I'm showing my age again, but I can remember, just barely, when we had the war between men and women. Not a war, but the war: eternal and (of course) metaphorical, a fight without massed ranks of infantry or elaborate flanking maneuvers or formal parleys among belligerents. The opening salvo dated to the Garden of Eden, and a truce wasn’t expected until Gabriel or whoever sounded the trumpet’s final wail.
The phrase war between men and women was meant in a lighthearted way, mostly. It described an ineradicable truth of human life, plain to everyone but best spoken of indirectly. It is this: The two halves of our otherwise terrific species aren’t really suited to each other, even though the replenishing of our kind depends on their close, to say no more, association. The unavoidable pickle—the tension between the incompatibility of man and woman and the urgent need for man and woman to get along and then some—has traditionally been understood as comic. To view it otherwise is too grim a prospect. And besides, we have reasoned, it’s just the way things are, so what the hell.
Great artists from Aristophanes to Shakespeare, from Molière to Ira Gershwin, understood the war this way. The humorist James Thurber summed it up in a series of drawings explicitly titled “The War Between Men and Women.” Each piece illustrated a signal event in the ongoing struggle: “The Fight in the Grocery Store,” the “Capture of Three Physics Professors,” the “Surrender of Three Blondes,” and so on.
“It’s all in good fun,” Thurber seemed to be saying, “I hope.”
Thurber’s series was first published in 1934, in the backwash of what progressive historians call First Wave Feminism—the feminism of Susan B. Anthony and suffragettes and temperance advocates and other assorted crabby grannies in bonnets and high collars. Roughly two generations later Second Wave Feminism rolled in to make sure everyone knew that relations between the sexes were no laughing matter. (The summary joke from this unhappy period: Q. How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? A. That’s not funny!) Second Wave Feminism was the feminism of grim Gloria Steinem and scary Germaine Greer and no bras.
I don’t know if we’re in the post-Second Wave or pre-Third Wave period of feminism, but war talk is once again in the air, spoken with the same clenched-jaw severity that made Second Wave feminism so excruciating. Except nowadays, instead of a war between men and women, women (some of them, anyway) talk about a war on women and (some) men talk about a war on men. This bifurcation of the ancient war is in keeping with our galloping individualism and self-absorption. We interpret a mutual antagonism as a one-sided assault on me and mine.
The war on men is the particular concern of the newest incarnation of the “men’s movement.” Older readers may remember the earlier men’s movement, from the 1990s. It was invented and led by such aging hippies as the poet Robert Bly and the author Sam Keen. The former LBJ hatchet man Bill Moyers filmed a documentary with Bly called A Gathering of Men, which served as the movement’s manifesto and ran like a tape loop on PBS. The movement made for easy trend stories in the newsmagazines and newspaper lifestyle sections because it was so eccentric. Feminism was pushing women into traditionally male domains, was the theme; and men were escaping out the other side, lost in confusion about their roles as husbands, fathers, and cogs in the postindustrial machine.
The confusion took strange forms. In the Moyers-Bly version, men were trying to recapture their true natures. They did this by gathering in forests, removing crucial articles of clothing, adorning their hair with feathers, and beating drums in an attempt to stimulate orgiastic dancing. It often worked, and the dancing wasn’t pretty. The trappings were heavily indebted to New Age spirituality, American Indian-division, and the purpose was meant to be therapeutic—it was a rare Gathering of Men in which some burly fellow didn’t burst into tears.