The Avocado

From the Archives of the Wittenburg Door: Macho Feminism

By Jean Caffey Lyles. Originally published in the April/May 1983 print edition of the Wittenburg Door, #72.

I think there are a few different things we can take from this. Much of Fred’s behavior is now de facto among both feminists and people who are not anti-feminist; in fact, some of what he does (like the use of “his/her”) is now outdated. So we can approach this with a “look how far we’ve come / look how little it took to seem radical back then” lens.

But while the details look different now 40 years later, the broad point remains relevant: there’s a kind of feminism (activism) performed by a certain kind of man (other kind of oppressor) that has way more to do with the man himself than with women or feminism.

At a conference on “Speaking the Truth to Power” at New York’s Riverside Church, the Reverend William Sloan Coffin1 once ventured the opinion that “the women’s liberation that is most needed is the liberation of the woman in every man.” He was almost immediately zapped by feminist theologian Rosemary Ruether2, who objected that what Coffin and other men who make such statements are doing is co-opting the liberation of women into the liberation of men.

“The suppressed side of them,” said Ruether, “is not ‘the woman in them.’ As long as we perpetuate that language, we perpetuate a confusion.” She went on to say that this “ultimate co-optation of women” is most frequently practiced by clergy and psychologists. “It makes them feel good. It gives them the illusion that they are feminist.”

Not only do men want to have the illusion that they are feminist – they want us to have that illusion. It’s getting harder and harder to tell the man who is really a feminist from the one who’s putting on a pretty good act.

There is, to be sure, a certain absence of subtlety in this method of turning the women’s movement into the men’s movement. A more sophisticated approach is the one employed by my friend Fred, the Christian feminist.

Let me tell you about Fred. He is the most sensitive, open, vulnerable, caring person you ever met, and when you share a problem with him (in Fred’s crowd, you don’t just “tell” something, you “share” it) he will give you his warm, tender, understanding look and say, “I can resonate with that.”

He talks a lot about “parenting” and how there is really no difference between what male parents and female parents ought to do for their kids. He tells you he spends more time with the kids than his spouse does. (Fred always calls Edie his “spouse” instead of his “wife,” a word that has come to sound to him a little sexist.)

He will tell you about “our” experience having the last baby by the Lamaze method. Fred took a six-month paternity leave afterward, of course, and he always got up for the 2 a.m. feeding. All of Fred and Edie’s kids have names like “Terry” and “Lee” and “Leslie” and “Chris,” so you’re not wure whether they’re boys or girls when you first hear the names. Fred says it would be sexist to just give the girls girls’ names and the boys boys’ names.

Fred is inordinately proud of his dishpan hands, every patch of red, roughened skin. He earned them honestly, standing many evenings at the kitchen sink, up to his elbows in dishwater.

Fred makes sure you know that he’s the one who gets up and makes coffee for the household in the morning. He and Edie share the cooking and housework 50/50. He never says “I’m helping Edie” or “I’m babysitting,” which would imply that the tasks at hand weren’t really his job.

When Mrs. Goodbody from the church called up to ask Edie to make four dozen cookies for the youth fellowship, Fred got a little miffed. Why did they always ask Edie to bake cookies and never him? He really bakes better cookies – Edie is into pies.

If Fred comes to your house for dinner, he is the one who will get up from the table to help you clear the dishes before the dessert course – and he’ll do it before it occurs to any of the women to volunteer.

At his office, Fred never slips and calls the secretaries “girls” or “gals” instead of women. And he will correct anyone who commits such an error. Very gently, of course.

He is always careful to say “chairperson” and “clergyperson” and “congressperson” and “craftsperson” and even “freshperson.” His language is impeccable when he asks, “Does everyone have his or her ticket?” (To be scrupulously fair, next time he will say “her or his.”) In writing, he uses “his/her,” “her/his,” and “she/he.”

Fred does not wait for women to get out of the elevator first. He believes that whoever is standing in the front of the elevator should go ahead and exit. He will not offer to help you on with your coat unless you really need help – and then he will do it whether you’re male or female. He believes whoever gets there first should open the door – or whoever’s carrying the smallest load.

He tells you how much he admires strong women – and how he is much too secure about his own sexuality to feel threatened by a woman who is forceful and assertive.

In fact, Fred is so secure about his sexuality that he is not embarrassed for people to know he does needlework. He sits right there in Administrative Council meeting and works on his latest stitchery project, a suitable-for-framing motto for his daughter that says “Girls Can Be Anything.”

Fred’s wife, Edie, just got a promotion to a job that is considered “executive-level.” Fred is being very supportive about the fact that she may be staying later at the office some evenings. He made a point of telling two of his colleagues, with some pride, that Edie is now making more money than he is.

Fred believes that it is OK for men to cry – and women too, if they want to – and he’s not ashamed to tell you that he cried most of the way through E.T.

Well, as you can see, on a scale of 1 to 10, from total chauvinism to perfect feminism, Fred is an 11 1/2. Fred is a better feminist than I am, or than I will ever be. And like all absolutely perfect feminists, or absolutely perfect anything-elses, he is also something of a pain.

Nobody can beat Fred at feminism – not even Letha Scanzoni3 or Virginia Ramey Mollenkott4. If there is a “More-Feminist-Than-Thou” trophy, Fred has already won it.

What this gentle, sensitive, nurturing man has done – it finally dawns on me – is to turn feminism into a contest: a highly competitive, aggressive, individual sport, one at which he competes brilliantly and relentlessly and always wins.

It’s a little disillusioning to discover how macho feminism can be.