The MEN'S Movement

A 'second wave' of enthusiasm for brotherhood

Every other week for the past four years, George Taylor has stepped away from his life as a writer to join several other men in evening meetings in their homes. The men - who include an artist, a computer programmer, a house painter, and a jeweler - exchange ideas on everything from current events to challenges in their personal lives.

The group has no leaders, and the rules are few: Speak from the heart, respect the views of others. The goal is to share thoughts on their status in a society that they feel offers men few guidelines and little support.

"Men are really in turmoil about their roles in society, how to be a parent, how to be connected to community," says the San Francisco resident. He says men are recognizing the value of a "small, communal process that takes men out of their isolation to begin dealing with these issues."

This quiet meeting, repeated in thousands of places across the country, is part of what's being called the "second wave" of the men's movement. Lampooned in earlier years for being a privileged, "white men only" phenomenon, the movement is maturing. It is reaching out to different racial and age groups and to women, and offering means for social change.

"The men's movement has passed through its ... adolescence and made it to early adulthood," says John Lee, whose 1988 bestseller, "Flying Boy," addressed men's issues. "For the most part, it is more grounded, less attention seeking, and more committed to horizons beyond its own narrow concerns."

The ripening can be seen at places such as Camp JCA Shalom here, where a racially mixed group of 85 men and youths spent a week last month discussing racism and violence. It was evident in a Seattle meeting where an even larger group of men and women spent a weekend last winter discussing means of gender reconciliation.

It is also found in the movement's growing numbers. The highly visible Promise Keepers - a young evangelical Christian organization that encourages men to observe high moral standards, forge ties with other men, and take greater responsibility for their families - held 13 rallies in 1995 that pulled in half a million men, up from about 4,200 in its early days five years ago.

The supersized Promise Keepers meetings have drawn from the ranks of the conventionally religious, particularly evangelicals. They are but one part of what has become a collection of movements that attract men from diverse backgrounds and encourage them to revise their lives in spiritual - if not traditionally religious - terms.

As many as 10,000 groups of a dozen or fewer men are meeting informally across the country to compare notes on everything from racism to family life. Men's groups have taken root in some prisons. Men's issues forums have sprung up on the Internet, and many bookstores now devote entire shelves to literature on the movement.

"The idea of men being willing to open up and get in touch with their feeling and emotional side is beginning to appear in mainstream thought as much as the idea in early feminism that women could seek fulfillment in roles other than wife and mother," says Bert Hoff, publisher of M.E.N., a leading men's magazine.

Unlike the women's movement of the 1960s and '70s, the majority of participants operating under the "men's movement" umbrella have no specific political agenda. Rather, they are examining ways to lead richer, more satisfying lives. "They are not out to change the system so much as they are out to change themselves," says Mark Muesse, a professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Memphis.

Michael Meade, a scholar of traditional cultures, sees the "second wave" as part of an "eruption" of disparate groups that are social, personal, and spiritual in orientation. "All seem fueled by the hunger to be part of something greater than one's isolated, modern self, to be in touch with a part of life that represents continuity and purpose," he says.

The phenomenon first grabbed national attention in 1991 with the publication of "Iron John," Robert Bly's bestseller that focused on the need for stronger father-son relationships and decried the lack of rites of passage for boys as they moved toward adulthood. Activist men's groups had existed for decades. But beginning in the mid-1980s, Mr. Bly, along with Mr. Meade, began holding wilderness retreats designed to help men explore their "neglected" emotional and spiritual lives.

"Sadly, many ... men lacked pride in their masculinity," says Christopher Harding, editor of the men's quarterly "Wingspan." "No matter how tough, cool, or jovial they may seem on the outside, inwardly many guys felt a little sheepish; spiritually and emotionally inferior to women, physically and financially inferior to other men."

"The feminist revolution made us aware of how the economic order has discriminated against women, but not how it has crippled the male psyche," wrote Sam Keen, in "Fire in the Belly," another bestseller that struck a chord with men. "Economic man, the creature who defines itself with the horizons of work and consumption, is not man in any full sense of the word....

"Especially for men, ours is an outer-directed culture that rewards us for remaining strangers to ourselves, unacquainted with feeling, intuition," he added.

But because the participants in early gatherings were largely middle-aged white men who used drumming and singing in forest settings as a way to express their emotions, the movement quickly became a prime target for criticism.

Some dismissed the retreats as woundlicking by a privileged class. Others were dismayed by what they saw as self-indulgent men ignoring those around them while trying to rediscover "lost" masculinity through hugging each other and howling in the woods.

"There is much of importance that a man can learn by removing himself from daily concerns to get in touch with himself," says Michael Kimmel, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook who has been one of the leading critics of the men's movement. "I am concerned that all this navel-gazing leads only to feel-goodism rather than a way to reenter society and make substantive social change."

More recently, some feminists have criticized men's groups, particularly the burgeoning conservative Christian organizations, for what they see as a move by men to assert authority in the family and challenge existing laws on everything from alimony to child-custody.

The quantity and intensity of criticism laid the groundwork for redirection in the movement. Partly in response to naysayers - as well as men deterred by the adverse publicity - Meade, Bly, and others began to reach out. They held multicultural retreats alongside ones designed to improve communication between men and women. They broadened the discussion to include ways to work together in communities.

Six years ago, for example, Meade and Bly experimented by inviting 50 blacks and 50 whites to a week-long retreat in West Virginia. The two groups examined conflict between the races and voiced profound concerns about themselves and their communities.

"There were two days of unmitigated rage, followed by uncompromising reactions of fear, guilt and bewilderment," Meade recalls. "After the first two days, any sane observer would have said, 'They'll be packing soon.'" But, Meade adds, halfway through the week, the tone began to change. "Something else began to enter ... what I call a deep level of brotherhood that can acknowledge differences but can also reach past them to where men can be touched by them."

Onaje Benjamin, a black political activist from Kannapolis, N.C., who attended the meeting, says that "I felt that white American men had finally gone beyond singing and dancing at retreats to deal with real issues in the community. It was one of the most powerful events of my life because it showed me there was a place that men of different races could meet beyond their rage."

Some men, however, have not entirely welcomed the broadening of the movement. After his second conference for both men and women in Mendocino, Calif., businessman Dave Brumer, a veteran of several men-only retreats, said, "I found that having women at a multicultural event added a level of complexity that made it hard to deal with."

But others have reacted more positively. "Something cracked open in me by finding that men of all ages and colors were wrestling with the same things I am," says Rico Hinojosa, a Hispanic ex-convict who participated in the Los Angeles event.

Beside the daily group discussions among men of all ages, Mr. Hinojosa says he learned to start trusting men of other races through various workshops.

Another participant, Gary Groves, liked Meade's use of storytelling to open a discussion of mentoring and the need for elders to guide youth. "By watching men stand and interpret what they saw in the story, I saw how many ways there are to view something," says Mr. Groves, a middle-aged ex-offender who has been in and out of jail since he was 14 years old. "You could see how people came from entirely different backgrounds, but somehow we're all struggling with the same things."

Perhaps in part because of greater inclusiveness and in part because of a decline in public scrutiny, the number of men participating in groups nationwide has started to grow again, particularly in the past two years. Interviews with those active in men's groups from coast to coast show that the number of smaller men's groups is growing in large cities and small communities.

More and more, men are taking things into their own hands and not waiting to be directed by teachers on high, says Hoff, the publisher of M.E.N. magazine.

The form of meetings is as varied as the number of groups. Some groups were spawned by attendees at larger conferences, some just by word of mouth. Two trends in recent years are for groups to develop their own form out of the dynamics of their regular participants. More often than not they are leaderless, allowing each man to speak from the heart rather than just from the head.

"We 'take care of business' from day to day by using our mental faculty that is full of ideas, beliefs, and opinions about everything," says David Langer, member of a Los Angeles-based men's group since 1989. "But the deeper feelings are where we really live, whether we know it consciously or not. The challenge is to uncover and own them."

One technique to help access "heart" issues is the use of the centuries-old, native American "council" form, in which participants pass a designated object known as the talking stick. Only the man holding the "stick" may talk, so the sense of competition often found in other settings is eliminated.

Another key is finding a space to hold meetings that is specifically designated as separate - at least for a few hours - from the normal trappings of life.

"Think about something tender. Think about something sacred. Think about something that makes you cry," says Don Shewey, a writer and editor in New York. "Now imagine talking about it to someone you barely know standing in Grand Central station at rush hour."

Many participants say their participation in everything from conferences to small groups is teaching them skills that they have used to enrich their workplaces and neighborhoods.

Rudd Crawford, a math teacher in Oberlin, Ohio, uses principles he learned at a multicultural gathering to give his high school algebra class - which is 40 percent minority - training in interracial harmony one day a week.

"If there are antagonisms between kids in class, we have learned to settle them as a group," he says. Crawford has built in more ways for kids to interact and bond, using both art and music. He takes time to deal with outside problems that disrupt the class.

"There is a real, shared ownership of this classroom that has settled them so they can finally focus on algebra," he says.

Mr. Benjamin also found the ideas that he gleaned from men's workshops to be helpful in his work as a community activist in his working-class town in North Carolina.

"Men in this town don't have the time or money to visit a men's retreat," he says. "But they still need the tools to take charge of their emotional lives and confront cultural oppression, plant closings, right-to-work laws."

And Harris Breiman, a teacher in Woodstock, N.Y., has spent several years creating a national network for prison counseling called Oasis.

"Men like this have realized that personal growth is fine, but that it is worthless without a broader commitment to community service and social justice," says Robert Moore, an author and leading figure in the men's movement.

Many women also say the movement has had a beneficial effect on the men in their lives, despite concerns about the emphasis on men retreating from women to discuss important issues.

"Men's work has completely changed our relationship," says Laurie Burton of her boyfriend. "He found out he wasn't alone in the way he felt and reacted to life. He has been able to fit together missing pieces of a puzzle that helped build a core of self-esteem he brings to everything he does."

"My husband has opened up to the joy of life," says Adonnah Langer of her 19-year marriage. "He has taken on much more depth and dimension as a human being and is able to share it with me."

The new openness is equally welcome to many men.

"A majority of our letters over the past five years are from men who say, 'I never knew other men felt like this,' or 'I thought I was the only guy who had these feelings,'" says Wingspan's Harding.

The impact on society of such shifts may be subtle but it is significant, observers say.

In the workplace, more men are retiring early or stepping off the career treadmill with less concern for peer or societal censure.

More media coverage is given to men's health issues, legal problems, and lives as fathers.

Men's studies is growing as a scholarly field in universities, and government documentation of parental relationships has expanded to include father/child relationships.

The inequities for men as well as women in the workplace - a glass "cellar" in which many blue-collar men feel trapped, for example, compared with the glass "ceiling" for women - are regularly discussed.

Elsewhere, the culture at large has begun to reflect the primary aims of the men's movement: more expressiveness, openness, and balance.

In movies: In "Bridges of Madison County," "Unforgiven," and "In the Line of Fire," for instance, Clint Eastwood, formerly the gun-wielding loner in "Dirty Harry," portrays males that are vulnerable and expressive. Barbra Streisand, director of "Prince of Tides," has publicly acknowledged the men's movement in leading her to choose to examine the father-son relationship portrayed in that movie.

Books: More titles are published noting the costs of patriarchal culture, from "The Masculine Mystique: The Politics of Masculinity," by Andrew Kimbrell, to "Fatherless America," by David Blankenhorn. A new series by Doubleday on corporate leadership - titles include "The Aroused Heart, Poetry and the Preservation of Soul in Corporate America," by David White, and "Money and the Meaning of Life," by Jacob Needleman - encourages men to break free of traditional competitive management styles.

"The feminists of the '60s and '70s may have turned us into oversensitive New Age guys," Hoff says. "Then the excesses of the early wildman stuff may have gone too far the other way. The secret is to find the grounded center in between."

Keen, the author of "Fire in the Belly," sums up the last decade of activism simply: "The real essence of the phenomenon for men has been the rediscovery of friendship. After all the drumming is over, men have found they have learned to talk to one another."

QR Code to The MEN'S Movement
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today