today, is not between men and women. It is between all of us and a patriarchal culture that works to betray our full, human nature. Successfully separating and pitting us against one another, patriarchy serves to perpetuate conflict, division and tribalism in a world we all share that’s quickly careening off its axis. Can we really afford to proceed this way?
Charting my own course through the gendering of my childhood and accompanied by the insights of feminists and the dialogue about new masculinity, I have come to see our current state in the context of an invitation, (perhaps from the universe in the form of a Trumpian warning!). The invitation is to find our way back, walking through the doorway that forged this whole distorted frame on our humanity in the first place. And here we are each asked to weather something difficult — something we can’t avoid, even though the inclination to avoidance permeates this task. We need to wrestle with patrarchy’s greatest weapon, its mechanism for preserving this binary right here, right now, in our deepest, most immediate, encultured sense of ourselves: Shame.
Patriarchy may perpetuate itself by teaching how not to work through loss and hurt together, but its success rests on using shame to control our feelings and actions. Ironically, then, when we begin to face and meet shame, we know we are on the right ground to challenge this legacy. Shame, itself, being with it, questioning it, coming to see its origins, is the beginning of the way out.
The question is, when it comes to shame, do we, as men, women (and all gender identities in between) meet this experience as an opportunity to break out, as a ticket to the future, or do we fall asleep under shame’s powers, shrinking away from our fuller, human, emotional birthright?
Of course, the journey to face and move through shame has been tackled most valiantly in the past two years by all the women who have come forward in the #MeToo era. Before them, (and ongoingly!), LGBTQI’s have demonstrated tremendous courage and creativity through their often treacherous, even life-risking journeys into and through their shame. Every LGBTI, after all, who has ‘come out’ has wrestled with shame about their deepest sense of themselves not measuring up to the norms of the gender binary prescribed by “male” and “female” norms.
For women, this shame is so often about what will be thought of them, and said about them, when, instead of getting along, they speak up. What will happen if they stand up, following their deepest, self-trusting impulses, and with strength at the heart of hard won inner knowing, they claim their value (knowing that they are so much more than an object for someone else’s pleasure or self-elevation). For this true, deeper strength to be found, one can’t simply push the shame aside, barreling through it counter-phobically. Rather, in facing it squarely we begin to understand the heart-breaking roots of our shame, and in feeling our hurt, our anger, our rage and our grief, the dignity of our original value comes forward. This grounding in a deep sense of self-worth is the rewarding fruit of the journey, the maturity and wisdom that comes from wrestling with oppression and emerging, with love in one’s heart, on the other side.
Those of us who have done this work and faced the shame, have come to some understanding through our history, have survived its prickly, damning, controlling mandates, have made it through into the fuller, prouder, more mature and complete shape of ourselves.
And at this juncture, there is nothing more important to highlight than the critical role of support in this journey. None of the gains made addressing shame and hardship by, what I will call today’s gender-love-warriors, have been made without support. Like racial stereotypes, patriarchal gender norms are forged in a collective, context, (though built upon many small, micro-aggressions on the soul). They teach us how to be socially. As such, collective/social support is indispensable in the healing of these wounds. The validating voices of the feminist and LGBTI movements, of therapists and support groups, of friends, role models, and elders, (elder women/LGBTQI’s who have engaged their own part of the battle!), all provide the bedrock upon which this hard journey can supportively unfold.
And how, then, are men faring in this rough and revolutionary, but essential and generative journey? Men who were taught and conditioned through shaming as children to not have needs, to not need support, to not have feelings or acknowledge their hurts and losses in relationship. Men who were taught not to value relationships, or admit to valuing them, as much as their more solitary, professional achievements. How does this journey into, through, and beyond shame unfold for them?
The Impossible Bind of Shame for Men
Perhaps the most insidious thing about patriarchy is that it privileges men (e.g. appears to be their friend) while taking from them, through shame, their ability to feel the hurts patriarchy, itself, perpetuates against them. How do you free yourself from something that says its your friend and then shuts off your ability to feel the hurt it inflicts on you? We can being to see how an impasse gets created when the very feelings that push for liberation up against the shame are silenced.
Shame abounds for men in our culture today, but the means for working with it are hidden from sight. There is shame from #MeToo, shame from men who stood by while male peers acted poorly, shame about how poorly their gender is functioning through the white man in the White House. Many well- meaning, progressive men feel guilty, aware that something is wrong, but are feeling, also, somehow lost and helpless around it.
Here, we may find some answer to why there is such relative radio silence in the mainstream press about the crisis of masculinity. It is as if, in the man-shaped-hole created by #MeToo, a certain frozenness exists, any further movement forward seems held back by the silencing and restricting silencing of a collective shame.
But consider what might actually be possible if there were more support for men and their shame, or if there were more accounts from men who have found support in working with their shame and have come through the other side.
Consider men who have faced their addiction squarely in12-step programs, men who have been in treatment for domestic abuse, men who have been accused of sexual abuse and had their eyes opened, witnessing their behavior and facing the pain they had caused to a woman. There are many men who have faced their shame and committed to their own growth with support. Are we ready to create a space to listen to them? To listen to what they have learned from their journey?
While women in working through their shame may find a larger, more substantial form of themselves, many men find themselves adjusting to a size that is a bit smaller, more down to earth. One that is humbled, where feelings are met with honesty, where tears can be wept, hurt can be touched, and loss can be grieved. Here, through the doorway of shame, empathy is grown, along-side a deeper sensitivity and capacity to relate. These men find the feminine aspects of themselves they were taught to eschew, without somehow converting into women through this process. And, as with others who pass through the eye of this needle, they become more of themselves, less the scared boy or a defensive pseudo-man, but a fuller version of themselves, more engaged, sensitive, responsive and alive. In telling this story, these men’s voices don’t not need to take the spotlight as men’s voices have for so long, but we are at a loss, no, if these stories are not told? Nothing would arrive to fill our man-shaped-hole.
To be sure, organizations like the ManKind project and online communities like The New Manhood offer support for these men and tell their stories. As do the places men sometimes find themselves in that we talk of less openly — therapy, (their own therapy and the therapy they do with partners). But the progress is limited. The vast majority of men refuse to go to therapy, while their partners log up the hours. They continue to pass their lives at a short distance from themselves, fantasizing about the right women to meet their unarticulated needs, then withdrawing from the woman they are with when they don’t do so.
Overall, what patriarchy has so successfully done to men, is to tell them that in the face of hardship and pain they should not reach out to one another for support, not to recognize or feel their shame, not to unpack the feelings that underlie it. In fact, everything patriarchy has done to men creates a no-man’s-land for them. It turns out that patriarchal shame may bind men more than any of the rest of us.
The victory of patriarchy is that shame it encases around men works so well it keeps them cut off from their own story. It keeps the mainstream press silent, leaving stories about men and their “problem without a name”, unwritten. With little in our power to dissolve this rigidified impasse, we have to ask whether the only option for the rest of us is simply, albeit frustratingly in today’s political climate, to wait? Is there anything we, as women who care, can do to help with this state of impasse? (I cannot help but empathize here with the parallel quagmire faced by people of color who face the dogged refusal of white people to come to see their whiteness. So similar in kind, the recovery from the terrible pain of racism calls on all of us who are white to face the pain of separation we have participated in with our white superiority and to face and process our shame. Another critically important frontier for another article.)
Paradoxically, this question, itself, about what women can do, points us in the direction of what we may be doing to actually halt the progress. With our predilection to care, to try to help and understand, our training to get along, or create a pseudo resolution to conflict by simply telling ourselves “men are just men, men”, we may be playing a role in protecting men from doing the work they need to do to mature into post-patriarchal manhood.
How are women arresting (cis)men’s development into post-patriarchal manhood?
To be sure, more and more women are stepping up and saying “no” to the self-doubt they have taken on around their sexual harrassment, the self-doubt, which, unchallenged, allows men to avoid their shame. But what about the men in our lives, boyfriends, husbands, brothers, fathers, even, who, if we are to believe what I have written above, have the potential to be more developed, more mature in their skin, more relational, more self-forgiving, more accepting, and more alive in themselves …but who aren’t.
What many of us as women bring to the patriarchal impasse, to the inability to resolve conflict in a healthy way, is our built in predilection to caretaking, to collapse in not standing up for our hurt, and far too often settling for the fateful, patriarchy-perpetuating-zinger: “Men will be men.” But how might it change the calculation if the work we need to do is not to be more “good” to get along but to stand up, instead, and say:
“You and I are both worth more than this, we are worth KNOWING our worth. For us to have any meaningful shot at love and intimacy, you have to walk through the door of discomfort (of shame, loss, healing), the door that takes you back into yourself.”
What if our job is to actively raise the bar.
What makes this so very hard for women is that we have to be prepared to know the boundary within ourselves, trust if we feel we need to walk away, or at least embrace the option and live with the onslaught of guilt about not being ‘good enough‘. Gilligan and Richards site Bowlby’s reference to the “compulsive cargiving” in women, the selfless care-giving that has been held up as the epitome of feminine goodness… [It requires a] women to give up her desire to be herself in a relationship for the sake of having “relationships” (DMV, 64). The culture of giving and self doubt arrests our self-interest.
We have to do some of our own emotional work for this, to be willing to challenge the patriarchal belief that we can’t do it without them — to risk leaving. It may take a generation of women being willing to find solidarity in single parenting, the message needs to get across.
On the flip side is risking keeping our heart open as we imagine leaving, open enough in setting a limit that we don’t walk away telling ourselves we don’t need men anyway, writing them off as assholes that live on planet x. (Here, patriarchy lurks internalized the shadow feminism, telling us we have no needs and can do it all on our own.)
We are good as women, in our capacity for care, mutuality, compassion, and sensitivity, but we can’t be satisfied with letting those qualities not also be capacities developed in men. These capacities are the building blocks of human relatedness, and hell knows we need those right now in spades. In women and men.
And what if women are more evolved than men?
A third resource I came across in my search after Trump was elected was a self-published book I found on Amazon when, one desperate night I searched under the words: “post-patriarchy”. There, I found what I was looking for in a book with the ambitious title, Beyond Patriarchy: Women and Men in the Evolution of Post-Patriarchal World. It was written by Patricia Kraus, a retired female therapist, PhD, in her 80s (e.g. a woman who’s done the rounds). This small book is a magnum opus coming from a woman who’s childhood long preceded first wave feminism and who was chronicling the call for a post-patriarchal turn, most critically, pointing to the obstacles we will face in getting there.
Kraus draws broadly from historical, spiritual, psychological and feminist scholarship, but there was one thing I took away from this book (which I vigorously read twice, each time, feeling irreversible changed at the last page) that floored me.
Kraus suggests that, based on research conducted by her and her colleagues, women, on the whole (not all women, by a long stretch, but perhaps the majority), are more developed, or more ‘evolved’ than men, but they are holding back men’s development through deep-seated, codependent patterns inscribed in them by patriarchy.
This isn’t an entirely new argument, but what Kraus was adding to the mix were the findings from her and her colleagues on adult development. Findings that, if you take them at face value, validate the tongue in cheek joke familiar to women (and some men!) that women are in fact wiser and more developed than their male counterparts. (Hold on men, I’m not talking about all of you, but there’s something in here, so I hope you read on.)
Over the course of 13 years, Pat and her collegues carefully analyzed interviews of over a hundred and fifty men and women drawing on extensive research in adult development, gender and morality (Kegan, Belenky, Gilligan). Research findings first published in Kegan’s 1998 book In Over Our Heads describe 6 levels of development, four of which extend into adult development. This research gives us a frame for stages in the growth and development of adults where, at the higher levels, we find the kind of qualities we tend to ascribe in our sage spiritual teachers, male and famale. While so much developmental psychology “ends” in early adulthood (people in their 20s), this work points to measureable levels of development between then and the higher realization of say, the Dalai Lhama. These levels are assessed through techniques that analyze language use in questionnaires and by listening to approaches to problem solving.
After painstaking hours of analysis drawing from both Kegan’s model and Belenky’s research, Kraus and her colleagues saw something else. In spite of their higher level of development, women were hampering their own security at the stage they had acheived AND holding back the growth and development of men through their persisting, co-dependent ways of relating.
This is because either women end up doing the emotional work for the men in their lives (over-functioning) or, by compromising themselves, their desires and needs, (and their self esteem), they stay in relationships that are no longer working for them.
What Kraus’s work suggested to me is that as women begin to truly accept their value, to own the maturity in their relational capacities, they need to see these capacities not simply as something they do as women, but as personal and cultural assets, hard earned through their growth and development. They also need to be willing to raise the bar for men, set their self-doubting and care-taking aside in favor of a tough love that asks for more. By making excuses for men, by accepting their resistance to self-reflect, turn towards the difficult places in their lives, their emptiness, by not being clear about the expectations we have, knowing more is possible for them, women play a part in perpetuating the very impasse that keeps patriarchy’s sorry state of affairs in existence.
This is not about blame. Not about making women responsible for it all. It is, however, about the power we, as women, can start to claim simply by taking a stand in our own maturity, capacity and development and from there, raising the bar.
Two years ago, my husband and I reached a point of potential no return in our marriage. The stuckness that existed in our inability to resolve conflict with anything other than blame had reached a level I could no longer deny. It was the wisdom in Kraus’ book, coupled with my own work coming to see and accept my value as a women that allowed me to sit down with my husband and say to him, through a veil of tears, that I loved him, but I could not live in a marriage that did not include his ongoing willingness to self-reflect. Other women may be able to do this, I said to him, but I can’t move forward loving myself as I am coming to, without his being willing to open the door to unearth the feelings I knew were contributing to a dissatisfaction with life he only let himself be vaguely aware of. What followed in subsequent months was more than I had ever expected. My husband learned to listen more deeply, he stayed with the hurt he felt as I told him how much had happened through the course of my marriage that had hurt me so much. At one point when we had found enough ground to stand on together in vulnerability, I asked him, “What has this all felt like for you?” “I’ve felt ashamed,” he said. “Ashamed of how much I’ve hurt you. How much I haven’t seen, how much I didn’t listen.” There were tears in my eyes and between us; they spoke to a far deeper, more mature love than the love that first brought us together many years ago. There, also, before my eyes, post-patriarchal masculinity began to take shape.
So, if not best, what IS a man to be?
And so, while women’s journey through shame often leads to discovering a larger, fuller, experience of herself, and for men it can bring them a sense of coming down to a right size, a deflation that, nonetheless brings them closer to themselves, through that work the opportunity arises for us to meet eye-to-eye. For both, (cis)men and (cis)women there is no way around the turn inwards to begin to face the losses, large or small, that we were taught not to feel and heal. But through this journey, in opening to experience our hurt, we are able to see beyond ourselves, and with deeper understanding and mutual respect, work through the impasse to love again.
In a political climate so full of hostility, impasse, patriarchal narcissism and shut down, all of us who care, progressive liberals, Democrats and Republicans alike, may consider ourselves asked by the circumstances: How can we possibly make this better for the next generation?
These hard circumstances in a country I love have pressed on me to grow into my value as a woman. I ask for men, of all ages, races and political persuasions to stop disavowing your vulnerability. Risk becoming “not a man” in order to become yourself.
On The GoodMen Project website the day Gillette’s ad was posted, I read the comment written by a man I would describe as on the post-patriarchal path. He wrote:
“You’re still allowed to be a man.
You’re just not allowed to be an asshole.
It’s high time we all learned the difference.”
Men learn the difference when they become a critical witness to, not an agent of, the patriarchal damage that has been wrecked on their personalities. When this happens, they step into the man shaped hole in our culture and open the door to a humane future we can be proud of.
Men, your voice counts too, but maybe not in the way you were raised to believe. You count when you can include the parts of you that have learned what it is to see respect and partner with able, self-loving women. Parts that know respect and care for women, (call it nobility and chivalry if you like), as your most basic job as men because through learning to value yourself, to see the more feminine parts of yourself, you have learned that valuing women is paramount to everything we hold dear. Come forward. Find your story and tell it. Show us not so much how you can “be your best”, but how you have learned to become the more attuned, alive and loving man you were born to be.