by Letha Dawson Scanzoni
(with responses by Melanie Springer Mock and Kendra Weddle Irons)
Before attempting to answer the title question, I need to tell you why I raised it. It was prompted by reading some of the Internet buzz mocking Suzanne Venker’s recent Fox News article, “The War on Men.” She claims that “good men” are not interested in marriage today because women have been so damaged by feminism that they are undesirable as wives.
An excellent critique of Venker’s article has been written by Maya of Feministing in the form of a “how-to” essay. She titled it “How to write a trend piece on gender relations for Fox News,” and listed 10 tongue-in-cheek guidelines, such as choosing a provocative title; pretending that gay, lesbian, and transpeople don’t exist; and “cherry-picking a single statistic that supports your argument” while ignoring other studies.
On the Jezebel website, Erin Gloria Ryan’s criticism of Venker’s alleged “battle of the sexes” took another form—a clever spoof, applying strategies from The Art of War, an ancient Chinese military treatise attributed to Sun Tzu. Ryan titled her article, “Put Up Your Dukes: Arming Yourself for the War on Men You Didn’t Even Know You Were Fighting.”
Salon, the Huffington Post, Forbes, and numerous other websites also published commentaries poking fun at Venker’s claim that “women aren”t women anymore,” that feminists have knocked men off their pedestals, and that men are so peeved they’d rather not marry at all than have to marry one of these pedestal-smashing, emasculating feminists.
Suzanne Venker, who started all this war talk with her Fox News article, is the niece of Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum, the organization that was originally formed to assure that the Equal Rights Amendment didn’t pass years ago.
With Aunt Phyllis, Venker coauthored in 2011 The Flipside of Feminism.
Venker has also written a soon-to-be-published book called How to Choose a Husband (and Make Peace with Marriage). From descriptions, the new book appears to be much like innumerable other books over the years (centuries) that insist that men and women are designed for separate spheres, roles, pedestals, or gender performances.
When I was writing and speaking on Christian feminism in the 1970s and 1980s, there seemed to be an endless stream of such books, some nonreligious but many claiming to be biblically based, such as Maribel Morgan’s Total Woman, Elisabeth Elliot’s Let me Be a Woman, Bob Mumford’s Living Happily After, Judith Miles’s The Feminine Principle, and Stephen Clark’s 753-page tome, Man and Woman in Christ (1980), to mention just a few. More recently, some pastors are requiring engaged couples to read Debi Pearl’s 2004 book, Created to be His Help Meet, which has as its tagline, “Discover how God can make your marriage glorious.”
(When Carolyn Briggs has been interviewed about the recent movie, Higher Ground, based on her book about the years she spent in Christian fundamentalism, she finds that audiences seem utterly amazed to hear that the women of her church group centered their Bible studies around a book called, You Can Be the Wife of a Happy Husband. “Did that really happen?” she is frequently asked, as audiences shake their heads in astonishment. These are audiences not familiar with the fundamentalist subculture and its teachings on “headship” (for men) and submission (for women).
So none of what Venker says is new. But what she has done is to put a particular slant on the old notion of separate gender roles and has garnered a lot of publicity in the process. She claims that women are becoming so self-sufficient and successful that they have become unmarriageable, and men no longer feel needed as women’s protectors and providers. Furthermore, claims Venker, men are angry about both what is expected of them (sharing in house chores and child care) and what is not expected of them (to fulfill the role of family breadwinner, with the husband’s career central to all aspects of the family’s life). Thus, these men have no interest in marriage.
Venker told New York Magazine’s Kat Stoeffel that “feminism taught women to reject marriage and motherhood, go out into the workforce, and compete with men,” and that this has been “extremely destructive.” She sees her new book as providing a 12-step “detox” program from what she sees as the damaging messages of feminism.
In her interview with Stoeffel, Venker said that what she wants women to know is this:
“Feminists robbed you of what you naturally want: to be wife, mother, homebound. But that’s only half the pie. Feminism didn’t teach women to have it all; it taught them to have half of it all, the half of the pie that used to belong to men.”
Venker somehow fails to see the lack of logic in her statements. On the one hand, she says women have rejected marriage and motherhood to instead be successful in their own careers. But on the other hand, she claims women believe marriage is essential to their well being in a way that men do not and are therefore disappointed because men have rejected the institution!
One of the major flaws in her thinking is her notion that only women are feminists. She seems oblivious to the fact feminists are simply people who believe that all human beings are equal and that equality should not be determined by gender or or race or sexual orientation or anything else.
Answering the title question
So in answer to the question in my title (and, in this case, keeping the discussion within the heterosexual framework that Venker laid out— although the principles below apply to LGBT partners as well), I’d say the following:
1. Many men are feminists themselves and would have no problem at all with marrying a feminist; in fact they would desire such a spouse so that they would experience a shared value system.
2. The kind of man who would marry a feminist respects women as persons not as assigned roles.
3. The kind of man who would marry a feminist is a man who believes in social justice and “playing fair.” If the woman he loves supports and encourages his interests and career, he realizes that he is just as responsible to support and encourage her interests and career.
4. The kind of man who would marry a feminist is confident in who he is and what he has to offer to the relationship and to the world in general. He does not need a partner who will artificially prop up (or pump up) his ego.
5. The kind of man who would marry a feminist would not view his spouse as a competitor but as an equal partner, whose success brings him as much joy as his own success does.
6. The kind of man who would marry a feminist wants a partner who can share in all of life, who can talk about ideas, who keeps up on what’s happening in the world, who is interesting to be with, and who is a spiritually and intellectually stimulating companion and conversationalist. (Venker, as part of her gender essentialism, claims that women by nature want to sit around talking about their relationships, whereas men have other things on their minds.)
7. A man who would marry a feminist would think of both himself and his wife as whole persons enjoying the “whole pie” together and can divide it up in any way that feels right to them at any particular time, rather than cutting a line down the middle and saying, “This is your piece, and that is mine.”
At this point, I’m sure Kendra and Melanie have a lot to add to all of this, so I’ll turn it over to them.
Why Venker Makes Me (A Little) Hopeful: A response by Melanie
References to Venker’s article started showing up on my Facebook page a few days ago. One of my former students sent me the link privately, saying she was disgusted by Venker’s argument, but that some of her own Facebook friends were praising the article. She wondered if she should tell her friends how angry she was about what she saw as “the misconceptions and stereotypes this puts forward as truth.”
Having waded too deeply into religious and political Facebook conversations I later regretted, I couldn’t advise her about her friends who were lauding Venker’s argument. But I did agree that Venker peddles misconceptions as truth in her Fox News article, just as she did in The Flipside of Feminism, where she and her Aunt Schlafly blame feminism for the destruction of the home, churches, public schools, the military, and the workplace.
In the Ain’t I a Woman? blog I share with Kendra, I wrote about The Flipside of Feminism when it was first released, in summer 2011. There, I examined several of the bold (and false) assertions Venker made about feminists, about the way they “manipulated human nature to their advantage” and “undermined the value of motherhood.”
Such claims are echoed in the Fox News column now making the rounds; such claims will probably appear again in her next book about marriage. In some ways, the Fox story is just same old, same old: both for Fox News, and for Venker, too.
To be honest, though, I wouldn’t allow my first-year student writers to make such assertions without evidence, support, a stronger sense of logic. I definitely wouldn’t let them—as Maya at Feministing says—“cherry pick a single statistic that supports” their argument, without considering any other study countering their claims.
So why do so many readers eat this stuff up? And who are these people?
I imagine readers who resonate with Venker’s writing are different from those Letha mentions in her post. Those who agree with Venker will not be the type who marry feminists, who claim feminism as an identity, and who see gender roles as fluid or mutable.
Still, something about Venker’s argument must be connecting with readers; her fame cannot be built on Aunt Schlafly alone. Why do people want to believe that “women aren’t women anymore,” and that if women only “surrender to their nature,” then “marriageable men will come out of the woodwork”?
To be sure, some might read comfort into these assertions:
- Comfort because Venker reinforces tired stereotypes about bra-burning and man-hating feminists. Never mind that the feminists I know don’t fit such stereotypes. By dehumanizing feminists, by making them the bogey, Venker et al. do not have to realistically contend with the problems of inequity that feminism addresses.
- Comfort because Venker echoes the idealization of “another time,” when men were men and women were women and each knew their place. She writes to the same audience nostalgic for a time when America was “truly” America, failing to acknowledge the vast inequities—in gender and race, specifically—integral to our country’s legacy.
- Comfort because Venker allows readers to abrogate personal responsibility. Never mind that most conservatives place great stock in the idea of accountability to self; of each person shaping his own destiny; of building one’s happiness, fame, and fortune on hard work and individual success. In Venker’s schema, men can blame women for being harpies and bitches and making marriage impossible. Women can blame feminists for making them into harpies and bitches.
And because feminists are guided by Satan, they deserve the blame.
It would be easy to feel depressed and discouraged by all this. By Venker’s latest screed, by those who support her argument, by those who find comfort in her unfounded generalizations.
For some reason, though, “The War on Men” didn’t faze me much. Perhaps it was so ridiculous, I couldn’t help but ridicule. Perhaps I’m still feeling giddy from this November’s elections, and the recognition—shared by much of the country, it seems—that things are starting to change. Perhaps I can see in my own students’ outrage at Venker’s post that things are changing in our country, and that those who have embraced the comforts of sexism are beginning to feel decidedly uncomfortable.
Perhaps I’m just feeling charitable. It’s the Christmas season, after all!
The Advent of Giving Birth: A response by Kendra
Like you, I just turned over my calendar to find the word DECEMBER written in bold print as if I need to be reminded that this is the busiest time of the year; that this is the time people either love or hate; that the Christmas wars full of religious rhetoric are in full swing; that this is the time families are at the best and at their worst.
December is also, more to the point, the season of Advent. Christians throughout the world shift our focus to the birth of the Messiah, the miracle of Incarnation. While children mark this anticipatory season with calendars laden with chocolate, marking each delicious day with a sweet morsel, as adults, we know Advent involves more.
Advent is not just the season of waiting, but of preparation, of expectation, of looking forward to what is yet to be birthed. To be ready we must be diligent, working to ensure our hearts and homes are in order. Our anticipation is equal parts expectation and culling out the unnecessary to clutter.
And while I have never experienced the actual event of birthing (to be honest, it used to frighten me so much that even if I did decide to have children, I probably would have adopted), I’m pretty sure the universal occurrence shared by all who give birth is pain. Excruciating, jaw-dropping, yell-out-loud pain.
This is really a fundamental law of some kind, I’m pretty sure. You want to create something new. Great: expect it to hurt!
Part of my Advent preparation this year included participating in a community gathering to welcome Christ-Sophia in our midst, a small group led by Rev. Jann Aldredge-Clanton. While there I was reminded of the ground-breaking work that must be accomplished not only for feminine images of the divine to be welcomed and celebrated in our worshipping communities but also for the true equality of all persons to be realized in our culture, the oft-overlooked goal of the feminist movement. And as Jann has pointed out so clearly on her blog and in her books, these two realities are intricately connected.
As we sang familiar Christmas songs with new lyrics and read liturgy calling attention to the process and pain of giving birth, I remembered Letha’s article where evidence that liberation has yet to be achieved feels like a tender wound, not all that different from the pain I feel each Sunday when patriarchy continues its reign in celebrated masculine images prominently on display in church after church.
I had read Suzanne Venker’s piece after seeing Stephen Colbert’s response to it, and I have to admit I was angry. Well, tired and frustrated, too. Can I admit this?: sometimes this constant feminist bashing gets a bit much.
But, Jann’s skillful worship experience reminded me of what I sometimes easily forget: liberation is hard work.
We are living in a time of considerable backlash. In the face of rapid change where assumed gender roles no longer hold sway in a way they once did, where the “traditional” family of a wife and husband with two children is now seen not only as a fantasy today but also one of earlier times, where women are seeking careers and meaningful lives in ways no longer centered solely on familial contexts, it is no surprise to hear the objections to such new ways of living. And, no doubt, these objections have been loud and clear and, surprisingly, effective.
I mean, who would have guessed 2012 would witness so much legislation designed to reverse women’s reproductive rights and decisions? Who would have thought that Roe v. Wade would be in such a tenuous position, its viability perhaps dependent upon the next justice appointed to the Supreme Court.
While Suzanne Venker’s comments and others are simply last gasp attempts to reverse a culture that in reality is moving away from the June Cleaver era, these voices—loud and persuasive as they are to some—need to be addressed and I’m glad many have done so as Letha points out.
At the same time, we must not forget (as Jann reminded me), freedom is costly and requires us to be vigilant in cultivating a place for it. As we claimed in our New Wineskins Community, giving birth to Christ-Sophia takes diligence; this is also true for true liberation for all people, not just women.
How do we cultivate this liberation?
By “giving equal value to girls and boys of all races in our educational institutions….”
By “sharing power in our workplace communities….”
By “sharing our material possessions.”
By “nurturing and respecting the earth and all created beings….”
By “practicing mutuality in our personal relationships….”
By “liberating ourselves and others from oppressive systems….”
By “sharing power in our religious communities….”
By “giving sacred value to female and male images in our worship experiences.”
(adapted from the liturgy written for New Wineskins by Jann Aldredge-Clanton)