By Matthew Cheney
26 April 2010
A year ago, when people asked me what I was up to these days, I could answer honestly, "Selling guns and teaching feminism."
Guns and feminism have been a common element of my life for a long time. I owe my openness to feminism to Isaac Asimov, who wrote in one of his books (or in an editorial for Asimov's, maybe) that he was a proud supporter of the feminist cause and was even willing to call himself a feminist. When I was twelve years old, that was good enough for me, and it kept me from associating the word "feminism" with anything negative—I worshipped Isaac Asimov, and if he said the word was a good one, I believed him.
Not too much later, I had a summer job at a college bookstore, and used some of my earnings to buy a paperback book I'd become fascinated with during my lunch breaks: Backlash: The Undeclared War Against America's Women by Susan Faludi. It was one of those books that changed my view of the world and made me recognize all sorts of things I'd never recognized before. A few years later, partly as a way to cause angst to my conservative father, I subscribed to The Nation right around the time Katha Pollitt became a columnist. Every few weeks, she continued the education Susan Faludi had begun for me.
Meanwhile, my father owned a gun shop that was attached to the house I grew up in. During my childhood, I paid some attention to the guns and occasionally helped out in the shop, but I never had much interest in shooting. I'm tremendously sensitive to noise, and guns are noisy, so that limited my enjoyment. I'm not a very competitive or aggressive person, either, and I don't have much interest in mechanical objects, so pretty much all of the attractions of guns are lost on me.
It was my father's death two years ago that caused me to become a gun dealer myself—I needed to sell off the inventory. I inherited his Federal Firearms License, went through a full FBI background check, and spent a good amount of time with a couple of agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives who taught me the basics of selling guns.
At the same time, I'd taken part-time work teaching English at the local university. The former head of the Women's Studies Program happened to be coordinating the English faculty's classes that term, and the week I was hired, a person who was scheduled to teach the core course for the Women's Studies minor, "The F-Word: Feminism in America," was suddenly unavailable. "Could you teach it?" they asked me. I wasn't sure if I could, but I knew I had plenty of friends who would help me get up to speed with the material, so I said sure. I like a challenge.
The guns are all sold now, and I've happily surrendered my license back to the government, but I'm still teaching feminism. It's the one course that I've taught every term for the past two years. I've also taught one other Women's Studies course, "Women in Contemporary American Culture," and I was elected this past fall to the university's Women's Studies Council. The other folks on the Council and the other professors who teach in the program are some of my favorite people at the university—inquisitive, knowledgeable, full of good humor—but what keeps me doing this work is that the discipline itself has helped me gain a better understanding of the world around me and the world I am a part of. The questions my students raise are often ones I have no answer for, and so we have to explore them together, which to me is the ideal of education.
To be truly accurate, we probably ought to call our Women's Studies program "Gender Studies," but we've kept to the original name in honor of the founding members and their vision. One of those founders was a woman named Sally Boland, a legendary figure to everyone who knew her (and I'm lucky to be able to say that when I was growing up I was one of those people). When the Women's Studies program was being created, some of the other faculty asked why there should be Women's Studies on campus if there wasn't any Men's Studies. Sally quickly replied, "Because that's the rest of the curriculum."
I thought of Sally this week when I read an article at the website Inside Higher Ed called "Male Studies vs. Men's Studies," about a movement to create a new academic discipline focused on "fram[ing] men and boys as an underrepresented minority" and contrasting itself to the premises of most feminist and gender studies scholarship.
There are devils in the details. While some of the people involved with the new group (e.g. Christina Hoff Sommers) are associated with conservative, anti-feminist organizations, the most telling comment came from the anthropologist Lionel Tiger, who "said the field takes its cues 'from the notion that male and female organisms really are different' and the 'enormous relation between . . . a person's biology and their behavior' that's not being addressed in most contemporary scholarship on men and boys."
Men's Studies, then, should perhaps be re-named Mars & Venus Studies. Or maybe Sphere Studies, to remind us that the central idea goes back to the concept of the "woman's sphere," a concept that relied on ideas of what was and wasn't appropriate to women and men. The nostalgia and resentfulness that runs through so many of the writings by people associating themselves with Male Studies isn't hard to explain: they yearn for a time when men and women knew their place, and they hate anyone who says maybe those weren't really the best of times for anybody.
The idea that men and women are almost separate species is one that's perennially offered to us by the popular media, and the effect of this idea, if not the underlying motivation, is to suggest that inequalities between men and women are justified and that attempts to address and overcome inequalities are not only doomed to fail, but are violations of the natural order. This was the heart of the problem many feminists had with sociobiology and have with many forms of evolutionary psychology, but essentialist and determinist ideologies have had plenty of feminist supporters, too—most obviously in the work of Carol Gilligan, whose In a Different Voice has been tremendously influential (for a discussion of this, see Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers's Same Difference: How Gender Myths are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs).
Instead of trying to prove that biology determines behavior, maybe the Men's Studies folks should consider looking at a word I'm sure they consider inflammatory: patriarchy. Whether they want to admit it or not, patriarchy is something they're investigating, as the Insider Higher Ed article makes clear:
Rocco Capraro, an associate dean and assistant professor of history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, said that "men are both powerful and powerless." Though men and boys as a group may be powerful, "today's discourse on individual men is not a discourse of power—men do not feel powerful in today's society."
Capraro is talking about one of the effects Allan Johnson, in his useful book The Gender Knot, identifies as central to patriarchy:
How can we say that patriarchy exists if men feel so little sense of privilege in their lives and seem to pay a substantial cost for being male? Can men be both privileged and miserable? The answer is yes, because most of men's loss and misery is linked to what is required of men in order to participate in the very system that privileges them.
Rocco Capraro should really bring his anger to Dr. Difference, Lionel Tiger, because one of the central forces allowing men to feel a lack of power—despite the many privileges their gender offers them—is the idea that real men should be one thing (masculine!) and real women should be another (feminine!). If men think that to be whole and healthy and valuable to themselves, their families, and their communities, they have to be powerful, competitive, aggressive, and in control of all the forces affecting them, then yes, they will most likely be miserable. The solution to that misery is not to figure out ways to give men more power, nor is it to make excuses for their belligerent and aggressive behavior. The solution is to challenge the assumption that men need to be powerful.
Sperm aren't nearly as tough and powerful as sexist metaphors have made them out to be, and yet we still manage to make babies. I survived growing up in the power-obsessed atmosphere of a gun shop, and I'm still happy to pose questions to my students about male privilege and the paradoxes of patriarchy. Men may think machismo makes them feel good, but it's no more healthy than cocaine, which also provides a quick, fleeting, and illusory sense of power. Addicts in the throes of their addiction aren't the best judges of what they need to be healthy, and I don't trust people who look like they're addicted to patriarchy and privilege to offer us much insight about their illness. We don't need Male Studies; we need an intervention.