Are Male Feminists Necessary?

I have to say, I like Maureen Dowd.

She's received such a torrent of criticism in the past two weeks by feminist bloggers and academics (see Uma's post) that I'm not really sure I should get into this at all. But I do consider myself a "male feminist" -- though I am sure the jury is out as to whether I (or my feminism) is "necessary."

But here's what I like about Dowd's approach in Are Men Necessary?, beginning with the excerpt at the NYT Magazine, and continuing with her interview on NPR's Fresh Air this past Wednesday.

Her main goal, it seems to me, is to restart a national (even international) conversation about gender relations, careers, dating, and families that has kind of slipped away a little bit in the mainstream media in recent years. Many of the classic problems facing women balancing careers and families in the 1960s and 70s are still there. It used to be a manichean choice -- kids or career -- and while there's less 'tsk tsk' applied to working mothers these days, I gather from friends and colleagues who have kids that it's still quite hard to do as a practical matter.

We may not all agree on the answers to those problems, and we may never agree. (And that may be just fine: these days it seems to me important to respect individual choices on many matters, rather than to prescribe directives that everyone must adhere to, to be feminism-approved.) But whether or not we can actually solve anything, I think we still need to 'go there'.

So as far as encouraging frank discussion, Dowd succeeds. People may quibble with her questionable personal anecdotes (i.e., her own single status), her glamorous upper-crusty life ("gold-lamé gowns cut along the bias"), and some of her data. But if her point is to remind people that the work of feminism isn't over, are we really saying we disagree with that? And while Dowd is generally dismissive of third-wave feminism or postfeminism, her approach is different from classic, second-wave feminism in that it encourages us to address the problems in the context of today's social and economic realities, not some idealized socialist Herland. In that context, anecdotes about dating etiquette, shopping, and so on are in fact pretty relevant.

"The personal is not always political": people say that a lot nowadays, and I tend to agree (I came across it most recently in Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, where it is part of Nafisi's compelling argument against the "politicization of everything" during and after the Iranian revolution). I don't find it useful in my day-to-day life to discuss personal choices -- such as friends who've decided to take a little time off for kids -- in terms of broad ideologies that few women or men can live up to. But I believe we need to continue to approach those choices (and relations between men and women in general), if not with rigid doctrines, at least with an interest in fairness and respect -- to always question whether or not we are doing it right, and whether it might not be possible to do some things better.

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As for some of the particular issues. One comes up in Uma's post itself. Uma quotes the following sentence, and describes it as "cringe-inducing":

"Little did I realize that the feminist revolution would have the unexpected consequence of intensifying the confusion between the sexes, leaving women in a tangle of dependence and independence as they entered the 21st century."

But wait, what's cringe-inducing about that? Isn't the confusion Dowd talks about real? She's not saying that she likes the confusion, or that she prefers a condition of inequality. But what I think her article points to again and again are the many situations that come up where "equality" isn't a sufficient term to describe the complex ways in which men and women find themselves playing different social roles. Those different roles, like the male and female roles in the Tango, are not in themselves inequalities, though they might come to seem that way if we adhered to them too rigidly or used them as stereotypes or formulas.

And Katie Roiphe's critique in Slate has moments where I flat-out disagree:

One of the failures of the feminist movement in the first place was a reliance on easy aphorisms, and the schematic worldview that such aphorisms implied. The famous line, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" did not prove to be a constructive or realistic contribution to the feminist cause. Replacing one set of rigid gender stereotypes with another did not allow women the full range of their desires and ended up sabotaging the movement. Dowd herself criticizes the feminists of the 1970s for imagining a sea of identical, sexless women in navy blazers descending on the workplace. Though she appears to be arguing for a new, more rigorous feminism, she is guilty of precisely the same intellectual fault—starting with the catchy, meaningless title of her book, Are Men Necessary?, Dowd's aphorisms, amusing and pithy in the morning paper along with a cup of coffee, are precisely what the conversation about sexual politics does not need.

First of all, why not breakfast? Why can't the conversation about sexual politics start with some light bon mots over coffee? Why does it always have to be heavy-duty sociology and outraged polemical tomes? I would certainly agree that a book like Dowd's isn't sufficient by itself, but then, I'm not sure whether any one book could be.

Secondly, I don't see Dowd presenting her book as a "new, more rigorous feminism" at all. If anything, she seems to punching holes in the illusion that the original goals of feminism have in fact been achieved. And while she does offer many aphorisms along the way, I don't think she would suggest that any of them can stand, by themselves, for thorough analysis. Aphorisms work best as triggers to get people thinking, not as independent arguments. But isn't it Dowd's goal to get people thinking?