The Emancipation of Men

I

THE emancipation of woman is an accomplished fact, but man is still plodding along in his traditional grooves. He has never thought of woman as woman — that is, a thinking, feeling creature entirely separate from himself. He continues to think of her as mother, wife, daughter, Good Woman, Bad Woman — always woman in relation to him, never woman as statesman, lawyer, doctor, financier, entirely dissociated from him. He is still living under the delusion that men are somehow superior to women, which leads him personally to the necessity of endeavoring to appear so. It gets him in no end of trouble, is rather a nuisance to everybody, and is on the whole palpably unfair. Is n’t it time he was emancipated from this obsession and given a chance to lead his own life?

We are all to blame. We cherish masculine pride as though it were the tenderest of plants. Indeed, it often is, for it is frequently pride in something of which the man himself has the very gravest doubts. Mrs. Blank, who has two children, recently gave up a splendid position. I asked her why. She explained that she had been making more money than her husband; it had hurt his pride and was creating an unhappy situation at home. She discharged her two excellent servants, undertook the housework, which she detested and performed in the most abominable fashion, withdrew her children from private schools. The family income had been cut more than half. In order to make both ends meet she had to economize in every possible way, all because of this idiotic notion about masculine superiority. The idea has no foundation in reality, but the situations to which it gives rise are real enough and difficult in the extreme, perhaps most difficult of all for the man.

He himself has serious doubts about his superiority. Witness his reiteration of it, his self-conscious attitude toward it. He is haunted from birth to death by the fear of somehow failing to ‘be a man.’ On the face of it such fear is preposterous. In point of fact, he is a man, and cannot possibly be anything else. Man and woman are biological terms, like deer and doe, cock and hen, bull and cow. Nobody would dream of exhorting a bull to be a bull. Any attempt to distinguish between a he-bull and just a bull reduces the whole idea to the absolute absurdity which in reality it is.

Not very long ago I asked a young and extremely intelligent engineer from the West if he liked the poetry of T. S. Eliot. He stated flatly that he had never read a line of poetry in his life. At my astonished ‘Why?’ he smiled and answered, ‘I am a he-man.’ This train of reasoning may seem obscure at first thought, but on consideration it becomes apparent and logical. A ‘heman’ can take no chances with his virility; he must protect it from enervating influences.

Comic as this is, it is also tragic because so real and so familiar. I have seen men afraid to drink a cup of tea in the afternoon, afraid to be gentle and kind, afraid almost to be polite. The type is all too common. Men afraid of their wives, afraid to be interested in their own children, afraid of themselves — afraid of life. They are tragic figures, driven by the necessity of proving themselves ‘men.’ The necessity of proof indicates the existence of doubt, from which they should be emancipated.

There was a time when a woman might hesitate to do something because it was considered unwomanly. When I was in college a good deal of talk went on about whether women should smoke. In those days it was against the college rules, and two girls caught doing it were promptly suspended. We felt strongly about it and wasted any amount of time explaining to one another why the authorities were right or wrong to take such action; finally we were given questionnaires to fill out so that the consensus of student opinion might be formulated. Most of the arguments against smoking were: ‘Not the sort of thing a lady does’; ‘Not in keeping with womanhood’; ‘Unwomanly.’ The opinion of the majority, however, was favorable to smoking, and I remember the remark of a young instructor in reply to the opposing arguments. She said, ’But I am a woman and I like to smoke.’

Her remark is significant because it contains the formula for the psychological emancipation of woman. It disposes once and for all of the bugaboo of ‘womanliness.’ ’But I am a woman and I want a career of my own’; ‘But I am a woman and I want to vote.’ It is the unanswerable argument because it is in complete accord with reality: it puts the horse before the cart. Nowadays if you should ask a woman to do this or that because it was womanly you would certainly be met with astonishment and probably with derision, albeit good-humored. It is this kind of emancipation that I urge for men. I look forward to the day when I shall hear some bright little boy say simply and without defiance, ‘But I am a boy and I like to play with dolls.’

II

When my small daughter came into the world, my husband and I received among the congratulations the following note. It came from a relative who has suffered all his life from the fear of masculine inadequacy and has been making what protest he could against the affliction of ‘superiority.’

‘When I first heard the news,’ he wrote, ‘I thought it was a boy, but your father has written me that it is only a girl after all. It is too bad, especially since it is your first, but I know you will make the best of it and next time perhaps you will have a boy. I know a man who had four girls before he ever got a boy, but he finally got one, so don’t give up hope.’

I think he meant to be humorous, and perhaps he was, in that curious man-on-the-defensive way familiar to us all. But there is no denying the fact that at the present stage of our social order it is considered far more desirable to have a boy baby than a girl baby. There is no room for dispute about it, however differently a few individuals scattered here and there may feel. Somehow, in and for itself, an infant boy is much more valuable and much more to be desired than an infant girl.

From the point of view of the infant, it makes an appalling difference, of course, whether it comes into the world acclaimed with pride and joy or simply accepted with a second-best welcome. We all know people who should have been Henry or Paul but turned out to be Henrietta or Pauline. Their families have made the best of their being born females instead of males, and they must make the best of it too. After all, that is not so difficult. It may be unpleasant to realize that you started off quite wrong, but there is undeniable satisfaction in the knowledge that if you but move a finger toward accomplishment it will be an overwhelming surprise to everybody.

What really is difficult is the situation of many a boy — to start ahead of the game and then gradually wake up to the fact that somehow or other everybody expects him to stay ahead. It becomes intolerable when he realizes deep down in his inmost being that he has n’t the ghost of a chance. The boy’s superiority is proclaimed at birth, and the rest of his life he is under the responsibility of living up to it, even though he may not have the ability to do so. It is much easier to be able to say with the girl, ‘They don’t expect anything of me. Would n’t it astonish them if I really did something!’ than to have to say with the boy, ‘They insist on my being superior to half the rest of the world. How in heaven’s name can I do it?’

By definition, then, the boy is superior at the outset of his life. When he goes from infancy into boyhood he accepts that definition as in the nature of things and does not bother his head particularly one way or the other. He simply basks in the sun of his good fortune, has things more or less his own way, and thoroughly enjoys himself. But very early indeed we find him driven to assert over and over again his masculine superiority, and we begin to suspect that already the seed of doubt has taken root somewhere in the nebulous world of his subconscious being. One afternoon when I arrived at the nursery school which my daughter attends she was not quite dressed — she had yet to put on her shoes. A four-year-old fellow student offered to help her, but since she has a certain independence, and will not be interfered with, she flatly refused all aid from any source whatever. He was a polite little fellow and accepted his dismissal, but he turned to me and said, ‘She can’t do it, you know. She is just a girl.’ Of course, in reality he was saying, ‘See how superior I am and how comparatively helpless she is.’ Already at the age of four he was beginning to feel the weight of manly responsibility and was voicing his protest of superiority. I wish to point out that his remark bore no relation to fact, for even before he finished it the shoes were actually on. His response to the situation, as I hope to make clear later, was identical with that of hundreds of grown men who find themselves in a similar position.

As the boy continues to grow and advance in school the doubt becomes active and troublesome. The fact that he is the male of the species does not solve his arithmetic problems. He comes upon the astonishing truth that the girls in the class can solve them with an ease and accuracy equal to if not surpassing his own. Wherein does his superiority lie? Not in scholarship, for what is true of arithmetic is also true of spelling, reading, composition, and so on. In social charm, the ability to get on well with others? But here again the girls equal or excel. In spiritual depth or imaginative vision? Again no. In physical prowess? Ah, there indeed he is superior. There, then, must be his happy home. He is stronger than girls; he can fight. Maybe he can lick a fellow as big as he is. Thereto he bends his energies.

Perhaps the boy’s leanings are toward scholarship or the arts, and he has a natural repugnance toward the exercise of brute force; that is true of many boys. But, should he pursue his interest in scholarship, he is under a double obligation: first, he must surpass the girls; second, he must exhibit physical power in order to offset any possible suspicion as to his virility. In the first, incentive is considerably reduced because, if he works hard and does surpass the girls, there is no particular glory in it; everybody expected him to do that anyway. With many a boy the obligation becomes too heavy to be borne, and he refuses altogether to compete. He stoutly declares that he is not interested in ‘all that book stuff.’ He feels himself forced into athletic pursuits because there he can demonstrate without too great difficulty or risk that superiority which everybody seems to take for granted, while he himself secretly entertains serious doubts of it. He is condemned, in other words, to live a lie. He must pretend that he has no interest in the activities that he likes best and must be enthusiastic about those in which he has no interest. If anyone questions this statement, he can find ample proof any day in the public schools of America.

A young friend of mine in preparatory school had been doing very well in football. I congratulated him. On an impulse, which I know perfectly well he regretted later, he told me that he hated football and wished from the bottom of his heart that he did not have to play.

‘If you feel that way about it,’ I asked, ‘why on earth do you do it? What do you mean when you say you have to?’

‘Well, it makes a man of you,’ he answered.

During the World War the same argument was often advanced by young enlisted men. Whatever happened, they said, if they survived it would certainly make men of them. Great indeed must be the doubt and the anxiety that find expression here!

The adolescent boy enjoys all sorts of privileges that are not accorded his sisters. Why? Solely because he is a male. He has a latchkey of his own. He comes and goes as he pleases. He can stay out late at night. He can choose the kind of work he wants to do, provided only he chooses a so-called man’s job. That, of course, is very important. The young son of an acquaintance of mine has shown definite talent for music. His father is considerably disturbed and has positively forbidden the boy to take lessons on the violin. He’ll be damned, he says, if any son of his is going to turn into one of those long-haired fiddler fellows. It is impossible to reason with him about it. He knows what he is doing.

The young man in his teens is keenly aware of the privileges accorded him and of the fact that his sisters do not have them. He knows it is because he is a male and somehow superior, but in masculine superiority he has increasingly less confidence. He feels uncomfortable because everybody expects it of him, and is sullen, defiant, and embarrassed by the burden of it. It torments him, but there is no escape from it, for he must never give himself away, never admit his doubts to a single soul — not even to himself. So he joins the other fellows at the corner drug store, where they bolster up one another’s courage by telling smutty jokes and making smart-Aleck remarks about the girls who pass.

III

If we do not feel adequate to meet the demands life makes upon us, we must at all events appear to feel so. We try to convince others in the forlorn hope that thereby we may convince ourselves. One common and entirely futile method is the attempt to lift ourselves by lowering others. We all do it. We criticize Mrs. Smith’s hat, because our own is not particularly becoming. The fact is that Mrs. Smith has better taste in hats than we have. Some obscure process of subconscious reasoning makes us imagine that by questioning the taste of Mrs. Smith we can confirm our own. It is a method constantly resorted to by man in his predicament.

Frequent expression of it is found within the bonds of matrimony. It makes an indifferent attempt to disguise itself as humor, but the disguise is very thin. Mr. and Mrs. Jones go about a great deal. You will not be long in their company before Mr. Jones makes a remark about Mrs. Jones’s tendency toward criticism. He begins by telling a story and ends by saying in a jocular manner, ‘Just wait until I get home and I’ll catch it,’ and then he laughs, rather loudly. Or he may say, ‘My wife will rake me over the coals for that,’ or, ‘Well, she’s always giving me hell about something.’ He varies the wording from time to time, but the jocular manner and the exaggerated laugh are fairly constant. He admittedly does this to be humorous, sprightly, and entertaining. But whom does it amuse? His wife is embarrassed, other people are bored, and he alone enjoys whatever humor there is. It is an interesting phenomenon that something which embarrasses Mrs. Jones and bores the assembled company is so excruciatingly funny to Mr. Jones that he cannot refrain from saying it over and over again. The psychologists tell us that one function of humor is release. Perhaps it temporarily eases the load that Mr. Jones carries within his breast if he can call attention to the frailties, real or imaginary, of someone else — namely, Mrs. Jones. Yet we cannot lift ourselves, even ever so little, by lowering someone else. It is psychologically an impossibility.

Sometimes the lowering process is not accompanied by anything remotely connected with humor, however thinly disguised. A man must feel superior to his wife. If he fears there are no grounds for feeling so, he may concentrate on trying to make her seem as inferior as possible. Mr. Brown belongs to this type. His ideal of a wife is a good cook. His imagination carries him no further than wife, the servant. Mrs. Brown must cook and clean for him, mend his clothes, darn his socks, wait on him in every conceivable way, — do everything, in short, that a regular servant would do, — if she is to be what Mr. Brown considers a good wife. If he is fortunate and makes money and competent servants are hired, she has no longer any very strong raison d’être so far as he is concerned. Often she does not understand what has happened and goes restlessly from one beauty parlor to another in a frantic effort to regain Mr. Brown’s love, which she fears she has lost. Obviously she has never had it — because he had none to give. His capacity for it was buried alive in him years ago. He has no conception of the meaning of love between man and woman. Everything in his life, himself included, has been sacrificed to the demon of masculine superiority. You can find Mr. and Mrs. Brown along with the Joneses in the telephone book of practically every town and city in the country.

Another kind of attempt to appear superior is shown by a friend of mine who comes home for meals at any hour that happens to suit his fancy. Moreover, he wants the meal to be ready when he gets there; in fact, he insists upon it. He says in all frankness that nothing annoys him so much as having to wait for a meal. His time is valuable and he cannot afford to wait. He says so himself. In order to be perfectly sure that he will not have to wait, he has bamboozled the members of his family into being in the dining room, at the table, when he enters the front door. No time is wasted in front-hall greetings. He enjoys his meal and somehow finds an hour or so afterward to look over his paper, smoke his pipe, and take a few cat naps. I have often wondered how they manage in that household; whether they sit on after one meal in momentary anticipation of the next, perhaps making bets with one another as to when the next will be, or whether they divide the day into watches and take turns at the window, ready to signal the others to spring into their seats the moment the man’s figure appears at the corner of the street. They must have worked out some system, for they live together in apparent harmony and peace.

The reasoning here is a little difficult. Just why the family waiting in the dining room should be a symbol of superiority is somewhat hard to comprehend. It has to do, I think, with the power of authority. Put simply, it is this: ‘You must do thus and so, not for any real reason; in fact, you probably have a good reason not to. But you must do it anyway because I say so and I have the authority.’

A man must feel superior. If he does not, he reacts in all kinds of ways to compensate for his feeling of inadequacy, to voice his protest of superiority. Sometimes he drinks; sometimes he becomes hard and cruel; sometimes he throws himself into his work with such fierce intensity you wonder he does not die of the strain. Or he may try to get a feeling of superiority by refusing point-blank to be put to the test. He avoids doing anything at all. For instance, he docs not marry. He becomes a confirmed and somewhat petulant bachelor, or he falls in love with one girl after another, proposes, is accepted, and then wriggles out of the engagement and begins all over again. You will know him by his willingness to explain and justify his amorous misadventures and by his selfpity. He is continually being disillusioned and continually going back for fresh disillusionment. Again, he may concentrate on avoiding work. No sooner does he get a job than he realizes how absolutely unsuited it is to him and how entirely unsuited he is to it. It invariably turns out to be not the kind of work he wanted after all. By a process of perpetually moving from one job to another he successfully dodges the measuring rod of work. Sometimes he marries, and his difficulties increase. His wife is likely to have a full-time job just trying to make him carry on. Somehow, by hook or crook, she must produce in him a feeling of adequacy. Many wives make it their business to keep up a rather flimsy make-believe by all sorts of tricks and contrivances to prevent their husbands from collapsing altogether.

Here and there a man actually is inferior to his wife. She is cleverer than he and more capable, better adjusted to life, more adaptable. He is inclined to react to that situation in one or more of the various ways already mentioned. The simple and thoroughly mature point of view such a man almost never achieves. Seldom indeed can he say, ‘There are probably plenty of people in the world superior to me, many of them women. In some ways my wife may be. What of it? I am myself, and being oneself is job enough for anyone. I shall concentrate on that and not bother about those who are superior or inferior to me. What earthly difference does it make?’

It is commonly supposed that woman really wishes her man to be superior to her; conversely, that she enjoys, even desires, a position of inferiority herself. There is evidence to support this belief. Many a woman seems to accept and foster the notion of masculine superiority. For one thing, it is a convenient and easy way for her to escape her own responsibilities as a mature human being, and certainly there are plenty of maladjusted women in the world. But here we are not primarily concerned with the psychological evasions and inconsistencies of women. They have been adequately and exhaustively dealt with in any number of books, good, bad, and indifferent. Moreover, if woman really had a fundamental desire to be inferior to man, she would never have tried to emancipate herself at all. Being entirely satisfied with an inferior position, she would have felt no urge toward equal rights.

Whether man is in sober truth superior or inferior to woman is a question in which I have no interest whatever. Competition between the sexes seems to me a childish pastime and wholly beside the point. It is all very well to compete with one another as human beings; it is quite idle to compete as man and woman.

IV

When and why did man begin to be on the defensive about his relative importance? It is an open question, I suppose, and one guess is as good as another. Perhaps it goes back to primitive times, when the instinct for race preservation was strong and active, and the belief in spontaneous generation gave rise to the notion that woman alone possessed the power of reproducing humankind. Man naturally felt left out, and, since the instinct was strong, it inevitably put him on the defensive. Certainly he must have tried to compensate for his feeling of unimportance, and he may have done it by some such unconscious reasoning as this: ‘Very well. We will give woman the sole power of reproduction, since we cannot as a matter of fact do anything else. She already has it. We will also give her all that has to do with that province. But everything else we will take ourselves.’ Very natural reasoning. Something rather sporting about it, too. If man had been able to leave it at that, perhaps things would have been all right for everybody. But his feeling of being left out and his consequent jealousy drove him one step further, and he has reiterated down through the ages that his province was the more important and that he himself was superior. The compulsion to take that last step was a dead give-away. People who really know themselves to be superior have no need to call attention to the fact; when we run across those who are constantly emphasizing it we have good reason to suspect them of feeling inadequate about something.

If man’s feeling of inadequacy does go back to primitive times, when there was sound reason for it, it has survived as a kind of psychological vermiform appendix — which ought to be removed as speedily as possible. I once mentioned something of this kind to a friend of mine. She replied, ‘Oh, but you would n’t take away his masculine superiority, would you? I think we should be careful not to do that. Where would he be without it?’ I am afraid she was a somewhat cynical woman with little faith in her fellow creature, man. Where would he be without it, indeed! He would be in a much stronger and more comfortable position than he is now. I believe she did not consciously realize, in saying that a man’s sense of superiority must not be taken away from him, that she was recognizing what an unstable foundation it rested upon. How else could it be taken away? Man has no genuine faith in it himself and rebels against the position in which it places him. So would anyone. Whatever reason he may have had for being on the defensive in the past, assuredly there is no reason for it now.

V

What is more splendid than the free spirit of a human being, simple, natural, unafraid, unhampered by the necessity of fulfilling impossible obligations imposed arbitrarily by the stupidity of society? It is a rare phenomenon. Adulthood has been defined as the ability to face reality. But man is seriously handicapped in his growth toward that maturity. Society will not permit him to grow up. He is born into an unreal situation, condemned to live in it, and not allowed to face the fact of his individuality or to find his place in the sun comfortably and on equal terms with the rest of humanity.

Now and then a very exceptional man can rise above it. There was one such man who had a famous mother, who married a distinguished woman, and who had one child, a very promising daughter. He was a charming and delightful man, but, so far as I know, no one ever considered him in any way remarkable or ahead of his time. My estimate of him is based on the following circumstance. He attended a reception given for his wife. During conversation with a young person who had remarked upon the brilliance of his womenfolk he said, ‘Yes, when I was a child I was known as the son of my mother; now that I am a man, I am known as the husband of my wife; in all probability I shall go to my grave as the father of my daughter. No other honor has ever been vouchsafed to me, but on the whole I have had a rather active life.’ There was no spleen in the remark; humor, if you like, but genuine humor. He was a very remarkable man.

Let us have done with this nonsense about ‘ being a man ’! Men contributed in no mean way to the emancipation of women, — it was they who gave women the vote, — and surely women should help men in their difficulties now, help them to get rid of their unnecessary burden of superiority. Turn about is fair play, and it is only right that women should do all in their power to foster the emancipation of man. We are not so different after all. Personally, I do not know a single girl or woman who has not a good share of frogs and snails and puppy-dog tails in her make-up, nor one man or boy who cannot lay claim to at least a touch of sugar and spice and all things nice. Our differences begin and end with biology, and if by some freak of evolution those differences were suddenly taken away from us, we should stand revealed as identical twins. Who could then point to us and say with certainty, ‘This one is Woman; that one, Man’?