“And perhaps the sexes are more closely related than we think, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in man and woman, freed of all sense of error and disappointment, seeking one another out not as opposites but as brothers and sisters and neighbors, and they will join together as human beings, to share the heavy weight of sexuality that is laid upon them with simplicity, gravity and patience.” – Rainer Maria Rilke, July 1903
Not too long ago, I saw a link to Rachel Held Evan’s post Is Patriarchy Really God’s Dream for the World? on Logan’s facebook page. Seeing that he had shared it reminded me of how lately I’ve been saying that it’s a sign of a good man when he calls himself a feminist. In my experience, this is true. Like Rilke, they seem to understand that at the heart of the issue is not “rights” but relationality.
As a woman, I do not call myself a feminist not because I am not one (I’m certainly an old school feminist for I believe that I am fully human, that I am not lesser nor a derivative nor subjugated nor defined by men. I believe that my humanity is defined and dignified by sharing equally with men in God’s image) but because I believe it’s important strive to embrace a richer, more expansive understanding of myself, my gender and men.
Though I very much appreciate Evan’s post and her argumentation (and think it is very necessary), I prefer to distance myself from conversations about patriarchy. These conversations are so limited by focusing on power.* Not that there isn’t a power struggle going on between the sexes, there certainly is and it is certainly a problem, but it isn’t the heart of the issue. As Evan’s says herself, “power is overrated, and the ultimate goal is harmony.” This begins to hit upon what is at the heart of the issue: men and women have yet to truly define and accept each other as fully human. What is at stake is our responsibility to and for each other as human beings, which creates the possibility for harmony.
In a lecture in 1938, Dorothy Sayers’ quoted D.H. Lawrence’s observation:
“Man is willing to accept woman as an equal, as a man in skirts, as an angel, a devil, a baby-face, a machine, an instrument, a bosom, a womb, a pair of legs, a servant, an encyclopedia, an ideal or an obscenity; the one thing he won’t accept her as is a human being, a real human being of the feminine sex.”
This is still true today but now it might also be said that women are willing to accept man as an equal, as a woman in pants, as a white knight, as a devil, as a Greek god, a weapon, an instrument, a penis, a joker, a pair of arms, a servant, an encyclopedia, an ideal or an obscenity; the one thing she won’t accept him as is a human being, a real human being of the male sex.
One of the consequences of feminism, of what Sayers called its loud slogans and hard-and-fast assertions, is that women have begun to do to men what was done to them.** Just think about how hard it is to find a fully human man in our tv shows and movies. Men are primarily characterized as a joke, a body or a weapon. The men’s rights movement is a tragic consequence and backlashing of this. It is as vicious and destructive as militant feminism.
This battle being waged is truly not a battle to be won. I think the majority of us neither want men subjugated to women nor women subjugated to men. We do not want to be so constrained by all of these re-definitions of our genders’ roles and rights. I believe that what most of us truly want is the freedom to breath, to be the persons we desire to be without being told we do not fit the mold of our gender or that we too perfectly fit the mold.
This tit-for-tat battle over who has wronged whom more and who has more privileges than whom is not and will not lead anywhere constructive. What can and will is coming to see each other and ourselves as fully human, with our own unique particularities some of which are shaped by our biological make-up and many of which are not. This is necessary both for our own personal dignity and for genuine relationality. It is, in fact, the condition for being able to love ourselves and each other more purely and responsibly.
Most of the men I know who call themselves feminists are what would, in Christian circles at least, would be called egalitarians. In their respect, caring and appreciation of women, as well as in their understanding of themselves, it is evident that they accept both sexes as fully human. How they have embraced feminism makes me think of Rainer Maria Rilke’s hope for the feminist movement that he expresses in one of his letters in Letters to a Young Poet:
“This humanity which inhabits woman, brought to term in pain and humiliation, will, once she has shrugged off the conventions of mere femininity through the transformations of her outward status, come clearly to light…One day there will be girls and women whose name will no longer just signify the opposite of the male but something in their own right, something which does not make one think of any supplement or limit but only of life and existence: the female human being.
This step forward will transform the experience of love, which is now full of error, alter it root and branch, reshape it into a relation between two human beings and no longer between man and woman. And this more human form of love (which will be performed in infinitely gentle and considerate fashion, true and clear in its creating of bonds and dissolving of them) will resemble the one we are struggling and toiling to prepare the way for, the love that consists in two solitudes protecting, defining and welcoming one another” (48-49).
My own hope is that we might struggle and toil, to move through feminism to a new humanism. To realize this vision of Rilke’s that is not about men’s rights or women’s rights, but about a robust relationality and the thriving of this “more human form of love.”
*Among the reasons I distance myself from talking about patriarchy is because the core of the argument is simply about who has power and only secondarily about how it has been used. To me, who has power is only as important as how it is being used. Also, most of the people making these arguments do not realize that in many “patriarchal” societies women do have a lot of power, just of a different kind. For there is power in silence, in raising children, in running a home, etc.
**Within Christian circles somewhat less of this goes on because the old sexism is very much alive and well. But I’m too much of a stranger in that land to focus so much on it and ignore our broader culture.