National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 24, 2003

Feminism liberates men, women alike


Feminist thought in America is too often construed as something for women only. Men need not listen, especially white heterosexual men. Minority men also have their issues of oppression. Gay men need to mobilize against homophobia. Black men bear a vicious legacy of racism in this country, which includes projections of the sexual fears of whites that were used to lynch many black males. But where is the white, middle-class heterosexual man to find a redemptive word? Can he only stand in abashed guilt before these many charges of class, race and gender privilege, or does he try to reclaim these privileges with macho defiance? The latter stance seems to be mostly in vogue today, as the Bush administration struts across the world stage with their super weapons of mass destruction.

T. Walter Herbert, in his recent book Sexual Violence and American Manhood (Harvard University Press, 2002), charts a different course for men in America. An English professor at Southwestern College in Georgetown, Texas, Herbert mines American literature and film, as well as his own experience, to weave a disturbing, but finally hopeful volume about the shaping of American codes of masculinity. Herbert begins his account with his own chance encounter with violent pornography in a railroad station at the age of 12. Flipping through books on a bookstand, he came across a passage in Mickey Spillane’s One Lonely Night, in which a man in a belted raincoat rips the dress off a terrified but sexually aroused woman and prepares to beat her with his leather belt. The vivid scene aroused a rush of conflicting emotions in the pubescent Herbert, as he found himself identifying with the sexual aggression of the man, but also with the frightened titillation of the victimized woman.

Despite anthropologists’ accounts of rape in our primate ancestors, Herbert refuses to accept the thesis that sexual aggression is innate to human males. Nevertheless, he sees it as having been deeply engrained in the psyches of human males through socialization that privileges the male as dominator of women as well as of less privileged men. The classics of American literature, as well as the products of popular culture, celebrate a rapist manhood that vindicates its power through the abuse of women. Walt Whitman, eulogized as America’s great nature poet, nevertheless imagines himself the stern propagator of strong children through sexual conquest. In his poem “A Woman Waits for Me,” he writes:

It is I, you women, I make my
I am stern, acrid, large,
   undissuadable, but I love you.
I do not hurt you any more
   than is necessary for you,
I pour the stuff to start sons
   and daughters fit for these
I press with slow rude muscle,
I brace myself effectually, I
   listen to no entreaties,
I dare not withdraw until I
what has so long
   accumulated within me.

Herbert takes us through a rapid course in two centuries of American literature and film, from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Richard Wright’s Native Son, to films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” (both 1960), to trace the trajectory of this sexually violent and often murderous code of masculinity. For Herbert, masculinity is constructed through a process of often forcible socialization by parents, schools, sports and the military to create a distorted caricature of the human potential with which male children are born.

Men must be insistently taught to suppress their fears and weaknesses and despise their sensitive feelings, projecting these on women as the “other” who is to be conquered and controlled, even as women are shaped to be the complementary counterparts who humbly submit to this dominant maleness. The more inadequate men feel in fulfilling these overweening roles, the more violent they are likely to become in acting them out. Herbert treats us to some horrific scenes in anthropologist Peggy Sanday’s Fraternity Gang Rape (1990), in which initiates are systematically humiliated in order to beat the “pussy” out of them, only to rise again as violent rapist “real men.”

The good news in Herbert’s book is that men are not fated to act out this kind of masculinity, despite the depths of their socialization into it. Beneath the masculine armature there beats the heart of a compassionate human being that longs for real companionship and love. Herbert’s last chapter on “democratic masculinities” outlines, all too briefly, what it might mean to liberate this humane self from its distortion and allow the white heterosexual male to become fully human, able to enter into friendship and egalitarian partnership with women.

For Herbert, this involves a two-fold transformation: owning the sensitive and vulnerable self that men have been taught to despise and disown, no longer confusing actual women with this projected “feminine other,” while entering into solidarity with women as peer human beings with whose concerns one can identify. Sadly, Herbert finds little positive development of such egalitarian masculinity in American literature, and we are left to imagine how we are supposed to get there.

The goal of this liberation of men from distorted masculinity and of women from distorted femininity is not a reversed hierarchy of dominating women and guilty, uncomfortable men. It is a companionship of men and women who can really learn to communicate and enter into relationships for the mutual enhancement of one another. This is what feminism should be about. One cannot liberate women without at the same time liberating men. Sexism is a system of distorted relationships. In order to overcome this distortion, one has to transform both sides of the system. This simple message is endlessly suppressed and forgotten in the distorted demonization of feminism by its right-wing detractors, refracted in the popular media. The good news is that real liberation from sexism is a win-win situation for us all.

Rosemary Ruether is the Carpenter Professor of Feminist Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, October 24, 2003

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