WOMEN WHO PERSIST
The following article, although written in observance of Women’s History Month, is aimed at men. As used in this piece, the term
“we” refers to those of us with male privilege— those men who were unwittingly acculturated into using our privilege in ways that
institutionalize disparate, sometimes vulgar, treatment of women. Not all men perpetuate these patterns. For those who don’t, this
column is meant to encourage allyship to support other men finding their way and to support women who are working to overcome
personal and institutional barriers to equity.
Many men of my generation were raised to become
powerful, dominant, competitive and, at least for heterosexual
men, sexually successful. Many boys like me did not learn to
express our intimate feelings, nurture others, express compassion, or engage in relationships with women built on equity
and respect. The heroes I knew growing up were strong, white,
heterosexual men: athletes, political leaders, and dominating actors like the cowboy John Wayne, who was pictured
spanking Maureen O’Hara over his lap in the promotional
posters for the movie “McLintock”; the womanizer Sean
Connery, seducing Pussy Galore as James Bond; or the family
sage and bread-winner Robert Young, running the Anderson
family in “Father Knows Best.” There are many more examples
(although my formative years were not during the 70s, 80s, or
90s, those years saw the same male stereotypes embodied in
new characters). Meanwhile, I was taught to objectify women—based largely on physical attributes advertised as desirable and exploited in all sorts of popular culture—and to see
them as less-than-equal partners in all types of relationships.
I have asked myself, “What does it mean to be a man?”
I grew up with an image of manhood based on cowboys
wielding six-shooters and abusing women; men (who were
always depicted as heterosexual and most often white) either
suavely conquering women in sexual relationships with no
emotional connection (like 007) or being the bread-winner
and “head of the family” like Jim Anderson. I had little
control over how I was acculturated as an impressionable
boy, but I, like all men, eventually grew up, matured, and
learned I could control my actions and attitudes. Men need
to acknowledge that although the way we were raised may
be a reason for our behavior, it is not an excuse. Having
recognized that our upbringing does not justify behavior, we
can take the important step of understanding the effects of
our upbringing on our relationships with women.
In 1987 Congress passed Public Law 100-9, which desig- nated the month of March as Women’s History Month.
Since 1988, U.S. presidents have continued to issue annual
proclamations designating March as Women’s History Month.
The congressional action to designate a month in honor of
women’s history was inspired, in large part, by a petition from
the National Women’s History Project (NWHP).
This year’s theme for national Women’s History Month is
“NEVERTHELESS SHE PERSISTED, Women Who Fight All
Forms of Discrimination Against Women.” It stems from a
phrase born of a classic example of a powerful man silencing
a female colleague (“man-silencing”) on the floor of the U.S.
Senate. (The NWHP website describes 15 amazing, brave,
effective, groundbreaking, and persistent women who have
worked tirelessly to advance women’s equity. http://www.
nwhp.org/2018-theme-honorees/. This webpage is very
much worth the read.) Besides using the month of March to
celebrate the incredible, persistent bravery of women who
stand up against, and call out, powerful men, let’s use this
celebration to jump start our own commitment, as men, to the
equitable treatment of women by changing our behavior and
by standing up as allies for women.
We recently witnessed brave women, through the #Me-Too movement and Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, expose
blatant exploitation. The list of powerful men felled by these
disclosures is remarkable. Writing in The Daily Beast, Lizzie
Crocker stated, “Women and their male allies need to put
more energy into affecting permanent change through activism and legislation.” In addition to this institutional activism,
men as allies of women can pursue at least one additional
way forward: changing male attitudes and behavior. Can we
look at ourselves, along with the opportunities to change, and
make the effort to confront our upbringing and change the
way we treat women? Yes, if we also persist.