Margaret Mead on gender-equality

Whilst working on a previous post on rights and responsibilities, I needed to hunt out the original of a phrase attributed to the anthropologist Margaret Mead, that “motherhood is a biological fact, fatherhood is a social fiction”. A quick search brought me to Jone Johnston Lewis’ ‘Women’s History‘ site, which showed me that the correct quote is “mothers are a biological necessity; fathers are a social invention”. What I’d written was close enough, I guess – especially as I was only paraphrasing it anyway.

But what then caught my eye was this longer quote:

The male form of a female liberationist is a male liberationist — a man who realizes the unfairness of having to work all his life to support a wife and children so that someday his widow may live in comfort, a man who points out that commuting to a job he doesn’t like is just as oppressive as his wife’s imprisonment in a suburb, a man who rejects his exclusion, by society and most women, from participation in childbirth and the most engrossing, delightful care of young children — a man, in fact, who wants to relate himself to people and the world around him as a person.

The anthropologist’s eye indeed – perceptive, insightful, yet also respectful of ‘the Other’. Almost the exact antithesis, in fact, of so many of the self-styled advocates of ‘gender-liberation’ that I’ve had the misfortune to deal with for most of my adult life. Where Margaret Mead had argued that the core principle would have to be that “every time we liberate a woman, we liberate a man”, instead far too many feminists and self-styled ‘pro-feminist’ men both then and since have patently believed that the only way to ‘liberate’ a woman was to enslave a man – and preferably via as much pain and prejudice as was practicably possible. In short, their method for reducing gender-violence was to increase it as much as they could: and then, when that didn’t work – because it doesn’t, and can’t – keep on ratchetting up the pain in the relentless pursuit of Other-blame.

This mistake affects different countries in different ways. Australia is perhaps one of the worst: for example, for the first ten years that I was there, the Melbourne newspaper The Age never published a single piece that was overtly respectful of men as a gender; and for the next decade, although such items did occasionally appear, they would each invariably be juxtaposed with another much larger article stridently reaffirming the ‘truth’ of the inherent evils of men. As I discovered whilst I was helping two of my lesbian friends recover after they’d ended their relationship in a knife-fight, the domestic-violence agencies defined violence as inherently ‘male’: there was no support available for lesbians (unless they blamed a man – my friends didn’t and wouldn’t, and were firmly told to go away because they were ‘rocking the boat’…!), and certainly no help for any man at all – even though the unlaundered hard-data showed that men were (and still are) the majority of domestic-violence victims in that country. And in my home state it was (and I believe still is) not merely a dismissable but criminal offence for a male primary-school teacher to comfort a crying child. All of this in the name of so-called ‘gender equality’…

Again in Australia, it was clear that many if not most of the ‘pro-feminist’ men I came across were not pro-women at all – in fact far from it, in several cases I personally knew. Instead, they were either lost in a vaguely-Marxist delusion that “it is impossible for one to have more without others having less” – and hence attacked men-as-a-gender (or all men other than themselves and their co-religionists, to be precise) under the mistaken belief that this would somehow automatically make things better for women (it doesn’t) – or else were still obsessively trying to hurt men-in-general as ‘payback’ for childhood hurts from other boys (which is a seriously dangerous form of self-dishonesty). It’s true that I did meet a few ‘pro-feminist’ men who genuinely were pro-women – but in every case they understood exactly Mead’s point that to be ‘pro-women’ we must also be ‘pro-men’. The blunt fact is that the only way that works is to create a frame in which everyone wins – otherwise everyone loses.

It’s not much better in Britain – there’s still the same massive dishonesty about domestic-violence, for example. In so many ‘Western’ countries, the main result of so-called ‘equal opportunity’ in employment has been to re-entrap women back in the same paid-workforce mess as men – a feminist tragedy of epic proportions, given that the main aim of the women’s movement for much of the previous century was to get women out of the paid-workforce, and free up at least some part of the community to repair the ongoing damage created the myopic self-centredness of the ‘money-economy’. (The real need, then and now, is to challenge the inanity and insanity of that economic model – not merely argue about who should or should not have the ‘right’ to not be enslaved in it!)

The Latin countries – for all their complexity and chaos – seem somehow to have a much better understanding of what gender-equality really means in practice, and to me seem much more human overall. In Portugal, for example, it was a huge relief to find it was considered normal for me to play mime-games and visual jokes with small children in their family and social settings; by contrast, back in Australia it was frequently assumed that, as a middle-aged man, I must be some kind of dangerous sexual-pervert if I merely smiled at a child in the street. Which hurts, a lot, that aggressive, pointless, baseless “exclusion, by society and most women, from participation in … the most engrossing, delightful care of young children”: a human, natural smile is merely an expression of the human need to be in and part of – rather than enforced apart from – the society that I’m in. In other words, as Mead put it, “a man … who wants to relate himself to people and the world around him as a person”.

The sad tragedy is that so much of feminism started out from a drive towards a true equality, but somehow lost its way in a paediarchal flight into a blame-filled fantasy, an increasingly-desperate addiction to ‘Other-blame’ as a means to evade responsibility in any form. Even now, forty or fifty years later, so much of it is still rampantly and obsessively anti-male, even rabidly sexist at times in the worst possible way. Yet it doesn’t work: and the reason why it doesn’t work is that too many feminists have forgotten the simple fact that, just like women, men are human too. Equality cannot truly exist for anyone unless all of us are considered equally human – with all that that implies.

Margaret Mead never forgot that fact: it’s one of the reason I value her work and life so much – and likewise those other rare, amazing and courageous women alongside whom it’s sometimes been my great privilege to work. Yet what strikes me most about Mead, I suppose, is her simple humanity:

One of the oldest human needs is having someone to wonder where you are when you don’t come home at night.

Contrast that brief sentence, perhaps, with Margaret Thatcher’s inane assertion that “there is no such thing as society”. I don’t think anyone but Mead could have described the human condition and the true nature of society any better or more poignantly than that.

Interesting insights indeed.

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