I came of age in the 1970s during the first wave of feminism. In those days, when I was making my way into adulthood and trying to find out what being a man was all about, everyone in my world was a feminist. Even the men. Especially the men. It was part of the package. Part of throwing out the old and embracing the new, the young, the restless, the exciting, the different.
Fundamental to the new was the perception in the counter-culture (how cute does that sound now?) that almost everything male was bad. The world was going down the gurgler because men were in charge. Nuclear bombs, big cars, the military-industrial complex, greenhouse gases, environmental destruction—it was all men’s fault. If women were in charge none of this would be happening. (This was before Margaret Thatcher.) Men were ruining the world. Men were bad, women were good. It was a simple equation. This was what we believed.
There is no question that feminism has been good for men. It opened out our choices and, just as it did for women, offered us freedom from gender oppression as well. (Another of those quaint, old-fashioned terms.) But those early decades of ideologically-driven change have left wounds from which both men and women have struggled to heal.
So many men my age now—from forty through to sixty—grew into adulthood squeezed in a pincer between rejecting the patriarchal values of our fathers’ generation and being told by women that all men are bastards anyway. It is not surprising that while women gained a strong, assured identity through those years, men floundered. We were asked to be different in dramatic and fundamental ways. Different in the workplace, different at home, different in ourselves. We lost our landmarks to manhood. We had no idea who we were supposed to be.
When it came to relationships men were asked to speak a language we’d never been taught. Relationship, as it evolved in our generation, was a women’s model based on talking and communication and awareness of feelings, not the old grunt and bear it, Dad at work, Mum in the kitchen, kids out the back model of our parents’ day. This was not only a whole new game for many men, but it was questionable—with our brains geared to outcomes rather than just talking—whether it was a game we were even able to play. Even those men who were trying hard to fit in needed someone to teach them how to do it. And older men didn’t know how to do it, so it had to be women. And this wasn’t what women wanted either.
They wanted a partner, not a pupil.
This was when we got the postcard of the young cartoon wife despairing, I wanted to have a child (sob) not marry one!
And none of this was benign. In those early days feminist women were on the warpath—and the enemy was men. But so much of the anger levelled at individual men was greater than they deserved. The institutions were corrupt and the workers got blamed. Without knowing it men were breaking rules and committing crimes which hadn’t existed before. Blokes who were just doing the job they thought was expected of them got the sack as husbands, lovers and fathers, caught in the crossfire between new women and old institutions as generations of stifled self-expression was finally given vent.
The lid was off the pressure cooker and the kitchen was a mess.
This was the era when women wore overalls and men wore makeup. It was a time of gender upheaval, of experimentation and confusion as those of us in the counter-culture self-consciously challenged accepted stereotypes of masculine and feminine.
Sure, I knew I was a man, but I also knew I wasn’t like other men—real men—blokes with V8s and beer guts and blue singlets. Well, maybe the blue singlets, but they hung loose on my scrawny vegetarian, alcohol-shunning frame. Rather, I was part of the great wave of change that was going to save the world from men. I wasn’t a woman, I knew that. And I wasn’t gay, I knew that too. (Although even gay was barely heard of then. There was camp, but not yet gay.) I had my male equipment, sure, but I also had enough hair for about three women, I wore a velvet cloak and I didn’t believe in marriage or careers or any of that straight patriarchal shit that was part of the reason the world was going to the dogs. I wasn’t like Dad, or my two older brothers. And I had no sisters to compare myself too.
As an individual, all my signposts to manhood were negative. Not this way! Wrong way, go back! I knew who I wasn’t and who I didn’t want to be. Finding out who I was and who I could be wasn’t so easy. Let alone who I wanted to be. It’s still a mystery to me when anyone knows with conviction who they are and who they want to be. They’ve certainly had a different life from mine.
I find it hard to explain to many women my age—these strong, empowered, emancipated women, strident in self-justification—what it was like to be a man through those years. More than anything else, we were silenced. We couldn’t work out what we’d done wrong—because we hadn’t done anything wrong. We just happened to be men at the wrong time in history. But we were not allowed our opinions.
The orthodoxy had muzzled us. Our complaints were dismissed as the fear of losing grip on the patriarchal power we were used to—as mere backlash. And this had to go somewhere. The anger level among non-custodial fathers, particularly, was frightening. It seemed impossible to sit with more than two men of fathering age without encountering a tirade of disenfranchised fury against the Family Court or an ex-spouse or the way the system worked against him, the father, the deserted husband, the man.
The pendulum swung back, as it does, but it wasn’t until about the late 1990s. In Australia, Steve Biddulph’s 1994 book Manhood was a landmark, but it took a few more years for the crisis in masculinity to become openly discussed. And it’s no accident this coincided with the increasing number of younger women, the so-called second wave of feminists, voicing their own dissatisfaction that the great promise of feminism that they could do it all—marriage, motherhood and career—hadn’t come through. They couldn’t do it all. Their lives weren’t working and, these younger women could see, neither were their men’s. It took a while longer—the first years of the new century—to see any change. The problem with men found its way onto the government and social agenda. Male suicide rates, depression, physical and mental health, the benefits of healthy, active fathering, punitive Family Court orders—all these issues started to be aired and acted on.
But the effects of those years remained. All men are bastards. I wanted to have a child (sob) not marry one. All the decent men were either married or gay. How many of us—men and women—swallowed these harmless jokes whole, unaware, in our bright, invulnerable youth, that they might be poison pills, which would leach their future toxins inside us? They affected men, of course, who rightly couldn’t work out what they personally had done wrong—but women as well. You could carve those jokes on a whole generation of single women’s headstones. With that as the prevailing ‘wisdom’ of the times, you’d have to be an idiot to trust any man.
Men might have been lost, but as the years passed, so many women of my generation became, simply, angry. They bristled with assumptions and resentments, with a deep inconsolable distrust. If they’d ever had respect for their men they’d lost it somewhere in the years between their own bright youth and this presumption of betrayal they carried as they entered middle age. It was as if all the years of easy man-blame had hardened into a lazy absence of self-responsibility which became a default understanding of things, a window through which to view the world. It became the emotional scaffolding on which to hang broken hearts and punctured dreams. It became an excuse.
So many women seemed to have simply given up on men. They decided that if they couldn’t find a man who measured up, they’d make do with the friendship of women instead. And—very vocally—they found very few men who did measure up. They didn’t want the patriarchal marriages their parents had. And they’d worked out that they didn’t want doormats and handbags—the fate of the Sensitive New Age Guy put that to rest pretty quickly.
Instead, they wanted a man who’d stand up to them, but not over them. They wanted a man who wasn’t weak, but wasn’t too strong; not womanly, but not too manly either—not too old-fashioned. Not too blokey. They wanted some sort of new-fashioned man—a man who could massage and buy roses and light scented candles around the bath and talk about his feelings and fix the mower and unblock the dunny and earn enough to surprise them with a week in Paris on their anniversary. This had nothing to do with men as we actually are, rather it was a piece of Photoshop crumpet, an Identi-kit composition of unrealistic expectations, some sort of post-Barbie Ken doll who could only ever exist in their dreams.
And because these men didn’t exist, a whole lot of these women ended up single and resentful instead—leaving many real men retreating into their own caves of resentment at the unrealistic expectations put upon them. They had their mates and their beer and their footie—and probably their prostitutes and porn. If women were going to be that difficult, they’d make do without them. Well, without relationships, at least.
We, men and women alike, became a generation, a culture, that was just too toxic, too contaminated, to keep each other’s company. It was as if the slide of history over the past thirty years had, like a glacier, left a moraine of relationship outcasts in its wake and we were it. Having discarded the rules of marriage we were paying for it with our anger and confusion and solitude. The fight for freedoms we considered our rights had cost us essential skills of relationship and commitment. We left our relationships because we could. We terminated our babies because we could. We lived alone because we had no family to live with. We had loosened the ties that bind, stretched the limits of the allowable and this was the outcome. Choice had made us irrational. Hope and despair had made us enemies.
We’d thrown out the old and this was the new. We didn’t want to be our parents, trapped behind white picket fences of conformity and frustration. But neither did we want to be alone. But it wasn’t working. Somewhere, it seemed, we had lost the gentle wisdom of getting on, of not needing everything our way—perish the thought, of putting our own needs second. We had become bachelors and spinsters—albeit new-fashioned ones.
We had lost the language of love. And somehow, individually, we had to find it again.
Speaking for myself, the years have taught me to trust my own language of love. It is only in middle age that I have been able to heal the wounds left from those years. I know now—I have finally learn—that the essence of healthy relationships is to question my presumptions and preconceptions, to cast aside ideology and embrace the contradictions of life. Even the word feminist seems to me superfluous. So many of the aspirations we used to describe as feminist are now part of the mainstream—even if we are often reminded that the battle is far from won. Perhaps feminism has gone the way of so many big-picture isms—socialism, communism, capitalism.
We no longer live in a world of such simple black and white definitions. Most people’s lives take place beneath the radar of big picture politics and incorporate contradictions and realities that have little to do with such outdated isms—except perhaps postmodernism, and even that’s just so twentieth century now.
Instead we live inside communities, challenged to make sense of our lives within a framework of personal values and interpersonal priorities. Personally, I know that I have had to leave behind the easy assumptions of youth and instead practise what I would call a language of connecting intimacy. I have had to shed presumptions and instead strive to be with others as individuals. I have tried to practise not knowing and instead dig deep for a more meaningful connecting vulnerability of disclosure. I have learned that the more I can accept and reveal my own uncertainties and inconsistencies I am able to accept them in others. This is the only way I have learned to build relationships of empowering authenticity and acceptance.
A few decades of being buffeted by the real world hopefully lends us all some sort of useable wisdom which tempers the certainty of youth. We learn that answers are never simple. Men aren’t all bad and women aren’t all good—either individually or collectively. Instead age educates us that we do best to accept each person as he or she comes—and that our greatest challenge is not to think we know others, but to do that most difficult thing—to know ourselves.
Published in Kindred, Issue 28