The Men Who Are With Us

The legend on the poster attributes the following quote to Pat Robertson: “Feminism causes women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practise witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.”

When you “move house,” as my British friends say, you stumble across buried, forgotten things that take you, as if down a rabbit hole, into your past.  From the vantage of “the future,” some objects take on a significance they did not have at the time. As I was unpacking my Oxford stuff in Chicago this winter, I had such a moment.

I opened a box that contained a broken frame with a poster in it.  I had packaged the piece up the moment it broke, so that no one would be cut, and set it aside to deal with later.  Then I forgot about it. Now, pulling off the bubble wrap that had protected it all this time, I saw the poster behind the shattered glass with new eyes.

The retro tinted photo showed a couple of women in swimsuits circa 1930, hugging each other and giggling.  The legend says, “Feminism causes women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.  Pat Robertson, American politician, 1992.”

Jim gave me this poster for my birthday in 2006.  We had been in Oxford only two months. And, we had married just a week before we left the US.  So, the two of us were on a new adventure, in many ways, but we carried with us similar values and tastes. This shared giggle was very much a part of that moment.

Jim and I belong to the beleaguered “blue” population in the States, always in dismay at the outrageous stuff that the conservative leadership (like Robertson) says to scare their frightened constituency even further. Jim is an All But Dissertation Ph. D. in literature from the University of Chicago–so he was no stranger to progressive thought, including feminism. We first met about the time Fresh Lipstick was released (late 2004) and he had gone along to various bookstore lectures and receptions with me. When he married me, Jim was fully informed about what I was (a potentially husband-leaving, child-killing, anticapitalist, lesbian witch).

An unfortunate result of the discovery that economically empowering women is the best way to fight poverty has been the rise of a new counter-stereotype that says men do nothing but sit around and gamble (and drink and pay prostitutes). Everywhere we go, we see men working hard and taking on huge burdens, just as do the women.

In November 2014, as I taped the poster to the empty wall in Chicago, however, I was struck with a different significance.  As fully cognizant as Jim was about my feminism in the summer of 2006, neither of us could have anticipated the journey on which my work was about to take us both.  It is true I already had a glimmer of the Avon study in my mind and I already had the idea of “market feminism.”  But there was no way I could have seen how thoroughly the day-to-day experience was about to shift, nor how much a part of it Jim would be.  Certainly he could not have seen it.

I stared at the poster and meditated on what this whole experience may have been for Jim.  I went on to muse about several other men who had played crucial roles, all them (including Jim) eventually becoming as passionate about justice for women as I was.

I decided early on to take Jim with me on as many research field trips as I could afford. So, the years since 2006 have been jammed with experiences in rural villages around the world, most in countries we would never have expected to visit.  To be honest, at first I wanted Jim along because I was afraid of making the trips alone.  I have long since gotten over that fear, but I still insist on Jim coming whenever possible because his presence makes such a big difference.  And, actually, there are now other projects that colleagues and partners call Jim in to do on his own because he is so good at this work.

We were sitting out a rainstorm when Jim took this picture of Omar. He ran one of the hubs of the Jita system in its very early days. The women in his area were breaking norms left and right. Saif al-Rashid, the very young founder of the system, had wisely selected a few good men to be at the hubs. This choice probably mitigated the social risks for everyone.

One concrete output we get from Jim’s presence in the field is the gorgeous photographs he takes.  Though we use these images for brochures and for the blog, the main use has been in slide presentations of the research findings.  I intersperse the photos to appear for just two seconds between each slide.  I have found that this eye-candy holds audience attention, while also making the topic seem more real, more human.  I also think listeners are more likely to follow and grasp my argument as they identify with the pictures.

Jim’s intellect packs a wallop and his background makes him an excellent theorist.  He is an important sounding board when I am trying to work through the big picture implications of what we see.  He also edits and critiques the most important things I write. Our feminist consciousness, if you will, has evolved in tandem as the work unfolded.

There have been a couple of times, however, when I have been deeply moved to see how much Jim has come to identify emotionally with the matter of justice at the heart of all these projects.  Once he was on a trip to do interviews and take photographs for CARE in Bangladesh.  He came back from his hot, hard travels and told me about a woman he had interviewed whose husband came into the room and stood nearby.  Jim became aware of the rage in this man’s eyes and realized, heart stopping in mid-conversation, that the husband would likely beat his wife when Jim walked out, just for having talked to another man.  Very recently, Jim came back from an intensive pass through the schools we were studying in Uganda, his eyes filling with tears as he told me the stories they heard from the girls who had been forced to drop out.

Jim and Paul talked to the men in a village near the northern border of Ghana while I was interviewing the schoolgirls. I have been forever grateful for this unexpected conversation because those men told our guys things about sexual attitudes that they would NEVER have told the women on the team.

I have seen this core of understanding in the eyes of several men we have met “on the ground,” as it were.  Two of them, Saif al-Rashid, who founded Jita in Bangladesh, and Thomas Okyere, who helps poor girls living on the streets of Accra through an NGO he runs from his own home with his own money, have made me feel as if I were standing in the presence of pure goodness.  I think of them whenever I am discouraged: the vision of these men, who have taken risks with their own jobs, money, and even personal safety, shames me so much I know I can’t give up.

Men who convert to feminism sometimes have a light in their eyes that is a little bit crazy. For example, one day, Paul Montgomery, who been part of all the sanitary pad studies (and has cheerfully learned more than anybody ever wants to know about those particular practices), and Julian Tetlow, a respected educator who introduced us to our community in the Mt. Elgon area in Uganda, went with me to visit a clinic.  The doctor there had heard, on a visit to his home village, about a woman he knew dying in childbirth because her husband was not there to give permission for her to go to the hospital.  This doctor was so outraged that he dropped everything to set up the clinic we were visiting. The purpose of the whole operation was to train nurses to go up into the mountains and deliver medical care where it was needed.

His was a generous and heroic effort, but I have never seen anyone who better fit the image of a “wild-eyed radical feminist” than this guy.  As we sat in his office, the doctor went on about how all the women in Uganda were reduced to sex workers and how their husbands used them the same as if they were farm instruments.  I understood what he meant, but the madness in his delivery scared the socks off Julian and Paul. They both kept looking at me as if to say “What do we say to this guy? Get us out of here!” There was a harsh truth being told, but no one was going to hear it because this doctor looked like he was going to foam at the mouth any minute.

Jim has an amazing ability to win trust. He walked unannounced into this tailor’s shop and chatted with this man and his two sons (in the background). After giving Jim permission to take this shot. this 90 year old man who is totally blind took Jim’s hand and put it on his own head. We later learned this was a gesture of respect.

The conversion experience often effects the same change in women, as the feminist literature sometimes proudly notes.  But people react negatively to this kind of barely pent-up rage, however righteous it may be. I try very hard not to slip into this mode.  Jim gently tells me that I sometimes fall into that attitude despite my best intentions. He can tell me that because he is my husband, because he has earned his stripes, and because he knows how much I truly do not wish to be one of “those” feminists.

A highly respected and accomplished man with a wealth of global experience taught me the true meaning of a man’s conversion to this cause.  I had been working with him on a symposium dedicated to gender issues.  It was his first contact with the topic at all and he was a little scared by it.  His intentions were purely positive, but he had learned, as have so many men, that this topic is a minefield in which one unconscious move can blow you up.  And, I am sorry to say, this man did have that experience at one point during the preparation, but he kept his determination to understand the questions.  We worked together for nearly a year, having many good, candid conversations.  At the symposium, we were both sitting in a small group session when he burst out with his belief that the underlying problem was simply that men think women are inferior. You could tell from the controlled passion in his voice that this was his own hard-won flash of insight, a shameful secret that was difficult to articulate, and something he could see in other men.  But I think the slight tremor I heard was caused by the realization that he himself had been part of that cultural paradigm.

We had to forge a river to get to this village, where the men crowded around us, incredulous that we were there to talk to the women. They finally let the females come forth, but still crowded in behind. These facial expressions look anxious and disapproving, but actually I think they were just intensely curious.

I am not sure how the others in the group reacted to this mild-mannered outburst. They didn’t say anything and may have felt he was just stating the obvious.  But this bald statement of the underlying truth resonated powerfully with me, because of the tone in which it was said and because it echoed my own experience of asserted group supremacy.

I grew up in the American South during the Civil Rights era.  If you have read The Help or seen Selma, you have some sense of what my childhood was like.  For the first twelve years of my life, I took for granted the fact that blacks were always around to do the dirtiest tasks, to wait on us all smiling and silent.  Martin Luther King appeared in my young consciousness about 1964, like a rent in the fabric of the universe.  Both my school and my church integrated reluctantly and painfully.  Listening to parents resist the demand and struggling with the other children to figure out how we were to behave with each other, I somehow (quite suddenly as I recall) came to see the horrible reality of racism for what it was, a culture of hate that was all the uglier because everyone I loved was infused with it. And I knew that I was as culpable as any of them, even as a child.

I can’t express the pain that comes with the realization that you have been part of such a massively oppressive system. The probability that you have acted to perpetuate it, even if unconsciously, and have been so thoroughly enculturated into it that you may never fully rip the attitudes from your unconscious, no matter how hard and sincerely you try, is a terrible thing to have to admit, even to yourself.  The pain of this awareness has stayed with me my whole life. I am ashamed of it even as I write.

Men gather together in open-fronted barbershops, forming the proverbial “old boys club” instantly. Women gather together, too, and have their own private conversations. It is the power differential, not the pleasure of sharing with others of your own sex, that makes the men’s gathering more problematic. It is not unlike whites-only clubs that, for all the protests of innocence, act to exclude blacks from more than just the golf course.

This painful admission is what we are asking of our men.  To ask them to see that they are part of a great injustice is not impersonal or abstract.  If you are a male, you have to own your part, just as I, as a white, had to own my complicity in the segregated society. Because this is a such a big deal on a personal level, we must always cherish the men who have made a commitment to justice for women and never take them for granted.  And we must try, as hard as it is, to understand why so many men are simply too weak to step across.

I have said in speeches recently that this current resurgence in the fight to free women is unique in history because of the number of men who are truly with us, from the impassioned doctor in rural Uganda to the highest executives of some major institutions. A few of the early feminists had husbands who supported them, some of whom rolled up their sleeves and joined the work, as Jim has done (the story of the husbands of the old feminists, like Lucy Stone’s spouse, Henry Blackwell, really needs to be told).  But our grandmothers did not have the kind of broad support we have today. We are blessed to be traveling this road with quite a few good men who have realized for themselves the injustice and suffering that is caused by the subordination of women.

Happy Valentine’s Day to all the men who are with us, but especially, of course, to Jim.

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