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The local Seattle television talk show "Town Meeting" recently did a show with the rather provocative title, "Has Feminism Failed?" It featured national NOW president Patricia Ireland, and aired July 21. I was in the studio audience.
It is not the purpose of this article to answer the show’s question, although it is clear to me that feminism has some real public image problems. It also became clear to me from discussions during and after the show that there are some real problems that are beyond the ability of any single organization, or even a single gender, to handle on its own—problems that will require men and women to work together in a broad-based social movement.
Appearing on the panel with Ireland were local men’s rights activist Raj Singh and conservative author/motherhood advocate Charmaine Yoest. There appeared to be agreement among the panel and the mostly female audience on some basic points: the need for equality between men and women; the need to spend more time with and take better care of our children; and the need to rectify some of the past injustices women have faced. There was less agreement or even acknowledgment on the problems that men face.
One point that kept coming up was the idea that the economy was forcing more and more women into the workplace, leaving less and less time for children. It was considered a given that a family needs two incomes just to keep up, which is something that I would like to take issue with right now.
There have been many studies showing that incomes for most wage earners have stagnated or even decreased since the 1970s, and this is given as a cause of the perceived need for two incomes. While I have no doubt that this has happened, it is also true that corporate profits have skyrocketed in recent years. To distribute the fruits of growth more evenly would help families keep up, but would be a huge economic and political struggle requiring men and women to work together.
In the long run, income trends are more favorable. Real income has doubled in this country since World War II, meaning that the economy is twice as productive as it was 50 years ago. During those 50 years, choices could have been made to trade some of our increased affluence for more leisure time, and have either mothers, fathers or both work less. More time could then be devoted to the children.
Clearly, this has not happened. On average, people have chosen to live in bigger and fancier houses with more gadgets, eat out more often, take more vacations, pay higher taxes and own more cars.
Ireland spoke about the need to create more wealth before we can spend more time with our kids. There was also a lot of talk about choice. Well, the wealth has been created, but we choose to chase after more wealth rather than spend more time with our kids. It may indeed require two incomes (or one very large one) to live in a fancy new subdivision in Redmond, drive two or three new cars, own all the latest electronic equipment, eat out a lot and vacation in Maui—but that is a choice, not an obligation. There are many people who have chosen to downshift, simplify, not buy into the consumer mentality, and to make their kids (if they have chosen to have them) their top priority. A change in attitude is required, not more wealth.
Of course, there are increasing numbers of low-income families that do need two incomes just to survive—but they did not seem to be represented in the "Town Meeting" audience. Eliminating poverty and reversing some of the economic and consumerist trends I have talked about will be a huge battle, pitting citizens against entrenched corporate powers and personal attitudes.
Such a battle will require men and women to work together. When the men’s movement is ready to get truly political—beyond what I see as a rather narrow current focus on the rights of divorced fathers, for example—and is ready to work together with women’s groups, we should push for such things as a shorter work week, flex time, health-care reform, stronger labor unions, affordable housing—anything to fight the devastating effects of corporate power and consumerism on America’s families.
Sadly, the men’s movement and the women’s movement are nowhere near ready to work together; there is still far too much animosity between the two camps. Many men, and I include myself in this category, have been driven out of progressive politics by the large numbers of hostile, anti-male feminists who currently infect most progressive organizations. There is a lot of anger towards feminists that I and many other men need to work out before we will be able to work with them.
It is vital to work through that anger and hostility, which can only serve the status quo by keeping men and women at war with each other. Gender reconciliation is necessary before we can start to work together towards strengthening our families, communities, and environment. We have a lot of work to do as men before we can reach that stage, but this is the vision I have that fuels my own involvement in Men’s Work. I hope that others share that vision as well.
Dan Marshall is the co-host (with Chuck Davis) of the weekly public-access T.V. show, "Male Talk," which can be seen in King County on Thursdays at 4:30 p.m. on channel 29.
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