Write me: rjn@richardjnewman.com
Male Feminism in 1914
Isub­scribe to Voice Male mag­a­zine, the tag line for which is “Chang­ing Men in Chang­ing Times.” It’s kind of like Ms. for the pro­fem­i­nist men’s move­ment. (Many of their issues are archived online; they are def­i­nite­ly worth a look.) About five years ago, Rob Okun, the magazine’s edi­tor has repub­lished an arti­cle from the ear­ly 1900s by a man named Floyd Dell, a suc­cess­ful nov­el­ist, play­wright, poet and lit­er­ary crit­ic who influ­enced writ­ers like Theodore Dreis­er, Sher­wood Ander­son, and Carl Sand­burg. Today, how­ev­er, at least accord­ing to what Voice Male’s edi­tor has to say, those peo­ple who know about him–and I did not before I read this article–know about him because he was an ardent fem­i­nist.

The arti­cle was first pub­lished in July 1914, six years before women got the right to vote, in a social­ist mag­a­zine called The Mass­es, of which Dell was man­ag­ing edi­tor. In its unapolo­getic het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­i­ty, among oth­er things, the piece is def­i­nite­ly a prod­uct of its time, but I was struck by how famil­iar Dell’s argu­ment for how fem­i­nism will free men from “the slav­ery of mas­culin­i­ty” sound­ed. (The phrase is my para­phrase, but the word slav­ery is his.) I hope my excerpts do jus­tice to the tongue-in-cheek tone of the entire piece:

Fem­i­nism is going to make it pos­si­ble for the first time for men to be free. At present the ordi­nary man has the choice between being a slave and a scoundrel. For the ordi­nary man is prone to fall in love and mar­ry and have chil­dren. Also the ordi­nary man fre­quent­ly has a moth­er. He wants to see them all tak­en care of, since they are unable to take care of them­selves. Yet, if he has them to think about, he is not free.

Dell goes on to talk about the “irre­sistible eco­nom­ic forces…taking more and more women every year out of the eco­nom­ic shel­ter of the home [and] mak­ing them work­ers and earn­ers along with men.” He sug­gests that the edu­ca­tion women will have to receive in order to be “fit for the world of earn­ing” and the achieve­ment of “equal pay for equal work”–the quo­ta­tion marks are his; this was a slo­gan even back then–will inevitably result in the “set­ting free of men.” Dell even goes so far as to imag­ine “a social insur­ance for moth­er­hood, which will enable women to have chil­dren with­out tak­ing away a man’s free­dom from him.” The prob­lem, Dell says, is that

Men don’t want the free­dom that women are thrust­ing upon them… Men want the sense of pow­er more than they want the sense of free­dom. They want the feel­ing that comes to them as providers for women more than they want the feel­ing that comes to them as free men. They want some­one depen­dent on them more than they want a com­rade. As long as they can be lords in a thir­ty-dol­lar flat, they are will­ing to be slaves in the great world out­side.

The part of Dell’s arti­cle that I found most fas­ci­nat­ing was the con­clu­sion, which he called “A Ques­tion of Priv­i­lege.” “If the cult of mas­cu­line supe­ri­or­i­ty is to be main­tained,” he wrote

there must be some things that women are not allowed to do. From the Poly­ne­sians with their sacred mys­ter­ies which women are not per­mit­ted to wit­ness, to mod­ern gen­tle­men in their exclu­sive­ly mas­cu­line clubs, there has always been the instinct to dig­ni­fy the male sex by for­bid­ding cer­tain of its priv­i­leges to women.

By way of exam­ple, he talks about things that to us would seem remark­ably triv­ial, drink­ing alco­hol and smok­ing, women’s sports, and swear­ing; but he also talks about the way men in 1914 “pass[ed] ordi­nances to keep women off the streets when they ven­ture to wear the new trouser-like skirts,” and while he does not call it slut-sham­ing, this is what he describes when he write about the men who “gath­er in crowds and hoot at the shame­less female who can­not even let a man keep his pants to him­self.” The main tar­get of Dell’s argu­ment, how­ev­er, is the fact that in 1914 women still did not have the right to vote:

All the rea­sons that men give for not want­i­ng women to vote are disin­gen­u­ous. Their real rea­son is a deep annoy­ance at the pro­fa­na­tion of a mas­cu­line mys­tery. The vote is all we have left. The women have tak­en every­thing else that we could call ours, and now this–it is too much! “Can’t we be allowed to do any­thing by our­selves?”

Change the terms of the argument–from, say, whether or not women can vote to whether or not women should be able to serve in combat–and it seems to me we are in many ways hav­ing the same dis­cus­sion today.

Recov­er­ing and hon­or­ing the his­to­ry of the women’s move­ment is one of the most valu­able con­tri­bu­tions women’s stud­ies schol­ars have made to our under­stand­ing of gen­der and sex­u­al pol­i­tics; it’s good to be remind­ed that male fem­i­nism also has a his­to­ry worth hon­or­ing.

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: