Friday, October 21, 2011
“A feminist walks into a fraternal lodge …”
Today’s story begins like a joke: What happens when a feminist walks into a fraternal lodge? The answer isn’t very funny, and it isn’t really about me—it’s about who runs for office, and who doesn’t.
But, yes, in this scenario I am the feminist cheerfully walking into the fraternal lodge, of the kind gently lampooned in The Flintstones as the Royal Order of the Water Buffaloes.
I hauled open the gleaming doors of this men’s club not to make trouble, but to hear a local political candidates’ forum, grateful the lodge offered space for civic conversation. Here, here! I would have puffed out my manly chest and fingered my tie, had I had either of them. Notably, nearly all the candidates had both – manly chests and neckties—and here’s my point. Where are the women who could be running for office?
Here’s the data: Congress is a mere 17% female and women fill only 24% of seats in state legislatures, numbers that surely haunt the spirits of the tireless women’s suffragists of the 19th century. At our local forum, there were 16 candidates, only two of whom were women, both running for city council – important, but not high-profile positions. Where are our female candidates for mayor, for Congress, or a likely candidate for president? The U.S. lags far behind other nations—from Liberia to Chile to Ireland—in our ability to envision women as national leaders, let alone to elect them.
That night, the grand fraternal lodge was as warm as a camp tent in August and steeped in generations of cigarette smoke. I surveyed the carved thrones anchoring each wall, with their blue velvet upholstery and laurels on the headrests. Horned bronzed heads crowned plaques above us, flanked by painted Greek columns—a mid-century Midwestern temple to brotherhood, the grown-up equivalent of the Our Gang clubhouse with “No Girls Allowed” hammered on a plank across the entrance. As I surveyed the lineup of mayoral candidates, all white necktied men, sweating against the man-cave backdrop, I feared I was in a time machine. Was this 1950? 1930? 1890?
The timeline matters. Fraternal organizations rose to popularity in a tide of anxious masculinity in the years just before U.S. women won the right to vote. There were some 70,000 of these lodges in U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century, each offering mostly white middle-class men fellowship dressed in costume-shop finery – capes and robes and medals — inspired by what masculinity scholar Michael Kimmel calls “medieval mysticism, symbolic frontier naturalism” and rituals of rebirth (Kimmel 172). Men worried about the emasculating effects of the new office work; in the paranoid popular imagination, axe-swinging frontiersmen had dwindled into pencil-pushing clerks. And so, over-compensating boxing clubs sprang up in cities, Billy Sunday bullied women-weakened churches into more “muscular Christianity” – right here in Michiana! – and men huddled, armed with fraternal-order finery, against winds that seemed to be blowing women into power.
That night in the lodge, I thought, “Never fear, Fin de Siècle dudes!”; your local and national old boys’ clubs are still standing, because so few women step into the political sphere.
Why don’t more women run? Ask around, and you’ll hear plenty: Women still do more childcare, eldercare, and unpaid housework, so it’s harder for families to stay afloat when women enter the time-eating world of politics. Also, campaigns are expensive; groups like Emily’s List exist because women have to work harder to find financing. Then, there are the personal attacks on female candidates that are often specifically and cruelly sexist—the reviling of women’s clothes, hairstyles, bodies, the so-called neglect of their children while they selfishly run for office (or, in other cases, their worrying lack of children or a spouse). So little has changed since Victoria Woodhull ran for the U.S. presidency in 1872 … and if Woodhull’s campaign is news to you, it’s because women’s history is still rarely taught, so it’s hard for people – including civic-minded girls – to imagine women as leaders.
I’m no essentialist; I don’t think women exude uniquely female insights that will save our democracy. But clearly, culture treats different bodies differently; it still trains women in skills and experiences that it discourages in men, and vice versa. For a democracy to thrive, we need all perspectives at the table. Witness the current debates about reproductive health; this is what happens when women have little voice in crafting policies that affect women.
Interestingly, two of the latest network TV series feature themes of “manly men emasculated” – “Man Up” and “Last Man Standing”—which echo exactly the paranoid masculinity that launched the fraternal lodge movement, just before women entered the voting booth. What’s next this time? I gotta say, I hope we won’t be doing the time warp again.
Customs & Rituals • History • News & Editorial • Women & Men • Permalink • Printer Friendly
A random pick from more than 460 Michiana Chronicles -- refresh the browser to see another set:
Joe Chaney -- More essays by Joe
Ken Smith -- More essays by Ken
Jeanette Saddler Taylor -- More essays by Jeanette
Heather Curlee Novak -- More essays by Heather
David James -- More essays by David
Elizabeth Van Jacob -- More essays by Elizabeth
Jeff Nixa -- More essays by Jeff
Louise Collins -- More essays by Louise
Jonathan Nashel -- More essays by Jonathan