A Good Ol' Boy Becomes a Man

by Kathleen Mayer | 11/18/10 11:00pm

My father has always fiercely believed that I am endlessly capable. He used to say to me when I was only five years old that I owed it to Eleanor Roosevelt to be a great woman, because everything she did, she did for me.

I would protest in my stubborn way, saying, "She didn't even know me!" but he had predicted this response, telling me to think of all the little girls who weren't born yet who might someday know my name.

He was a fraternity brother at the University of Texas, a star athlete and an Airborne Ranger in the United States Army. He has a grab bag of old Texas phrases about men who are "all hat and no cattle" and the responsibility to "dance with the one what brung ya."

But for all his classically masculine attributes, he is passionate about the suffragettes. I very rarely see my father cry, but just this year I saw him tear up while giving a speech describing the suffragette Lucy Burns handcuffed with her hands above her head in a jail cell all night long after refusing to cooperate, and the women in the cells across from her who held their hands above their heads in the same position for the entire night to show solidarity.

He stood with his arms above his head, absorbing himself in the power of her pursuit for basic liberty, describing how she was later force-fed through her nostril after starting a hunger strike in prison, imagining the desperation of forced limitations on what it means to be a woman.

Many of these limitations have fallen away over the years for women. But in challenging the feminine gender role, we have inadvertently encouraged a frantic reinforcement of masculinity, as the expansion of what it means to be a woman has been imagined again and again as fundamentally oppositional to manhood.

The fact is, becoming a man is equally as important, difficult and demanding as becoming a woman. We are all transitioning in college, finding out what lies within us when we're left on our own, struggling to embody the ideals we have conceived over time, but changing our minds every day or every week about what that means.

Some barriers have been removed for me as a woman, thanks to Burns, Roosevelt and countless others before me. Not only can I vote, but I can call myself a Dartmouth student. I have been raised to know that as a woman, I can do anything a man can do.

The concept that women belong only in the kitchen and the bedroom is so far outside of the mainstream that we can laugh at these jokes ironically, in our very post-modern and wryly detached way. But the idea that a man must be strong, inviolable, immune to emotional vulnerability these limitations still thrive and they can suffocate humanity right out of you.

Being a man doesn't just mean always walking like you know where you're going. It doesn't mean making sure that no one ever gets the better of you, or sees you cry, or gets to know you.

There's so much posturing and pokerfacing involved in attaining the masculine ideal, and it's not fair. It simply is not fair that women are no longer expected to stay barefoot and pregnant, but men are still expected to never let anyone see 'em sweat, to have prowess over women and dominance over other men.

Women no longer have to prove our femininity in order to succeed; in fact, it often works against us to continue to fulfill that outdated feminine ideal, because no one respects that kind of woman anymore. But there's an abundance of respect for the man who never stoops to gal-palling, who puts brotherhood and self before all else, who sinks the playmaker and always hooks up with his pong partner, no matter how drunk they both are.

That man isn't a person at all; he is at best a constructed imitation of a person. It's a part of human nature to imitate. Toddlers learn at an early age to mime their parents as they figure out social behavioral expectations. But don't socialize yourself out of yourself.

I'm a feminist because I believe that everyone not only deserves the liberty that Lucy Burns starved herself for, but that we should all fight tooth-and-nail to be able to define for ourselves what our identities can encompass. Since when are we not on the same side? Since when is the broadening of the definition of womanhood a threat to men instead of an inspiration?

My father identified with Lucy Burns because as a young boy growing up in the 1950s, he knew the emotional isolation he underwent in attaining the masculine ideal, which is essentially no different than the "hard guy" ideal we are all familiar with at Dartmouth. But just as my father became a man and taught his sons that hugging didn't make them weak, and taught his daughters how to give a firm handshake, the hardest guy here will eventually have to take down the "No Girls Allowed" sign from his treehouse before he permanently stunts his emotional maturity.

We can all identify with the desire for real autonomy. These categories of man and woman are not opposites, but complements. Men, when I say I'm a feminist, I'm not saying I hate you. I'm saying that I believe womanhood should be no more free yet no more restrained than manhood by the false limitations we dress up in words like tradition. I am asking all decent human beings to believe the same.

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