The price for women when men come home


BOSTON -- Here are two vignettes from the new men's movement:

A young convert back from a gathering of his brethren vows to be caring, engaged, responsible to his family and community. He promises to be the upright head of his household.

A woman who stayed on the sidelines is asked by a television reporter what her role is in the future of this movement. She pledges, unself-consciously, to stand behind her men.

Both these scenes came in the aftermath of the Million Man March. But they could just as easily have been culled from the annals of the Promise Keepers crusade.

Last week, Louis Farrakhan brought together some hundreds of thousands of black men on the Washington Mall. Last summer, Bill McCartney brought together that many men, mostly white, in a series of stadium revivals. He plans his own million man event in 1997.

There are two wings to the mass men's movement now in America. One called by the Fruit of Islam, the other led by conservative Christians, both sounding similar themes. Atonement. Family. Healing. Responsibility. Fatherhood.

'Wounded, broken men'

Can you tell the rhetoric without the score card? Which speaker at which gathering said, "This is a generation of desperately wounded, broken men who must heal themselves, their families, their communities?"

On the Nation of Islam web site, Louis Farrakahn writes, "Allah says in the Koran that men are a degree above women. . . . Anytime you have a woman that does not look up to you, brother, you're in trouble."

In the handbook of the Promise Keepers, author Tony Evans writes, "I'm not suggesting that you take your role back. I'm urging you to take it back. . . . Treat the lady gently and lovingly. But lead . . . "

In advance of the Million Man March, women helped organize buses and schedules. In the minutes before the Promise Keepers revival, women made the rounds of stadium seats, praying and anointing them with oil. At neither rally were they welcome.

This is not your father's men's movement. This is not the feminist men's movement. This is not John Bly's men's movement. These are not wild men seeking mythological roots in wooded weekend retreats.

The men who assembled under these banners and T-shirts have been called from the disappointments of their lives. They've been called back by Mr. Farrakhan "to accept the responsibility of being heads of our households" which include women who are told by Mr. Evans to "let your man be a man."

When the men came back

Listening closely to the messages, I am reminded of the postwar years when men came home from fighting and Rosie put down her riveting tools. In those days, women were exhausted from carrying the double burden and grateful for the dangers that men had faced. They were sent back to their domestic place and many went without a fight, perhaps even with a sigh of relief.

Is it like that now? Are women in this generation, single mothers especially, tired enough of carrying the load to trade off their weary independence and take on their designated role as "promise reapers?"

Are black women in particular so anxious to get their men back from the deadly war zone of the streets, so tired of being the primary everything -- wage earner, parent -- that they will step back behind their man to save his hide and soul.

And is this the only deal that a mainstream of men will cut? Head of family or no family? Is this new deal blackmail?

For a long time, women wished that men would share truth and sorrow with other men the way women have with each other. They wished men would become more attentive fathers, tender husbands. They wished men would deal with their anger. Many have.

But be careful what you wish for. The mass men's movement in this country now carries all these texts to men. Under the tutelage of anti-abortion, anti-gay leaders, it also carries a subtext: female submissiveness.

As Marcia Gillespie, the editor of Ms. magazine and an African American describes it, "They are telling men, 'We've been bad ++ masters, let's now become better masters.' "

Today, Americans talk about families and communities in chaos. The absence of fathers is described as a national disease. The return of fathers as a cure. But in any chaos it's easy to give up on the democracy of relationships, the give and take of equality. It's easy to long for control, for authority figures, for old icons of manhood, like the bow-tied Fruit of Islam sentries posted around the Washington Mall.

I know that every Promise Keeper is not coming home to re-enact a traditional male role. Nor was every black man on the mall touched by the cry of male supremacy. But after all this time, all this change, the new man being molded by this movement doesn't sound much like a partner. He's just a kinder, gentler patriarch.


Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad