I came of age during a time when identifying maleness was well defined. It was a society dominated by white males and from education to occupations and family structure; the role and expectations were very clear. Societal goals for males focused on getting the proper education, whether vocational or academic, selecting a career and choosing a life partner to raise a family. I grew up in a time of limited choices. There were male choices and there were female choices. One thing was for certain; I knew, that when I reached majority, I would be working for the rest of my life. Women’s choices were limited to staying at home to raise a family or work sufficiently long enough to find the “right man” who would support her and the subsequent offspring. Of course, there were the women who were forced to pursue a self-supporting vocation or profession because, for whatever reason, marriage and family eluded them. It was never considered that a woman would want to pursue a career and forgo a husband and family.
Competition was between males, whether on the athletic field, the classroom or the job; men were expected to project power and control. Male values were associated with strength, stoicism, definitive action, problem solving and dominance. Entertainment media reflected this social expectation; resulting in TV shows like; ‘Father Knows Best’, ‘The Honeymooners’ (The Jackie Gleason Show), ‘Ozzie and Harriet’, and from film; the likes of John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and Clint Eastwood all carried the message forward. All leadership positions were occupied by males. Testosterone ruled and ruled absolutely. However, that was about to change and change in radical ways.
During the mid to late 1950s, the Second Wave of American Feminism was building and finally broke onto the shore of American Society with the publication of Betty Freidan’s 1963 monumental and life changing book, the ‘Feminine Mystique’. From that point on, the American male position of societal dominance was under constant attack. To put this into context, in a previous blog, one conservative commenter called it the “chickification” of America.
The redefining of gender roles wasn’t immediate, but the Second Wave of Feminism began initially as a movement to redefine women and women’s roles. It should be noted that the early leaders of the movement were highly intelligent and educated, using the understanding of the mechanisms of the civil rights movement and struggle, easily reinterpreted and redirected the message to women’s equality. Redefining women’s equality and roles automatically meant a redefining of men’s roles and expectations.
During the early militancy stage, women targeted the institutions of government, politics, education, business and healthcare. Healthcare reform was pushed by the introduction of the birth control pill, allowing women to finally have control and choice over their reproduction. Coupled with the various states’ legislative actions that allowed abortion on demand, that resulted in the Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 establishing a woman’s right of control over her own body; this became a hallmark victory for the movement. Men found themselves in the position that they had no legal input or rights into the fate of their own sired offspring until born. Upon birth they were obligated to take financial responsibility for the child until the child reached majority at age 18. Pieces of state and federal legislation over the following four decades leveled the playing field to the point where anticipated traditional gender roles were no longer viable. As we look at the situation today; the Second Wave of Feminism has passed and society is caught up into the Third Wave of Feminism, which is concerned more for universal rights, including equal rights for the LGBTQ communities.
The new expectations for males in the opening decades of the 21st century are on equality and sharing. Couples today are defined by shared economic partnerships; men are expected to share in child rearing, domestic work and are also expected to display the traditional feminine characteristics of honest emotional expression, open communication, cooperation and group problem solving. The changes expected of men have not been evolutionary, but revolutionary. The transition of the American male to the new expectations and values model has not been equally achieved across the spectrum of American society. This has resulted in three distinct classes of males.
The first class of males is the oldest class, represented by Boomer males. These were the males who supported and advanced the Second Wave of Feminism. For the most part, these males have successfully made the transition from the old expectations to the new realty of gender equality. They came to understand that the freedom granted to women also freed them for broader expression of their humanity.
The second class of males is the youngest class, represented by Millennial males. They haven’t had to accept any transition since they were born into society after the transition was already in place. They represent the “New Normal” and fully expect gender equality. They are their mothers’ sons.
The final and third class of males is comprised of many Boomer and Gen-Xer males. This is the group of primarily white men who are still struggling with what defines being a male. They are resisting the new egalitarian reality and seek identification in the old stereotypic models of maleness. Driven by their resistance to change, they comprise the core of the conservative and ultra conservative reactionary movements. They seem to be attracted to fundamentalist religious interpretations, conservative politics and the traditional roles for men and women, which existed prior to the emergence of Second Wave Feminism. These are the males who define the world and society as spiraling downward, the death of individualism and personal responsibility, on the brink of civil unrest and possible civil war. This is the group that envisions itself as the protectors of society and the preservers of the good of the past. Their fear of the things to come has guaranteed their ultimate demise. Within two generations, this group will have receded into mostly an afterthought, unless they can thrust us into a civil war based on reactionary ideology. But, time and history are against them.
Just as “globalism and universality” are a part of the 21st century reality, the role of the American male will continue to change. It is an exciting time to observe the changes yet to come, eliciting hope for the future of all of humanity. One thing is for certain, gender will, no longer affect merit, and that’s as it should be.