IN HER ESSAY on women as writers, A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf classifies the relationship of men and women by stating:
Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.
The fifty years since that was written have seen women rejecting this definition of their place in the world; they are now standing forward as themselves and not the shadows of men. The question remains, as women make statements and act for themselves, what is to be their new relationship with the men of the world: both the men who are threatened by women's new sense of themselves, and the men who rejoice with them in their new identity, who despise as much as women do the role of exploiter and aggressor that has been visited upon them by the world in which they have been raised.
It is frightening to consider all the social, political, sexual and cultural problems created by this new rejection, inherent in the women's movement, of the established social structure. Women are afraid, for it seems so easy to fall into the roles played by their mothers and grandmothers in their relationships with men. They can find themselves despising the men they live and work with, even men whom they think they love, because somehow, in their lives with these men they find themselves losing their equality and falling into the parts of kid sister, mother, madonna or whore.
That men are supposedly threatened by a woman obviously in control of her own life is a cliche used to explain away a thousand cases of impotence. What is more tragic, in the sexual mess we seem to find ourselves in, is the frustration which faces the man who wants to be a feminist. Sympathetic to the movement's struggle, he tries to change his conception of the sexual stereotypes with which he was raised. And he is confused and hurt when he finds himself facing a women's hostility, when he tires to cry "Yes, but I've felt that way too--derided or ignored because somehow I could not measure up" and finds he cannot, no matter how hard he tries, cross over into the very special, bitter kind of oppression experience that has been the lot of women in this society.
WHAT IS NECESSARY, what will keep men and women from forming into two armed camps, is a willingness on the part of both men and women, generally and in situations involving specific people, to make a conscious effort to empathize with each other's experience. Each sex must remove itself from rhetoric and try to understand the hell in which we live.
But the constant giving necessary for empathy, the continuing concern and care that lead to understanding, are forever thwarted by the pride and selfishness that are so much a part of our human nature. Everyone has had different experiences at different times--good, bad, horrible, and more rarely, wonderful--in situations that hinge on the raised consciousness of women. It is the variety, the richness of these experiences, that I hoped the October issue of Ms. magazine could illuminate with its Special Issue on Men.
But Ms. is a magazine that has many, many problems--not the least of which is a tendency, month after month, to publish the same genre of gut-spilling personal experiences that once provided support for an emerging collective women's consciousness but now are merely boring. In spite of the special topic, this month is no different.
The magazine highlights a semiautobiographical tale or a women in her mid-30's who leaves her husband and runs around Southern California screwing a score of men. In this she finds her freedom; her husband begs her to return to him and she tells him to get lost. In other articles, Letty Cottin Pogrebin quotes 42 women on how to cool off an over-amorous boss and across two pages "the readership" praises "the unsung heroes" of the women's movement--who are, without exception men who help their wives with the housework.
These are as two-dimensional stereotypes of men and women as are to be found in any issue of Viva or Playboy. Lecherous bosses are among the lesser threats to a woman's sense of herself, and there are far greater supports for it than dishwashing husbands.
Ms. here deals with the lives of men and women only in terms of the traditional roles so many of us--men and women--are trying to shake ourselves out of. How difficult this process is going to be, and how much support we are all going to need, was evidenced in the article in the magazine on mothers and their sons. It quoted a dozen women, all feminists, agonizing over the question of how to raise their sons. The women despaired of being able to counteract the influence of a sexist society, and were afraid that raising their sons to be gentle and sensitive would expose them to the ridicule of their more macho playmates.
IT IS A TRAGEDY for all of us that the supposedly feminine qualities of sensitivity, compassion and compromise are so undesirable. If the women's movement could, and, in many cases, I think it has, serve to open up these qualities to men, rather than reinforcing the desirability of ambition and aggression for both sexes, we would all be a lot better off.
But one thing is sure: stories about men who do the dishes or women who sleep around are not going to help us all to re-evaluate what is masculine or what is feminine, or what are good traits for all human beings to have.
Fear and bitterness will be the death of us all if we do not go beyond the stereotypes this issue of Ms. presents. For we must be able to reach through prejudices and find that people underneath, each one struggling to be a whole person, and not just a reflection of another soul.