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Women Leading Men's Liberation

In March, 1996, eleven men from all over Alaska attended our Region's first annual Men's Liberation Workshop. The events leading up to that workshop, the workshop itself, and the changes and insights resulting from it make an interesting story. I share some of this story to contribute to a dialogue about sexism, classism, and men's oppression. I hope that other women will consider leading men's liberation as a means of reclaiming ourselves, our relationships, and our world.

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SEXISM AND MEN'S OPPRESSION

This May in Sitka, an isolated rural town of 8,000 people in southeast Alaska, a young woman of seventeen was raped and strangled to death in a heavily used waterfront park. I frequently go running in this park, as do many other people. It is a beautiful, powerful place-Native land, with broad, well-cared-for paths twining and criss-crossing through several acres of hemlock, spruce, and yellow cedar, graced with many totem poles. In many ways, this park is the heart of our town.

It has been nearly a year since I decided to systematically take on leading a men's liberation movement. There have been moments of profound hope and insight, but it has been a difficult period, because taking on this work means really looking sexism in the eye on the one hand and looking directly at men's oppression on the other. Nothing brings both of these things into sharper focus than an event of this nature: rape and murder of a woman by a local man, in a town where this kind of thing is so rare that nearly everyone can feel it.

Her body was found not fifty feet from a main road, near a bridge. Soon after her death, a man tied a bouquet of flowers on the railing of this bridge, which overlooks a beautiful river flowing through the heart of the park as well as the site where she died. He invited others to do the same, and very quickly people responded. The bridge was covered with hundreds of bouquets (one day I counted 463), balloons of all colors, dozens of candles, poems, banners, and other gifts. Any time of day you could see people walking the bridge, looking and thinking, sometimes holding each other and crying.

A framed photograph on the bridge shows the young woman with her father. He is lovingly holding her as she beams into the camera. A local writer, a man, in a letter to the editor encouraging people to put flowers on the bridge, spoke eloquently of "the terrible affliction that makes every woman walk with fear and every man feel that he stands among the suspected." (The man who killed her did not turn himself in for eleven days.)

I define the "terrible affliction" as the two oppressions that work so destructively together: sexism and men's oppression.

Women everywhere were talking, talking. I heard dozens of women saying things like, "I suspect everyone, even my son, even my co-worker, even the boy who bags my groceries."

And everywhere men walked with their heads down. I was alone on the beach in the park several days after the murder, and a man walking by put up his hands in a gesture of supplication and said, "Please don't be alarmed." The other joggers on my regular route who happen to be men scrupulously watched the ground when they passed me.

My beloved husband was persistently unable to reach out to me as I grieved and stormed. When I finally had discharged enough to talk to him about this without attacking him and blaming him for my fear and rage and grief about rape, he admitted that he feels terribly guilty, that he knows he has not been able to be there for women, or to eliminate rape. Other women with male partners who have been working on their sexism report the same thing-men being mute and ashamed.

Never have I seen so clearly the patterns which seem to prevent men from being strong, effective allies to women in our fight against sexism. When I am overwhelmed with my own emotion, men look stubborn, self-centered, indifferent. When I can get a glimpse of men outside my own emotion, I see overwhelming despair, a mute grief, tremendous feelings of powerlessness and failure.

One father said to me, "I will never let my daughters walk alone in a park." My first response was fury, the feeling that they are putting all of us in a cage. But when I looked more closely at him, I saw a man nearly choking with terror for his daughters, who are for him the sun, the moon, and the stars. I dare say he would lay down his own life before allowing his daughters to be hurt.

I think this story of the rape and murder in my town is powerful because it illustrates directly how sexism hurts both men and women. This has not been easy to see, because it is women who never walk at night without considering the danger, women who are dying simply for being female. But when I look around me, it is by and large the women who are discharging and banding together, and the men look like "death warmed over" with no help in sight. Does this sound familiar?

HOW I CAME TO DO MEN'S LIBERATION WORK

I have not come meekly nor easily to doing this work. I was raised poor, the oldest of eight children in a conservative Catholic family of five males and five females; a quite overt part of our family culture was an ongoing battle between the sexes. Beginning at age twenty-five, I was a single mother for ten years, which meant among other things that I lived in a subculture where I experienced and witnessed the direct effects of sexism on mothers: low pay, sub-standard housing, no health insurance, the humiliation of dealing with the welfare system, custody battles, drug abuse. One of my close friends was nearly murdered by her ex-husband and had to go underground with her three children because he was not caught. I myself received plenty of abusive treatment from men, including humiliation, beating, and weird sexual treatment.

I came out of all that angry as hell. I still dated constantly. I was addicted to indifferent men, but I wouldn't say I had close male friends until I met B-, the man I am now married to, who has been absolutely key in my long journey towards a sense of partnership with men, instead of war. He is still my standard for how a man can win women over, for how to be a good ally to women. He figured out, primarily from years spent in a cooperative working with strong women, that it is fundamental to support women into positions of power, that the whole society is doomed unless women get to be whole beings. What he has not figured out, however, is how to be fully himself, but he knew intuitively that his best bet was to find a strong woman and cheer her on.

Now, of course, we are engaged in another struggle, which is how to get him to be able to discharge all his hurt so that he can have a full life himself and can pull his weight emotionally. He tends to pull back and let me carry the family emotionally. And our sons, like many young men in our culture, are learning to do the same.

However, even before he had Co-Counseling theory, B- stubbornly persisted in doing two things that helped me free myself. First, he insisted I was perfect as I was, and second, he decided to follow my lead out of sexism, trusting that I would figure it out as I went if I were supported enough. He never once told me I was going the wrong way in the wrong manner. When I was "way out there" and even creepy about it-for instance, when I tried on saying that I could do whatever I wanted and he could do nothing without my permission (a very interesting and useful phase)-he just said, "Keep going, you'll figure it out."

At one point, however, after my second son was born five years ago and I was raging under a fresh onslaught of the sexism that comes down on mothers, he did make a mild suggestion. He said, "I don't think you're going to get where you want to be unless you start making close friends with men."

I had been doing women's liberation work in RC fairly consistently, and I had begun doing yearly workshops in my Region on relationships between men and women. In these workshops I was putting women first. Over the years this had had a good effect on the women, who had been trying the usual tactics (used especially by heterosexual women) of putting themselves last in hopes that the family would then turn around and offer them a hand-which never, as we have seen, works.

By the last relationship workshop I did two years ago, the women were in great shape, connecting well with each other, not, by and large, "taking care" of men, and understanding that they needed to take charge of their relationships with men.

The men, on the other hand, although some of them were beginning to have good relationships with those particular women who were working hard on taking charge, were still pretty uniformly miserable. At the workshops they would sleep-or not sleep, staying awake and depressed-alone at night, not comforting each other. Though I emphasized constantly the importance of men forming alliances with each other and making sure they had good men's support groups, during the year between workshops these support groups were flagging.

This all angered me further. It looked too much like my family, where my brothers "got away with murder" while the girls had to keep house for them. I was trying to move things to a place where men could give each other a hand like the women were doing for each other. Instead, the men seemed to be steadily holding out for us women to help them. I was afraid we would have to work hard to make our lives what we wanted and then turn and do their work, too.

Several things finally convinced me to change my tactics. First, I was discharging much of my own rage about sexism and was empowering myself in connection with other women. A strong, on-going women's support group had been essential to accomplish this.

Second, I was making a lot of friends with men from many different backgrounds. Going back to Catholic church here in Sitka, which has a strong working-class congregation, was particularly good for this. Getting close to young adult men was also key.

Both these things, discharging on sexism and making friends with men, led me to the crucial moment when I could at last begin to see that the men I loved the most-my darling sons, one grown and one a toddler, my beloved husband, my father, and a few men I'd gotten close to-were suffering deeply. Just plain hurting. Not out of laziness or malice, but out of oppression, their own oppression as men, which, among other things, makes it quite amazingly difficult (from a woman's point of view) to choose to help themselves. This feeling of inability to get or ask for help is at the heart of men's oppression and keeps it in place.

The next step, and the most important, was for me to see clearly that giving men a hand with this was crucial to my own liberation as a woman, that it would enormously empower me. We must do this work for ourselves to avoid falling into the usual pattern of doing things for men (not to mention the unavoidable hoary fact that we won't get the world we want until men get to be more human). This all came together for me when Harvey put forth the proposal last summer that women organize a men's liberation movement comparable to our own.

So I decided, what the heck, why not lead an annual men's workshop in my Region and see what happens?

LEADING THE MEN'S LIBERATION WORKSHOP

Except for two men, all those who attended the men's workshop had also attended my workshops on relationships between men and women. I had long and sometimes very involved relationships with these men. Several of them had felt all along that I was wrong about men's oppression (my tactic of saying, "Get out there and take care of yourselves or forget it"), but still they hung in there with me because, as they said, I still occasionally looked like a good bet. I was fighting my way towards them. I deeply appreciate these men who have hung in there with me year after year, through all my rage and frustration. We have truly had to scratch our ways to this point.

So the bulk of the men there knew and trusted me to some extent, even though the trust was a thin veneer covering tremendous despair. Let's put it this way: they trusted me as much as men ever trust women in this culture. I say this because I think it is important for women embarking on this work to realize it really takes some time, and that's okay. When we work with women the response is much quicker, and profound change seems to happen rapidly. It is important for us to understand that until we get smarter about this, it will take more time than we want it to take (meaning, really, that it pushes right against our despair about sexism). However, one thing I've learned about men is that they will hang in there if you are persistent, no matter how strange you act on the way.

Getting these men to the workshop took repeated contacts, from me and from other men. We invited over forty men, well in advance, but men's oppression makes it hard for men to attend these things. Each of the men who attended had long stories of all they had to go through to get there. This is interesting to me as a woman because we tend to think of men as selfish, and they certainly do have selfish patterns, but when it comes down to it, it is very difficult for men to truly do anything for themselves, to fight for themselves-especially to leave their jobs and responsibilities to others. Next year we will start even further in advance and offer more counseling to men about taking time for themselves.

I realized I had never spent this much time (forty-eight hours) alone with a group of men. It was really fun! In advance I thought it would make me nervous and afraid, but I was not at all. I realized I didn't think a group of men that size would rape or kill me. I didn't have any feelings about that at all.

It was the first time in my life I'd had a roomful of men look at me expectantly and wait for me to speak. This brought up a lot of the old feelings, naturally, of never being listened to by men or having my thinking respected. I felt like a complete idiot every time I spoke, even though an awareness of my intelligence is something I've been allowed to keep relative to many other women in our culture. I literally could not tell that the words I strung together in a sentence made sense. It was horrible.

Fortunately I had several allies there who understood this and kept telling me I was making sense. I had to discharge constantly when I spoke. I could not speak without shaking. We taped the classes. That was good because afterwards I could read the transcripts and see that I not only made sense but said some smart things.

I told the group my goal was to be myself and discharge a lot of embarrassment-starting with the fact that my period began the day the workshop started and that I was going to be perfectly honest about it. I laughed a lot about that. There was a young adult there, and he was the best at getting me laughing. He kept yelling across the room, "How is your period going?"

I loved being with these men. I loved watching them with each other. I told them not to worry about being careful or proper with each other, but to make a real mess. One man started a joke early on which became the running gag of the weekend. He used military language, turning it to the purpose of men's liberation, shouting: "Cover me. I'm going in. We won't all make it out alive! Follow me, men. Do or die! They'll never take me alive!" All weekend you could hear this coming out of the support group rooms with tons of laughter following and lots of raging and tears. It was very effective. I was touched by this.

Since what I enjoy doing most is relationship work, my goal in the workshop was to do a relationship session between two men who were already friends in the wide world. To establish enough of a level of trust to do this, during the first class Friday night, after support groups met, I did a demonstration with S-, the men's leader for the Region, continuing work we'd already done on committing ourselves to each other forever. The line was: "You and me, all the way, forever," which came from realizing that if we don't make deep connections, none of the other work we do really goes anywhere.

It was a fantastic demonstration with good discharge. S- worked very hard and set the tone for the rest of the workshop. I laid out at that point that what seemed to be holding men back was their continuing to allow themselves to be victims of their patterns of helplessness: "I can't get help, no one can help me." The goal for the workshop was to throw it all out there now, all the worst stuff, and not wait for it to feel "safe" enough, because it never will feel safe enough. Not wait for women or each other to figure out men's stuff enough, but to go for broke, right there, right then, with the counselor who was right in front of them.

I wanted to work right away on commitment and closeness because I wanted to set the tone for breaking isolation. This seemed necessary in order to do a good relationship demonstration.

Saturday morning I did a long demonstration with B- and J-, who are friends in the wide world but have held back from really getting in there for each other. In relationship sessions, I first have each person talk about what he or she loves about the other person. This took a long time in this case. It seemed to deeply touch the listener to hear the speaker say how much he loved him. It was also profoundly scary for the speaker to admit to his feelings. They both discharged a lot. Even though these two men had spent a lot of time together hunting, fishing, and doing other things, they had never spoken to each other like this. One man said, after hearing the first express his love: "I didn't know. I hoped it was so." This touched me deeply. I learned so much about men.

Then I gave them the direction of putting each other first in their lives, even before their families, going for "You and me, all the way." This led to one man breaking down about his daughter who didn't live with him and was pushing him away, how he was confused and needed help, how much he loved her. We criticize men easily for being bad fathers, but in this culture we really don't give men a hand with getting in there with their children. All the fathers in the room sobbed. It was very moving.

We also worked on homophobia, on all the implications of them getting completely close, all the way. We could have done a lot more work on this but ran out of time.

Another highlight for me was the leadership table. I met with support group leaders and the workshop organizer at breakfasts. We did some of our best work there. I knew most of the men in this group; we had been through a lot together.

I woke up Saturday morning just furious at the pattern many men share of holding back, even after years of counseling, from going for the really scary stuff. Fortunately I had set up in advance that any time I got at all confused I was to grab S- for a mini-session. Every time I felt confused I was actually on to something big, usually something that I was angry about. I have always held back on this because men are so restimulated by women's anger, having been hurt by their mothers in this way. I decided that even if I wrecked everything, I could not hold back. This "going for everything, right now" has persistently paid off well for me. I initially upset people and make a mess but am quickly able to think clearly and move.

So Saturday morning after a raging mini-session I sat at the leadership table and decided to be ruthless with this victim pattern. I thought it would be a disaster. Instead, we all had incredible sessions. I had the idea of having a man push at me by pushing on the opposite side of a heavy table. Several others would push on my side. In this way the man got to be profoundly angry. It was impressive, very exhilarating.

Several things were hard for me about the workshop. I got a real good look at the depth of despair men feel, and I had to fight a lot of panic, which I still deal with. Since I was raised to take care of everyone, I keep sliding into the false belief that I have to "fix" everything and into my own despair about not being able to do that as a child. Under this, however, is a reality, which is that one person accessing all her power can change everything. This means that the old despair and powerlessness of the "fixing" pattern have to go.

Also, it was hard to see how often I would doubt my thinking in front of men. I kept going and did well, but the old discouragement was painful to feel.

I felt lonely at times. I gained a huge appreciation for how thoughtful women often are with each other. There were dozens of times when I looked up, expecting something that would not come; then I realized with a start that at that very point, if there had been women around, some woman would have checked in with me, in all the quick, wonderful ways we do, to keep on top of sexism-just a look or a grimace or a quick squeeze. How interesting, how wonderful to see in its absence, how good we are at constantly supporting each other. It seemed, with the men, that they could not assume they could help me. How stunning. It wasn't that they didn't want to; they simply seemed to feel helpless about doing so. This is another place where men need to refuse to be victim to their feelings of inadequacy and reach out anyway. They had a hard time, as well, reassuring each other or asking for support.

I told the group that I did not have a lot of good attention in the area of men's distress around sex and that I realized I would have to work on that to be a good ally to them. However, we did have one good spontaneous discussion before dinner. I told some guys I was hanging out with that they could ask me any question they wanted to about my experience with or feelings about sex, and I would be completely honest no matter how embarrassing it was. They asked great questions of me, then talked about their own experiences, and we laughed a lot.

Sunday morning we worked on classism. I worked with a raised-poor man. (The workshop consisted of five raised-poor or working-class people, all still identifying as working-class, and seven raised-middle-class people, confused about how they identify.) This was a messy, uncomfortable class, as it always is for me when the majority of the workshop is raised middle-class, but it was good. We set the goal of having our next men's workshop be at least half working-class. I said, "Believe me, you will all have a better time." We are a lot more ourselves when we are in the majority. In a support group (I visited each support group sometime during the workshop) I saw a middle-class man give a session to another about giving up the "nest egg" that had the entire group laughing until we could laugh no more.

By the end of the workshop we picked an Information Coordinator for Men for each of the towns represented and agreed to meet every year. I would lead until I was no longer needed.

SINCE THE WORKSHOP

What I expected to happen was that men from all over our vast state would meet finally and I would learn a tremendous lot.

That did happen. What I did not expect was that all my relationships with men of all ages, as well as my relationships with women, would shift dramatically. I can no longer settle for less than seeing men clearly, and this is both delightful and heartbreaking.

It's delightful because now there is this whole new group of people with whom I can, really for the first time, be friends. I expected I would have to do a lot more work before there would be a change, but the surprise is finding out that men are really waiting for us to be allies and that the subtle shift I've made in my consciousness has affected how men view me. Even little boys, who used to ignore me, come after me. I wrestle and play with them, and they tell me all sorts of things. Men of all ages are very good to me, come up and talk to me, say, "Hi!" on the street. I can't tell you how amazing this is to me because I haven't really done all that much work.

It's heartbreaking because I can't ignore the level of suffering around me. I am watching men's distress being laid on my children, and on at least one occasion I saw where I colluded with that. I see my beloved partner struggling mightily, and the older men I used to just write off-the cantankerous, gruff types-can no longer be simply ignored.

The other hard thing is that this little edge of slack I've gotten has sudde nly made it easy for women to be furious around me. Looking back and thinking about it, I can see that this makes sense, but I was so hoping that women would cheer me on, that I'd get lots of support for doing this work. There is, comparatively, a lot of support inside RC, but out there, whew! Before women can support me and be good allies to men alongside, they have to get rid of this load of anger.

This is what happens. Women will be talking about men. I'll say something like that I've noticed this or that about men, about their struggle. Instantly comes this blast-how angry they are, how much they hate men, how they've suffered at the hands of men, and so on. Incredible horror stories. Lots of discharge. It's very dependable. All I have to do is murmur something about men's oppression, and whamo! At first this was extremely depressing. I was hoping they'd help me! No way. What it does mean is that I have to make sure I get good counseling.

Something else that is new is when I am at a party with children, young girls are coming up to me and just hauling off and charging me, very angry. They want to wrestle hard, they want to get my clothes dirty. They love to gang up on me and make me helpless.

It's coming at me in all directions. I realize I am in a position to effect real change. We are all in this position.

I also did not expect to come up against, almost instantly, the full thrust of my oldest, deepest despair, especially about classism. To dig at sexism means exposing the very roots of classism. For classism to stay in place it is essential that men and women remain deeply at odds. Sexism operates within all other oppressions and prevents the most natural allies within any group from joining forces. It is no accident that since a major employer in my town, the pulp mill, closed down two years ago, incidences of rape and domestic violence have steadily risen. This has happened everywhere.

GETTING SUPPORT

When I hit my first wall of debilitating despair, about a month after the workshop, I called all my allies. Harvey said, "I was wondering when it would hit. Good." He gave me a helpful direction, which I have modified: "It sometimes happens that one woman decides to get all the love she needs to straighten out all the men in the world. After awhile, she realizes it is going to take some time but that in the process she will realize that she is completely perfect and always has been."

This direction is quite useful because it helps my counselors to not get worried. Only one of my women counselors has decided to go all out and lead men's liberation along with me. Others are working towards it. It's not easy for them to counsel me on this, given their own despair. However, this direction gets them right off the hook, and I always have great discharge.

I also called Chris Austill, RC International Liberation Reference Person for Men, who has continually been a great support. We talked before the workshop. I told him I was having a hard time leading middle-class men. He said, "That's all right, we all are." Chris is great at admitting he doesn't know what to do, which is so good for me. He just says, "Beats me," when I ask what to do, and I'm off laughing, because we really don't know what to do; we're all caught in this stuff.

I decided to stay close to Chris. Every time I get stuck I call him or write him a letter, even though I usually feel like a complete idiot and like I'm totally wasting his time. Every time I write a letter I learn a little bit more because when I write I can think outside my distress. He calls and encourages me, and this has meant a great deal to me.

The most important thing Chris has said to me is that it does not matter what mistakes I make or who is mad at me or even who leaves RC forever because of me-he will back me up; the main thing is that I make it through this stuff. I carry this around with me everywhere. I can cry at a second's notice, thinking of it. Men can do a lot for women, just backing us unconditionally in this way.

GOALS

Next year, March 1997, we are having our second annual Regional Men's Workshop. In March 1998 we are having Chris Austill come up to Alaska for a Men's and Allies' Workshop. He will lead the men. I will lead the women on how to be great allies to men. These workshops seem to be useful. People have specific, individual goals that are keyed towards these workshops, such as bringing more young adult men into RC, more men of color, more working-class men, which means making friends with these people outside of RC first.

Two different women's support groups are working on being allies to men. I hold out to every woman I counsel in RC that she lead men's liberation. We dependably get great discharge. No one feels like she wants to do it. Discouragement and despair come up. This is useful to get rid of in any case.

On a personal level, on the home front, I am working on being tough about sexism without "creaming" or shutting down the men I am dealing with at the time. I work on how to be loving with them and yet insist that sexist behavior stop now.

I told my husband the other day that I thought he would have to be no less than heroic in order to feel-that it would feel that big, that hard. We have to do what feels like the impossible thing. Our young son was in a life-threatening accident, and my husband felt such terror that he just checked out and left all the emotional stuff to me. I told him he cannot model this for our son. He adores T-. He can see this, that he must fight, must feel those old feelings, feel all the times he was physically hurt or scared and had to shut it down, so that our child will see that this is what a man can be-that brave, that real.

As I think about this, it really makes sense. We need, all of us, to be heroic. That is what it will take. None of us wants to settle for less than everything.

Christine A. Marie
Sitka, Alaska, USA


Last modified: 2020-07-17 20:50:52+00