Gail Collins, in her book When Everything Changed, quotes a 1961 Ladies’ Home Journal article entitled “Is the Double Standard Out of Date?” In the article, Betsy Marvin McKinney asserts that women behaving like men in the bedroom—enjoying sex for pleasure—would bring the end of the world “…as surely as atomic warfare.” Just this week, author Suzanne Venker, in an article for Fox News entitled “The war on men,” stated that women need to “…surrender to their nature—their femininity—and let men surrender to theirs,” thereby reasserting the “natural” order in which men provide for women. This, Ms. Venker believes—as did Ms. McKinney before her—will save us all. What drives these two women to call for a retreat on progress, over 50 years apart, is the same thing: fear.
I’m not saying that the authors themselves were writing from a place of fear. But the rhetoric they employ is based on fear that stems from a winner-take-all view of gender dynamics. To move past discussions like these—so that in 50 years we’re talking about something else—we’re going to have to face that fear.
What is this fear, exactly? Does it belong to men or to women?
Ah, there’s the rub. It belongs to us all.
We fear that we won’t:
- Get married: A traditionally “female” fear, and Ms. Venker’s article plays to it.
- Have a place in the world: In Ms. Venker’s article, this fear is “male” and manifests as anger in the men she interviewed—who would, I’m betting, never claim it as a fear.
- Know who we are: If our assigned gender roles, based on cultural norms about sex, children, and work, are erased, we fear the loss of identity.
- Keep it together: Without assigned roles in the home, we fear a loss of cohesiveness, and an ability to function. And, according to Ms. Venker, women must consider that if this happens, we will have no one to blame but ourselves—thus playing to the fear of retribution.
These are just the fears exposed in this one article (which, by the way, has so many rhetorical holes I’m surprised it could stick to the page). Fear about sex and power abounds in our culture. Consider:
- The Petraeus Affair: In which a very powerful 60-year-old man has an affair with a much younger woman. Look at our fascination with this affair, and the people tangentially associated with it—there is enough fear, sex, and power buried in this story to make for quite the after-school special.
- Our Media: In which we see women repeatedly placed into confining, constricting, increasingly inhuman configurations, thereby containing the power of the feminine. Consider author Caitlin Moran’s observation that, in a roomful of powerful actresses who had altered their bodies and faces, the primary emotion she felt from the women surrounding her was fear.
The list could go on and on.
But this fear, which we can discuss intellectually until the cows come home, is far from rhetorical. It’s as real as a deer in the headlights. And it’s personal. We each feel its reverberations in our lives in multiple, daily ways. These fears go to the heart of who we are and how we live.
So what do we do about it? How do we overcome our fear—personally and politically—to fully own ourselves? How do we answer Ms. Venker’s claim that women (or, as she later said, wives) must, for the good of men, take a step back? Do we answer it with anger, a full-steam ahead rant about women’s rights and male privilege? Sometimes, yes—sometimes expressing anger is necessary to get things moving. But anger will only get us so far.
If fear meets anger, it generates more of both.
What if, instead, we met fear with understanding?
These fears are rooted in a power binary that can’t see past its own trembling hands.
We must remove ourselves from this binary, and think in new ways. For example, Ms. Venker believes that men are angry because they want to own the work world, and women want time at home that men don’t want.
What if, in the world of released fears, we are all free to realize our full potential—to spend time nurturing and building, rather than one or the other?
What if we looked into the fear at the heart of a message of retreat and instead of meeting it with anger, we simply said: Be calm. No one is losing anything—there’s enough to go around.
What if, instead of the end of anyone, it’s the beginning for everyone?