Creating an Egalitarian Model of Manliness to End Violence Against Women

By Rylee Sommers-Flanagan*

NCRW put on its annual conference (June 11-12) in collaboration with the US National Committee for UNIFEM, bringing in the biggest brains and best leaders to discuss “Strategic Imperatives for Ending Violence against Women.” It’s probably best to confess right away that I am an intern with NCRW and can do no less than rave about even the most mundane tasks, like picking up the remnants of the media lunch—no, but really, I met a woman who had arrived late from Chicago and told me all about the trials and travails of advising the mayor, organizing committees and working with the less avid feminists in the world. She gave me her card. It’s a funny feeling being thrilled to have gotten stuck with the lunch dishes.

It was an amazing experiment from start to finish, but one session I especially enjoyed was “Where are the Men?” with former NFL quarterback, Don McPherson, along with Quentin Walcott, part of a violence prevention agency called CONNECT, and Nakeisha Blades from the Guttmacher Institute. Carl Murrell, of the Subcommittee on Violence, NGO Committee on the Status of Women moderated the panel.

I’ll get right to it; McPherson is the man.

This is a guy who played for the NFL (National Football, not Forensics, League), a testosterone-filled, sex-and-sports machine, well-known for its ability to make a college drop-out into a sex god and have the rest of us tout him for it. But in McPherson’s words, “there needs to be an egalitarian model of manliness.” He also told us that feminism saved him, and he quoted Jackson Katz, explaining that men’s violence against women is a men’s issue, just like racism is a white issue. Patriarchy, he said, is only interested in a narrow definition of man. He asked the audience, “What’s the worst insult for a little boy?” We chimed in, no hesitation, “You ___ like a girl.” Without ever diminishing the women’s movement and the women who drive it, Don McPherson told us that it was our adult male culture that should be outraged at the confinement of boys. He also pointed out, not without empathy, that we, the women, need to invite men to the table. Every movement is more successful with wider ranks, and especially in a movement like ours, where there is intimacy, love and private conflict to consider. Men and women live in this world together, shouldn’t we be working together to solve the problems?

Each person on the panel made important contributions to the discussion. Ms. Blades painted a picture of reproductive health with the results of a study on intimate partner violence. She presented story after story of women whose partners sabotaged their attempts to use contraceptives, denied paternity after insisting on carrying a fetus to term, even partners who interfered directly in women’s access to clinics and other health care providers. She made it a point to acknowledge that men’s experiences were not recorded in the research, though, and that their perspective is absolutely necessary if progress is to be made.

Mr. Walcott’s message was right in line. He, too, talked about violence against women as a men’s issue, and he expressed real concern at the number of men left out of the discussion. For Mr. Walcott, it’s a matter of reaching out; actually finding those who have failed to come for help. There have to be options outside of the criminal justice system, he said.

Ok, so Walcott is the man, too. And Blades is the woman! We didn’t hear much from Carl Murrell, but I get the sense he’s on board, too.

I think it was the novelty of it, though, that made Mr. McPherson such an inspiring specimen. He looked around the room at one point and said, “No offense to any of you out there today, but maybe a better title would be, ‘Where are the White Men?’” We live in a society dominated by white males, so maybe it’s no wonder they’re not stepping out of the power structure to work with those of us who have so long been pushed aside. Mr. McPherson gets to be an insider in the male half of that demographic, and it’s not like he’s just playing the part – he is what our society defines as a real man. Yet he is declaring that our society is wrong; we haven’t got the definition right. I’m with him. It is time for us to allow girls, boys, and anyone who falls outside of those gender lines the opportunity to be whole and human, complete with no buts.

*Rylee Sommers-Flanagan is a Communications intern with the National Council for Research on Women.  She is working towards her BA from Emory, concentrationing on International Studies and Political Economy in Latin America.

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I'd like to give a serious high-five to Don McPherson (and Rylee for blogging about his comments at the NCRW panel discussion). What's so phenomenal about this idea is that, in fact, it's not phenomenal at all. It should be second nature to us; as Don said, "men’s violence against women is a men’s issue, just like racism is a white issue."

I hope to integrate these fundamental (but oft-overlooked) ideas at the domestic violence program I volunteer with, and I'm sure other programs will follow. Well said, Don and Rylee!

As a white male, I agree. And I think if we are looking for new criteria of manliness, we might start with authenticity rather than bravado. We might look for integrity, honor and strength of character rather than physical superiority. We might look for personal and relational steadfastness. Maybe manliness is not "protecting" people by defeating bad guys, but offering real safety by being gentle, respectful and trustworthy. Maybe being manly means being unafraid to be honest. So a real man is actually a REAL human, not just an action figure.

-- Steve Garnaas-Holmes

This is great, and well written. Although changing a culture is difficult, if not impossible, at least there's an effort being made. A comment I enjoyed was by McPherson, saying " the women need to invite men to the table." I like that the direction this is headed is not pushing blame to one gender, but a group effort.

I'm not sure if this was clear, but its interesting that the room / board was composed of only minority individuals.

Well written Ms. Sommers-Flanagan.