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In a recent Walking on Eggshells diary, CroneWit made a valuable observation about how men talk (and often do not talk) about their familiarity with feminism.  

[W]e need men who understand this to speak and tell their own stories of how they allowed themselves to be changed when they began to listen to women's expressions, even (and especially) when those expressions made them uncomfortable.

...what confronted them and made them, for the first time, question that cultural 'given'...and how they changed their behavior after these realizations.

Yet, in the various diaries/thread I've read so far on these issues, those stories are absent.  I've seen a number of men refer to this change-process as something that happened, in the past...These men give the summary, but do not tell the story...

Even if men sincerely try, it can be hard for us to "get" feminism, in part because of how we go about it.  We often "lead with our head" -- we learn arguments and principles; we remind ourselves "to listen" (to what, Odin only knows); and we ask (usually a woman) "What is to be done?"

That's why CroneWit's call for "stories of how [men] allowed themselves to be changed" resonated with me.  Sometimes "getting it" is less a matter of decision than of allowing oneself to be touched, moved, changed.  Storytelling can occasion insight in that way.  Below the squiggle, I'll talk about some experiences that, over time, primed me to take feminist themes seriously.

"You're your father's son," my mom used to tell me.  And it was true.  I identified strongly with my dad; and because I was a good athlete, I got most of his attention and affection.  My parents married because of an unexpected pregnancy.  It was a shotgun wedding.  Not only did they not love each other, they could barely stand each other.  They fought, in front of as well as through us kids.  Although never physical, there was emotional violence aplenty.  (It was reciprocal.  My mother gave as good as she got.)  To be a child in that house required picking a camp -- Mom or Dad -- or finding someplace that could serve as a DMZ.

I was My Father's Son.  Why the "ordinary" in my diary title?  Listen to "My Little Town," by Simon and Garfunkel.  If you've never listened closely to the lyrics, please read them and listen again.  The song is deceptively sweet, almost a sing-a-long.  But when I first really heard the lyrics, I was floored.  It captured perfectly the mood, the suffocating atmosphere and frustration that pervaded our working class neighborhood.

I was My Father's Son.  Life was ordinary.  Dads worked in the skilled trades and Moms raised kids.  My mother did a good job.  She was imperfect, sure.  But she was independent, highly intelligent and resourceful, creative, and sometimes downright bawdy.  She was also bored and unfulfilled as a Wife-Mom.  I know this now; I felt it then. "Jody Girl," a forgotten gem by Bob Seger, describes it well.  Oddly enough, this song was probably my first exposure to feminism (or to feminist themes).  

Jody girl, Jody girl, spend your time today
Watching clocks spin the hours away.
Jody girl, you know the world's
Goin' around all day,
Thinking back to the things you used to say.
------------
Now you sit here on a cloudy afternoon
Watchin' a soap opera on TV.
Your old man's workin'
And your kids are out playin'
And you're not feelin' too free.

I knew nothing of "the problem that has no name."  I don't think the word "feminism" was ever uttered in our house.  There was no animus toward feminism; it just seemed exotic and remote, a type of militant activism that happened on college campuses somewhere.  But "Jody Girl," that tender and melancholy rock ballad, always felt familiar to me.  In some dim, inchoate way, it felt like a song about my mother, about my friends' mothers, most of whom organized their social lives around their husbands' work schedules and their children's needs and activities.

Some years later, now an adult, I'm enmeshed in grown-up relationships.  I begin hearing something -- maybe a lot of guys hear this; I really don't know -- but I heard it often enough that I started listening for it.  "You're not like others guys...I feel safe with you."  Now, that confused and troubled me.  I didn't know what it meant or how I should "take it."  I knew it was a compliment of some sort.  But nearly every time it was said, I spontaneously wondered if my masculinity were being questioned, or if "not being like other guys" meant I was "less manly."  But that just didn't fit.  It was clearly a compliment, not a complaint or insinuation.

"You're not like other guys" confused me.  It felt disorienting.  Sure, I sometimes felt "taken aback," fleetingly "defensive."  But what really puzzled me is that it felt like a mis-recognition, a misidentification.  (I am comfortably wearing a suit, one I've worn since childhood.  You tell me the suit doesn't fit as neatly as I think it does.  And, somehow, that's a Good Thing.)  For one thing, it felt like I was being given credit for something I didn't deserve.  "I am like other men," I would sometimes say.  "I'm randy, I watch sports, I like to show off...How am I any different?"  But when the question was answered, that's when the other shoe dropped, because what I often heard, often enough that it sticks out in memory, is "...I feel safe with you."    

In time, it seemed to me that I should not hear two distinct statements, "You're not like other guys" and "I feel safe with you."  I reversed their order and heard one statement: "I feel safe with you; [that's why] you're not like other guys."  That stopped me.  It disturbed me.  At this point in life, I was barely familiar with feminist theory; I was not reflective in that way yet.  I flew by the seat of my pants, making sense of boy-girl stuff with the same clumsy "cultural tools" we all get through socialization.  I saw myself as just a guy, an ordinary guy trying to live a life.  And so I wondered: Holy shit, if you feel safe with me, if that's something you feel moved to call attention to, what in the hell were your other experiences with men like?  More generally: What is it about boy-girl relations that safety should be such a conscious concern and (perhaps worse) a discernible part of romantic attraction?  

By the time I was 30, I had dated three women (and had a female friend) who, when they determined it was safe and appropriate, confided in me that they had been raped.  I could go on in this way, sharing more recent experiences (intimate and Platonic), which made crystal clear that what I had hazily glimpsed before was, indeed, a gender-specific pattern.  I could talk about the abuse each of my parents suffered as children (at the hands of violent fathers or grandfathers).  Or I could talk about less dramatic but more routine things, like the almost ubiquitous habit (among men and women) of using the word "girl" to refer to an adult female; or the propensity of men to interrupt women during conversation.  Suffice it to say that experiences like these form part of the history of what moved me, not to begin reading feminist theory in the first place, but to begin taking it seriously and trying to understand it.  

I think CroneWit's observation about storytelling is true and important.  An insight is distinct from the history of that insight.  Sometimes change happens to us -- we allow it rather than will it -- and the history of such change has its own value.  In the comments, then, I invite men to talk and share stories about "how they allowed themselves to be changed when they began to listen to women's expressions, even (and especially) when those expressions made them uncomfortable."

I'll close with another tune (sweet, hippie, and controversial!).  It's a nice pick-me-up.  :)

Originally posted to Silencio on Thu Jun 26, 2014 at 04:30 PM PDT.

Also republished by Mad Men on Daily Kos, Barriers and Bridges, White Privilege Working Group, This Week in the War on Women, Sluts, Kitchen Table Kibitzing, and Walking on Eggshells.

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Does storytelling help you better understand yourself and others?

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