In a late-night stupor in 1984 my burly buddy, Dave hesitantly but bravely shared this quote with me:
“The woman who needs to be liberated most is the woman in every man, and the man who needs to be liberated most is the man in every woman.” — Magnus Hirschfeld
I was blown away!
Back then, feminism was a messy, unreasonable presence that constantly demanded our attention. How does one usually keep an annoying family member quiet? Reprimands, distraction, shame, shouting, blunt force? As I said, these were messy times. Dave, like many college students, including me, grappled with two opposing paths: follow tradition or embrace change. It wasn’t that hard for me to decide. In the early 1980’s, it seemed for the first time, that a woman no longer had to endure a crappy marriage or pursue a secretarial career. This sounded great to me and I was all in.
Yet, the unwavering force of tradition tugged at my conscious and influenced my choices as well as my late-night banter. In that moment, Dave’s words struck a chord of truth in my 20-year-old mind. These words miraculously expanded the possibilities, as I saw it for all of humanity. I knew that in the 1980’s a woman was now free to embody her “masculine” side by pursuing a career in accounting, computer science, or even law enforcement. But at that time, it hadn’t occurred to me that men could now express their “feminine” traits like empathy, cooperation, and dare I say it, sadness or pain? It was nothing short of revolutionary!
It turns out that the quote had nothing to do with feminism. It was originated by a German, Jewish physician, Magnus Hirschfeld (1868 – 1935). Dr. Hirschfeld studied sexual minorities and was really the first advocate for homosexual and transgender struggles. [i] Nonetheless, in his words, I saw the profound solution to heterosexual struggles as well.
Indeed, today, both men and women do enjoy tremendous freedoms from the strict traditional roles of prior generations. We see this most within families. No longer constrained to the role of disciplinarian and provider, today’s fathers are free to parent using the full range of human emotion. Fathers get to play, to comfort, to wonder and to love their children. Women, once confined to careers in teaching, nursing and secretarial positions, now surpass the number of men entering higher education and their career options are endless.
However, let’s face it. When it comes to forging romantic or sexual relationships between men and women, we still have plenty of work to do. The traditional role for males has been that of the pursuer, who upon conquering his prize, is then “entitled.” Furthermore, when it comes to dating, men and women often rely on unspoken clues, gestures or glances to determine the interest level of prospective partners. Of course, these conditions are ripe for misinterpretation, coercion, and abuse by the pursuer. Add alcohol to the mix, and it is easy to see how the line of “innocent misunderstanding” vs. “intentional date rape” becomes blurred. In the workplace, an entitled pursuer, emboldened by the power of his position, is simply dangerous.
Unfortunately, women also internalize the gender roles. Therefore, women still feel the tug between the freedom of expression which has been acquired in the past 30 years, and the more traditional expectation of a woman; keep the peace, be quiet, endure.
As a feminist, I’m baffled that the changes made by men and women in other aspects of society have not generalized to romantic relationships. These gender roles are clearly not working, and something needs to change.
I can’t help but return to these words.
The woman who needs to be liberated most is the woman in every man, and the man who needs to be liberated most is the man in every woman. — Magnus Hirschfeld
How would that look? We now know that men can be empathic and considerate. Of course, this is demonstrated each day in interactions with daughters, coworkers, friends, and acquaintances. Is it too big of a leap to expect that men apply these behaviors to all women in their lives? Even those that they are interested in romantically or sexually? Can men ask, listen, accommodate and acquiesce? Within every boy is the capacity for compassion and kindness. Let’s question our entrenched thinking so that, as these boys reach manhood, this capacity remains intact. 2
And women? We know that women have agency, competency, leadership, and voice. We see these “masculine” qualities at work each day in schools, businesses, and homes. The question here is, are we promoting a world where women can fully use this side of herself in all areas of her life? Is her voice welcomed and respected, even when she is challenging the social status quo? Even when she challenges a man in power?
I hope so. I feel as strongly today as I did 30 years ago. When it comes to gender roles around dating, romance, and sexuality, it’s time for true liberation.
Today, my friend Dave is still a burly guy who generously expresses love and kindness and who uses his powers as a force for good in this world. Thanks Dave!