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A feminist theologian explains the problem with men

A feminist theologian explains the problem with men March 14, 2012

Rosemary Ruether on the Problem with Men

Not very long ago I posted some musing here about a possible reason why our prisons are so crowded with men and why we now have an over abundance of drifting young men with no apparent purpose in life other than to swagger and act macho or disappear into a wasted existence of playing video games. My suggestion was that especially young men, probably from early adolescence on, need to feel respected and either act out in anti-social ways or fade away into a virtually invisible, endless childhood of playing games. Evidences of the problem abound; even women scholars are paying attention, much of it focusing on men’s failures to man up in a society now forever changed by feminism. Very few of these articles and books say anything about boys and the roots of the contemporary male crisis. My thesis is that boys, for whatever reason, feel the need to be respected but look into the future very unsure about the value society places now on being a man.

Sidebar: It’s true that, overall, “men” (as an aggregate) make more than “women” (as an aggregate). But in this series of posts I’m not talking about who makes more money. That’s an important issue and needs to be addressed by both government and industry. I have some theories about why that’s still the case, in spite of the huge strides women have made, but income isn’t what I’m talking about when I say that society places a lower value on men than women. What I’m talking about is something much less tangible. I’m talking about overall approval. It’s a disposition rather than something quantifiable. But it can be measured in certain ways including, for example, that women’s health is promoted by government and non-profit groups without any corresponding emphasis on men’s health. Also, the rate of male high school dropouts is much higher than female and the ratio of women to men earning degrees is much higher for women. Also anyone who watches television can’t help but see the disparate values placed on women and men. Women are generally portrayed as strong, competent, capable and independent. Men are generally portrayed as deeply flawed, either sinister or silly, insecure and or overly macho.

In my quest to make sense of this phenomenon (the “male crisis” referred to in the first paragraph above) I have been reading a lot of feminist literature. One feminist hypothesis that has interested me is that posed by Rosemary Ruether, based on research by Peggy Reeves Sanday (Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Inequality), in Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. (I don’t want to get distracted here by discussions of Ruether’s theology or ecofeminism, etc. I want to stick to this one point of hers. So please keep your comments to it.)

The background is Ruether’s quest to understand patriarchy which is (usually) male dominance over women and subjugation of women. When she wrote this in about 1990 or 1992 the male crisis was not yet even on the horizon. She doesn’t address it. However, I think her theory about the cause of patriarchy may be helpful in understanding the growing male crisis in Western societies. The basic question she addresses is why men feel the need to be dominant and even aggressive toward women. What are the roots of patriarchy? An interesting sentence that sets the stage for her hypothesis is “…we need to learn the lessons of the weaknesses of the matricentric core of human society that made it vulnerable to patriarchy.” (171) She criticizes “female-identified” feminisms such as Mary Daly’s that negate males as fellow human beings. Ruether is not interested in reversing patriarchy and having women dominate men. She is interested in building a society of true equals.

Her suggestion is that the “core” of human society is matricentric (not matriarchal) because women have always tended to be the primary care givers of children—both male and female. That’s what makes the core of society, even under patriarchy, matricentric. The problem is, she says, that “The matricentric core of human society remains, even under male hierarchies, and continually reproduces the insecure, resentful male, who emancipates himself from his mother by negation of women.” (169) Sanday’s research revealed the prevalence of male resentment of women in societies that have not successfully balanced matricentricity with adult male cultural roles. (169)

According to Ruether, based on Sanday’s worldwide research into diverse cultures, there is a psychosocial weakness inherent in matricentricity. Here is its pathos: “its difficulty in drawing in the contributions of the grown male without either conceding to this male a dominating role over women, or else producing a demoralized male deeply resentful of women. The root of the problem lies in the extension of the female childbearing and suckling functions into making the mother the dominant parent. … While the female role is built into the process of life-reproduction…the male role has to be constructed socially. Societies that fail to develop an adequately affirmative role for men, one that gives men prestige parallel to that of women but prevents their assuming aggressive dominance over women, risk developing the resentful male, who defines his masculinity in hostile negation of women.” (167)

Sanday’s research showed that “societies that have achieved gender parity…were societies that either had elaborately structured mutual acknowledgment of male and female prestige and power, where women conceded power roles to men…or else societies of considerable gender-role fluidity.” (167) Both Sanday and Ruether make clear that by “conceded power roles to men” they do not mean allowed men to dominate women. I take it that this means acknowledging men as equal with women in terms of value to the family unit and therefore to society. According to Ruether, based on Sanday’s research, male domination of women, patriarchy, occurs because men feel insecure about their worth and need to secure their worth by domination.

Now, take that problem into a culture where men also feel insecure because of some inability to gain economic power. “Adult male prestige, denied as economic prowess, is acted out through sexual and physical domination of women. The unemployed son or husband, demoralized by the dominant patriarchal and hierarchical society, disdains to help with housework and childcare lest he compromise his ‘masculinity’ thereby.” (170). “Prestige” is another word for respect. My thesis has been that in today’s culture, many young men have given up hope of having the prestige they feel they need often due to the mother being the primary parent and their perception that society favors women over men.

What’s so fascinating is that Ruether, building on Sanday’s research, traces the roots of patriarchy, which she considers original sin, back to matricentricity and its weaknesses and societies’ failures to counter those weaknesses. Notice Ruether’s explanation of the birth and rise of patriarchy as a “fall”:

In gatherer and early gardening societies, built on the matricentric core of the human family, women often had real power and prestige, when food-gathering and agriculture also meant female control of resources. Such societies achieved real gender parity of power when they constructed ways of drawing in the adult male contribution to work and parenting, conceding to him real and symbolic spheres of prestige and power, while limiting male aggression. But the conditions of such societies began to break down as the agricultural revolution moved toward more crowded urban societies about five thousand years ago, and only remnants still exist today. (170)

In a somewhat surprising, maybe even shocking, admission, Ruether, a leading feminist, says that “this matricentric pattern [of primitive societies and of families in general] is itself the breeding ground of male resentment and violence, rooted in male strategies of exploitative subversion of women’s power….” (171)

Now, it would be totally wrong to interpret Ruether as suggesting that the blame for patriarchy lies with women. Nothing could be further from the truth. She is arguing, however, that matricentricity is the “original position” of human society because only women can give birth and suckle and, generally speaking, in most societies, women have been the primary nurturers of children. And there’s nothing wrong with that UNLESS some mechanism isn’t found to balance matricentricity with male prestige and power. When men become resentful, which happens when they feel hopeless about prestige and power, patriarchy is the result. (Remember, “matricentricity” is not “matriarchy”—the opposite of patriarchy. Both would be hierarchical patterns of relationships. Ruether is against all hierarchy as dominating power over. Matricentricity is in itself a good thing. But it contains a hidden weakness that leads to patriarchy unless that weakness is acknowledged and corrected. The way to do that is for matricentricity to yield to young men prestige and power, not dominating power over. I think of “prestige and power” as social acknowledgement of worth and value.)

Ruether’s proposal is not a “return to a Neolithic matricentric village as the basis of gender parity.” (171) She doesn’t think that’s possible. So what is possible? What might begin to dissolve patriarchy by addressing the needs (especially male insecurity) that lead to it? She says “We need to structure new forms of gender parity.” (171) How? “This must begin by changing a pattern that goes back to the beginnings of hominid development and even earlier; that is, the social construction of the primacy of maternal gestation into the primacy of early childhood nurture and domestic labor by women. Men and women must share fully the parenting of children from birth and the domestic work associated with daily life.” (171)

In case you’re not yet shocked, listen to this by Ruether: “One must look at all the hierarchies of exploitation and control that emanate out of the family pattern of female mothering and domestic labor.” (172) Her proposal is radical. “A genuine change in the pattern of parenting must be understood, not as a slight adjustment toward males ‘helping’ females with childcare, but a fundamental reconstruction of the primary roots of culture, transforming gender imaging of child-parent relations and the movement into adulthood for both males and females. This implies a reconstruction of the relation of the domestic core of society to the larger society.” (171-172)

Now, how does Ruether’s view support my own? It seems to me that the root cause of the present male malaise is resentment arising from the perception that males are viewed by society as, at their core, inferior to females. One education expert noted (in Newsweek’s “The Boy Crisis” cover story (January 30, 2006) that in today’s public schools boys tend to be treated as “defective girls.” Boys and young men cannot help but pick up the not-very-subtle messages in the media that boys and men are fundamentally flawed. Many young men were raised solely by women with no male role models other than sports celebrities or rock stars. Most companies give women six weeks to six months off for maternity leave; most give fathers no time off when their child is born. There’s a whole complex of problems that are almost too subtle for most people to notice, but they go deep into social psychology. The feminist movement has done wonderful things for women, but it has had the (mostly) unintended consequence of making young men feel insecure about themselves. The result goes two directions—either toward acting out in anti-social ways or toward retreat from the pursuit of prestige and power into game playing.


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