Surviving the Road to Feminism: A Male Chauvinist’s Story of Change

I am a man. I have a son–no daughter. I have three brothers–no sisters. My dad has two brothers–no sisters. My mom has two brothers–you guessed it–no sisters. I even owned two dogs and two cats in my life, and, yes, they were all males. It is safe to say that sexism, chauvinism and any other male-ism you can identify were deeply rooted in my formative years and carried forward into adulthood. Yet, I live to tell my story of surviving a relationship during which my “partner” became a feminist. Oh yeah–and I learned a few things about myself along the way.

I will call her Lancia. She and I first met in 1987. We worked together for about four years before she left to take advantage of a better opportunity. During those years, we had plenty of conversations and experiences that revealed much about each other that we liked, making it easy to build a caring friendship–a typical outcome that is both a blessing and a curse of a two-gender professional workplace. After she left, we kept in touch every two weeks or so by phone for about five years. Eventually, we lost contact for three years. In March of 2000, I received an out-of-the-blue phone call from her. She was sorting out the effects of ending an unusual eight-year relationship during which she had placed her life on hold. In the meantime, I was frantically holding on to a bad marriage–not a bad spouse mind you; just a bad marriage. When I heard her voice on the other end of that phone, the lost years were erased instantly.

The year following that fateful phone call was difficult for me; but eventually, I separated and moved into a small apartment. It was not a very proud moment in my life but one that had to happen. Once physically separated, Lancia and I slowly pieced together a serious relationship. It has been about three years now. The first year wasn’t easy; at times our relationship was down right failing. Contrary to the first year, the last two have been growth years. They were also the years Lancia started her adventure to feminism. I’m proud to say I participated in that adventure: sometimes actively, sometimes passively. The truth is I really had no choice but to participate. So I did and I was a mess.

My life experiences had been so male dominated that I was doomed to make some real mistakes–and I did. The only “out of male body” experience I could draw on was my observation of one of my brothers. He married a woman who had three sisters. They had two daughters. Little did he know that I monitored him like a rat in a maze experiment. For a while there, the outcomes were not promising as documented by his long moments of open-eyed, comatose stares. That was the extent of my readiness or more accurately, my lack of readiness.

Anyway, her journey to feminism began in earnest about two years ago. She attended some kind of one-week training seminar in Maine called “Leadership Development Class”. Part of this class included something she called “human interactive laboratory”–sounded like “rats in a maze” to me. Something about the laboratory connected deeply with her. It was a “touchy feely” session during which classmates were forced to confront all sorts of internal baggage. I am still not sure exactly how all this was done and she has yet been able to explain it to me in a way that I can understand. Whatever occurred, Lancia came back a slightly different person.

She seemed excited and motivated to further deal with some of her self-revelations. Part of this excitement translated into a series of “four in the morning” discussions with me. I was becoming sleep deprived, quite frankly, but she was on a mission. I sensed that I had better pay attention. Initially, that wasn’t easy for me–I had my own issues. For instance, I was reeling from my immersion into this goddess sanctuary Lancia called “her home”. At this point I was living full time with Lancia–the apartment was gone. Without the apartment I had no place to hide, except her basement, where I retreated many times to lick my wounds. I knew that I was screwing up all over the place but clueless as to why. My head was spinning.

There was also another insidious dynamic at work. Lancia’s daughter, who was a few months shy of 16, grew an appendage–her boyfriend. He was about as much a controlling teenage boy as one could muster. The whole thing was very difficult for me to watch–I mean with the hugging and the kissing and the touching already. I could’t believe how I fell into this protective father role instantly and she wasn’t even my daughter. She has a very capable dad to do that; besides, I always thought of myself as some kind of “new age” dad that, if given the chance, would deal with such daughter rearing challenges in a more balanced way. Wrong! Something dastardly was at work–something dark. Anyway, at least I had the presence of mind to remember that I wasn’t her father and that I had to keep my feelings and opinions contained. So I bit my tongue and retreated to my cave in the basement–often.

So let’s see. I am living with her full time. I am grappling with the whole daughter/boyfriend thing. I am trying to find my place in a Goddess sanctuary. I have no real life experience to prepare me. I’m scrambling. I’m floundering. And Lancia comes home from this getaway, “human interaction” camp all fired up and on the brink of some life altering self-discovery. This was not exactly the ideal situation. Wait. It gets worse.

There was one other small matter going on that I reluctantly need to reveal. While she was away at the seminar, I was able to fully engage my preoccupation with the revelation that the eight-year relationship Lancia was in (i.e., the one that ended a few months prior to the infamous phone call) was one of those “same-sex” kind. In hindsight I probably should have been a wee bit less shocked and preoccupied; after all, I knew during those eight years that this woman lived with her. I also knew that this woman was a lesbian. Oh hell, I even knew that this woman was in love with her before she moved in. I was a math major. You would think that I could have added this up: 1 + 1 = 2; but I kept coming up with 1 + 1 = “no way”. I mean, it was never even a casual thought of mine that Lancia and this person were in a relationship. For a host of reasons which I have grown to understand, Lancia kept the depth of the relationship a secret and did a great job of painting a picture in which 1+ 1 equalled “no way”. But once we were together, I started doing the math more studiously, and after many probing and stupid questions, the real picture emerged. The truth is that they were in a “committed” relationship for the first five years and a “less than committed” relationship the next three years.

Mentioning this is important on two counts. First, it was something that I clearly was struggling with and obsessing over while Lancia was starting her journey to feminism. My preoccupation was fueled mostly by the hurt I felt as a result of being deceived for so many years. That made me very angry. When I get angry, I get passive aggressive which means the anger comes out sideways. For example, we could be in the middle of the most ordinary conversation, when I would hear some trigger word that would launch me into some unintelligible tirade. Lancia might say “I’ll pick up a couple of steaks”. I hear the trigger word, “couple”. Before I can stop myself, I respond, “Oh, I bet you made a nice couple!”. That didn’t make me the greatest listener and when you are talking about feminist issues, you can just imagine all the opportunities for trigger words. Looking back on it now, I am alarmed at how deeply shallow I really was–oh well. The other reason I mention this is that Lancia found those eight years “refreshing”. She later would come to understand why, and in some way, the need to know why had a lot to do with pushing her forward to where she is now. More on that later.

So now you have the complete picture. Lancia returned from her “touchy feely” camp all ready to go and there I was: wounded, disoriented, dependent and angry. Shortly after her return from class, Lancia decided she wanted to pursue a counselling career. She formulated a plan and has been executing that plan ever since. Also upon her return from the seminar, we developed a weekly ritual. Every Saturday morning, I would get up at 6, let the dog out, make a pot of coffee and bring two cups up to the bed–or “the perch” as we fondly call it. Then the weekly conversation would begin. Some of the discussions focused on troubling news issues: the war on terrorism, the war on Iraq (we separate those wars), abortion, same sex marriage, and blah, blah, blah. Other times we tackled issues closer to home, like relationships: others and ours. Most of the time, we were all over the map. In one breath we would talk about her frustrations with a work-related issue and in the next breath we would talk about the AIDS crisis in Africa.

On the surface the conversations seemed disjoint but there was an underlying link of some sort. Finding that linkage and discovering the “whys” remained elusive. That is until she read, The Gender Knot, by Allan G. Johnson. It provided her a framework for thinking about the “whys” of so many questions and feelings she had. After much prodding by her, I am now reading this book. I can only handle about three pages a day because every sentence is thought provoking, but I am getting through it and it is helping me to understand perplexing and troubling experiences of my own.

The book explains in detail a complex societal system that intertwines male power over women (and other men for that matter) through religion, politics, business, media, education, family, marriage, and on and on. It’s all about the cultural impact of patriarchy. The book also tackles solutions, one being feminism and how it can effectively undo the knots women are bound by.

Before I read the book, Lancia bombarded me with “feminist” rhetoric and her disdain for patriarchy. It didn’t matter what the subject was; she found a way to link it back to these ideas. I must admit that it took me some time to get past some initial patriarchal roadbloacks that I had cleverly tucked away for such occasions. For instance, one formidable roadblock was: feminists hate men–they must be lesbians in denial. Wrong–feminists don’t hate men (nor do lesbians for that matter); however, they do despise the systematic oppression of women fueled by patriarchy. You might be thinking right about now there is hope for me, that I’m getting it. I say, “Not so fast sister. There are many complicated layers to this apparently simple male mind.”

Once I got past that little gem, I learned that I needed to overcome male physiology if I was ever going to be able to understand feminism. You can not have an honest discussion about patriarchy without talking about what men do to keep it alive and well. When Lancia talked to me about patriarchy and men in this context, my first reaction was that she was attacking me personally. Lancia would say the word “men”, and some apparent male-only component in my inner ear changed that word by dropping the “n”, thus changing the word “men” to “me”. She was talking about me! Of course I became defensive. I’d dig in licketty split. She repeatedly and patiently explained that she was not talking about me when she spoke of “men” in the context of patriarchy. But the inner ear thing kept undermining her attempts. This inevitably ended the conversation in frustration for her and hurt for me. Fortunately, she did not relent and I started to read the book.

I think the breakthrough for me may have occurred when I realized that patriarchy is a type of society in which people participate, both male and female. It is really about the participation and not about the people. I was feeling better. Of course, I did not participate in such wanton oppression. Patriarchy is about the participation of others, not about me. I continued to feel good for a day or so. Then I read the next three pages of the book and there it was. I do participate in it. In fact, we all participate in it–men and women alike. We have no choice. It is all tangled up in the American culture. Actually, it is the foundation of all modern cultures.

There is hope though. It is “how” we participate that we can control and it is the “how” that can change it. My participation has been for the most part passive, but that doesn’t let me off hook. My passivity sustains it and whether I care to admit it or not, I receive benefit as a result. This is what makes it a very difficult system for men to give up. So we kind of stand idly by, receiving idle benefit. I am beginning to understand the deeper issues now. I’m not saying that I have it all figured out because I don’t but I am on my way.

For Lancia, feminism gives her a positive way to participate in patriarchy; a way that makes her feel good about herself. I understand that now. Also, I no longer feel threatened or maligned or personally to blame (although I still have that inner ear thing going on occasionally). I now see feminism as a movement by women to consciously participate in a patriarchal society in such a way that they can morph it into something that eliminates power and priveledge as its objective. As corny as it might sound, feminists are freedom fighters in truest sense. I can deal with that.

Earlier I mentioned that Lancia found that eight-year same-sex relationship to be “refreshing”. She could never verbalize that to me before all this. I suspect she may have felt guilt and possibly embarrassment about those feelings. She now understands why she felt that way and is able to talk about it. It was refreshing because it was void of the pressures, struggles and frustrations she had felt when she was in relationships with men. Although she continued to experience those issues in work relationships and other external relationships, it wasn’t happening in her bedroom or at her kitchen table or on her vacations or with child rearing. It felt good to be at home and experience life with someone who was unemcumbered with … um … well with maleness. It was hassle free. Of course, when I came into the picture, it was kind of like “the return of the struggle”. However, knowing that a relationship could be otherwise–that it could be without hassle–I think inspired Lancia to want to understand why she felt that way and remove the guilt. Having said all that, I am not going to sit here and tell you that I have been able to completely get past this whole “refreshing” episode in her life. My guess is I will always be uneasy about some of the choices Lancia made during that period but I no longer feel threatened by the relationship’s “refreshing” appeal.

So there you have it. I survived the onslaught of feminism. My relationship is stronger for it and I have learned a few things along the way. Oh sure, I still have some issues that I get all caught up in. For instance, by naming this movement “feminism”, I can’t help but think it perpetuates the separation of males and females–a tactic of patriarchy. There is this other matter when Lancia purposely bares cleavage and upper thigh when she presents to Senior (male) Executives at her company. I have asked her why she does that–it seems to fly in the face of feminism. Her answer is that her female sexuality can, when used properly, render men defenseless to her objective. I don’t know. It still seems undermining to the cause if you ask me. Oh well, that is just food for more thought and more debate and more cave dwelling.

Going forward the only thing I can count on is that I will be participating in her cause 364 days a year. I say 364 days because I know my dearest feminist will never be able to give up Valentines Day. It will always be her (and my) day off from the movement.