BY MADONNA HAMEL
It turns out we have a whole month to add our stories alongside the popular stories “the men who made this country”. Since 1992 March has been designated Women’s History Month. Who knew? This makes it more likely I will be able to find a moment to gather with friends to officially celebrate my own gender, because today other chores rush in, as is the case for most women, especially moms.
As odd and counter to the day as it seems, I’m going to begin by talking about men. Or, how women define themselves in relation to men. Historically we women have been trained to believe we achieve our best standing next to our man. I know I did. I felt I was my best me when with my partner. That I existed in relief next him. But that brand of reality only works if men also believe they are their best selves when teamed up with their partner.
And here’s another belief I embraced with earnestness and resolve: The Love of a Good Woman Will Save A Man. The inevitable conclusion if he should falter is that you are either 1) not good enough or 2) not loving enough. Try harder. (I never even considered how insulting it was to assume he needed saving.)
The Good Woman proposition is like a chemical pumped into the air via radio airwaves. There’s no Mental Environment Protection Agency to prohibit the use of such damaging ideology. Long after DDT has been banned we let the propagandists spew. Maybe it’s no longer ‘the love of a good woman’ but the ‘sex of a naughty woman’, but the poison is still there. And try as hard as we can to shut off the spigot dispensing the poison, we need a man’s hand in the shut-down.
When I was in art school my photographer prof gave a talk on her work- black and white images of working class women in their kitchens. It was mesmerizing in its intimacy and rawness. And yet she was having a hell of a time getting the art world to take her seriously. This was 1991, not 1891! She joked, though didn’t laugh, that “maybe if the women were naked and conventionally pretty” she would have an easier time of it.
“What the hell does it take!” I expostulated.
“It takes men to make art like this”, she stated bluntly. “And ideally, it takes men to praise art like this.”
I never forgot that.
Today when I hear a group of young guys talking crassly about women, or making creepy overtures I wonder why their friends don’t shut them down. If they mean it when they tell their girlfriends that they find overt sexual commentary disturbing or annoying, why the hell don’t they say something?
Why do they wait for us to retort? Because half the time we do not feel comfortable challenging guys that are bigger than us, louder than us and used to being the boss.
Hands up how many women are completely confused and dumbfounded when their partners laugh at buddy’s joke? How many girlfriends climb into the truck at the end of the night simmering and when asked what’s wrong blurt:
“I don’t get it! Just last night you told me he’s a loser and way out of line! So what is it? You find him funny or are were you just saying that so I wouldn’t ‘get all upset’ ? Which of course makes me the problem. Not him. Even though he’s the jerk commenting on women’s body parts like they’re on the damn menu! Cause if you do find him funny, by all means don’t smack him down on my behalf. I’m just stymied why it doesn’t offend you too!” Or something along those lines.
Thank God for men who understand why we have a day celebrating the full person-hood and extensive contribution of women in the world. Thankfully there are some very cool, evolved men whose understanding makes them ‘manly’ in the full sense of the word. Whose emotional repertoire and EQ extends to being disturbed and offended by lechers and creeps, not entertained. Who values thier wive’s respect over the respect of a few blowhards. Who has male friends who respect him for standing up for people less powerful or less heard than him and his boys.
In the spirit of my photography professor’s comment about needing men to valuing this subject, here’s a few men whose writing about the problem of inequality and sexism relieved and inspired me:
Jack Holland wrote “A Brief History of Misogyny, The World’s Oldest Prejudice” because “he loved history and he loved women.” A common response from men, when they found out he was writing the book, was that it was “some sort of defense of misogyny.” Or they just thought, “why would a man write such a book?” His response: “Why not, it was invented by men?”
Nicholas Kristoff, with his wife Sheryl WuDunn, define “worldwide oppression of women as the central moral challenge of our time”. Their book “Half the Sky” is a thorough investigative report on the lives of women victimized by sex trafficking, forced prostitution, honor killings, mass rape, and maternal mortality. They portrayed the women who survived not as victims but leaders in the work to save others from their fate.
Chris Hedges horrifying expose of the porn industry in “Empire of Illusion” as having evolved to its logical conclusion. “It first turned women into commodities and then killed them as human beings”. Fusing “with the commercial mainstream it has won the culture wars”, so that now “images of Abu Grahib could be stills from porn films.” This is what happens when a violent culture “glorifies domination and cruelty”.
If you are a man who loves women, read one of these books by men. We gotta do this together. I’m thinking of what Twain responded when asked “what would men be without women?” “Scarce, sir, mighty scarce.”