Book projects – Whiplash: 9: The quest for meaning

Meaninglessness, purposelessness, a devastating sense of emptiness: in her ground-breaking book “The Feminine Mystique”, Betty Friedan called it ‘the problem that has no name’. As was characteristic of the feminism of her time, she talked only with women, and hence assumed that it affected only women – and that men alone were to blame. In reality, as Gloria Steinem discovered decades later, it has always affected both genders, women and men – and that the blame for it cannot be assigned so easily:

The more I talked to men as well as women, the more it seemed that inner feelings of incompleteness, emptiness, self-doubt, and self-hatred were the same, no matter who experiences them, and even if they were expressed in culturally opposite ways. … People seemed to stop punishing others or themselves only when they gained some faith in their own unique, intrinsic worth. [1]

This ’emptiness’ is a perennial human problem, to which we each must find our own solutions. Our spiritual search – a quest for a sense of meaning and purpose – is always ours alone. Most of us would much rather avoid the issue – run away and hide in someone else’s pre-packaged definition of ‘meaning and purpose’. But it doesn’t work: not only because all too many of these ‘package deals’ – religions, political ideologies, stereotypes about what it is to be ‘a real man’ or ‘a true feminist’ or whatever – depend on dispower or the myth of ‘the enemy’ to fake up a sense of meaning and ‘specialness’, but more because our real power, our power-from-within, comes from our acceptance that it is, ultimately, our own quest.

This perhaps sounds too abstract: it perhaps doesn’t appear to have much relevance to feminism, to masculism, to the everyday politics of gender relations. But that’ll only seem so because of a common concept that issues so obviously personal as ‘meaning and purpose’ are of no relevance to politics: yet the political arises out of the personal. At the root – certainly in terms of the reality we each experience – the only issues are personal: about our own power, and about how well and how wisely we use that power. And the power we need in order to create a sense of meaning and purpose for ourselves – spiritual power – is perhaps the hardest form of power to understand, because it never exists in any tangible, measurable form: yet the results of its presence – or, especially, its absence – are everywhere around us.

It’s at this point that we need to review the distinctions between power and dispower. Power is ‘the ability to do work’, as an expression of choice; whilst dispower is the illusion of being able to ‘take’ power from others, or to trap others into doing our work for us. At the physical level, dispower may seem to work: most people will do what they’re told if a gun is held to their head. But at the spiritual level – which is where ‘the ability to do work’ ultimately arises – dispower cannot succeed at all: no-one else can ‘make meaning’ for us, just as no-one else can eat or sleep for us. It’s ours alone. But in a paediarchy, where every issue is regarded as ‘someone else’s problem’, most people will try to shuffle it off to someone else: and when it doesn’t work – because it cannot work – will try again with a bit more force, a bit more violence…

Look around: there’s no shortage of examples. One common form is ‘projection’, assigning exclusively to others aspects of ourselves that we dislike or fear: “refuse to be exploited, patronised, or treated as an inferior, an accessory or ornament” demands one of the brochures handed out at the ‘Reclaim The Night’ rally, whilst in their speeches and their actions many of those selfsame women regard men as objects to be exploited, matronised, treated as inferiors, accessories, ornaments. Another form is a demand that others should conform to our expectations: a man ‘answering back’ to questions about feminism insists that “a woman’s rightful place in our wonderful and diverse planet is to bear and raise children” [2] – whether or not those women choose to do so.

But there’s an important point here that’s rarely acknowledged in feminist writings: at least women do have the choice to bear children, to have that direct, physical experience of the thread of humanity continuing within them, and to have a direct sense of purpose and relevance in life as a result. In a very real sense, women have immortality built into their bodies. Men don’t: especially now, where technological innovations such as artificial insemination and in-vitro fertilisation have the power to make men all but redundant in that rôle. [3] The result is that men have to face their sense of purposelessness much more directly than women – which means that men are often far more fragile at a spiritual level. And that fragility is a primary source of men’s violence, as they seek to offload that fear of meaninglessness onto anyone and everyone else.

It seems remarkable how few women are aware of this, and are unintentionally hurtful, or even violent, towards men as a result. We’re all familiar with the great clumsy oaf of a man who hurts others unwittingly by failing to recognise that they’re not as robust as he is; at a spiritual level, many women are just as clumsy and careless. Few women realise just how much puellist ideology has dominated social politics, just how much the only ‘politically correct’ rôle for a man is to be in the wrong, to be blamed, denigrated, mocked, to be marginalised, to be classed as of no interest and of no relevance. In no way could this be described as a viable ‘raison d’être’ for men: and it hurts. Few men let it show, for fear of further abuse: but the reality, as Henry Thoreau once put it, is that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation”, searching in vain hope for some sense of meaning or purpose.

I watched an illustration of this a few years ago, in a Welsh village pub. We’d stopped for a drink and a rest on our travels; an older man, somewhat the worse for his evening’s drinking, wandered over to our small mixed group. “Wanna know how to prove that a man’s better than a woman?” he said; “Get a woman to try to piss in a bottle!” “Huh!” retorted one of the women in our group, “Want to know how to prove a woman’s better than a man? Get a man to try to breastfeed a baby! And anyway, which is more useful: pissing in a bottle, or breastfeeding a baby?” The man didn’t answer: he shambled back to his friends, and we heard no more from him. She was right, of course: but somehow the whole incident was sad, pathetic – the man had tried to export to women in general his sense of uselessness, and had instead had that feeling reaffirmed.

In one sense it was a perfect example of the destructive delusions of dispower. Each protagonist had tried to use a physiological difference between the genders as a means to gain dispower-over the other, to give themselves the illusion of superiority; the man, unsure of his ground, had also tried to use dispower-with, to get the men in our group ‘on his side’, but that only made things worse. On the surface, the woman ‘won’: but in reality everyone lost – not least because our whole group had to deal with her irritation for the rest of the evening.

Indulging in dispower simply doesn’t work – in any sense. And responding to dispower with further dispower – as in that example – doesn’t solve anything: all it does is increase the overall amount of anger that has to be dealt with by someone. When faced with a bully – which is how that man acted – it does take courage to stand up and fight. But that’s not enough: what is required of us is even more courage, to stand and not fight, but instead gently illustrate that indulging in dispower helps no-one. That’s hard work: but it’s also the only real power we have.

Everyone feels powerless at times: and it always seems easier to blame others for it, and to attack them in retaliation, than to acknowledge that the root of the problem is in ourselves – especially in our refusal to face our own fears. As the Jungian psychologist Liz Greene commented:

It is my feeling that fear, when unadmitted, is often cloaked in aggressive contempt, and rather stringent attempts to disprove or denigrate the thing which threatens. [4]

And if we have no sense of our own meaning, our own purpose, we’re likely to be much more susceptible to others’ attempts to prop themselves up by putting us down – and much less likely to admit that we often attempt to prop ourselves up in exactly the same way.

This is one of the key differences between puellism and true feminism. Responding to what they see as bullying by men, and blaming men alone for every conceivable problem a woman might face, puellists have urged other women to follow their example and take the ‘easy out’ of tearing men down. The results we can see all around us: women still feel powerless – even more so, if anything – while men are becoming increasingly angry and frustrated. In contrast, true feminists have taken on the far harder task of encouraging others (women and men) to lift themselves up, to value themselves in their own right, to be powerful (rather than dispowerful) in their expression of what it is to be human – as a result of which, almost as a by-product, the prejudices and injustices of which puellists complain are faced, directly and, above all, effectively. It’s much less spectacular than puellism – no sparks, no arguments, no battles and, especially, no ‘great leaders’ – but it’s the only way that works…

It’s terrifying to see just how many of our major social problems arise out of this one mistake. People define themselves as ‘special’ by declaring that others are not: Jewish men intone the infamous prayer “I give thanks that I was not born a woman”, whilst puellists assert “men don’t have intuition or sensitivity; only women have total mind”. Many young men, having no social definition of ‘maleness’ that makes any sense, define themselves in terms of what they can see they are not. Having no definition of ‘man’, they denigrate women in order to define themselves as ‘not-woman’; having no definition of ‘heterosexual’, they indulge in ‘gay-bashing’ in a desperate attempt to define themselves as ‘not-homosexual’. And for some, especially those who’ve been pushed right out to the margins, any rôle is better than none: as Carol Lee discovered in her interviews with ‘street kids’, even defining oneself as a thief can seem better than having no sense of self at all. [5]

Paradoxically, to fight against something, especially something which only others seem to do, gives a reassuring sense of certainty; whereas to work for something requires us to face directly our own uncertainty and doubt. The danger with defining oneself as ‘against’ something in others is that the sense of self still depends on others – it’s actually a denial of ‘not-self’ rather than an active acceptance of self. A thief needs a society to steal from; a soldier needs an enemy; a rebel or revolutionary needs some ‘wrong’ in order to justify – indeed, to define – their ‘revolution’. If that which we’re ‘against’ ceases to exist, we find ourselves re-creating it, in order to validate our definition of self as a thief, a soldier, a rebel – or as a self-styled ‘feminist’ fighting a ‘male conspiracy’.

To acknowledge that we ourselves help to create our own problems, in order to give ourselves some definition of self, is one of the hardest issues we have to face in our quest for meaning – especially for those who’ve learned to view themselves as ‘innocent victims’ rather than as active participants in a self-created tragedy. But it is in fact a form of addiction, yet another means to hide from ‘the problem that has no name’: and every bit as serious and self-destructive as other, more openly acknowledged forms of ‘escape’ such as alcohol or gambling.

The sheer meaninglessness of most so-called ‘work’ is enough to drive many people into becoming consumers of the same products that require the meaningless labour in the first place – or worse. Sociology student John Lippert commented that after weeks and weeks of ten-hour days stacking bucket-seats in a car factory, he found himself becoming locked into a kind of sex-an’-drugs’-an’-rock’n’roll’ lifestyle, just to find the energy to go back to the same mindless task each day – and increasingly dependent on others to provide him with ‘food, sex and clean shirts’ in return for his income. [6] For the same reasons, it seems likely that the rapid increase in women’s pornography – magazines like “Cosmopolitan” or “Women’s Forum” – can be linked to women’s increasing involvement in the mind-numbing meaninglessness of the commercial sphere; but the more conventional women’s-magazines are, in their own way, just as pornographic, regarding the details of other people’s lives as ‘objects’ to be consumed.

‘Traditionalist’ magazines and organizations also urge women to ‘find themselves’ by living for, or through, others – which still is not living for or through one’s own self. A paediarchy puts enormous pressure on everyone to not live for oneself, to live one’s own truth – describing such action as ‘selfish’ – so that the truly selfish can be supported in their selfishness. But for women, as one of novelist Ursula Le Guin’s characters describes, there’s another, subtler trap:

I’ll tell you what was wrong. I was pregnant. Pregnant women have no ethics. Only the most primitive kind of sacrifice impulse. To hell with the book, and the partnership, and the truth, if they threaten the precious fetus! It’s a racial preservation drive, but it can work right against community; it’s biological, not social. A man can be grateful that he never gets into the grip of it. But he’d better realize that a woman can, and watch out for it. I think that’s why the old archisms used women as property. Why did the women let them? Because they were pregnant all the time – because they were already possessed, enslaved! [7]

Motherhood does bring with it a definite sense of purpose in life: in fact one friend said that she’d had three of her five children as a deliberate attempt to manufacture some kind of meaning in her life. It was, for her, only a temporary respite from from the all-pervading sense of emptiness: yet for other women it does create a real sense of power and permanence – if only because there’s a great deal of truth in Woody Allen’s wry comment that “you can’t divorce your mother”…

But the result is that parents – both mothers and fathers – often attempt to ‘own’ their children: sometimes with lethal results for the child, the parents or both. Parents try to force ‘their’ children to conform with rigid expectations that support the parents’ sense of self. A girl might be cajoled into taking up the career her mother never had; or would be forbidden to do so, in order to satisfy her mother’s resentment or her father’s presumptions about ‘a woman’s proper rôle in society’. Much the same happens to boys: my father, for example, had always wanted to study photography, but his father would phone him on a regular basis, for almost twenty years, to demand “When are you going to send that woman [my mother – and, of course, her children] back to her parents and get a proper job in hospital medicine?” And I know that’s mild by comparison with what some people have suffered… [8]

In some peasant economies, ‘ownership’ of children takes on a more total meaning: children are, quite literally, regarded as the ‘old age pension’ of the parents. In most parts of rural China or India, the culture is ‘patrilocal’ – the male stays with the parents, whereas a married daughter moves to the household of her husband’s parents. (The daughter-in-law, in fact, becomes the owned slave not so much of the husband – as some puellist writers make out – but of the mother.) Hence a son is part of the parents’ future ‘pension’, but a daughter will be someone else’s: a fact which has had lethal consequences. If, as in rural China, only one child is allowed by law, and there is no clear concept of community support of the aged, who would be willing to bear the expense of bringing up a girl if she will only support someone else’s old age, whilst the parents would be left with nothing? The ‘solution’ has been female infanticide on an horrendous scale – in one Chinese village the male:female ratio of infants was reported as more than five to one. [9] Some puellists such as Marilyn French have interpreted this as proof of a world-wide ‘war against women’ [10], but the reality is a little simpler, and a little bleaker – the ‘ownership’ of anyone who can be used as a shield against our future fears.

But for many people, bringing up children – and especially finding themselves within that process – is a central part of their lives: despite its frustrations, its heartaches, its sheer hard work, it is to them the most meaningful activity, the greatest joy. [11] Yet in the so-called ‘traditional’ family – in reality, not so much ‘traditional’ as a product of 19th-century feminism – men found themselves trapped in a double-bind: having been assigned the responsibility for all income, the only way they could support their children was by not being present. The harder they worked, the more they succeeded as ‘providers’, yet the less they could be there to share the results: in that sense Beatrix Campbell’s dismissive comment that fathers were irrelevant because in the 1950s they “spent an average 11 minutes ‘quality time’ a day with their children” is not merely unfair but pointlessly cruel. [12] The knowledge – or belief – that their work provided for their family was often the only thing that kept those men going back day after day to meaningless and often dangerous jobs. ‘Men’s work’ was often little more than an exploitation of men’s need for meaning: hence, in some ways, women’s ‘return to the workforce’ is no feminist triumph, but an escalation of a human tragedy that already existed on an almost unbelievable scale.

Men’s need to find meaning through the family has other subtle, yet more serious, consequences. To gain access to the parent rôle, a woman needs only minimal involvement from a man, or even none at all [13]; but a man is utterly dependent on a woman. There is never any doubt as to who is the mother of a child; but the paternity of a child is never certain. In some matrilineal and matrifocal cultures, such as in parts of Papua New Guinea, the ‘father/provider’ rôle is assigned to the uncles, the woman’s brothers: the biological father is regarded as peripheral to the family (his ‘parent’ rôle is as uncle to his sister’s children). Puellists take this a stage further, and argue that all males should be excluded from the family, but should still be required to provide their support via the State:

The state having taken over the duties of children towards their parents (and allowed the childless among us to face the future without dread) it had better finish the job and take over the duties of the father towards the child. [14]

But men’s isolation and uncertainty, and dependency on women in order to gain access to the ‘father’ rôle, can lead to a ‘need’ to entrap women to bear the children that provide that sense of meaning and purpose. “Maternity is a biological fact, paternity is a social fiction”: patrilineal cultures – in which children take the father’s name – provide men with an artificial form of the more direct access to immortality which women achieve through their own bodies. Those endless ‘the son of… the son of… the son of…’ lists in the Old Testament are, in their way, a testament to men’s desperate need for meaning and purpose. Puellists rant about ‘the male ownership of children’, but fail to acknowledge their own:

The male legal ownership of children is essential to patriarchy. Women are supposed to breed, bear and/or socialize father-owned ‘legitimate’ children within a father-absent and mother-blaming family. The fact that fathers are often absent or abusive when present (incestuous, infanticidal, infantile), doesn’t change what patriarchy is about – literally, ‘the rule of the fathers’. [15]

As usual, the puellist argument depends on carefully inadequate selection of ‘facts: Judaism, for example, is supposedly a ‘patriarchy’, and yet according to Judaic law Jewishness descends through the female line. And the statement about “the fact that fathers are often abusive” is used to conceal the fact that mothers are often just as abusive, and that puellism is primarily concerned with promoting ‘the rule of the mothers’. [16]

But it’s easy to see how men’s fragility, men’s uncertainty, leads in turn to the kind of puerist religious beliefs of which feminists rightly complain. I often wonder just how much of Jewish and Christian ritual – particularly the activity round the altar – is derived ultimately from small boys’ make-believe, both copying Mother and denigrating her, through fear of her, all in the same breath. It’s interesting, too, to watch the same attitude being taken in puellist versions of ‘women’s spirituality’: the Goddess is all, men have no meaning, no purpose, no reason to be. [17] As Janet McCrickard commented:

Their rebellion against patriarchal thinking was in no wise thorough-going. They accepted patriarchal cosmology wholeheartedly. There was no radical change or re-thinking of what patriarchal scholars had told woman about her place in the structure of reality. All that happened was that solar/male/good versus lunar/female/evil became solar/male/evil versus lunar/female/good. [18]

‘Superiority’ is claimed by declaring that others are inferior; we define ourselves as special, as ‘the chosen ones’, by declaring that others are not. The root of religions which promote these beliefs – such as all forms of fundamentalism – is not so much ‘spirituality’ but rampant paediarchy. It seems to have been that way throughout history: in so many variants of religion, ‘spirituality’ is defined in negative terms, by stating that ‘the other’ – black, white, male, female, whatever – has none. Rather than assist in the hard work of lifting oneself up, religions often provide the illusion of doing so by pushing others down: “God on our side”, we say, to prop up our childish belief that God cannot be on theirs.

Now, of all times, we need to change this habit: we need to change the direction away from being ‘against’ others, or living ‘for’ others, and instead look more closely at what it is to be ourselves. What are we ‘for’? What is it to express ourselves, our humanity as a man, as a woman, in the culture which we inhabit: not what happens – or is deemed to happen – in others’ lives, but in our own? How can we live in a way that is powerful rather than dispowerful – and share that power with others?

One thing at least is certain: the ‘traditional’ stereotypes are not that much use any more. Perhaps the worst example of all, one that has been used to cripple both genders for centuries, is disguised as a nursery-rhyme:

What are little girls made of?

Sugar and spice and all things nice

– that’s what little girls are made of.
What are little boys made of?

Snips and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails

– that’s what little boys are made of.

Stereotypes like these do describe vague truths about aspects of being human, being a man, being a woman: but they certainly don’t say all that there is about being a man or a woman. For centuries, if not millennia, the ‘hunter/warrior’ definition of ‘masculinity’ has been dangerously inappropriate for most men; and the ‘earth-mother’ definition of ‘femininity’, while far from redundant, is becoming increasingly inappropriate for many women. Above all, we’re human: we share far more than we differ: hence a crucial part of the quest for meaning is to acknowledge how much we share with others every human characteristic. That includes characteristics supposedly assigned only to the other gender; and it also includes not only those characteristics which we most dislike in others, but also those we most admire in others. All of them: that’s what being fully human means.

It’s what Jung called ‘integration’: acknowledging the aspects of ourselves that we normally deny – the strengths and weaknesses of the ‘Shadow’, to use Jung’s term – but also bringing together the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ within us. Jung’s concept of ‘archetypes’, using mythic images to describe all the richness of some aspect of human experience, is a powerful one; but if taken too literally it can, however, conceal a subtle trap. I’ve often heard women say, “I’m developing my masculine, I’m learning to be assertive”, or men say, “I’m developing my feminine, I’m learning more to listen and to care for others”: fine, it’s to be encouraged in both cases, but we need to be careful not to reinforce the old stereotypes in doing so.

If we’re ‘developing our masculine’, we need to include masculine gentleness, masculine nurturing, masculine receptiveness, which are all subtly different from their ‘feminine’ counterparts; if we’re ‘developing our feminine’, we need to remember to include feminine strength, feminine courage, feminine power, which are most certainly not ‘masculine’. [19] Without this awareness, men tend to become ‘fake women’, and women ‘fake men’ – and the same old confusions echo round, but now with the genders reversed. We don’t have to look far to see all too many examples of that…

And the old stereotypes do have some validity: after all, they are derived from untold centuries of human history. All that’s wrong with them is that people tend to define others by them, to impose a stereotype of ‘femininity’ or ‘manliness’ on others, regardless of what we ourselves might choose. But if we do choose to follow some part of that stereotype, it can be powerful: power is ‘the ability to do work’ as an expression of choice.

I remember a fascinating example of this a few years ago. A woman friend and I were talking about some aspect of gender issues – I forget what – and the topic drifted onto a colleague’s research on the mythology of Hestia, the Greek goddess of the hearth and home. [20] The colleague had argued that in the terms of the original mythology, a woman’s home was sacred space – literally her temple, the expression of her ‘heart and hearth’; in that sense, I commented, it was true that “a woman’s place is the home”. My friend exploded in fury – and then stopped. “You know, you’re right”, she said; “when I invite my women friends round for a meal, it’s like my table is my altar, it’s almost like I’m welcoming them into my own body. It’s just that I don’t think I can accept that being said by a man…” Understandable, of course – the phrase ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ has been used far too often to justify restricting women’s freedom – and yet a real kind of power can be found even there if a woman so chooses.

The same is true of the ‘masculine’ stereotypes: there are virtues there too. As Warren Farrell comments:

Every virtue, taken to the extreme, becomes a vice. For the past twenty years I have critiqued traditional masculinity because masculinity has been taken to the extreme. And taken to the extreme it creates anxiety, homicide, rape, war and suicide; not taken to the extreme it has many virtues not to be tossed out with the bathwater. Praise of men is an endangered species. But the good of men is not. [21]

Farrell lists some of these stereotypical ‘male’ virtues: they include giving and generosity; fairness; nurturing (“solutions are male nurturance“, says Farrell); leadership; outrageousness; keeping emotions under control in emergencies; willingness to save others’ lives at the risk of their own (a personal issue for Farrell, whose younger brother died doing exactly that); self-sufficiency; risk-taking; developing identity; responsibility; doing rather than complaining; pushing the limits of one’s talents; changing without blaming. These are all aspects of ‘masculinity’ that we do not want all men to lose… real forms of power which, when not taken to excess, do not ‘oppress’ anyone at all.

The hardest task, perhaps, is to develop a mature awareness of what is appropriate and what is not. Or, to put it more bluntly, to break free from our own paediarchy, we need to grow up. Paediarchy is immaturity: and the greatest problem of all is that our culture actively condones it, actively rewards it, to the extent that there are massive disincentives against growing up, being responsible, aware, mature. It was not always so: in almost every culture but our own, there were and are specific transitions or ‘rites of passage’ which mark the change between child and adult, boy and man, girl and woman.

But here the genders do, necessarily, differ. The changes in a woman’s life, the boundaries of very different stages of her being, from girl to maiden to mother to crone, take place in ‘world-time’: they are natural states associated, for the most part, with definite events – menstruation, pregnancy, menopause. But whilst men do change, they don’t change in anything like so obvious a way: the boundaries between boy and man and elder tend be defined more by social events rather than natural ones.

Women sometimes forget how much richer and more varied their inner lives are than men’s. There’s an old African tale that describes this difference: imagine, if you will, an old woman sitting outside her hut in the dust and the dusk of an African evening, a gaggle of young girls around her hanging onto her every word:

A long time ago [she says], I was a young girl, just like you. Then my body changed, and I became a maiden. And each month, and through each month, my body changed: and I knew I myself as a woman.

And then I met my husband. And each month, and through each month, my body changed – yet he was always the same.

And by him I became pregnant; and each month, and through each month, as my baby grew within me, my body changed – yet my husband was still the same.

And then I bore my child; and as I fed her, and as she grew older, my body changed, and through each month my body changed – yet my husband was still the same.

And by him I became pregnant once more, and again; and each time, and with each child, my body changed – yet my husband was always the same.

Now I am an old woman: my body has changed, I can bear children no more. Yet my husband is still much the same as he ever was: his body does not change. How boring!

Women’s ‘rites of passage’ are more celebrations of passage, acknowledgements of natural events; and precisely because they are natural changes within the woman herself, they are also necessarily individual – and very similar from one culture to another. Even so, each transition is a kind of ‘death and rebirth’ through which the woman often has to be helped (the whole point of the ‘rite of passage’). One friend, a midwife, commented that, with women bearing their first child, the childbirth itself was usually no problem: it was the ‘birthing’ of the woman into the ‘mother’ stage of life – helping her come to terms with her new responsibilities and the loss of her ‘maiden’ freedom – that was the harder work…

By contrast, men have almost no equivalent events, no clear-cut ‘changes of life’: with the result that men’s rites of passage are almost inevitably social, much more visible, and much more a product of their culture. [22] Many of these rites are brutal: often the more warlike the culture, the more brutal is the passage to ‘manhood’ – which brutalisation itself becomes the source for war. But in our culture, there are no organised ‘rites of passage’ at all: the ‘old men’, custodians of the men’s rites, have long since gone, leaving nothing, a vast well of nothingness. All that’s left is a vacuum, a sense, as one young man put it, that “someone’s deliberately hidden the formula, the script of ‘how to be a man’ and it’s your job to find it…”. [23] One result is that young men go off and invent their own ‘rites of passage’, sometimes with lethal results – such as in gangs and other ‘anti-social’ groups.

It was in response to this kind of invented ‘warrior’ mentality that a poet and life-long anti-war activist, Robert Bly, decided to re-create some of the old ‘men’s rites’ – and promptly found himself under attack, especially from puellists. [24] But his work on ‘mythopoetics’ for men – such as his well-known book “Iron John” – does seem to be a genuine attempt to find alternative imagery to that of war, but which works with the same kind of masculine energy. The aim, he argues, is to encourage men to be as Starhawk asks – to be “fierce without being violent”. From what I’ve seen of his work, and that of others such as Sam Keen [25], it does seem especially appropriate for those who’ve mistaken self-disempowerment for softness, ‘receptiveness’, or who’ve taken too much to heart the notion the puellist notions of “maleness as the enemy”. But it’s definitely not appropriate for those who haven’t gone through that stage, and who are still stuck in traditional male violence and anger towards women – even though that anger may well be valid.

Men’s spirituality is in turmoil. But most of the writings arising out of the various facets of the ‘men’s movement’ focus on different ways to distinguish power and dispower – encouraging men to find a power of their own that does work – and almost all of them acknowledge the importance of, yet independence of, women’s spirituality. [26] So all of these approaches need active support from feminists – or at least no further attacks – if they are to succeed in breaking the cycles that lead men back to war. It certainly does not help anyone when puellists such as Monica Sjöö proclaim “I long to see the end of male religions” – spirituality is a human need, and men are human too…

The problem with mythopoetics is that it’s all-too-easily abused on behalf of paediarchy – especially when taken literally rather than as the subtler poetry of myth. It’s easy to see, for example, how some people have misread one of the key phrases in the story of ‘Iron John’, that the key to the boy’s freedom is “hidden under his mother’s pillow”, taking it to be a justification for misogyny. And it’s easy to see how one puellist group I know has taken the Sumerian myth ‘the descent of Inanna’, described in detail in Starhawk’s book “Truth Or Dare”, and selected out the part that shows Inanna as an all-powerful goddess – and leaving out the other parts of the myth in which she has to be rescued (twice) from the underworld by her younger sister, or that show that her ‘power’ is based on using her husband as scapegoat, sending him to the underworld in her place… True myths challenge us to be honest, to face every aspect of ourselves – not just those that appeal to our paediarchal vanity…

But the most important spiritual task is to bring that awareness into everyday reality. To find a real ‘power-from-within’, we need not only to create meaning for ourselves, but also in the wider world in which we live – a world which has all but lost its meaning. For example, another of Ursula Le Guin’s fictitious characters ponders:

Well, what had he come here to do? To do physics. To assert, by his talent, the rights of any citizen in any society: the right to work, to be maintained while working, and to share the product with all who wanted it. [27]

In the case of Dr Mary Sheridan, she knew exactly what she had ‘come here to do’: namely medicine – specifically, paediatrics. But she was born at the turn of the century: and for a young woman to become a doctor in the 1920s was far from easy – because in addition to the sheer hard work of medical study, she also had to face down a great deal of insidious, patronising put-downs of a kind familiar to feminists throughout history. Blocked from a career in children’s hospitals – ‘after all, no woman is competent to be a paediatrician’ – she joined the school medical service in Manchester. And there, in this ‘lowly’ position, she started to make a real difference.

She worked with real children in the all-too-real conditions of inner-city slums; most hospital paediatricians – almost exclusively male – had done nothing of the kind. So, for example, she proved that many of children she dealt with, who’d been labelled as ‘disruptive’ or ‘mentally defective’, were in fact deaf, from a common and curable – but then often untreated – infection of the middle ear. She knew about children because she had seen and examined so many: so “she often challenged the statements of theorists when they did not accord with her practical experiences and forever urged them to look at children.” [28]

Later, after the Second World War, she worked in the government health service, writing, researching, teaching; then she ‘retired’ and, at age 65, began her most important work. Almost single-handedly, she completely changed the direction of child development studies, away from arbitrary labelling of children, and toward techniques for identifying handicaps as early as possible. Among other things, she documented her work with a vast collection of slides: so in the mid-1970s, one of my first jobs, as a young undergraduate at art college, was to convert many of those slides into drawings for her book “The Developmental Progress of Infants and Young Children” – the ‘blue book’ which is still very much in use to this day.

I worked as her illustrator for several books: a remarkable woman, extraordinarily perceptive, yet one who could say of the children she studied that “they paid me the supreme compliment of completely ignoring me”. Her colleagues, if belatedly, did not ignore her:

That she was widely and greatly respected was shown by the honours she received. She was often quietly amused to find these being presented by those who in earlier years had not fully understood the importance of developmental paediatrics and the value of contributions from a woman doctor. [29]

But what sticks most in my mind was a conversation we had one evening. She was then almost eighty: “I’m getting old, my dear”, she said, “I get tired so easily. I can’t walk very far, and I can’t see as well as I could. But I’ve got a few more books to do before I peg out!” A few weeks later, she went back to her beloved Dublin, where she received a standing ovation at a conference; yet the following morning, back home in London, she was dead, having died in her sleep. Sad, of course, yet also a joyful end to an eventful, creative, productive life.

Though she would never have described herself as such, she was definitely a feminist: a real feminist. She took the ludicrously anti-female conditions of her time, and changed them: not just for herself, or for a small group of women, but for everyone – and undoubtedly for the better. She created meaning, out of nothing but her own will and her own ‘power-from-within’: and “shared the product with all who wanted it”. That’s power: a power that actually means something.

And Mary Sheridan was no victim. She didn’t just ‘survive’ the many difficulties of her life, the many frustrations: she used them, turned each one to advantage, to everyone’s advantage, including that of her former detractors. Yet one of the most common stances in ‘feminist’ literature’ is that of ‘woman as victim’. Taking Mary Sheridan’s life as an example that this need not be the case, we need to turn our attention there, to explore how to change the focus of feminism – and masculism – away from the obsession with ‘victimhood’, and instead towards not merely ‘survivor’, but chooser.

[1] Gloria Steinem, “Revolution From Within”, p.5.

[2] Alan Salter, quoted in ‘Answering back’, “The Age” [Melbourne], 17 Jan 94.

[3] For a more detailed discussion of these issues, see Jeremy Cherfas and John Gribbin, “The Redundant Male”.

[4] Liz Greene, “The Astrology of Fate”, p.7.

[5] See chapter 8, “Give a dog a bad name … and shoot him’ – especially the interviews with ‘M’, a senior officer working with young offenders – in Carol Lee, “Talking Tough”, pp.113-120.

[6] John Lippert, ‘Sexuality as consumption’, in Thompson (ed.), “Views From The Male World”, pp.213-218.

[7] Ursula Le Guin, “The Dispossessed”, p.266.

[8] See Alice Miller, “The Drama Of Being A Child”.

[9] Vern L. Bullough and Fang-Fu Ruan, ‘China’s Children’, in “The Nation”, 18 June 1988, quoted in Marilyn French, “The War Against Women, p.115.

[10] See the section ‘Community wars to eradicate females’, in Marilyn French, “The War Against Women”, pp.113-117.

[11] This sometimes becomes clear only when it ends: columnist Virginia Ironside commented “a child leaving the nest is a bereavement and a redundancy all rolled into one – your primary job has gone at a stroke, and so has one of your best friends”, and England football manager Graham Taylor said, of his 18-year-old daughter’s departure to college, “I have never felt so empty, lonely and upset as the day she started her own life” – both quoted in ‘Goodbye, children, I’m going out of my mind’, in “The Independent” [London], 14 Sept 93.

[12] Beatrix Campbell, ‘Life without father: it’s easy’, in “The Independent” [London], 17 Nov 93.

[13] A midwife friend working with the lesbian community tells me that artificial self-insemination, with sperm donated by gay men, is now a common if still-covert practice in this city.

[14] Another of Germaine Greer’s characteristic confusions, in “The Independent” [London], 25 May 91.

[15] Phyllis Chester, ‘The Men’s Auxiliary: protecting the rule of the fathers’, in Hagan (ed.), “Women Respond To The Men’s Movement”, p.133.

[16] More accurately, puellism is concerned with promoting rule by childish women who do not even have the courage to be mothers: we’re entitled to wonder whether the ultimate source of the aggressive contempt with which puellists such as Germaine Greer, Andrea Dworkin or Mary Daly denigrate motherhood is a fear of the facts of their own womanhood – “rather stringent attempts to disprove or denigrate the thing which threatens”…

[17] For a typically lengthy and tortuously confused example of this concept of ‘women are spiritual, therefore men are not’, see Monica Sjöö’s “New Age And Armageddon”; compare this, for example, to Starhawk’s “The Spiral Dance”, which works for women’s spiritual experience rather than against men’s.

[18] Janet McCrickard, “Eclipse Of The Sun”, p.28 (italics in the original).

[19] Perhaps the most restrictive stereotype of all – especially in ‘women’s spirituality’ – has been that of ‘Mother Earth’ versus ‘Father Sky’, ‘our Father in Heaven’; it’s worth noting that in early Egyptian mythology, for instance, Osiris is ‘Father Earth’, the consort of Nut, who is ‘Mother Sky’. For more examples of mythologies that can be used to break free of ‘spiritual’ stereotyping, see Janet McCrickard, “Eclipse Of The Sun”.

[20] Soni Stecker, “Hestia – women’s experience of sacred space”: MA thesis for Antioch University, San Francisco, September 1990.

[21] Warren Farrell, ‘We should embrace traditional masculinity’, in Thompson (ed.), Views From The Male World”, pp.10-16 (extract from Warren Farrell, “Why Men Are The Way They Are”).

[22] So much so that many early anthropologists assumed that men’s rites were the only rites: another of feminism’s major contributions to academia has been the development of anthropology which also focusses on women’s lives.

[23] A twenty-four-year-old Englishman, interviewed in Carol Lee, “Talking Tough”, p.9.

[24] The contributors to Hagan’s “Women Respond To The Men’s Movement” mostly take the position that Bly’s book is the ‘men’s movement’ – against which the puellists amongst them direct some remarkably unfounded and ill-thought-through attacks: the same old confusions between power and dispower being painfully evident.

[25] See Sam Keen, “Fire In The Belly”, or “The Passionate Life”.

[26] See, for example, Bob Stewart, “Celebrating The Male Mysteries”, or Robert Lawlor, “Earth Honouring”.

[27] Ursula Le Guin, “The Dispossessed”, p.222.

[28] Obituary, “The Times” [London], 17 Feb 1978.

[29] Ibid.

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