I subscribe to Voice Male magazine, the tag line for which is “Changing Men in Changing Times.” It’s kind of like Ms. for the profeminist men’s movement. (Many of their issues are archived online; they are definitely worth a look.) In the most recent issue, Rob Okun, the magazine’s editor has republished an article from the early 1900s by a man named Floyd Dell, a successful novelist, playwright, poet and literary critic who influenced writers like Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and Carl Sandburg. Today, however, at least according to what Voice Male’s editor has to say, those people who know about him – and I did not before I read this article – know about him because he was an ardent feminist.
The article was first published in July 1914, six years before women got the right to vote, in a socialist magazine called The Masses, of which Dell was managing editor. In its unapologetic heteronormativity, among other things, the piece is definitely a product of its time, but I was struck by how familiar Dell’s argument for how feminism will free men from “the slavery of masculinity” sounded. (The phrase is my paraphrase, but the word slavery is his.) I hope my excerpts do justice to the tongue-in-cheek tone of the entire piece:
Feminism is going to make it possible for the first time for men to be free. At present the ordinary man has the choice between being a slave and a scoundrel. For the ordinary man is prone to fall in love and marry and have children. Also the ordinary man frequently has a mother. He wants to see them all taken care of, since they are unable to take care of themselves. Yet, if he has them to think about, he is not free.
Dell goes on to talk about the “irresistible economic forces…taking more and more women every year out of the economic shelter of the home [and] making them workers and earners along with men.” He suggests that the education women will have to receive in order to be “fit for the world of earning” and the achievement of “equal pay for equal work” – the quotation marks are his; this was a slogan even back then – will inevitably result in the “setting free of men.” Dell even goes so far as to imagine “a social insurance for motherhood, which will enable women to have children without taking away a man’s freedom from him.” The problem, Dell says, is that
Men don’t want the freedom that women are thrusting upon them… 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 someone dependent on them more than they want a comrade. As long as they can be lords in a thirty-dollar flat, they are willing to be slaves in the great world outside.
The part of Dell’s article that I found most fascinating was the conclusion, which he called “A Question of Privilege.” “If the cult of masculine superiority is to be maintained,” he wrote
there must be some things that women are not allowed to do. From the Polynesians with their sacred mysteries which women are not permitted to witness, to modern gentlemen in their exclusively masculine clubs, there has always been the instinct to dignify the male sex by forbidding certain of its privileges to women.
By way of example, he talks about things that to us would seem remarkably trivial, drinking alcohol and smoking, women’s sports, and swearing; but he also talks about the way men in 1914 “pass[ed] ordinances to keep women off the streets when they venture to wear the new trouser-like skirts,” and while he does not call it slut-shaming, this is what he describes when he write about the men who “gather in crowds and hoot at the shameless female who cannot even let a man keep his pants to himself.” The main target of Dell’s argument, however, is the fact that in 1914 women still did not have the right to vote:
All the reasons that men give for not wanting women to vote are disingenuous. Their real reason is a deep annoyance at the profanation of a masculine mystery. The vote is all we have left. The women have taken everything else that we could call ours, and now this – it is too much! “Can’t we be allowed to do anything by ourselves?”
Change the terms of the argument – from, say, whether or not women can vote to whether or not women should be able to serve in combat – and it seems to me we are in many ways having the same discussion today.
Recovering and honoring the history of the women’s movement is one of the most valuable contributions women’s studies scholars have made to our understanding of gender and sexual politics; it’s good to be reminded that male feminism also has a history worth honoring.