Backwards Glance: Feminism for Men in 1914


Floyd Dell was an American novelist, playwright, poet, and literary critic born a century and a quarter ago in 1887. His influence was felt in the literature of major American writers working in the first half of the 20th century including Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and Carl Sandburg. In 1913 Dell became managing editor of The Masses, a socialist magazine founded in New York City. Dell was considered one of the leaders of the bohemian community in Greenwich Village before the outbreak of World War I. Despite his literary acclaim, including penning a Broadway hit in 1928, today he is remembered mainly for his fierce support of feminism. He details his beliefs in the article below, first published nearly 100 years ago in The Masses, in July 1914—six years before women got the right to vote. Although some of his depictions of marriage and family life fail to anticipate gay rights, his tongue-in-cheek portrayal of men’s options reveals a prescient insight into the evolution of the profeminist men’s movement that emerged six decades after Dell’s article was first read.


The Emancipation of Man

Feminism is going to make it possible for the first time for men to be free.

At present the ordinary man has the choice between being a slave and a scoundrel.

For the ordinary man is prone to fall in love and marry and have children. Also the ordinary man frequently has a mother. He wants to see them all taken care of, since they are unable to take care of themselves. Yet, if he has them to think about, he is not free.

A free man is a man who is ready to throw up his job whenever he feels like it. Whether he is a bricklayer who wants to go out on a sympathetic strike, or a poet who wants to quit writing drivel for the magazines, in any case if he doesn’t do what he wants to do, he is not free.

To disregard the claims of dependent women, to risk their comfort in the interest of self or of society at large, takes a good deal of heroism—and some scoundrelism, too.

Some of the finest natures to be found among men are the least free. It is the most sensitive who hesitate—and are lost to the world and their own souls.

And this will be true so long as women as a sex are dependent on men for support. It is too much to ask of a man to be brave, when his bravery means taking the food out of the mouth of a woman who cannot get food except from him. The bravest things will not be done in the world until women do not have to look to men for support.

The change is already under way. Irresistible economic forces are taking more and more women every year out of the economic shelter of the home into the great world, making them workers and earners along with men. And every conquest of theirs, from an education which will make them fit for the world of earning, to “equal pay for equal work,” is a setting free of men. The last achievement will be a social insurance for motherhood, which will enable women to have children without taking away a man’s freedom from him. Then a man will be able to tell his employer that “he and his job can go bark at one another,” without being a hero and a scoundrel at the same time.

Capitalism will not like that. Capitalism does not want free men. It wants men with wives and children who are dependent on them for support. Mothers’ pensions will be hard fought for before they are ever gained. And that is not the worst.

Men don’t want the freedom that women are thrusting upon them. They don’t want a chance to be brave. They want a chance to be generous. They want to give food and clothes and a little home with lace curtains to some woman.

Men want the sense of power more than they want the sense of freedom. They want the feeling that comes to them as providers for women more than they want the feeling that comes to them as free men. They want someone dependent on them more than they want a comrade. As long as they can be lords in a thirty-dollar flat, they are willing enough to be slaves in the great world outside.

They are afraid that women will cease to ask them to do things, will cease to say “Thank you!” They are afraid women will lose the timidity and weakness which make them turn to men for help. They are afraid that woman will emancipate her legs with trousers. (And so she will; only they will not be so ugly as the garments at present worn by men, if Paul Poiret has anything to say about it!)

In short, they are afraid that they will cease to be sultans in little monogamic harems. But the world doesn’t want sultans. It wants men who can call their souls their own. And that is what feminism is going to do for men—give them back their souls, so that they can risk them fearlessly in the adventure of life.

The fact is that this Occidental harem with its petty lordship over one woman, and its inefficient voluptuosities after the day’s work, is not a fit place for a man. Woman has long since discovered that it is not a fit place for her.

The fit place for men and women is the world. That is their real home. The women are going there. The men are already there in one sense, but not in another. They own it, but do not inhabit it. They do not quite dare. The world is a home only for the free:

“For there’s blood on the field and blood on the foam,

And blood on the body when man goes home.

And a Voice valedictory: Who is for Victory?

Who is for Liberty? Who goes Home?”


Sweethearts and Wives

It is a time-honored masculine generalization that sweethearts are more fun than wives. This proposition really implies another, that wives and sweethearts are two distinct and different things. If we admit the validity of the latter proposition, the former stands unquestionably true.

This is, as somebody once pointedly remarked, a man-made world. Certainly the distinction in theory and practice between a wife and a sweetheart is a masculine creation. No woman, it may be affirmed, having once been a sweetheart, would ever of her own free will and accord cease to be one.

For observe what it means to be a sweetheart. In the first place, there is the setting, the milieu, the scene of action. This is definite by virtue of its remarkable diversity. One is a sweetheart in the park, in the theatre, in the elevated train, on the front steps, on the fire escape, at soda fountains, at baseball games, in tea shops, in restaurants, in the parlor, in the kitchen, anywhere, everywhere—that is to say, in the world at large. When two people are being sweethearts, they inhabit the world.

And they inhabit it together—that is the next thing. It is one of the conditions of being a sweetheart that you are always “along” whenever possible—and it is generally found possible. It seems to be the proper thing for one of a pair of sweethearts to be always where the other is. There is never any reason, or any excuse, for a sweetheart staying at home. The fact that a man cannot take his sweetheart to work with him is universally held to justify him in neglecting his work. But when he plays, he can take her with him, and he does. He takes her to the theatre, he takes her to the baseball park, he takes her out to Duck Creek and teaches her how to fish.

That is the third thing about being a sweetheart. She is not shut out from his society by reason of differences in habits or tastes. The assumption is that their habits and tastes ought to be alike. If she doesn’t understand baseball, he explains it to her. If he likes golf, he teaches her how to play. If he loves poetry, he sits up and reads her his favorite poets. He doesn’t permit any trivial differences to come between them. If she has been brought up with the idea that it is wicked to drink, he will cultivate her taste in cocktails. He will give her lessons in Socialism, poetry, and poker, all with infinite tact and patience. And he will do all of these things very humbly, with no pride in his own superiority. He will bring his most cherished ideas anxiously to her for her approval, and listen with the most genuine respect to her criticisms. They plan their future with the solid democratic equality of partners in the business of life.

Which is all very delightful. But in the course of time they are married, and very shortly after that the sweetheart becomes a wife. She is still the same person—she hasn’t changed. But the conditions have changed… There was once a man—I don’t pretend to approve of him—who had a wife and also a sweetheart, and he liked the sweetheart so much better than the wife that he persuaded his wife to divorce him, and then married the sweetheart; whereupon he simply had to get another sweetheart, because it was just the same as it had been before. The poor fellow never could figure it out. He thought there must be some mysterious and baneful magic in the marriage ceremony that spoiled things. But that superstition need not detain us. Proceed we to an inquiry as to where the difference really is.

There is the matter of rendezvous. The whole spirit of meeting a sweetheart is that one is never quite certain whether she will really be there. Usually, as a matter of fact, she is late. One is anxious or angry, but one is never complacent about her coming. She may have misunderstood or misremembered the street corner. She may be waiting somewhere else. Or she may have changed her mind—a devastating thought.

But with a wife it is quite different. It is impossible for her to forget the place, for there is only one place. It is neither at the elevated station nor in the park nor on the library steps. It is a place quite out of the world. And she will always be there. Or, at least, if she isn’t there, she ought to be. “A woman’s place is in the home.”

This saying applies only to wives. It does not apply to sweethearts. No man ever thought his sweetheart belonged at home. He regards her home with hostility and suspicion, and keeps her away from it as much as possible. It is only when she is a wife that he begins to think he has a right to expect her to be there. When he thinks of her, it is always in that setting. He thinks of her in that setting complacently. When he goes there to meet her he does not go anxiously, with a beating heart. The home is not a rendezvous. It is not one of the delightful corners of the world where two companions can meet for an adventure. It is a place out of the world where one keeps one’s wife.

Home is a place quite different from the rest of the world. It is different by virtue of the things that are not done there. Out in the world, anything is likely to happen. Any restaurant may hatch a business deal. Any barbershop may be a polling place. But business and politics do not belong in the home. They are as out of place in that atmosphere as a “jag” or a display of fireworks. And from not being done in the home, they come not to be thought about there. Cooking, clothes, children—these are the topics of interest for the inmate of a home. These things are interesting. They are quite as important as baseball or politics. But they lack a certain imaginative appeal. They are not Homeric enough. A new dress is an achievement, but not the same kind of achievement as a home run. A new kind of salad is an interesting experiment, but one does not stand around offering to bet money on the results. In a word, the home is a little dull.

When you have got a woman in a box, and you pay rent on the box, her relationship to you insensibly changes character. It loses the fine excitement of democracy. It ceases to be companionship, for companionship is only possible in a democracy. It is no longer a sharing of life together—it is a breaking of life apart. Half a life—cooking, clothes, and children; half a life—business, politics, and baseball. It doesn’t make much difference which is the poorer half. Either half, when it comes to life, is very near to none at all.

Of course, this artificial distinction does not strictly obtain in any particular marriage. There is an attempt to break it down. It is an honorable attempt. But our civilization is nevertheless built on that distinction. In order to break down that distinction utterly, it will be necessary to break down all the codes and restrictions and prejudices that keep women out of the great world. It is in the great world that a man finds his sweetheart, and in that narrow little box outside of the world that he loses her. When she has left that box and gone back into the great world, a citizen and a worker, then with surprise and delight he will discover her again, and never let her go.


A Question of Privilege

If the cult of masculine superiority is to be maintained, there must be some things that women are not allowed to do.

From the Polynesians with their sacred mysteries which women are not permitted to witness, to modern gentlemen in their exclusively masculine clubs, there has always been the instinct to dignify the male sex by forbidding certain of its privileges to women.

Counteracting this instinct is the instinct of comradeship. Man as a comrade of woman violates gleefully the taboos established by man as a male.

As a male, man has reserved for himself the ceremonial vices of drinking and smoking. As a comrade of woman, he finds it fun to initiate her into these mysteries.

A long as men were comrades only with special classes of women, excluding their wives, smoking and drinking tended to be restricted to actresses, dancers, and courtesans. But now their wives have appropriated these habits, partly to the delight and partly to the scandalization of men. There is a lingering resentment at this infringement of a manly custom.

It is the same way with games. There is no reason why women should not have their competitive athletic exercises just like men. They do, and the men let them, expressing their half-conscious resentment only in their patronizing attitude. But they do resent it.

It is the same with clothes. They pass ordinances to keep women off the streets when they venture to wear the new trouser-like skirts. They gather in crowds and hoot at the shameless female who cannot even let a man keep his pants to himself.

Swearing—yes, it is the same way with swearing.

And it is the same way, precisely, with the vote. All the reasons that men give for not wanting women to vote are disingenuous. Their real reason is a deep annoyance at the profanation of a masculine mystery. The vote is all we have left. The women have taken everything else that we could call ours, and now this—it is too much!

“Can’t we be allowed to do anything by ourselves?”