In the late 80s/ early 90s I started some men’s groups. Nowadays, especially in the White liberal middle-class tertiary-educated post-industrial cultural groups that love to congratulate each other for their progressive values on social media, the received wisdom is that membership of a men’s group is evil on a par with joining the Ku Klux Klan. And at least the Klan are honest about it. And, apparently, had a female wing: the WKKK. (By now, they’re probably co-ed and insisting on everyone using inclusive pronouns.)
Despite the prejudice of the gender-obsessed youth born this century and the paranoia of many (not all) middle-aged White feminists, men’s groups in those days were not primarily about women. This may come as a shock. However, yes, on occasion, we men do like to talk to each other about subjects other than our relations with the opposite sex.
Although many men’s groups were self-consciously inspired by their feminist counterparts (more on that later) consciousness-raising was a widespread late 60s/ early 70s strategy of emancipation that by the late 80s was so standard in feminism that its more general application, and revolutionary origin, was often ignored.
Feminism was then (and is even more now) not so much a broad church as shifting and contested female sacred space seething with accusations of ideological heresy, strategic alliance, excommunication and schism – as well as a place of healing, of community and of miraculous resilience and solidarity. So, while my take on male-female relations was based on Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur and Jean Baker Miller’s Toward a new psychology of women, in said groups the topics of conversation tended to centre men’s self-understanding and relations with other men.
Rather pretentiously (it was that kind of Uni) I subtitled the group, “an experiment in self-conscious brotherhood” and, although there was some flirting, some macho bravado, some backstabbing and a lot of gossiping, that appeared to be the general experience.
We talked about gender stereotypes, about relations among and between gay and heterosexual men, about the possibility and difficulty of bisexuality, about our relations with our fathers, about loneliness and friendship, and a bit about group dynamics. We went for walks and road trips and sat round a fire in somebody’s cottage in the country. We shared meals (some shared beds) and some of those friendships have lasted decades.
Another inspiration was a book by Robert Bly named Iron John, which personally I found rather macho and extremely American (I’m Scottish) but also valuable if read in context: as a corrective to a certain feminist view, now almost universal, of masculinity as incurable toxic. It is precisely because Bly was speaking, rather bluntly, in that context that his work was used to demonise an entire movement.
A few years later, early in the new Millennium I think, a man trying to start a men’s group in Edinburgh, and announcing it on Facebook, was shouted down by feminists insisting on an approved woman chairing each event and policing the topics of conversation. This was at a time when the exclusion of men from female groups was non-controversial. The reason, plainly stated, was that men couldn’t be trusted to gather on our own as our only possible motivation would be to plot against women.
Several things had changed:
- The Courage to Heal and other sacred texts of the Recovered Memory Movement had convinced a generation of (mostly) young White middle-class women that either they had been abused in early childhood by an older man or had suppressed the memory due to trauma.
- Madonna’s postfeminist flaunting of feminine allure had won over Dworkin’s aversion of the male gaze.
- A new generation of girls were being raised to see themselves, primarily, as victims and, automatically, as more worthy of praise for any achievement (due to having to overcome their victimhood) than boys.
- The adjective “male” replaced the nouns “man” and “boy” whereas the noun “women” replaced the adjective “female”.
- To address previous and continuing gender imbalance, countermeasures were applied – some of which confused affirmative action with positive discrimination.
So, for example, in university departments (including those overwhelmingly staffed by women) strategies of diversity & inclusion that were set up to balance gender by choosing a less represented demographic candidate over one equally qualified and experienced were popularly understood as a license to employ and promote good women candidates, still bleeding from deep wounds of the gender wars, over the ever-abusive male candidates who had caused them, simply by being born with a Y-chromosome. So basically White middle-class women replaced White middle/ upper-class men.
Meanwhile more and more boys were receiving primary care in exclusively female-led households and primary education from almost exclusively female teachers. In this process they got the message that men are inherently either mad, bad or sad whereas women as wise, good and in touch with their emotions.
So, is it any surprise that so many young men are attempting to “identify” out of being male? Here’s some homework (I’m a teacher, sorry) for you to verify the outrageous claim that there is prejudice against masculinity: look up the hashtag #InternationalMensDay on social media. Read the posts and comments. What percentage of them are positive about masculinity?
If we want young men to stop invading female space and attempting to appropriate female identity, we need to start valuing masculine men.
Thanks to Dawn Hudson who has released her image Vintage Navy Poster into the Public Domain.