The ‘Men’s Liberation’ Movement Time Forgot
Nowadays, the Men’s Rights movement runs the gamut from incels to red pillers, but in the 1970s, men's libbers looked something like… feminists?
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Early last year, in the thick of the #MeToo maelstrom, my boyfriend offhandedly said to me, “Men need consciousness-raising groups.” Rape and harassment were dominating the news cycle, it’d never been clearer that even dudes we know and love might be abusers, and yet conversations about it with his guy friends were stilted, brief, and rarely personal. Men needed a space among other men they trusted to address their own hostility toward women, he argued, however latent; where they could work out the ways the patriarchy was hurting them, too; where they could really talk about their feelings. He wished there was a way to demand more engagement among men, to push them further than just smiling, nodding and continuing to do whatever they wanted in their personal lives.
At the time, the notion seemed impossible to imagine—most people publicly talking were women, many saying a version of “Shut up and listen,” with most men following suit (and paying the consequences when they ran their mouths). But it turns out a men’s movement like the one my boyfriend imagined did exist in some form, back when Second Wave feminism was first starting to gain steam. For a handful of years in the 1970s, there was a minor but visible “men’s liberation” movement. Unlike the modern Men’s Rights movement, they were ostensibly in favor of women’s liberation and forged alliances with prominent feminists, though their intentions remained diffuse and difficult to decipher. Men’s liberation groups formed at a specific time in American history when radical energy was in the air, the concept of “authenticity” was the highest form of enlightenment, and men across the country were confronted with their newly liberated wives and girlfriends.
Fifty years later, the closest we have to widespread men’s consciousness-raising sessions are in the annals of incel subreddits, Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) forums, and YouTube comment threads under Jordan Peterson videos—many of them oozing with anger, resentment, and sometimes violence towards women. And while the rhetoric of today’s groups is more blatantly anti-feminist, their roots can be traced back to these 1970s “men’s libbers.” One of those men, in particular, eventually wrote the “MRA Bible” that inspired Paul Elam, who would go on to found the flagship MRA website A Voice for Men. This is the story of the few years when men tried to spark a parallel, pro-feminist movement linking the personal to the political, with varying levels of success—only for it to go very, very wrong.
In 1970, when the women’s movement had just burst on the national scene, a young leftist psychologist named Jack Sawyer published an article called “On Male Liberation” in Liberation, a New Left magazine perhaps best known for publishing Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in full. “Male liberation calls for men to free themselves of the sex-role stereotypes that limit their ability to be human,” Sawyer wrote. A year later, LIFE magazine published a long, voicey feature on men’s liberation—written, of course, by a dude, and nested between hilariously sexist ads (a wife carefully preparing a picnic of Pepsi and crudité while the men play tennis; an ad for Puerto Rico featuring a woman in a white bikini). The writer travels from Berkeley to Flint to Cambridge to Portland, Oregon, talking to participants of these newly formed discussion groups.
“So many guys have it in the back of their minds that they have to be a jock, some kind of supermale, just to exist,” said Mike from Berkeley, who got into men’s liberation when being laid off gave him intense feelings of inadequacy. He’d placed an ad in the Berkeley Barb for an all-male consciousness-raising session, forming a small group that would eventually stage a protest at the Playboy Club in San Francisco (sample sign: SMASH COMPULSIVE MASCULINISM, which rings as familiar) and publish two issues of a men’s liberation newspaper called Brother. “Our enemy isn’t women, it’s the role we’re forced to play,” Mike said. The group in Flint—nine men, mostly auto workers, who met weekly in church after Sunday services—weren’t as immersed in countercultural language as their West Coast hippie counterparts. But they were making headway, too: “Give women economic equality and there will be more freedom for human beings to get what they want from each other,” a man was quoted as saying. Once, the group brought sandwiches and coffee to a women’s picket line.
The nascent movement was driven by a basic principle, one that’s now an accepted (though sometimes neglected) part of mainstream feminism: that men are hurt by gender roles, too, that men may have more institutional power but are still imprisoned by their aggression or emotional constipation or both. Along came the trend pieces. In a 1972 article in the New York Times headlined “Men's Lib—Almost Underground, but a Growing Movement,” an industrial designer touted his discussion group: "We're not just rapping about politics or baseball scores; we're talking about feelings." The countercultural search for authenticity turned out to be a boon for feminist ideas; the women’s movement "raised questions for me about the phoney parts of masculinity that I had bought—and that had always existed,” another man said in the same article.
The piece also quoted Warren Farrell, then a PhD student at New York University writing his doctorate on the political power of the women’s movement. He’d recently joined the board of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women, the members of whom tapped Farrell to help organize men’s consciousness-raising groups. Eventually there were several hundred groups across the country, usually made up of less than a dozen men, mostly meeting in each others’ houses.
I emailed Warren Farrell early in my research, dimly aware that his views had since shifted but curious to hear more about his early male feminist days. After initially hesitating—”Often Vice wants very attack-on-men and sensational pieces, so i'm a little fearful about that,” he wrote—he agreed to talk to me on the phone. Now in his mid-70s, he lives with his second wife in northern California, still publishes and speaks on masculinity issues, and, despite being widely known as one of the intellectual fathers of modern MRAs, considers himself a political moderate and backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. He traces his click moment back to 1965 right after he graduated college, when his mother expressed regret to him that she never went to grad school and instead focused on marriage.
On the phone, Farrell was avuncular and even-keeled. He described having a “fire in [his] belly” to explore the women’s movement, and remembered the halcyon days of consciousness-raising to be extremely gratifying. As a facilitator of these groups, he’d pose questions like “What is the biggest hole in your heart?” The point of these discussions, Farrell told me, were “to confront everything men are told to be.” Men would offer their peers support, but they’d also encourage each other to change.
By the mid-1970s, a handful of high-profile books had been published—against the backdrop of recession and the Nixon scandal—that grappled with masculinity, including Farrell’s The Liberated Man, Deborah David and Robert Brannon’s The Forty-Nine Percent Majority, and Marc Feigen Fasteau’s The Male Machine. These books brought men’s liberation beyond discussion groups to theory. Farrell wrote of the deep psychic costs of restrictive masculinity, writing that men’s “denial of dependency” on their loved ones “and emotions leads to silence and the creation of a male mystique.” Feigen Fasteau’s book called for “a view of personality which will not assign fixed ways of behaving to individuals on the basis of sex.” The December 1974 issue of People magazine profiled Marc’s egalitarian marriage with his wife, Brenda Feigen Fasteau, a feminist lawyer he’d met at Harvard who later co-founded the Women’s Action Alliance with Gloria Steinem. In it, Marc vows to help raise his children in a way “work-obsessed fathers” can’t. They founded a law firm together. They each added each other’s last names onto their own.
Many feminists supported this new movement; everyone from NOW founder Betty Friedan to Toni Morrison (who’d just published Sula) appear in The Liberated Man’s acknowledgements. Liberal feminists began to warm up to the idea of framing the women’s movement as a more inclusive, less threatening “sex role debate,” which took the focus off misogyny in favor of the psychological liberation of both sexes. Steinem wrote the introduction to Marc Feigen Fasteau’s book, calling him “a spy in the ranks” of the white male elite. Steinem praised Marc’s personal approach while contrasting it with Karl Marx’s hypocrisy: Marx called for a radical reimagining of the family yet demanded unreasonable sacrifice from his wife. Lots of powerful progressive men, she explained, ostensibly support feminism but have spent most of their lives saying some version of, “Shh; Karl is working.”
I felt mostly heartened and even excited while reading these early books and articles; these dudes seemed as enlightened as the male friends of mine who proudly wear their babies around Brooklyn, perhaps more since their political activism included actually talking to each other. But certain sentences made me uneasy, provoking a jolt of recognition that echoed the worst incels-in-training in my Twitter mentions. "If a woman has her own life and destiny to control, she will not be as likely to feel the need to control her husband," Farrell wrote in 1970. “Men may be even more restricted in their identity as human beings,” he wrote later in The Liberated Man. “Support your wife’s assertiveness during marriage, her educational and occupational development, and anything else that will make her an autonomous, independent person,” wrote psychologist Herb Goldberg in his 1976 book The Hazards of Being a Male: Surviving the Myth of Masculine Privilege. Why? Because “during divorce it will make you less vulnerable to guilt.”
At times, this movement seemed sweet, sincere and vulnerable. At other moments, it felt conspiratorial with a MGTOW tinge, as if feminism was a great way for men to get women off their backs. In 1983’s The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment, Barbara Ehrenreich argued that men’s resistance to traditional roles far preceded the women’s movement. Before feminism was in fashion, Ehrenreich writes, this rebellion came in the form of what she calls the Gray Flannel Dissidents’ angst over “conformity,” a rough equivalent to Friedan’s “problem that has no name.” Men avoiding “conformity” (and wives) became playboys and beats. And 20 years later, she suspected a certain strain of the 70s men’s liberation movement was simply this same “old male revolt in a new disguise.”
I began to look into what feminists to the left of Steinem and the more mainstream women of NOW thought about this new “male revolt,” and found that, perhaps unsurprisingly, they weren’t feeling it. Radical feminists side-eyed the recasting of women’s liberation as the “sex-role debate”; not only did it depoliticize sexism but it ignored the power imbalance between men and women. Socialist feminists like Carol Hanisch (the writer behind the phrase “the personal is political”) pointed out that many of the ideas coming out of men’s lib were just unacknowledged critiques of capitalism. All this “whining about being a success object” simply means "men don't like their jobs," Hanisch wrote in the 1975 anthology Feminist Revolution. It's time for men, she wrote, to name and fight "their real exploiters": capitalists.
“Obviously I would rather write a good book than go around raising my consciousness."
But men’s libbers never aligned themselves with broader political movements like socialism. Instead, the movement remained mostly limited to emotionally stunted white collar men who felt stuffed into the breadwinner role—which led to class and race blindness. Psychologists critiquing male gender roles in the 70s developed a theory of a man’s life cycle: boyish aggression, adult masculine coldness, and then (if you’re lucky) liberation. “Officially it was egalitarian,” Ehrenreich wrote in Hearts of Men, “but metaphorically the underlying idea was that working class men were culturally retrograde.” Not only did men’s libbers ignore the nuances of the lives of poor men or men of color, but pitting stoic types against aggressive types didn’t account for polite society’s wife-beaters, fratty rapists, or men who would grow up to be angry, entitled toddlers in upper echelons of government like, say, Donald Trump or Brett Kavanaugh.
But it seems the main reason why the movement didn’t have staying power is because men themselves just weren’t that into it. The articles written by male authors about men’s liberation in mainstream publications had obvious strains of contempt; in the LIFE piece, for instance, the author called these groups an “embarrassing vanguard” and used paternity leave as an example of the world becoming “too sensitive.” A 1975 New York Times review of several books on masculinity wrote all of them off as “pious,” “turgid,” and “self-indulgent.” Even Farrell admitted that, aside from a few thousand across the country, men weren’t exactly joining in droves. “On some level every man is resistant to being in a men’s group,” Farrell recalled. “The essence of what it means to be a successful man is to repress your feelings, not express your feelings.” In The Liberated Man, Farrell recounts endless roadblocks and conflicts in men’s groups he facilitated. At one point, he quotes from a letter by Norman Mailer, politely declining Farrell’s invite to a men’s lib group: “Obviously I would rather write a good book than go around raising my consciousness."
By the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was president, conservative backlash to the 60s social movements was in full swing, and traditional masculinity was more touted than ever. Warren Farrell, unhappy with the direction of women’s liberation, wrote a book called The Myth of Male Power in 1993, the one that is today widely considered to be the MRA’s bible. In the intro, Farrell reflects on his years as a men’s liberation spokesperson, admitting that he “slowly became good at saying what women wanted to hear,” but as the years went on, he observed “an increasing anger toward men, a restlessness in [feminists’] eyes.” He’d been listening to women but not to men. It was time to hear what his fellow dudes had to say.
The Myth of Male Power argues that men—oppressed by “glass cellars” such as the war machine, dangerous professions, and suicide—actually have it worse than women. He asserts (like modern MRAs) that many rape accusations are false, and that, if measured in spending rather earning, women have more economic power. Farrell positions himself not as aggravating the battle of the sexes so much as recalibrating it. The Myth of Male Power “is not a female self-assurance book,” he writes. “It loves women in a different way.” You could forgive feminists for thinking otherwise.
Unlike Farrell, most of the other men’s lib spokespeople seem to have faded away by the 80s. I emailed Brenda Feigen to see if she knew how to get in touch with Marc, whom she’d divorced in 1982 and who appeared to be completely out of the public eye. A busy, brash attorney who called me while driving between meetings, Brenda had nothing but good things to say about Marc, with whom she remains amicable (and who declined to comment for this article in an email to her): “He was very interested in the men being full people like women can be,” she told me.
Brenda was less kind about Farrell, who she said made Marc “bristle”: He ended up “sinking into a morass of bullshit.”
That “morass of bullshit” is now the modern men’s rights movement. While not a card-carrying member, exactly, Farrell frequently positions himself as a genteel, sympathetic fairy godfather of the phenomenon. During our phone call, he repeated a refrain he’s told other reporters and Redditors before about how every movement needs both their MLKs and their Eldridge Cleavers, how politicized incels who spout violent rhetoric are akin to Valerie Solanas, whose SCUM manifesto called for eliminating the male sex and who later shot Andy Warhol. He tells me the radical wing of any movement always “exaggerate and have an anger in their heart,” but their anger reveals a germ of truth. “You have to ask,” he told me, “what’s the pain they’re expressing, and is it worth listening to?” He suggested I check out Cassie Jaye’s MRA-apologist documentary The Red Pill, that Jordan Peterson is “thoughtful” but “more conservative than me,” and that few people understand that Paul Elam, who was greatly inspired by The Myth of Male Power and has been mentored by Farrell, is just a satirist. (Indeed, few people believe him when Elam conveniently pulls out the satire card to justify vehement misogyny.)
Steinem was far more diplomatic than Brenda when I emailed her to ask about Farrell and his ilk. She didn’t “remember ‘men's libbers’ as a phrase—instead, ‘male feminists,’ since the point was that everybody could be a feminist.” She also doesn’t remember male feminism as “a moment in history, but something that has continued and grown—not enough or as well-recognized as it should be—but very important.” She pointed me to the Oakland Men's Project, a group of mostly black men contemporaneous with men’s liberation who supported teenage black men growing up in the streets of Oakland, and added that, besides Farrell, she “can't think of anyone who moved over to the men-are-the-real-victims side.” Unfortunately, Steinem’s “male feminists” have failed to present a successful alternative to the MRAs. There are male gender theorists like Michael Kimmel, but he’s far from a household name. Male allies abound, but many of them end up struggling to bridge the personal with the theoretical—see Aziz Ansari, or Eric Schneiderman. The “Karl is working” disconnect Steinem disapproved of has endured for 150 years.
I was despairing about the future of male allyship when Farrell posed a poignant analogy to me, one I would later see articulated in his MRA bible: Since the first rumblings of Second Wave feminism, he explained, “there’s been a war in which only one side showed up, and men have put their heads in the sand and hoped the bullets miss them.” It’s such a vivid metaphor, and yet its meaning is malleable. You can interpret this the way many MRAs do, that women have won the war, made men an oppressed class, and now should be prepared for a triumphant comeback. You can interpret this the way I believe Warren Farrell does, that men have just as many legitimate grievances as women, such as being told to shut up while feminists fought for basic civil rights.
Or you can interpret this the way I hope modern feminists can, as a plea for more men to finally show up and face the consequences of patriarchy on the women they love, and on themselves. Emotional inertia will never be as bad as the threat of rape, domestic violence, disappearing reproductive rights, or the lingering pay gap. But it’s become clear that men need a space to express their feelings, one that doesn’t tolerate violence or blame women for all their woes. (It’s women, after all, who often bear the brunt of men’s rage.) The notable men talking directly to angry, alienated misogynists are people like Peterson and Elam. Following the 2016 election, women of color, quite rightly, have told white women to come get their people. Maybe it’s time for women to tell men—progressive, feminist men—to get theirs.
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