Boston Globe

Sunday, May 17, 1998

Men on the Verge

By Kate Zernike, Globe Staff
The Boston Globe

First of three parts

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio - Three decades after the dawn of feminism forever changed the American workplace, home and mores, the second wave of the gender revolution is building.

This time it's men, fighting back against the broad brush of a women's movement they complain too often paints all men as behaving badly, all dads as deadbeats, one that has made male a four-letter word. While sexual harassment claims and sniping between the sexes escalate, so do confusion and exasperation. As one Internet site promoting men's rights moans, ''Can't we all just get along? Can't we all just get a date?''

The Million Man March and Promise Keepers mobbing the Mall in Washington were merely the most public recent displays of the new male agitation. Less visibly, it is in commissions on the status of men in several states, in the emerging power of the divorced fathers' movement after years on the fringes, and in 2 million stay-at-home dads networking to face down the suspicious stares of mothers on playgrounds.

What some are calling ''masculinism'' is also on scores of Web sites like Backlash.com, tracking anti-male sexism. And it is here in this faded Midwestern factory town, where in March, young academics in stiff tweed jackets nodded intently as scholars at a conference of the American Men's Studies Association presented papers on the wounds of boyhood and how men are stereotyped in the pages of Cosmopolitan.

At least 500 colleges nationwide now offer courses on men and masculinity. And after years of worrying about how schools shortchange girls, a burgeoning body of research argues that the ones suffering the most are boys.

The government is taking note of men's struggles, and so is Hollywood. Congress is considering $2 billion for ''Fathers Count'' programs this year, while five TV sitcoms are featuring single dads. And now, just as the Pill gave women power over their bodies at the start of the feminist movement, Viagra is promising new potency for men.

Masculinism ranges from outright misogyny to earnest introspection. Between those extremes, it suggests a growing frustration among American men.

''We've had the first wave, which was feminism, and it's by no means over, but it's on its way,'' says William Pollack, co-founder of the three-year-old Center for Men at Harvard's McLean Hospital in Belmont. ''For men, it's a beginning. Men are trying to catch up. If we see all these things through separate lenses, they look like a bunch of grains of sand. If we step back, we see that they've all grown out of massive economic and social changes. They're responses to the changes in women, and they are the second wave of the revolution. Some may want to move back, not forward, but this is going to make a major shift.''

To sense the anxiety among men today is only to watch the sparks flying around discussions of the Clinton sex scandals, or the Boston lawyer who sued to get into a women-only gym. In the most cynical version of the old question, men ask: What do women want - equal opportunity or special status? And what, exactly, are the appropriate rules of engagement in the office these days?

Consider the creatures of men's imaginations. In the early days of feminism, a man created ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show,'' making audiences cheer as the single woman with spunk trumped gruff Lou Grant.

Today, a man creates single lawyer Ally McBeal. In a skirt that might be mistaken for a rubber band, she beguiles judges and clients, tongues the froth of her caffe latte from her lips. She slaps a sexual harassment suit on her boss. And wins.

In a bittersweet way, men's changing perception of the opposite sex suggests how many gains women have made.

When Mary Richards went to work at WJM-TV in 1970, women made up only 37 percent of the workforce, and earned 62 cents for every dollar a man made. They held 19 percent of all management positions, while men were the chief breadwinners in 70 percent of families. Now, women make up 46 percent of the workforce and 44 percent of the nation's management positions. They earn 75 cents to a man's dollar, and dual-income families are the norm. The percentage of women earning more than their husbands has risen to 23 from less than 5 in 1970.

Of course, by almost any statistical measure, men are still ahead of women. Ally McBeal may work in a tony law firm, but real-life women lawyers earn $300 less per week than their male counterparts. In all jobs, the wage gap has widened: Women's 75 cents to a man's dollar is down from 77 cents in 1993. The report of the federal Glass Ceiling Commission in 1995 found that men held 95 percent of management positions in the Fortune 500.

But if men still hold the power, masculinism takes root in a feeling that they are increasingly powerless. Men aren't the sole breadwinners anymore, so what are they supposed to be? While feminism created options for women in the workplace, institutions and stereotypes often make it hard for men to make a comparable move into the family. Today, everything men were raised to be often inspires collective distaste: Protecting is now patronizing, power is oppressive, while being strong and silent risks being accused, in the ''Venus-Mars'' lexicon, of ''withdrawing into the cave.''

''So much has changed in the last 30 years, and for a lot of men who were going about their lives not paying attention to the women's movement, they feel like they've just woken up in the middle of the movie,'' says Rob Okun, associate director of the Men's Resource Center, which offers counseling in Amherst. ''The landscape that the conventional man is walking on has completely changed.''

Pollack, of the Center for Men, talks about creating the new model for men as ''Eve's Rib,'' with its genesis in the changes wrought by women.

''Masculinity is in crisis,'' he says. ''Men don't know what it is to be a man. Is it the old traditional provider role, the new sensitive role, or something in between?''

The organizers

Like any group bidding for civil rights, men are organizing.

Whatever men's movement there was in the late '60s and early '70s stood shoulder to shoulder with the sisterhood. Consciousness-raising groups declared men's support for feminism, eager to atone for male privilege.

Today, the men's movement has fractured into several factions. But what they all share is attention to the uncertainty over men's roles.

Movements with conservative and religious overtones, like Promise Keepers and the Million Man March, encourage men to reassert their traditional roles as providers and caretakers. Followers of Robert Bly, whose arrival at the top of the bestseller list in the early '90s was the initial sign of the rebirth of the popular men's movement, avow that feminism has so suppressed their masculine energy that men must retreat to the woods to regain it. Then there are the men's rights groups, and at the other end of the spectrum, the profeminist groups - still standing in solidarity with women.

The tone differs, but their arguments are largely the same.

Yes, society restricted women for years, but the same values have bound men to their roles as aggressors. To women's arguments about glass ceilings and wage gaps, men say that they have higher rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, and stress-related diseases. Men are more likely to drop out of college, and - the ultimate ceiling - they die seven years younger.

With this as its frame of reference, men's studies seeks equal time alongside women's studies.

The number of programs has risen more than tenfold since 1984. While they prompt almost obligatory snickers in women's studies departments and feminist circles generally, men's studies is gaining in legitimacy. In the Ivy League, the University of Pennsylvania has a program. The universities of Southern California and Minnesota boast men's studies pioneers on their faculties. Hobart College, in Geneva, N.Y., a year ago became the first college to offer a major in men's studies. And the College of St. John in Collegeville, Minn., offers not merely men's studies courses, but a men's lecture series, men's groups, a black men's think tank, and alumni men's studies trips.

But unlike women's studies, which aimed mostly to establish the contributions of women in canons dominated by men, men's studies look more at the question long asked by women: Why are men the way they are?

Curriculums examine ideals for men through the ages - John Wayne to Alan Alda - and how culture reflects the shifting models of manhood and men's struggles. ''Death of a Salesman'' has become a primer, with its portrait of father-son relationships, a man struggling to maintain his dignity in the face of economic struggle. Many students also read Tim O'Brien's Vietnam chronicle, ''The Things They Carried, '' and David Mamet's study of workplace machismo, ''Glengarry Glen Ross. ''

At Hobart, students watch ''Deliverance'' and interview their fathers and grandfathers about their definitions of manhood and how they've changed; they write term papers answering the question, ''What's difficult about being a man?''

''When you're the norm, you're not aware that you have a particularity, that you're a male and not just a human being,'' said Stephen Boyd, a professor at Wake Forest University and head of the men's studies association. ''We're looking at our particularity, the same way the women's movement, civil rights, the gay liberation movement, looked at theirs. It's like that old proverb: The fish are the last to be aware of the water.''

Men to boys

The younger brother to men's studies, research on boys, is also going through a growth spurt, with the publication in two years of four books aspiring to be the Hamlet counterpart to the bestselling chronicle of girls' problems, ''Reviving Ophelia. ''

When the American Association of University Women produced ''How Schools Shortchange Girls'' in 1992, schools began training teachers to give girls the attention they weren't getting and lift their math and science skills to the level of boys. With a report a year later about sexual harassment in schools, they focused on making hallways less hostile.

But now more recent research suggests that boys fall farther behind girls in reading and writing than girls do in math and science. Michael Gurian's ''The Wonder of Boys'' notes how boys are twice as likely as girls to take Ritalin or be in special classes for bad behavior. Girls earn more A's, boys drop out of high school more often. Pollack's upcoming ''Real Boys, '' based on research at the private Belmont Hill School, notes that boys are less likely to attend college. And Carol Gilligan, the Harvard professor whose research gave voice to young girls in the '80s, now lectures on the emotional problems of boys in elementary school, and heads a research project on boys.

Leaders in both men's and boys' studies insist they are profeminist, as much as they are ''male positive.'' But those involved also note a conservative, even reactionary, shift in men's organizations.

While this year's conference of the American Men's Studies Association included papers on women as mentors for men, it also included one arguing that if women want true equality, they should agree to combat duty.

''The political climate is such that people don't want to be perceived as antiwomen,'' said Bret Burkholder, a counselor at Pierce College in Tacoma, Wash., who was at the Youngstown conference to present a paper entitled ''The Endangered Species: Male College Students at Risk.'' ''So who's really oppressed? Who's really being told to shut up and stay in their place? A lot of men are starting to say, `Hey, this has not been the cakewalk of male privilege.'''

Men's rights

The line between men's studies and men's rights blurs more and more. Warren Farrell, whom Gloria Steinem praised when he wrote ''The Liberated Man'' in 1975, has now become the sage of the men's rights movement with books like ''The Myth of Male Power,'' written after his conversion to the belief that as feminism has liberated women it has oppressed men.

And in the global hothouse of the Internet, the anger caucus of the men's movement is thriving. Rod Van Mechelen grins out from the Backlash.com publisher's page, basking in his notoriety as the Steinem of the men's movement. Fired from Microsoft after a charge of sexual harassment, his magazine includes a table of contents to his book, ''What Every Man Should Know About Feminist Issues'' (''Initiating Relationships: When Will Women Share Responsibility?'' and ''Sexual Revolution: Few Men Have Benefited.'')

MenWeb includes interviews with Farrell and Christina Hoff Sommers, the Clark University professor and author of ''Who Stole Feminism?, '' as well as jubilant reviews of books by women critical of feminism.

While adherents of men's studies insist they are not out to create another class of victim, most men's rights groups apparently have no such worry. A sampling of their grievances: Men are awarded custody of their children in only a fraction of divorce cases, prostate cancer research gets six times less funding than breast cancer research, men get longer prison terms than women do for similar offenses.

Their activism reaches beyond the computer screen. Arguing that men have become expendable, a mere extra paycheck to women, a group of men held a wallet burning in San Francisco earlier this year. Men's advocates in New Hampshire, among other states, passed legislation establishing a commission on the status of men. The National Coalition of Free Men sponsored a Boy's Career Day in November at Lucent Technologies in Chicago. Sponsored by Lumen, the company's male advocacy group, the event was modeled on the five-year-old Take Our Daughters to Work Day at corporations nationwide.

In the world of men's rights, a slight quickly becomes bias. And no slight seems too inconsequential: In Western Massachusetts, a group of men has started a write-in campaign taking issue with Dunkin' Donuts television ads that show no men, threatening a boycott if upcoming commercials do not feature men ''in a highly positive way.''

Men's rights groups insist they don't represent a backlash, just a move to get more air time for men. It's a matter of equality, they say, albeit a hostile brand of equality. ''Our purpose is to honor men and make their issues known,'' blares the Men's Rights Web page. ''To make media heed masculinism. To pressure politicians to listen to half the world. To show feminists to be the sexists they are ... . We are proud to be M-E-N.''

Male majority

Certainly, the vast majority of men aren't attending conferences tracing the roots of modern masculinity or scrolling Internet pages debunking ''femigogue'' tenets. Most would probably rather be playing golf.

But in conversations with men and psychologists who work with them, it becomes clear that masculinism reflects the angst among average men trying to make sense of their place in a postfeminist world. As feminism has matured and come to mean different things to different women, men still tend to look for one definition of what it all means for them.

''Women have spent a lot of time preparing for a world that's different. Men have not done that,'' says Michael Kimmel, author of ''Manhood in America'' and a leader in men's studies. ''The models keep shifting. You have a lot of men groping toward something else. But we don't know what we want to be.''

In many cases, men feel they've been asked to change, yet prevented from doing so. Nowhere has this resonated so much as with fatherhood.

While mothers have enlightened or shamed many companies into offering a '' mommy track'' of flex time, fathers complain there is a stigma associated with their taking advantage of similar programs.

''Companies say, sure, take time off. You realize, of course, that you'll never make partner,'' Kimmel says. ''That's the daddy track.''

Leave for new fathers is often what Kimmel calls a ''don't ask, don't tell paternity policy'': After the child arrives, fathers inform their company they intend to be sick for the length of their allowed sick leave, then take their vacation time.

Out of sentiments like this come efforts like the National Fatherhood Initiative, which has attracted a range of political supporters, from Vice President Al Gore to House Speaker Newt Gingrich. States like Massachusetts are following suit with commissions on fatherhood. Stay-at-home fathers, in a more quiet way the most radical of the changing men, commiserate in newsletters and offer tips on how to change diapers and make feeding time less frenzied.

Doubtless, many young mothers would have loved such networks of support. But the new dads argue that mothers already had them, in playgroups or on playgrounds, where many fathers say women presume they either have the day off, or are there looking for children to molest.

''People will say, `Do you work? ' And when I tell them I take care of him, they say, `Yes, but you have a job, right?''' says Nat Heffernan, a Lexington father, at a stay-at-home dads' play group in Burlington. He dashes across the room to block his one-year-old son, Liam, from climbing the stairs, then retrieves Liam's blocks from a three-year-old playmate. ''They call me `Mr. Mom,' but I don't like that term, because it implies I'm bumbling, like I'm just standing in.''

Armageddon?

So what do men want? And can't we all just get along?

Those who study or counsel men look at the gender skirmishes and the gender divide in polls over issues like the Clinton sex scandals as signs that men are becoming more reactionary, that men and women are moving farther apart.

Pollack warns that the current trend will escalate into ''gender Armageddon'' if left unchecked, with men and women on separate ramparts, each suspecting the other of sexism, men determined to reestablish the old hierarchy. ''You can't find a word that's too strong,'' he says.

Kimmel suggests the genders can come together on parenthood issues, to make the workplace friendlier to fathers and mothers. Pollack says what's needed is gender empathy, each sex making a concerted effort to understand the other's perspective and experience.

''Women need to acknowledge that most men aren't power-hungry, rapacious bastards, and men need to understand how women have felt controlled and disempowered, and how they are sensitive, perhaps hypersensitive, because they have been struggling for equality,'' he says.

Ultimately, men and women need to realize they have more in common than they're now admitting.

''Crises aren't always bad,'' Pollack adds. ''It's how we cope with them. It could be the start of something.''

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 05/17/98.
© Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.