Writing about “What it means to be an Irish Woman” has meant I’ve focused all my attention on ‘women’ and the ‘feminine’. After all, I am a woman so I can’t really comment on or truly understand what it means to be a man or an Irish man – I’d rather leave that to those with the first-hand knowledge.
However, to write Men out of the equation completely would be to miss out on a huge part of what makes me who I am. The Men in my life have been some of my most important role models, my sources of strength and grounding and my teachers of compassion and fairness.
Yet, that doesn’t really seem to comply with current discourse at the moment, which is rightly focused on highlighting the inequalities in our society and how many of them give women a raw deal. However, I can’t help but think, yes this is great, but how are Men being included in this and what is happening to them? Lately, it feels that when I look around me all I see is lots of highly motivated and empowered women, but many lost young men, in pain, unsure of their purpose and place in society and seemingly ill-equipped with the life tools to do something about it, or even the desire to.
In the Irish context I usually dismiss this as the outcome of ‘molly-coddling’ by Irish mothers. That’s a whole other story, but ‘Irish Mammies’ are renowned for the cosseting of their sons and their dismissal of men:
“Women are much stronger than men. Men are just big babies in a good many ways and you have to treat them as such”[i].
In such an environment, women are raised to be “over-responsible and self-sufficient” [i]. which, although often leaves them emotionally restrained, equips them with resilience and an indomitable attitude to life. The young men, on the other hand, are kept as ‘boys’ well into adulthood, pampered and given little opportunity to become self-sufficient or self-responsible.
However, this personal conviction fell slightly apart on a recent trip to attend a wedding in Germany; here too where many ‘lost’ young men who seemed to have accepted their lot in life and stopped trying, or even desiring, any more for themselves. I asked a friend what she thought, why do so many seem demotivated and underachieving? “I think it’s because their generation is one of the first that have had to truly compete with women”, she replied.
This was really revealing to me. There is a lot of truth in that response but I couldn’t help but be struck by the word ‘compete’. Competition is normal, after all it’s a basic ingredient of evolution, but in a much wider sense the debate of gender equality seems to have been simplified as Man V Woman. As a competition for which is better, which has been more repressed, which has achieved more, but such push and pull can never achieve balance.
Perhaps part of the issue is that many people confuse patriarchy with masculinity. Patriarchy can roughly be defined as the social system in which men hold primary power and control [ii]. The society we live in is built on a patriarchal system; yes, and the nature of patriarchy is to dis-empower and disarm women, but that does not mean that every man is patriarchal. The significant men in my life certainly are not, they offer me every respect and treat me as an equal, moreover, they often put my needs and wishes before their own, seeing my happiness as what is most important to them. These are not qualities of patriarchy or masculinity, so why is so much conversation these days centred around the rights and wrongs of masculinity or being a man? Why do we, as my friend suggested, feel we are in a competition of Man V Woman, trying to get one over the other? The outcome can only be one of imbalance where at least one, if not all, parties are going to lose out.
When I was in my final days of primary school one of the traditions was to have a ‘tug-of-war’ competition between all the pupils of 6th class, before we left and moved on to secondary school. I remember really clearly how I felt that day, I was only 11 years old but I was completely confident that the team I was on was going to win because we were the ‘strongest’ – I was strong, so of course we would win! At that time, and for most of my teenage years, I tried to be the anti-thesis of a ‘girl’ or what I perceived a ‘girl’ was supposed to be. I was strong, physically strong not weak, I was emotionally tough, I didn’t cry, I was blunt not meek, I was capable, I didn’t ask for help. I was so far in my ‘masculine’ that my ‘feminine’ side well and truly lost that ‘tug-of-war’.
With age and more life experience I have recognised how damaging such an imbalance can be. Yes, it’s good to be tough, resilient and emotionally strong, but not to the point that your emotions are repressed. Yes, it’s good to be honest, speak your mind and be blunt, but not to the point that you dismiss the feelings of others. And yes, it’s good to be self-sufficient and capable but learning to ask for help is probably one of the most beneficial life skills (which I’m still learning!). Point is, we all have masculine and feminine qualities and energies and both serve different purposes and are needed at different times. The more we keep them in balance the more effective human beings we are.
In societies ‘tug-of-war’ women have managed to haul back some of the weighty advantage men have had for hundreds of years, but is the goal really to pull so strongly that we ‘win’; pull the centre of the rope over the line and knock the other team off balance? My competitive side might say yes, but in reality the harder but more beneficial thing to do, both individually and societally, would be to pull evenly on both the masculine and feminine sides, keeping the rope taught and the centre marker in perfect equilibrium.
Perhaps the negative elements of the ‘Irish Mammy’ is a good lesson of what goes wrong when that balance is not achieved; she is a great example of a strong female role model, but perhaps goes so far in her self-sufficiency and ‘do-it-herself’ attitude that she is unable to effectively share her responsibilities with others, sufficiently articulate her feelings and can be overly “critical, distant and lacking in affection”i. But with all these attributes, how incredibly powerful would a ‘balanced ‘Irish Mammy’ be? More importantly, how incredible would a balanced society be!