Dominus: A Woman Looks at Men’s Lives.
by Natalie Gittelson.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 291 pp. $10.00.
It was to be expected that the women’s movement, in whose peak years—the 60’s and early 70’s—there was born a veritable industry in feminist books, would in time give rise to a literature of reexamination. Less conspicuous now on the publishers’ new lists are the “mad-housewife” novels, fiction in which wryly sensitive and (invariably) artistically inclined heroines struggle to maintain sanity in the face of housework and child care; on the way out, too, are the anthologies of feminist poetry, the primers on consciousness-raising, the endless studies of women in a sexist society. In their place have come books dealing with the effects of the women’s movement, and although many of these new books are determinedly up-beat and brave-new-worldish, others are, if not negative about the women’s-liberation movement, then at least ambivalent. It is to this latter category that Natalie Gittelson’s Dominus belongs.
An editor at the New York Times Magazine, Mrs. Gittelson has traveled the length of the United States and through parts of Europe to pursue her inquiry into the aftermath of women’s lib. In Dominus (the Latin word for master) she focuses in particular on the ways in which the movement has affected the lives of men, how they have come to see themselves as a result of it, and how they feel about renouncing traditional male prerogatives and responsibilities. Having interviewed married and single men, black as well as white, homosexual as well as heterosexual, in this country and Europe, Mrs. Gittelson concludes that the state of psychic health in which men find themselves today leaves much to be desired. Despite a preface which seems designed to placate their wrath, women’s liberationists will not welcome her report.
In the course of her travels Mrs. Gittelson encountered men who have paid an extreme price for their compliance with some of the new fashions in living that emerged from the women’s movement. She presents sad testimony from a range of witnesses: the “house-husbands,” confused and unhappy, who accepted the role of babysitter and homemaker in order to allow their wives to go out into the world and “realize themselves” by earning the family living; the single swingers, ambivalent toward sex and distrustful of attachments; the blue-collar men frightened by the presumptions of their newly-emancipated women; the ideologue couples living out their verson of revolutionary consciousness, by reversing roles.
All of these new fashions in living, these role reversals, have, Mrs. Gittelson asserts, damaged and confused men, and not only men but women also, and not only psychically but also physically. Thus, a drily evocative introduction to two of her subjects, a liberated couple “fed up with rigid role definitions,” includes the following description; “Thelma was square and her hair was short. Benjamin was round, and his hair was long. Her hips were narrow and her shoulders were broad; his hips were broad and his shoulders were narrow. . . .”
Despite Mrs. Gittelson’s sympathy for the damaged men she portrays here, she by no means absolves them of responsibility for the state they find themselves in; it is a central premise of Dominus that men, in accommodating themselves to even the wildest demands of women’s liberation, have thus actively abetted their loss of mastery, and that they have done so in order to escape the burden of responsibility imposed by traditional definitions of manhood. The growing inclination of men to shuck off such responsibilities, Mrs. Gittelson notes, is evident most plainly in the growth of “men’s-liberation” groups where, following the example of women’s consciousness-raising sessions, men come together to discuss male experience.
That these groups inevitably seem to have a strong homosexual component is part and parcel of the entire syndrome Mrs. Gittleson is describing. Indeed, Dominus is especially lucid in its documentation of the assault on heterosexuality mounted in recent years by propagandists for women’s liberation and gay liberation and by the new school of sex clinicians who offer them sustenance. At one lecture on male sexuality addressed by a sex clinician, and described here, an audience of medical students listens uncritically while being informed of the ways in which homosexual gratification is superior to heterosexual: the homosexual, they learn, is less selfish because he is committed to the giving rather than the receiving of pleasure; he is also less “goal-oriented” (a good thing, supposedly), and can better extend his “repertoire of gratification” than can the non-homosexual. Such propaganda for the virtues of homosexuality—and also for the virtues of autoeroticism—is, Mrs. Gittelson observes, the covert and sometimes even the overt message not only of the new sex “workshops” but also of works like the best-selling Hite Report.
About all these phenomena Mrs. Gittelson is refreshingly clear-eyed. Among the more eerily compelling scenes in the book, for example, is an encounter between a men’s group and a theoretician of the new “men’s-liberation movement,” come to address them on the subject of the male role and its inherent burdens. The lecture over, the men are asked to form a circle and hold hands; no sooner is the circle achieved than the men in it confide that they would rather hug than hold hands, and that they want to “explore” homosexual relationships. Warmly gratified by the group’s response, the lecturer whispers happily to the one who first broached his desire to make love to men, “I was hoping you would get more support.” “It was,” the author observes, “difficult to imagine how much more support he could have gotten—short of an outright invitation to sodomy.”
Mrs. Gittelson’s irreverence serves her in especially good stead when dealing with her subjects’ dreary attitudinizing about the “meaning” of their lives. As an interviewer, she offers a happy alternative to the fawning respect that so many pop sociologists lavish on their subjects. Yet she is not always as forthright as she might be in her commentary. One important failure of this work is Mrs. Gittelson’s frequent willingness to allow implication, or aside, to do the work of statement. Moreover, Dominus is positively evasive when it comes to such controversial issues as affirmative-action programs for women, one of a number of subjects that seem almost palpably to terrify the author. Still, for its clean prose, and the clarity of its vision, Dominus must be counted a welcome corrective to much current cant.