The Gender Knot flows from many parts of my life. It is based on more than twenty years of work around issues of gender inequality, from reading and teaching and research to giving speeches at rallies to testifying before legislative committees to writing op-ed pieces to working in corporations and schools with men and women trying to understand what living in a patriarchal world is about.
It has been shaped by my experience growing up and living as a male in America. As a boy who liked literature more than football, for example, I often felt on the outside of the young-boy macho in-crowd, a vantage point that ultimately enabled me, I think, to see many things about gender more clearly and notice many other things that I would otherwise have missed. I’ve also had to come to terms with my mother and father and how their lives and our relationships were shaped by the choices they made within patriarchy as it shaped their generation. I’ve had to navigate the aggressive ritual displays of status competition among boys and men. I’ve had to move from avoiding men as dangerous and untrustworthy to, during five years in a weekly men’s group, rediscovering what men can be beneath the distortions of patriarchal masculinity. I’ve had to resolve the massive contradictions between my need and love for women and the horrendous damage patriarchal culture does to gender relations and sexuality. I’ve had to learn to accept the social fact of my gender privilege and the damage it does to women, without taking it personally as saying something bad about me simply because I’m a man.
This work has been touched in powerful ways by the people I’ve known who share in the struggle to understand what patriarchy means for the world and their lives. From knowing them has come an unshakable belief that oppression is not an inevitable feature of human life, that the choices each of us makes matter more than we can ever know, and that we must find ways for both men and women to become part of the solution rather than merely part of the problem.
This book comes from a place in me once described by a writer friend as “an edificial turn of soul.” It bends me toward the underlying structure of things and the work of making sense and finding ways to share that with others. It draws me to build bridges that connect a diversity of life experiences, ideas, and ways of seeing, to create a common ground for people who might otherwise feel driven apart.
This book also arises from a lifelong preoccupation with the moral nature of human life and its connection to fundamental questions about the world and us in it. What is this that we are about here? What binds us together in a common lot, and what drives us to inflict such suffering on one another? Such questions make it impossible to ignore issues of social inequality, injustice, and disregard for human dignity. They also go to the heart of a moral imperative to do something, however small, for change, for if the inherent wrongness of oppressive systems isn’t enough to get us to do something about them, then I fear that we’re lost. But to act, I’ve needed to find a way to think about what it means to take responsibility for things that seem so huge and beyond my ability to affect anything. This has led me to what is perhaps the most important bridge of all, the one that enables me to see myself in relation to the social world I participate in and to see what I can do to make a difference.
Except from Chapter 1
Twenty-five men and women gather for a workshop on gender issues in the workplace. In a simple opening exercise, they divide into small single-gender groups and brainstorm four lists: the advantages and disadvantages their own gender has in the workplace, and their perception of the advantages and disadvantages the other gender has. The women dive into the task with energy to spare that gets more intense as their lists of women’s disadvantages and men’s advantages spill over onto second and third flip-chart pages. Sometimes the energy comes out in waves of laughter that roll out into the room and wash up on the still quiet shore of the men’s groups. At other times it’s felt simply in women’s furious scribbling of one item after another: paid less, held to higher or double standards, worked harder, granted little power or respect, judged on physical attractiveness more than performance or ability, confined by glass ceilings, not taken seriously, sexually harassed, given little support or mentoring, allowed little space or privacy, excluded from informal networks, patronized, expected to do “housekeeping” chores from taking notes to getting coffee, treated as weaker and less intelligent, often denied credit for ideas appropriated by men, and treated without recognition of the family roles that also claim their time and energy in a society that makes few such demands on men.
On it goes. The men work in tight-knit little groups on the fringes of the women’s energy. Surprisingly for many, their lists are quite similar to the women’s lists, if a bit shorter. Men miss many of the forms that advantages and disadvantages take, but in a basic sense, they know very well what’s going on. They know what they’ve got and what women don’t. When the men are done, they stand and watch the women, still at work, in awkward silence. After a while each group shares what it’s come up with. There is some good-natured if somewhat nervous laughter over the inevitable throw-away items: men don’t have to wait in line to use the bathroom; men can get away with simpler and cheaper wardrobes. But there soon follows a steady stream of one undisputed fact after another about how gender shapes and limits the lives of women and men in the workplace and beyond. The accumulated sum hangs heavy in the air. There are flashes of anger from some of the women, but many don’t seem to know what to do with how they feel. The men often just stand and listen, muted, as if they’d like to find a safe place to hide or a way to defend themselves, as if the lists were about them personally. In response to questions about how the lists make them feel, one man says that he wants to hang onto the advantages without being part of their negative consequences for women. “Depressed” is a frequent response from the women.
A silence falls over the room, and in the silence, two things become clear. The lists say something powerful and serious about people’s lives. And we don’t know how to talk about them. If we don’t know how to talk about them, we certainly don’t know what to do about them. The result is a kind of paralysis that hangs in the air. The paralysis reflects not only where this particular group—and many others like it—finds itself as it confronts the reality of gender inequality, but where entire societies are in relation to these issues. Where we are is stuck. Where we are is lost. Where we are is deep inside an oppressive gender legacy, faced with the knowledge that what gender is about is tied to a great deal of suffering, injustice, and trouble. But we don’t know what to do with the knowledge or the trouble, and this binds us in a knot of fear, anger, blame, defensiveness, guilt, pain, denial, ambivalence, and confusion. We’re unsure of just about everything except that something is wrong and we’re in it up to our necks. The more we pull at the knot, the tighter it gets.
We’re trapped inside a legacy, and its core is patriarchal. To understand it and take part in the journey out of it, we have to find ways to unravel the knot, and this begins with getting clear about what it means to be inside a patriarchal legacy. To get clear, we first have to get past the defensive reaction of many people—men in particular—to the word “patriarchy” itself, which they routinely interpret as a code word for “men.” It will take an entire chapter (Chapter 4) to do justice to this issue, but I can give the gist of the answer right away: patriarchy is not simply another way of saying “men.” Patriarchy is a kind of society, and a society is more than a collection of people. As such, “patriarchy” doesn’t refer to me or any other man or collection of men, but to a kind of society in which men and women participate. By itself this poses enough problems without the added burden of equating an entire society with one group of people . . . .
© Copyright 1997 by Allan G. Johnson. All rights reserved.