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Feminism for Them?

Illustration by Katherine Streeter.

To those casually acquainted with the bad-boy bohemianism of Floyd Dell, the literary radical and “prose laureate of Greenwich Village” may seem an example of the idealist who is better at theory than at practice—like Thomas Jefferson on slavery. Or, in feminist terms, he seems an early example of a declared male ally who is a better friend of women’s equality than of women themselves.

Dell’s plentiful and painful adulteries were well known in his circle; he was nearly as famed for his extramarital dalliances as his politics. (Dorothy Day tartly noted that his “love encounters should really take place on the stage of the Hippodrome before a packed house.”) And despite his full-throated defense of equality within marriage, Dell tended to sort the actual women in his life into “girls” (i.e., mistresses) or long-suffering mother hens (i.e., wives), a division that suited—or rather, justified—a cheating heart. “It was now accepted as a fact about me that I fell in love with other girls,” he wrote later about one of his many philanderings during his first marriage to Margery Currey, “and taken, it would seem, by my wife as a fact that had to be adjusted to with tolerance—a tolerance so extreme in its generosity that I was before long in another and then another love affair.” When he trotted out a hypothetical Lothario in his July 1914 essay in The Masses, “Feminism for Men,” did he know he was looking in the mirror?

There was once a man—I don’t pretend to approve of him—who had a wife and also a sweetheart, and he liked the sweetheart so much better than the wife that he persuaded his wife to divorce him, and then married the sweetheart; whereupon he simply had to get another sweetheart, because it was just the same as it had been before. The poor fellow never could figure it out.

In short, the leading male champion of feminism suffered, as his biographer Douglas Clayton delicately put it, from “inconsistent attitudes towards women.” Yet, however contradicted by his personal behavior, Dell’s defense of women’s emancipation stands solid, a model of clarity and farsightedness, a powerful avowal of the need for feminism in his age or, for that matter, a century later, in ours.

Reading Dell, whether on the moral corrosions of the capitalist marketplace or the mental contortions of industrial warmongers, is a thrilling, wake-the-hell-up experience—like being blasted out of an overheated room onto an ocean shore in January. He was the socialist who didn’t stuff your brain with -isms, the avant-gardist who spurned affectation, the intellectual who despised dogma and egg-headed bloviation, the leftist who wrote with wit and panache—the one who deemed Marxism’s grand unifying theories “rigor mortis to the mind.” His work is modern in the best sense of the term: direct, undithering, free of cant and theory. (He would never have gotten tenure in the po-mo academy, though he could have penned a scorching takedown of the poststructuralist professoriate.) And, most of all, radical. Whatever the topic, he aimed for the root. Dell was always after the superstructure that his literary diving rod perceived deep beneath the political flap du jour.

Which is what happened when he turned his piercing eye on women’s condition. Dell proposed that the battle between the sexes was a surface manifestation of a deeper, bloodier conflict, a struggle enlisting both men and women to defend “the soul” against the slave raiders of capitalism. He saw women in the vanguard, shock troops in a war that would unshackle men as well. Women’s liberation, in his plain distillation, would “make it possible for the first time for men to be free.” As long as women are men’s childlike dependents—and as long as men can derive a false sense of power from being “lords in a thirty-dollar flat” in which they stash their child-wives—“the bravest things will not be done in the world.” Men will cling to their dollhouse dominance, too fearful to trade that false security for the great grapple with their real oppressors.

At the same time, Dell could see—and far earlier than most—that the economic tide was turning, and that it was “taking more and more women every year out of the economic shelter of the home into the great world, making them workers and earners along with men.” The women, he predicted, would take the men with them, emancipating them from the hollow gratifications of their petty domestic tyrannies—and ultimately from the yoke of wage-slave subservience. Feminism would “give [men] back their souls, so that they can risk them fearlessly in the adventure of life.”

Women’s liberation, in Dell’s plain distillation, would “make it possible for the first time for men to be free.”

One hundred years on, how is that battle going? Feminism has secured for women a substantial beachhead in the public realms of education, employment, and professional life. The achievements are well known and endlessly reiterated: American women are nearly 60 percent of undergraduates, 50 percent of law and medical school students, 40 percent of business school students. They are 51 percent of employees in management, professional, and related positions. About 60 percent of women older than sixteen are in the workforce, and more than 70 percent of mothers with children younger than eighteen work. In 2009 women became half of all U.S. workers, a statistic widely hailed as a watershed event in American sexual politics. “The battle of the sexes is over,” proclaimed The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything, a much-ballyhooed collaboration between the Center for American Progress and former California first lady Maria Shriver. (The report’s evidence: a Time magazine poll that supposedly determined that gender strife had been replaced with amicable “negotiation.”)

Has women’s rising prominence in the workplace “freed” men, as Dell hoped? Has it unchained men from the false “choice between being a slave and a scoundrel”? Has it given them back their souls? Granted, it’s hard to quantify freedom, much less soul reclamation. Yet one would be hard pressed to summon evidence of men using women’s newfound independence to embolden their own. Where are the great male revolts against corporate rule, militarism, the rat race? Between the rare flashpoints—an anti-WTO protest here, an Occupy encampment there—the American political landscape is largely quiescent, complacent, and resigned. Our new male “rebels” are generally that in name only—the Mark Zuckerbergs and Jeff Bezoses who advocate “breaking things” only to consolidate an even more inequitable division of wealth.

Sure, men take a larger role in child-rearing than they used to—or at least more men are proud of announcing that they take a larger role. But that’s hardly the domain Dell had in mind when he imagined feminism as the catapult that would allow men to risk themselves “fearlessly in the adventure of life.” Judging by the public scene, much of the American male response to feminism has proceeded along one of two tracks: a doubling-down on anti-feminist political campaigns or a hunkering down into an adolescent sulk. On the one hand, we have the never-ending backlash: the war against abortion and Planned Parenthood (and now even contraception), the stripping away of social programs that support working mothers, the vitriol hurled at any woman with serious political or leadership aspirations, and on and on. On the other hand, we have the passive-aggressive, petulant displays of “adult” males with their baseball caps turned back, the screw-you-I’ll-just-be-a-boy-forever juvenility that is the centerpiece of so many Judd Apatow films and sniggering reiterations of Dumb and Dumber.

Why hasn’t feminism led to men’s liberation? Why haven’t individual men taken the opportunity to be their larger selves and run with it? No doubt, the fact that women became 50 percent of the workforce at the very moment when the nation suffered the worst economic crash since the Great Depression hasn’t helped matters. Nor has the media’s eagerness to promptly declare this downturn the “Great Hecession” or the “Mancession” and to harp endlessly on how opportunistic women were allegedly getting ahead on the broken backs of laid-off male workers. (The claim was dubious: men initially lost more jobs than women in the crash only because the greatest early losses came in the male-dominated professions of construction and high finance. Since then, it’s women who have had the higher unemployment rate—and a higher and record rate of poverty.) But even factoring in media-inflamed male economic resentment, the mystery remains. Didn’t the Great Depression inspire more male radicalism? Why not the Great Recession? Haven’t hard times given men less to lose in following women into a more liberated life? Why defend the privileges of manhood so adamantly when those privileges are yielding so little? Men are no longer defending entitlements they have; they are defending their right to entitlements with no payoff. Why haven’t they rebelled?

Have men settled, as Dell feared, for a faux domestic control, preferring the easy facsimile to the hard real thing? “Men don’t want the freedom that women are thrusting upon them,” he observed. “Men want the sense of power more than they want the sense of freedom. They want the feeling that comes to them as providers for women more than they want the feeling that comes to them as free men. They want some one dependent on them more than they want a comrade.” Perhaps that’s why the era of feminist gains is also the era of the trophy wife, and why the right wing’s pretend defense of “family values” seems to appeal to so many more male than female voters. Maybe the Grand Inquisitor’s disquisition on human nature in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov could as easily apply to the post-feminist American male temperament: “Man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born.”

Assuming men wanted to be free, where would be the means and method for their revolt? How to rebel in a time when all the old strategies for political organizing and mobilization are corrupted or in free fall—when electoral politics has sold its soul to the highest bidder, when union membership has shrunk to a pinpoint, when radical movements have the lifespans of fruit flies and the appetites of cannibals?

Beyond psychic anxieties and methodological failures, though, lies something more—and worse. What if men have been betrayed by their own vanguard, by the very feminist-inspired women that Dell hoped would be the force to spring men from their imprisonment in a capitalist system? What if American feminism, at least as it’s been reconstituted in the American popular imagination, has taken as its rallying cry the call to join men in their prison?

The hot “feminist” books of the last decade are get-ahead-gals management texts—most famously, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which joined a bumper crop of other like-minded entreaties to elbow your way into the executive suite: Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes That Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers; Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman: What Men Know About Success that Women Need to Learn; The Go-Getter Girl’s Guide: Get What You Want in Work and Life (and Look Great While You’re at It). Or they are celebrations of women’s coming superiority in the new “flexible” and “global” job market—most recently, The End of Men: And the Rise of Women and The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family—in which exultations over women’s supposedly new “earning power” slop over into sly putdowns of those sad-sack men who failed to retool themselves for the brave new economy. Women are “overtaking” men to become the dominant breadwinners, Liza Mundy declares in The Richer Sex, and their “slow-track” boyfriends need to get on board or lose their shot at grabbing the brass—and wedding—ring:

Women will take to the skies. High-earning young women who remain determined to marry men who make as much or more than they do will turn to more enterprising measures than online dating. Women will use their earnings to travel far and wide, flying from big cities to other big cities, keeping the travel industry afloat and turning the country—the world—into one big marriage market, one giant globally connected dating pool.

Feminism has “won,” these authors rejoice, because women are going to seize all the fastest-growing occupations—crappy and mind-numbing though those jobs may be—in the bright future realm of Multinational World Capitalism Unlimited. More and more, freedom trades in capitalism’s currency. And cancels itself out in the process. As Dell warned in that 1914 essay in The Masses, “Capitalism does not want free men.”

Where are the great male revolts against corporate rule, militarism, the rat race?

The few recent appeals by prominent women to challenge the working world are that in name only—summonses in which feminism is proffered as a tool to soften—very slightly—the work-till-you-drop corporate work ethic, while leaving the corporate walls (and the sixty-hour work week) firmly in place. Witness Princeton political scientist and former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter’s solution to the work-family problem, showcased on the cover of The Atlantic last year. “Women in power,” Slaughter wrote, can “help change the norms” . . . by talking in the office about their children and their desire for “a balanced life.” Or media mogul Arianna Huffington’s radical proposal for “the second women’s revolution,” which she recently unveiled in two radical periodicals, the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. The revolution would be all about improving working women’s “well-being” . . . by getting corporate workplaces to offer yoga classes, meditation areas, and “nap rooms.” For napping adults, that is; onsite child care did not make the well-being list. (Huffington’s own company, which recently installed two nap rooms, was leading the way: “We at HuffPost launched a free app, GPS for the Soul, to track your stress level through your heart rate variability.”) Company-sponsored “stress reduction programs,” she maintained, would enable women to “become much better at leaning in” and thereby help them speed their way up the corporate ladder.

In truth, the old internal struggle within the women’s movement between collective change and individual advancement got decided long ago in the American marketplace. It’s been more than forty years since “Dress for Success” and “Having It All” (neither, by the way, coined by actual feminists) were enshrined in the liberatory lexicon and crowded out the authentic feminist dream of transforming human society. Those endless late-sixties debates within the women’s movement—What should come first, the overthrow of capitalism or patriarchy?—seem as quaint and dust-covered as the horse and buggy. Feminism, or rather its reformulation on the American public stage, took its eyes off the prize somewhere in the middle of the “Me Generation” seventies, right at the moment when male wages began their chronic decline, right at the moment when an economically besieged and betrayed male population might have followed their female scouts into the profound and revolutionary “adventure of life.” Four decades later, we are seeing the sad fruits of that failure of will. We have redefined feminism as women’s right to be owned by the system, to be owned as much as men have been owned. Women have led the charge to join men in the enclosure. Women pride themselves now on a future where, if Mundy’s predictions prove true, they will be the leading inmates. Some sweet freedom. No wonder men don’t want to follow. They’re already there.