The Tired Old Question of Male Children*

By Anna Lee

from Lesbian Ethics Vol 1 No 2, 1985

As we try to do so many things differently than have been done before, we sometimes lock ourselves into old patterns. One of these old patterns is to concern ourselves with male children. Wimmin have always been responsible for children, especially when the children’s behavior turns out to be socially unacceptable. This is the old pattern. Now within the lesbian community we still see ourselves as responsible in that way. If we want to change society and if, as things have gone up to now, male children grow up to be men, then it seems that one of our “chores” is to be responsible for male children by seeing that they become non-sexist. And since male children raised within the lesbian community seem to be about as sexist as their counterparts in the straight, non-feminist world, we wonder what we have done wrong.

We have done nothing wrong. To believe we are responsible for the sexist behavior of male children, to see ourselves as responsible for the failure of male children to adopt non-sexist values, is to labor erroneously under one of two sets of assumptions: Either that our generation of political activists is the first to realize that male behavior is generally unacceptable, and that our mothers and grandmothers felt it was OK for their sons to brutalize women; or, alternatively, insofar as we believe that our mothers and grandmothers were aware of the unacceptability of male behavior, that our mothers and grandmothers were totally incompetent at non-sexist child raising whereas we, somehow, are utterly different in our rearing abilities. These are assumptions that we must face directly.

In addition, the belief that wimmin are responsible for changing male child behavior further assumes that if only mothers would teach their male children to be less aggressive and to respect wimmin, everything would change. This is simply not true. As a black womon, I have seen sons taught passivity to enable them to survive in a world committed to lynching black males. An aggressive black male simply would not survive. So, if teaching male children non-aggression and respect for wimmin is viewed as a means of changing our sexist society, well we already have examples and it hasn’t made any difference in how those males treat wimmin. In fact, a black male reveres his mother as a strong womon and claims he would do anything for her. At the same time, he is out on the street pimping, leaving “his” babies for “his” womon to care for, and abusing wimmin. The fact that black male behavior has not improved black wimmin’s lives cannot be laid at the door step of black mothers. Unless we fall back on blaming the victim and holding wimmin as the cause of male failure or bad behavior.

As wimmin we have been strong. We’ve taken care of business. We have been available for our children—whenever they have wanted us. And what have we gained? It is arrogant and sexist for us to believe that our mothers erred, that now we can correct their mistakes and raise male children differently so that male behavior we object to so much won’t happen anymore. It is also arrogant and sexist to believe that wimmin as always are the ones responsible for whether male children grow up to be acceptable in a society that gives wimmin no power.

The above assumptions are seen at work during lesbians’ discussions about the need for wimmin-only space. Marilyn Frye(1) has discussed separatism in relation to who has access to us and who doesn’t. Historically, males have had access to us. If we include them in wimmin space, how is that different than what has gone on before? The argument that boys need to see strong wimmin interacting with each other and caring for each other presumes that today’s adult males did not see that as boys. Certainly they saw it in the black community.

The belief that we are responsible for the behavior of male children avoids the reality that wimmin do not hold power in the boys’ world. By inviting them into our spaces we perpetuate the historical, sexist pattern of assuming wimmin are responsible for something we have no power over, that thing being the attitudes which male children absorb from a society that discredits and undermines wimmin of all ages. Further, we assume that non-sexism and sensitivity will be perceived by male children as a reasonable trade-off for power. For it is power that any boy is offered upon reaching manhood. Some get more than others but all get to join the old boys club, and in case you didn’t notice that is what runs this world. What we as wimmin can offer little boys is not power. If you were a little boy which would you choose—power or sensitivity? Be honest.

A final consequence of the belief that wimmin are responsible for male children is an incredible focusing of attention, once again, on males while taking females for granted and assuming they can take care of themselves. Girls grow up with the same options we have. When we invite male children into our spaces we devalue our daughters. In the first place we discount them by pretending that since boys appear not to have the power to hurt adult wimmin because they are smaller (a sizeist belief that implies that adult males will not side with male children in a dispute over adult female authority), they won’t try to hurt wimmin children. Our daughters are the same age as the male children, perhaps they go to school with them. Even in a womon-only space such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival if male children are included how safe will our daughters feel? If boys see females of all ages walking around without clothes on, what will they say the next week in school to their classmates—that they saw really strong wimmin interacting in a caring way? Surely we all remember how little boys would terrorize us at school and at recess? Is this what we have decided to offer our daughters? Are we not saying that their safety and comfort are not our concern? And in doing so are we not implying that the needs of wimmin are still not important nor as important as the needs of boys, and then beginning that devaluation by devaluating the needs of wimmin children?

Wimmin-only space is limited. It is limited by location and duration of time. It is to be cherished. It is wrested from the powers that be. It is a place for us to heal ourselves, nurture ourselves, grow and change, and relax with each other, a place which would enable us to go out into the boys’ world and survive with our sense of self somewhat more intact. Should we not transmit the message to male children that they cannot expect access to wimmin whenever they want? Should we not be concerned about giving support to young females who face the same options we do? Should we not cease to accept total responsibility for what happens in a world where we don’t have the power to control what happens in it?

Wimmin-only space is important. Without it the gains we have made would not have been possible. If we hadn’t been in a safe environment, the talking and growing would not have happened. I do believe that wimmin who argue for inclusion of males of any age ignore at what cost we have built our communities—fragile though they are. Our communities are still fragile, and especially in light of this reality, who are we going to focus on and value?

*I want to thank Julia Penelope for her helpfulness in pointing out places in my paper that needed to be clearer and Sarah Lucia Hoagland for taking the time to do extensive rewriting of some of the passages. I of course take full responsibility for the opinion expressed.


1. Marilyn Frye, “Some reflections on separatism and power,” Sinister Wisdom 6, Summer 1978. In Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality:Essays in Feminist Theory (Trumansburg, NY:The Crossing Press, 1983), pp. 95-109.