The Men’s Rights Movement, Then and Now
By Steve Paulson
Warren Farrell is widely considered the “father” of the men’s rights movement. He’s often cited in online forums where men complain about their legal and cultural disempowerment, and he’s the go-to keynote speaker for men’s conferences. Farrell’s 1993 book”The Myth of Male Power” is the bible for these aggrieved men — a kind of male counterpart to Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.”
Parts of the men’s movement are filled with anti-feminist diatribes and raging denunciations against women who are seen as manipulative and emasculating. So it may come as a surprise to meet Warren Farrell, a soft-spoken man in his early seventies who once worked closely with Gloria Steinem. He’s certainly aware of the misogyny and violent rhetoric that ripples through the men’s rights movement, but he says there’s tremendous pain beneath this anger. And if we don’t acknowledge that pain — and recognize that many men now feel rudderless — Farrell says it’s a recipe for toxic masculinity.
The following Q&A comes from a conversation with Farrell, edited for clarity and length.
Steve Paulson: Do you think boys are now confused about what it means to be a man?
Warren Farrell: Absolutely. In the old days being a man was in a sense a disaster. Every society survived because of its ability to train its sons to be disposable. So boys trained to be heroes by being disposable in war. They might train to be disposable in the workplace on oil rigs, in coal mines and on construction sites and so on, but because they were earning money they at least felt they had a sense of purpose. So the good news that’s happened is that we have fewer boys going to war. We have a smaller percentage of people dying in the workplace. But boys often feel [devoid of purpose]. What should they do? They’re sort of looking around and saying, “Well, do I want to be like my dad?” That’s the primary role model. And often their dad does not look happy.
SP: Why would this be any more confusing for boys than for girls? Do girls have an easier time finding their way and knowing what to shoot for?
WF: The blessing that the women’s movement gave to girls and women was basically saying to girls: let’s say you’re married and you both have a relatively decent job and the woman becomes pregnant. The woman basically says to herself, I have three options here. Option 1 is to be full time involved with my children. Option 2 is to be full time involved with my workplace. Option 3 is to do some combination of both. The man just sort of sits back and he says, “Oh yeah, I have three options too: Option 1 is work full time. Option 2 is work full time. Option 3 is work full time.” And then if he earns a great deal of money, he calls it power. But if you feel obligated to earn money that often somebody else spends while you die sooner, that’s a very deficient definition of power. But boys have bought into that at such a fundamental level and there’s been no men’s movement to help boys question that paradigm.
SP: And whether this is the kind of power they really want. Of course, the irony is that men still dominate most positions of power in our society. They make up the vast majority in Congress, of corporate boards, all those big powerful places in society. You’re saying maybe that’s not something that most boys actually want.
WF: That’s right. They’re looking at those people and saying, “Do I really want to be working 80 hours a week to spend my life subservient to somebody as I climb the ladder to get to the top of a ladder leaning on a wall that I don’t want to be on?” And so a lot of what is happening among boys today — among the brighter boys — is an unconscious wisdom of “Do I really want to be doing what my dad is doing?” And the answer is often no. Especially if he’s divorced and I have very minimal contact with him. I feel rudderless. I don’t have good guidance. And so that boy is very much in a lost place. But even if his dad is doing well, he often sees an unhappy dad who doesn’t have that glint in his eye. Feeling obligated to do anything is not power. Being told “You will be a hero if you go to war and die for us” is a social bribe to die.
SP: You are commonly called the intellectual father of the men’s rights movement. What do you see as the goal of this movement?
WF: The men’s rights movement in its current form is like someone who’s been shouting to be heard for 30 years and has not been heard. When people shout to be heard, they get hurt, they get mean, they distort. They do anything to get attention. And many people in the men’s rights movement are highly intelligent and thoughtful. Other people in the men’s rights movement feel that women have gotten a lot of opportunities that men don’t have. And because no one is listening and giving them credence, they are often shouting just to get the attention.
SP: There is a nasty side to all of this. One reporter has called it “an army of misogynists” — and there are a lot of trolls on the Internet. So you’re not discounting that. You’re acknowledging it’s there.
WF: Yes. First of all, it isn’t an army, but many people in the men’s movement are so hurt, in such pain, that they’re shouting out. And when people don’t get heard, as in any relationship, they start getting meaner and meaner and angrier and angrier and saying things that are in the extreme. The first need of all people is to be heard. So if we want to do the best we can and hear everyone, instead of saying “trolls” or “an army of,” let’s say, “What are they trying to say that we aren’t hearing?”
When the women’s movement first surfaced — I was on the board of NOW in New York City, as you know — I remember being on the Barbara Walters Show and The Today Show and Barbara Walters said, “Well, how can you be part of a movement where you have people like Kate Millett, who is bisexual?” This was a number of years ago when saying this was considered okay, even by somebody progressive like Barbara Walters. I said, “Barbara, first of all, people who are bisexual may see the heterosexual world more clearly than we do. Why don’t we open our ears to what the women’s movement is saying? Instead of calling them “dykes” and “bra burners,” why don’t we hear their best intent? Why don’t we hear what is not being articulated?” That led me to spending a good part of my life supporting the women’s movement and trying to articulate to men who felt threatened by it, what the women’s movement’s best intent was.
SP: We should reiterate this point because it’s fascinating. You are now so identified with the men’s rights movement, but back in the 1970s you worked for the National Organization for Women. You were on NOW’s New York City chapter board. You were called “the Gloria Steinem of men’s liberation.” That will surprise a lot of people.
WF: And “The Myth of Male Power” was really inspired by Betty Friedan’s second major book, “The Second Stage,” in which she said we’ve done a great job with women and now we have to focus on men. And if we don’t focus on men, the second stage of the women’s movement will be in trouble. When I started researching “The Myth of Male Power,” I saw that yes, men are already in trouble. And we have to start listening, but there’s an underlying reason that we don’t listen to men. It’s toxic masculinity. In order to become successful, men have to learn to repress their feelings. So when a man is feeling down and depressed, we don’t hear about it. But he may act out instead, by drinking and driving or getting DUIs. So the parents focus on the DUIs, but we don’t focus on the hurt and the pain that’s leading to it. If we consider ourselves progressive and liberal, we need to see the pain of men as well as women, of boys as well as girls. That’s our next evolutionary mandate.
SP: Where does the current political scene fit into this? Some of these ideas are getting played out within the White Nationalist Movement, what’s been called the “alt-right.” A certain kind of hyper-masculinity has surfaced, which clearly seems to be part of this movement’s appeal, and also seems related to Donald Trump’s election. What do you make of the ascendancy of this particular culture?
WF: I think the ascendancy of the Trump-type of era is explained by boys and men who have felt unheard, and now feel that somebody is speaking like they speak — but is not a loser like they’re afraid of being if they opened up their mouth — because he’s a billionaire. And so they can say, “Okay, if a billionaire who’s really successful is speaking like I’m speaking, maybe I have something to say, and maybe I should be heard.” I worked very, very hard with top advisers in the Clinton campaign to ask them to open up an avenue for boys and men to be heard, to acknowledge that there is a boy crisis, to acknowledge that there is a crisis of fatherlessness, and to say how important it is to keep fathers in the family. I’m afraid that was not heard by Hillary Clinton. And so she left out an enormous population. I contributed significantly to her campaign, as my wife did. I’m a strong supporter of her. I like her. I thought she would not be a good president; I thought she’d be a great president. But yet, she left open this enormous hole that she was not willing to go into and deal with. So we got a boy in the White House. We got somebody who any mother training her son to be an emotionally intelligent boy is training her son to be different than the person who will be our next president. That’s deeply, deeply sad. But we have gotten what we’ve neglected.
SP: What about the phrase “man up,” which we hear all the time. One of our guests in this hour considers that the most destructive phrase in the English language. What do you make of that phrase?
WF: I would agree with your guest. “Man up” is basically social pressure. There are two ways we get men to do what we want them to do but does not serve the man. We always have to remember that what serves the society does not serve the man. Every society has survived based on its ability to train its sons to be disposable in war. Being in war served the protection of the society, but it created in men characteristics that were extremely unhealthy. One of the ways we did that was telling him, “Man up.” So even today, men are expected to register for the draft when they’re 18. Not expected to — they’re required to. If they don’t do so they have a $250,000 fine, they’re put in prison for five years, and after five years in prison they cannot get any federal or state jobs. In many states, they cannot even get their driver’s license. Do men complain about it? No. Why? Because men have internalized learning to “man up.” If women were required to register for the draft with those types of penalties if they didn’t — and men were not required — millions of women would speak out. They would make it politically unable to be the only gender to register for the draft. So we’ve created an era of what I call the “multi-option woman” and the “no option man.”
SP: But what about those men who clearly are misogynistic — let’s say at a men’s rights conference or online — who say nasty things about women. Do you feel it’s your responsibility as one of the intellectual leaders of this movement to speak out and say, “Hey, this is wrong. Stop it”?
WF: My first response to all misogyny or misandry — to a Valerie Solanas, when she’s saying there should be a society for cutting up men, or for a man saying, “Don’t ever get married, all women are just prostitutes” — my first response is to listen. When you hear somebody — especially if you say “what I heard you say was this” and it’s an accurate reflection of what they’re saying — then you begin to lower their temperature to what they’re really feeling and how they’re really hurting. So I want to get to the pain behind women in the women’s movement who were filled with anger, who were always called anti-male — who were “bra burners” or just speaking really negatively about men. And I want to get to the bottom of what the guys are feeling when they are speaking out so negatively and destructively about women and therefore self-destructively. Because any man who speaks like that is also being self-destructive. And once I hear him, I want to be able to share other perspectives that allow him to see something different once he’s not in anger mode.