I never had much need of a “real man.” My paternal grandmother Lila and her mother, my great-grandmother Millie–both college-educated–were bold, voiced women who cultivated such a legacy of strength that it lives on to this day (even among their female descendants who never had the pleasure of their company.)
And yet, the culture seeps in.
If not Disney Princes (no, I didn’t mean Princesses) than the other men projected onto the big screen or onto the pages of history books or out into the world where women, despite their capacities and desires, were and continue to be not only underrepresented but unrecognized and uncelebrated.
Strong women have long been suspect, perceived as a threat by both women and men–those who haven’t claimed their own power–or those who prefer the safety of the status quo (particularly when it’s in their favor)–or better yet–those who hold the illusion of a Once Upon a Time when everything was “better” because everyone knew his or her role–as is true in all systems of oppression–from castes to slavery to our current day arrangement where women do the bulk of emotional labor.
Those most fearful of a woman’s power realized, take aim at every side–deriding her male counterpart—discounting his virility because his woman’s power remains unchecked.
There is a myriad of ways to check a woman’s power in systems that preserve marginalization just as there are built-in checks for persons of color.
Inequality means that the marginalized are dependent–culturally, politically, and financially—on those in power. As such, they may, consciously or unconsciously, protect the system of their own oppression as a matter of self-preservation; or alternatively, they may self-destruct in rage or despair.
Despite or because of his mother’s and grandmother’s strength, my father, the medical student, went in search of a woman from the other side of town choosing “the prettiest girl in the school” (quoting him) which was the Catholic high school where women knew their place and worshiped at the foot of a Virgin Mother, who they were expected to be, as they pleased, conceived and delivered without the agency of their own desire.
Though my mother lacked a college education and the voice that accompanied such empowerment, she, much like my paternal grandmothers and her own mother, was an island unto herself, not needing a man, even while desiring, perhaps, companionship in love.
This was never to be. The world was bent to men so men bent toward it. While the home forced upon men some measure of being “among” if not by the gravitational pull of children and housework, then by their wife’s very presence, especially as she aged, discovering worth beyond approval; at which point, she might be traded in for a younger, less self-possessed model. Check.
Alas, the majority of my maternal figures, including my mother and my grandmothers on both sides, succumbed to the disease of loneliness—alcoholism—and died within the decade in which I find myself now.
Looking back, I see that after an initial mistake which cost me 7 years (and piercing heartbreak), I learned that my companion in love would need to be a man who recognized my strength as something inalienable and of value. This was a challenge in the eighties, particularly at the Jersey shore, particularly given my increasing level of education, income and success.
Enter Casey. Not only one of the most handsome men in the restaurant, but also a guy who could hang with women, and readily pitch in, while brazen enough to make advances toward his boss.
“He’s not your type,” a feminine representative said, in an effort to protect the patriarchy upon which we depend. “He’s not driven.”
“Have fun, but don’t stay with him,” another said, “He’s not going anywhere.”
Despite Casey’s later return to school and his eventual dual degree with honors, the concerns continued:
“Real men watch sports,” they said, when I explained that we got rid of our television in favor of spending more time together.
“Couples like you are boring,” they said, about our striking compatibility in the face of their fierce derision of one another.
To be fair, Casey’s amenability meant less conflict in our early years, as did his willingness to let me direct and lead, a capacity that was cultivated in me as a firstborn of 8, in contrast to his appeasing role as a middle child in a household that was sometimes volatile.
“Maybe he takes you out back and beats the crap out of you,” they said, just after our first child was born, wanting Casey to be something “other” than a man comfortable with a woman’s power even as he searched for his own.
“You must have some kind of arrangement,” they said, assessing a lifelong dynamic in my favor.
And this may in part be true. The scales in our household are tipped in my direction–thanks to Lila and Mildred and Loretta and Bonnie–all those women empowered and disempowered simultaneously–whose lives I carefully observed, wanting to create a new way of being what I was–female–first driving me to success like men, then home like my mothers and grandmothers, then tentatively back out into the world again.
Would I, if faced with the challenge of finding a companion in love at this age, choose a middle child, a college-dropout, barely literate, often broke?
Even so, the world is in his favor. Thirty-two years later Casey’s education (including a master’s degree) and earnings far outstrip my own; so that now it is he, encouraging me on my path, while providing for our home.
“Maybe your relationship set the bar too high,” our son says, of the love his father and I share.
“If I let her do all the housework is that oppression?” he asks, “Even if she wants to do it?”
I smile at my fierce child’s willingness to be vulnerable, and at the way a feminist course at college has opened up his eyes to all the ways men profit from the unpaid and underpaid labor of the women in their lives, and at how he is questioning his appreciation of the women who give so much while expecting so little, particularly of their sons, unlike his mother who has always expected so much.
“It just means that she has less time for other pursuits,” I tell him. “Like her paintings.”
“So if I don’t help out in the kitchen right now,” he says, looking over toward the sink full of dishes. “I’m part of the oppression?”
I want to shout HALLELUJAH, but instead, sensing his tender heart, I step from the kitchen where I prepared and cooked and served a meal and I kiss him on the forehead.
“That wasn’t true when you were a child,” I said. “But it is now.”
I say to him what I have always said since he was old enough to understand—that if I do everything in the home then I have less time to write and to be informed politically, and simply to be at ease which is his current state, reclining as he is on the comfy chair beside the window in the sun, while everyone is contributing and where he hears me–as a woman–for what may be the first time.
“Okay,” he says, and nothing more, as he lifts himself up off the chair and walks over to the sink and gets to work.
I may have felt relieved in that moment, or in this telling of my strength, born of other women’s strength (and misfortune) and coupled by men who are willing to grow; but what I feel instead is vulnerability and weariness.
In fact, I feel an awakened self-pity for how long I’ve been on the receiving end of rejection for owning my strength and wanting not a “real man” but a man who is real and lets me be real too.