Last week I wrote an article for The Atlantic about feminism’s PR problem. Within a day or two, a rundown of my article popped up on The Spearhead, a publication with ties to the MRA (men’s rights activist) movement. (If you’re unfamiliar with MRAs, feel free to read several different takes from The Good Men Project: here and here and here.)
The MRA movement has a fairly significant online presence and their antifeminism tends to manifest as blatant, hateful misogyny on the so-called “manosphere.” The Spearhead article itself, to be fair, is pretty straightforward and neutral in tone. While the author clearly hates feminism, he takes no potshots at me personally, even discussing his own parallel discomfort with the MRA label, which was interesting to read.
The comment thread, however, quickly derailed into an ad feminem feeding frenzy, exhibiting the woman-hating rhetoric that is so characteristic of the men’s rights movement.
I came across all this for the first time while breastfeeding Julian to sleep—he is a leisurely eater at night, so I sometimes resort to perusing the web on my iPhone. Being in this peaceful, banal setting made it all the more bizarre to suddenly stumble upon a slew of hateful words about me from a bunch of strangers. Here is a sampling, for your viewing pleasure (warning — strong language ahead):
Seriously, what type of mangina would want to marry a woman like this?
Never underestimate the cunning of women. To see women as children, unlikely to accept responsibility, is wise.
She’s an attention whore.
PR problem? Honey, you ain’t seen a thing, yet. Wait ’till MGTOW [Men Going Their Own Way – an MRA separatist movement] starts to really bite, and all those cock carousel riders with their worthless “wimmen’s studies” degrees not only can’t find a beta to wife them up, but thanks to the economy they can’t find a job, either… It will only hurt more in the years to come. Squeal, you pigs, squeal…
Most men now know what a bunch male hating parasites women have always been … Seriously women, you didnt know have to burn your underwear to let us know how useless women are …
[Her students] are just sissies who have to put on their big girl panties. They are only seeking attention because once they left high school and got into the real world, they suddenly find out they can’t always have it all and their own way.
My take is that she’s just another fucked up idiot.
One commenter appeared oddly fascinated with me personally and linked to this blog for more fodder. He quoted extensive excerpts from my most recent entry, imposing a bizarre narrative onto the snapshot of my life I discussed. My husband became “Mikey, the poor schlub,” a “beta schmuck” who I married, because I couldn’t keep around an “Alpha bad-boy.” He attempts to paint me simultaneously as a feminist extremist and a right-wing religious “Churchian” who would pal around with the likes of Mark Driscoll and Glenn Stanton. (I’m sure Driscoll would be surprised hear that we are compatriots!) When I step back, it is actually fascinating to see him flounder to bring these two facile stereotypes into anything resembling a coherent narrative.
Initially—I’ll be honest—I was thrown off-balance after reading all this venom targeted toward me. I felt particularly disconcerted by the blog invasion, as if some weirdo with a grudge had broken into my house and taken a big shit on my couch. Of course, it was completely naïve for me to harbor the illusion (even subconsciously) that my blog is a private, personal space – it might be personal, but it’s online and open to any reader, including my charming MRA fanbase, and it’s been good for me to realize the full ramifications of that.
As I read these comments, my feeling of disorientation soon gave way to righteous indignation. I could feel my passion for feminism being rekindled, an irony that amused me. Like Dostoevsky’s underground man, the malicious MRA types are often their own worst enemies. Their very existence fans the flames of what they most despise (feminism), while their overt hatred keeps them mostly on the fringes of culture, in an online “underground.”
That night, some of my dear friends and colleagues, who happen to be men, came over to hang out with Michael and me (sorry, guys, but being my friends probably means you are “manginas,” too). We spent a good portion of the evening brainstorming an epic blog entry that would skewer the MRAs! and rally the troops against sexism! We came up with some great ideas, and I sat down tonight intending to write that post.
Now that I’m here, however, I’m finding myself writing in another direction. While perusing various MRA articles and blogs over the past couple of days, I’ve come across some of the stories of these men, which typically involve broken marriages and families being torn apart, like, for example, the story of W.F. Price, the guy who wrote The Spearhead piece (who, again, wasn’t malicious toward me, although he does lapse into misogynist rhetoric elsewhere). For some of these men, perhaps many of them, their rage springs from deep pain. Feminism, painted in broad, clumsy strokes, gives them an adversary, something they can blame, something that can explain the implosion of their personal lives. And apparently, for many, the rage goes beyond feminism to womankind writ large.
But as I read these stories, my anger dissipated. I treasure my son’s close bond with his father; I can fathom the agony of being separated from one’s children and, not knowing whether these separations are justified or not, this gives me a point of connection with these men – one they would no doubt deny, but one that’s nonetheless hard for me to overlook. I began to realize that their nasty comments aren’t really about me at all. They have no idea who I am or how I really view the world. I was just their rhetorical punching bag of the moment, some faceless feminist on which to project their own fury and pain.
As I’ve processed this through writing, the power of the hate-fueled words has vanished. I don’t feel the need to skewer the MRAs – instead, I mostly just want to leave them alone, to let them stew in their manosphere and blow off steam. And another part of me wishes I could somehow dialogue with them, if I could find one or two willing to actually talk to me. I’m not trying to justify or exonerate the displays of misogynist words or attitudes, or play into the woman-bashing victim mentality. I’m just trying to remember that human beings are complex, and although it would be very easy for me to impose my own simplistic narrative onto all MRAs, and to attempt to dehumanize them, I don’t want to return the favor. Weird as it may sound, I want to humanize them. I want to see them as people.
More than that, I don’t want to unwittingly play a part in their “war of the sexes” script. Increasingly I am convinced that a primary hurdle to gender equality is the pervasive, entrenched notion that gender is a “zero sum game,” that men and women are perpetually at odds, that if one is winning the other is losing, that if one has power, the other is a victim. The “men’s rights” mentality feeds this dynamic, as do some of the more divisive and vitriolic camps of feminism – which, by the way, is a fragmented rather than monolithic entity.
For me, feminism has never been about tearing men down. I first encountered feminism in the classroom of a male professor, and I’ve always known men who are proud feminists. Moreover, the two most precious beings in my life happen to be male. I want my son to live in a world where he is encouraged and allowed to reach his full potential; I just don’t believe that has to happen at the expense of girls and women.
Sometimes the best reminder of something is to encounter its inverse, to be shown its absence. My little foray into the MRA world has, somewhat paradoxically, given me a renewed sense of gratitude for the men in my life. While it’s important to be aware that this sort of blatant hatred of exists, it is also nice to be reminded that that’s not where I live; those aren’t the men that I know.
The men I know are real men. Strong and good men. Men who love and respect the women in their lives, and who are loved and respected in return. And they certainly don’t fit the facile “beta-male” straw man the MRAs love to construct. The men in my life are a diverse bunch: some are atheists and skeptics, some are conservative Christians and Mormons, some have high-powered careers, some are at-home dads, some are wealthy, most are not; introverts, extroverts, pacifists, sports fanatics, fathers, husbands, bachelors, gay men, straight men, liberals, republicans, vegans, hunters – these are not cookie cutter men. But there is one trait they do share: these men aren’t threatened by women’s success; their sense of identity and power is not dependent upon mastery or dominance. They don’t hide out on the Internet and take potshots at mommy bloggers.
Their masculinity is not so precarious, so fragile, that they must tear down women to feel like men.
I won’t let these bastards grind me down, because, honestly, they are doing a good job of grinding themselves down. And the good men in my life overshadow them.
Even if some MRAs find this blog post and, reading it through their misogynist filters, proceed to throw Molotov cocktails in the comments – that’s okay. Because I get to shut my laptop and revel in a life that is filled with love. An ordinary life, but one with an undercurrent of quiet joy. When I finish this post I will go into the bedroom to nurse my baby boy, to enter a perfect moment that is played over again each night. Right now, he’s sleeping next to his father, and I will get to curl up between their warm bodies and sleep, too. And that reality is something that no online thread can touch.
I’ve been trying to write this post all day, in between putting my baby down for naps, folding laundry, taking a shower, breastfeeding, etc., and it’s a disorganized mess. I want to write about the idea of “having it all” and what that means, and what it doesn’t mean, and how we need a new way of thinking and talking about work-life balance. [If you’re interested, here’s a recent article by Anne-Marie Slaughter that made some waves on this topic. And here is Slaughter explaining why she’s decided to renounce the phrase “having it all.”]
But any time I start going down one direction, I begin to argue with myself and get pulled in another direction. So, I’m just going to write a disorganized post and throw a bunch of things at the wall and see what sticks. Hopefully this won’t scare away any faithful readers who expect me to know my own mind all the time. (Hint: lower your expectations.)
On the one hand…
I’m done with the ideal of “having it all.” This post represents me killing it, for good.
Those words feel like a yoke around my neck, something I owe to my foremothers who bravely struggled for the rights women of my generation now take for granted. I want to honor their struggle, but sometimes that’s just too much pressure.
When I hear or read about women “having it all,” I can’t help but think, “Of course I can’t have it all. NO ONE WITH KIDS HAS IT ALL.”
The other day I was leaving for my writing group, and Michael looked at me woefully and said, jokingly, “One of these days you’re going to leave and never come back.”
“I have to come back,” I said. “I’m lactating.”
And that’s no joke! Every three hours or so, I have a date with either a pump or my baby, and all that pumping and breastfeeding is more time-consuming than you’d think. And that’s just the wee tip of the icy tundra of parenting. I’ve only been a mother for four months, but already I’ve had to make professional sacrifices to keep up with motherhood. (Not to mention the professional and financial sacrifices involved in Michael being with Julian fulltime.)
But I’m tired of feeling guilty for making those sacrifices, as if the time I spend with my baby is somehow wasted time, that I should be using that time to meet with students or write another book or go to a conference or somehow make a name for myself because BETTY FRIEDAN IS WATCHING.
If “having it all” becomes my battle cry, I’m afraid I’ll constantly be asking myself, “Am I working hard enough? Am I climbing far enough, fast enough?”
I’m also annoyed because “having it all” carries some weighty and troublesome assumptions about gender. We don’t hear much kvetching in the media about how men with high-powered careers have had to sacrifice time with their families. Nope. It is assumed that that will happen, and it’s not seen as a loss for those men, or their families. Not only does this undervalue the very real and necessary work of caring for children and keeping a home running; it undervalues the importance of children having close, intimate bonds with fathers as well as mothers.
Yet women are always at the center of this conversation, because the conflict between work and family is assumed to be a uniquely female conflict – which reveals that this conversation is ACTUALLY focused on what happens outside the home (i.e., in the workforce) and not so much what happens within it. Because if our culture really valued domestic labor, we’d be concerned that, by and large, men aren’t taking part. (Feel free to check out my earlier post on this issue.)
This concept of “having it all” seems married to a value system that privileges money and power. And sometimes I feel like American feminism has too easily absorbed the cultural values of said money-making and power-grubbing. But how can we seek both to empower women AND reject that power as problematic? (And now I am beginning to understand why this post is so difficult to write…)
The implicit message we grow up with is that what we do to earn money should be our center of gravity, rather than the people we love, or other kinds of unpaid work we do out of necessity or enjoyment (like blogging!). And the scary thing is, you can climb and climb and accumulate and accumulate – and then you retire and die. There’s always more money to be made. Even the mind-blowingly wealthy among us are busy making more money. I worry that the attitude of “having it all” means that nothing will ever feel like enough.
On the other hand…
As soon as I hear myself say, “you can’t have it all,” I think about my female college students, women who are just beginning to find out who they are and who they want to be – personally, professionally, philosophically. Women who are learning to believe in themselves, to see themselves as leaders in their communities. I don’t want them to hear in these words that they have to choose between having a job they love and being a successful parent. Because you can do both, absolutely. Many women, including myself, are living proof of that. [Of course, it might mean that your living room looks like THIS for several years.—->]
[And, as an aside, my single best piece of advice for women who hope to have a career and a family is this: choose a supportive partner, someone who is committed to co-parenting, someone willing to making sacrifices and compromises alongside you.]
But you don’t HAVE to have both. You can also choose to pursue just one of these paths, or you can hop back and forth between them. You can decide to be an at-home “breastfeeding executive” (which is how one of my smart, successful SAHM friends lists her occupation on facebook). To choose this doesn’t mean you’ve failed in the quest of “having it all,” that you’ve failed your college degree, or your professors, or womankind, or God. You don’t have to be famous. You don’t have to earn a shitload of money. You don’t have to have a career outside the home to make a tangible difference in the lives of those who share your little patch of Earth.
And you can also choose to NOT get married (seriously, you can!), or to get married but not have children. Again, this doesn’t mean you’re betraying your ovaries, or your parents, or the species, or God. None of these modes of living is inherently honorable or valuable or “successful” than the others. There is no cookie cutter for your life.
I also think about my male students, who have grown up in a culture that tells them to define their self-worth by what they do to make money outside the home, beyond the context of their family and community. I want to tell them that success actually might look like “having less” – it might look like working less, or earning less, in order to be present to the people they love.
What I want these young men and women to understand is that having a family — whether you have a career in addition or not — will always require certain sacrifices and compromises. It means that, in the pursuit of balance, you might have to make some tough choices. And in that context, measuring yourself against a slogan of “having it all” could feel like failure. Which is why I want to jettison those words.
I want to give my students, and myself, permission to shirk the societal model of ladder-climbing, the success rubric of money and power, to choose NOT to define ourselves by what we earn and own, but by who and what we love.
So as I reach the end of my jumbled thoughts, I guess my conclusion is this:
Don’t ask, as you enter the world, “Do I have it all?” Ask: “Am I living deeply? And where am I putting my roots?”
[Please discuss in the comments, because I don’t even know if I completely agree with myself.]