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.