Sunday, August 22, 2004

Three Mens' Movements: Robert Bly, Promise Keepers and the Million Man March

By the Old Professor

There are three major movements in which males in America have self consciously come together in the past decade. Now I realize that larger groups of men have assembled almost every weekend for sports events, as for example on Super Bowl Sunday--the high holy days of masculinity in contemporary America. But they did not self-consciously assemble as men's movements. This paper is a report and reflections about these assembles of men.

Almost fading from our memory is the 1980's Men's Movement with Robert Bly as the guru of middle aged, middle class white males who gathered at seminars and retreats to beat on drums and lament the loss of their manhood. Bly is very explicit that a grief process is needed, particularly in middle age to lament the loss of strong father figures, meaningful physical work, and male intimacy. Men have exhibited weakness in the face of attacks from primary women such as wives and lovers, mothers and sisters, and attacks from the larger women's movement. Men need to come together to collectively mourn, grieve, express anger and ultimately find the "wild man" within themselves. Other articulate voices such as Robert Moore and Sam Keen, shared with Bly a consistent approach that men were collectively and individually in some form of negative space, and that "grief work “ was necessary before men could become healed (or at least be more healthy) individuals. (Keen, 1991, Moore, 1990) I can quote at length to support this argument, but let me merely refer to several representative statements.

"One of the main focuses for the men's movement, in the beginning, is to create safe spaces where... men can share their wounds." (Orenstein, p. 226 ) "Men are suffering right now--young men especially." (Bly, p.27) "The grief in men has been increasing steadily since the Industrial Revolution and the grief has reached a depth now that cannot be ignored." (Bly, p. x) "Mythology helps to give weight to our private wounds." (Bly, p.45 ) "...the love unit most damaged by the Industrial Revolution has been the father-son bond." (Bly, p 19).

The next self conscious men's movement is even more controversial--The Promise Keepers. At the inspiration of former University of Colorado football coach Bill McCartney, about a half million Evangelical Christians gathered in football stadiums in 1995 to reclaim their roles as fathers, husbands and heads of households and become more faithful Christians. This movement, perhaps the largest of the three described, is also the most controversial due to its claim that men should resume a role as head of the household. The core premise is that men have collectively and individually failed to keep their appropriate roles. A Promise Keeper commits to being part of a small group of men who meet 2-4 times per month to practice spiritual, moral, ethical and sexual purity, to build strong marriages through "love, protection and Biblical values" and to "reach beyond racial and denominational barriers..." Obviously these "Promises" are a new commitment, done in the context of a new collective action by men who have "failed" to fulfill their gender roles.

The third movement is the Million Man March. In August of 1995 a huge number of African American men assembled peacefully in Washington D. C., predominately due to the charismatic leadership of Minister Louis Farrakkan, head of the Nation of Islam. They gathered not simply to petition the government or the nation, but to assemble for repentance and to reclaim their proper roles in the African American community and in the nation.

Thus the official statement, "...we dare to atone...(for) by accepting the worst and weakest conceptions of ourselves...for collaborating in our own oppression...for lacking the moral consideration and human consideration towards others that we want for ourselves." ( Black Scholar, p 25 Fall, l995) The Million Man March was a one-day event in which from 5 to 10 percent of black men in America participated. Thus a huge percentage of men assembled, but briefly, and with ongoing structures not clearly established.

Now here are three unique and separate collective gatherings of men. At first glance they could not be more different: Evangelical Christians, African Americans and quasi-New Age middle aged white men. Yet the tone and starting premise of collective and individual failure mark strong commonalties between the three groups.

I would like to address three questions. First, why the apology? And second, to whom is the apology addressed? Third, is the apology necessary?


Before I can go further, I need to share a concept of Gender Community, which is the foundation of my thinking and writing about gender. Briefly stated, every culture contains within it two communities-- the men's community and women's community.

I generally draw this on a blackboard as two equally sized circles inside a larger circle. The larger circle is the cultural system, be it a tribe, an ethnic or racial group, or a stable regional community. The two smaller circles represent the men and women's communities.

The two communities are at the most elemental level symbiotic--neither can survive biologically without the other. To an overwhelming extent there is an economic and social division of labor between the two. The male community is more visible in most historical and cultural situations, and takes on the task of defending the perimeter of the entire community through warfare and large game hunting but also in public work roles in trade and government. Traditionally the women's community has had a more primary focus on infants and children, and the maintenance of the camp and home and "domestic life." If we had more time, we could explore the constant re-negotiation, which takes place in this division of labor--re-negotiations resulting from economic and technological shifts, migration, warfare and demographic disparity between genders.

Turning our attention to the men's community (but much of what I say here applies also to the women's community), an individual male has a multiplicity of tasks. The male must acquire membership in the gender community through formal or informal initiation, then seek to maintain and even increase his status in the men's community and enhance the status of the men’s community as a whole. As if this were not enough, he must also relate to the women's community, both as an individual to women blood relatives, but also to secure a female partner if so inclined, and to protect and provide for his children, who are presumably both male or female.

A man does have some options other then maintaining and enhancing his membership in the men's community. That most of these are seen as negative is still vividly reflected in our slang and slander language. "Don't act like a child" (remain in a pre gender status); "Don't be a donkey" (be subhuman and like an animal); "don't be a sissy...or a girl" (don't defect to, or mimic, the behaviors of the woman's community); "don't be hen pecked" - (I know and you know there are much stronger terms for this)--(don't be dominated by the woman's community).

In most of human history, to be exiled from the men's community, to be an outcast, an alien, a stranger, a solitary man, was the extreme sanction, often akin to the death penalty. Uniquely in parts of Europe and America since the nineteenth century this solitary male is now seen as heroic.

This past Christmas Eve I was at my brother's farm in Kansas--the same farm our family has had for well over a century. At the house was his two-day-old first grandson making a Christmas debut to assorted relatives. The dogs started barking about eleven thirty and my brother said, "There's a good chance the mountain lion is back at the cattle pens. Let's go." So he, his son in law and I got dressed, loaded 30-30s, and we drove slowly around the pens and fields-- protecting the perimeter. The women remained behind to offer ever more advice to the young mother. As we cruised in his four-wheel drive, I had a sense that I was participating in a rite and division of labor that probably goes back to ancient prehistory.

Let's us see if this highly oversimplified model casts some light on the apology of these three men's movement


In general, the men’s community was the more public gender community, serving to protect the perimeter of the larger cultural community primarily through hunting and warfare. In recent American experience that meant that the world of public work was the domain of the men's community as men "brought home the bacon." Obviously this has changed for everybody today. Public work is now the domain of both men and women. This shift has profoundly affected both the men and women's communities and their relationship to each other. (Tiger, 1969, Illich, 1982)

Men are experiencing a multi-dimensional loss in income status. First, incomes are not progressing upward in the same fairly orderly way that they did for their fathers. Men who are today in their seventies may tell you how they advanced toward home ownership and financial security through thrift, cleverness and hard work. But a larger economic perspective suggests that men with an IQ higher then their body temperature and ten fingers and ten toes rode an economic escalator up from 1945 to l970, regardless of their skills and abilities. Men in today's work force are not progressing upward economically as well as their fathers. Most women, on the other hand, are significantly more economically self-sufficient then their mothers.

As Andrew Kimbrall states in Masculine Mystique, "Men in the unskilled labor market have seen their wages drop over 25 per-cent over the last decade. Real wages for men under twenty-five have experienced an even more precipitous decline. Over the last two years, wages paid male high school graduates were 26.5 percent less then in 1979...College-educated men over forty-five have also seen their yearly pay descend by 18 percent over the last five years. In each of these categories women have experienced an increase in annual real wages." (Kimbrall, 1995, p. 8-9)

Men are no longer the dominant economic force within the two-parent household. Only about 7% of American two adult households could sustain their economic status on the male's income alone--and most of these are upper income families approaching age 65. Men are a less significant part of the economic pie.

Not only are men not economic providers, but a significant number are leaving the work force altogether. "By 1991 the number of men working full time...was declining by 1.2 million each year, while the number of women working full-time was increasing 800,000. (Kimbrall, 1995, p 9)

As the economic situation of men in virtually all American cultures has slowly eroded, American individualism and lack of a self conscious, collective identity has resulted in each man seeing his decline as uniquely his own doing, his own fault.

This economic analysis is not present in any of the three men's movements. Bly goes no further then lamenting the industrial revolution and the subsequent decline in fathers and sons working together. The Million Man March retained the traditional (and quite correct) critique of American racism without referring to the larger economic picture. The Promise Keepers has a religious analysis blaming sin, not societal change. But economic analysis is not a serious part of the men's movements.

The reality is that American men will never again be the primary breadwinners for their families. With increasing rarity will the work place also be the men’s social club. Fathers and sons will rarely work together, and fathers will less often have any significant technological or vocational skills to pass on to their sons. Many men will continue to feel a sense of failure or loss due to these changes.


Traditionally, homosexual and homosocial men remained almost exclusively within the men's community. While many societies set strict limits on acts such as sodomy, they also gave status to men who spent the majority of their lives within the men's community--as religious leaders, warriors, teachers, healers and shamans. There is increasing evidence that concepts such as heterosexuality and homosexuality are social constructs of much more recent evidence and with much less precision in meaning then we might imagine. Generally societies have recognized that although some men might be "different,” they were a part of the men's community. (Greenburg, 1981.)

Each of the three men's movements has taken a different stance toward male homosexuality. The mythopoetic movement claims to be pro-gay, but also states that the experience of gay men is so unlike that of their own, that gay men are so totally "other", that they are precluded from authentic membership due to being a third gender.

There is some fragmentary evidence that the mythopoetic men's movement owes much more to earlier gay men's retreats then it cares to remember. My research and reading on early seventies Gay men’s consciousness raising retreats, including an obscure video of a radical gay men's rural retreat complete with sweat lodge which predates anything Bly lead, leads me to suspect more borrowing than is commonly acknowledged. The mythopoetic movement, with its emotional catharsis and physical and emotional intimacy still insists it is free of homoeroticism since "that" is something done by the men in another tribe.

For Promise Keepers homosexuality is a "complex and polarizing issue." But the leadership states, "We believe that homosexuals are men who need the same support, encouragement and healing we are offering to all men.... We are men who are struggling with this issue." (Promise Keepers, 1995)

The position of Minister Farrakkan on homosexuality is fairly similar. While Farrakkan denounces homosexuality and effeminacy implicitly as male defectors to the women's community, homosexual men are recognized as a part of the African American community, and gay men did participate in the Million Man March.

There really is a curious problem here. Where do homophobia, homoeroticism and homosexuality fit into the men's movement? If men assemble with any degree of intensity, they are liable to the charge of latent homosexuality; if they assemble with a degree of distance they are liable to the charge of homophobia.


The situation of the African American gender communities is radically and uniquely different from that of all other European, Asian and Hispanic cultural communities in America. The African American men's community is in chaos--to the point of an approaching cultural implosion. In l865 the African American community held three percent of the nations wealth. In 1990 this community still holds only three percent of the nations wealth. (Page, 1996, p 24)

American racism has always had a powerful gender component. The insane double standard made Black women objects of white male sexual desire, while Black men were objects of fear and hatred. Lynching was for uppity Black men.

African American culture faces a unique (that is too weak a word) challenge. The men's community is feared, reviled, lynched, rejected by the larger society. The women's community has had and continues to enjoy somewhat greater access to the larger society. The result is a unique disparity between the men’s and women's community--a disparity which appears to be growing rather then diminishing.

A significant percentage of African American women were in the public work force by 1900--motivated by poverty certainly, but also, allowed greater access than Black men because they were not perceived as a threat to the white-dominated cash economy.

In 1940 Black men earned 45 percent as much as white males, while Black women earned 37.9 percent of what white women earned. In l990, employed Black men earn 72.1 percent as much as their white counterparts (and have experienced a 3 percent decrease since l980), while Black women earn 91.5 percent as much as their white female contemporaries. (Hacker, p. 108) Add to this a Black male life expectancy of 65, eight years younger than for white males. Nearly one in three black men between 20 and 29 years of age is behind bars, on probation or on parole. (Time, p 34, Oct. 30, 1995). Add to this that 58.4 percent of Black households are headed by women, more then three times the number of white households, and 68.3 percent of Black births are out of wedlock, almost four times the white rate and one has a significant cultural problem. (Hacker, p. 73-98)

Our racism today as whites is divided by a clear gender perspective on the African American community. Don't believe me. Have two Black women approach you on dark street on South Side at night, then two Black men in the same setting and tell me you experience no visceral difference in your responses?

As I understand Martin Luther King, he hoped and work for a for a more just society in which all persons would be judged by the "content of their character" and not by the "color of their skin." It is less clear if he meant the same thing about the "inward or outward nature of their genitalia."

Malcolm X, perhaps due to his perspective being shaped by the streets and not the church and university saw the gender problems within the African American community. The Black Muslim solution was to rigidly separate and rediscipline both the Black men’s and women's community. What appears regressive and repressive to white liberals is an attempt to rebuild a racial community through reshaping and healing the gender communities. The strict discipline and bow ties for men, the white head coverings for women, are symbolic of powerful gender community restructuring being done, (even if one might disagree with it.) No wonder that Ossie Davis centered in his funeral eulogy for Malcolm X how, "Malcolm taught us how to be men."

The separatism of the Black Muslim movement is generally framed in terms of separating from the hostile White society. I suspect that another element is that only separation can provide the space necessary to heal the gender rift and conflict between Black men and Black women.

The oratory of the Million Man March explicitly stated that Black men have not maintained their own gender community and that repentance for this failure is needed. Despite eloquent and extreme attacks on the external enemies--mainly whites but with a subtext of anti Semitism, the Million Man March is the most explicit and conscious attempt of a gender community to self consciously begin a regrouping.


American religion is a family religion--more often then not something that is good for "women and children." For more then a century, the Christian churches in America of all types have been an alliance of a minority of men in collusion with a majority of women. (Or so men have seen it.) Your mother is spiritual, your father is pragmatic and strong and smart.

We do not normally think of Evangelical Protestantism as a woman driven religion. The official lines about the non-ordination of women might lead us to believe it is the heartland of male dominance. Similarly we might believe, due to the high visibility of Black clergymen such as Jesse Jackson and MLK, that the Black church is a male driven institution. The Million Man March had its soul in the Black Muslim movement with more pragmatic endorsements and support from mainstream Black churches and civic groups

Is there an attempt in all three movements to find a uniquely male spiritual expression? Odd, but the media and perhaps we also find such expressions as drumming, "three cheers for Jesus," etc. as fascinating, hilarious, repulsive and bizarre.

But I suspect that we have no other alternative to offer. The attempts of the men's movements to find a unique men's spirituality, and perhaps more profound, the recognition of the spiritual vacuum which individualism and stoicism have produced among men may be a significant contribution of these movements.


Women's movements have generally served to restore and strengthen the internal life of the women's community and to renegotiate the women's community vis a vis the men's community.

The women's community has a stronger sense of collective identity then the men's community--paradoxical that women's community stresses the collective nature of womanhood, while also affirming in the movement a wider range of individual options for women. The men's community has stressed individualism: "I am not bound by men's collective standards, " while containing less affirmation of men actually being different and unique.

I accept that inevitably any community retains cohesiveness by some degree of stressing an outward enemy. Second, any community acts in self-interest--get the best deal you can. For that reason I have very little problem with women's critique of men's community. Most men have reacted defensively. "I individually am not guilty of these things, although my less enlightened male colleges are." Or they say, "The charges are overstated and/or wrong." Another response is ridicule.

Thus the response of feminist thinkers about the men's movements has been predictably negative. One states, "Ideally (sic) men's movement should be merely a segment under the larger feminist movement." (Hogan, p 113.) The men's movements are criticized by feminist thinkers as lacking a feminist political analysis, being both patently homoerotic and homophobic, being separatist as a conspiracy to retain traditional male powers. (Hogan, 1991)

The instances of feminist paranoia and ridicule of the men's movements bear a striking similarity to those of men who have ridiculed and feared women’s movements. When a gender community comes together to rebuild, heal and renegotiate its place in the larger culture the opposite gender community will generally take a critical, dismissive and hostile stance.

In my work as a therapist, I often encourage clients to distinguish between their feelings of shame and guilt. Shame is what is imposed upon us as individuals or communities, whereas guilt is more the consequences of our own actions. The shame that American men feel results from a radical change in their economic situation, that is not of their own doing. Their guilt may be more their lashing out and seeking out villains, be they women, minorities, or immigrants, to account for their shame. One does not need to apologize for shame, but I fear the men's movements, due to their lack of economic self-analysis, may be doing just this.

Men feel shame at their failure to be breadwinners. Men feel shame at not living up to their fathers' expectations. Men feel shame both about their desire to be with other men and their distancing from other men. Men feel shame at their overwhelming attraction to women and being consumed by that but also by their anger at women. Most men carry private shame, "I am not doing this right and no other man has felt what I do, but I feel too much shame to ask how other men are dealing with the same issues."


I don't think the men's movements are clear about the nature of their repentance and apology. I think an apology to the women's community is insufficient, too late, a poor move. What men may need to do is to apologize to their brothers, sons and fathers--both genetic and social family. We have not tended to each other. This will take longer then a weekend retreat, a weekend march, a weekend revival meeting.

The work place is no longer the men's community. By the year 2000, about twenty per cent of the entry-level work force in America will be heterosexual white males. What for generations seemed the inviolate white men's club is gone forever. As many men have experienced decreasing economic status and for many increased time with family responsibilities they have sacrificed deliberate time with other men.

Men in nuclear families are now family members, rather than breadwinners, representative of the family to the outside world, protectors, teachers and the head of the household. Middle class white men are spending increasing amounts of time with their families and at work. The traditions of the boys night out for recreation with other men, the Lodge meetings, the Union meetings is rapidly passing.

Because males took their own gender community for granted, they often failed to consciously identify its value for them. The rise of the visible gay men's community and the rising perception that men who nurtured, displayed affection, and who consciously enjoyed the company of other men, belonged to another community has further diminished the men's community. (I contrast this with the women's community, in which lesbian women have served not only as role models but as strong leaders for women for over a century. At present it is almost unthinkable that Gay men could serve a similar role in the men's community

These three men's movements themselves represent three distinct class structures. For $600 one can attend a New Warrior weekend and with a money back guarantee "learn to be a real man." For $55 one can attend a Promise Keepers rally, with two hearty meals. For the price of a Greyhound ticket and a free will offering men attended the Million Man March.

The mythopoetic movement makes a real contribution by stressing the need for soul work, that men will need to go deep within themselves. But the mythopoetic movement seems to offer a radical initiation into individual manhood, a more complete, self-understanding man who continues on as a solitary individual. "We do not initiate into tribalism; we understand that tribalism was also National Socialism" said one of the leaders of the New Warrior movement. (Statement at Chicago Men's Conference, February, l996)

The Promise Keepers offer a shallow, narrowly Christian intellectual system but the emphasis on sustained small communities of men and racial reconciliation is hopeful. The Million Man March was dramatic, certainly the largest group of African American men in history (5 to 10 percent of the total population in America, depending on which crowd analyst one believes). What it offers as local community building remains to be seen.

If men no longer have the work place and union halls as places for assembly, if the task of being part of a nuclear family remains consuming, if friendship among men continues to be suspect, if men must do masculine soul work outside the halls of religion, then the question remains, how and for what reason shall men assemble?

Since we as American men have hopelessly confused public policy with our gender agenda, we have almost forgotten how to speak about ourselves. I note that a women advocating for women's issues is called a feminist, but there is no equivalent term for men doing the same thing for their own gender community.

One sign of progress is the development of Gender Studies programs--particularly when they are authentically involved in the study of two genders. The fragmentation and objectification involved in Women's Studies, Minority Studies and Gay and Lesbian studies too easily implies that there is a "normal world” known by heterosexual, white, male administrators and pockets of deviance which can be objectively analyzed.

I was deeply touched by a feminist academic writer who wrote, "The question remains: What do we want for our daughters, our students, the young women for whom we feel responsible." (Fox-Genovese, p. 3, 1991) I an hard pressed to find an equivalent statement from a straight white male writer who would say, "What do we want for our sons, our students, the young men for whom we feel responsible?"

The apology of the three men's movements is ambiguous. One part seems to be unwarranted shame resultant from most men’s downward economic status in the larger society and within the family. Another is an apology to the women's community. The third and most urgent is a vague, inchoate awareness that men may have forgotten how to relate to each other--as friends, lovers, fathers, comrades.

The agenda of a men's movement in America is enormous. Is it even legitimate for men to wish to assemble? Are these gatherings of men as individuals or tribal gatherings? How do men process the dual emotions of homophobia and homoeroticism when there is no language left for affection among men, and hostile persons often charge men in community with both? Can a movement of men exist without an economic foundation--when there is no economic gain from male friendships and associations? Might male spirituality in fact be men doing "soul work" descending into themselves with other men as guides and comrades?

I would hope that each of these men's movements will move from apology to doing solid gender work and celebration, for their own health and well being as men's communities, as well as for the well being of the counterpart women's communities and the good of the society as a whole.


The Black Scholar l 25 No. 4 (Fall 1995) Feature issue, The Million Man March.

Bly, Robert. Iron John: A Book About Men. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1990.

Cottman, Michael L. The Million Man March. New York: Crown Books, 1995.

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. Feminism without Illusions. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Greenburg, David E. The Construction of Male Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Hagan, Kay Leigh. Women Respond to the Men's Movement. San Francisco: Harper, 1992.

Hacker, Andrew. Two Nations, Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995.

Harris, Marvin. Our Kind: The Evolution of Human Life and Culture. HarperCollins: New York, 1989.

Harris, Marvin. Why Nothing Works: The Anthropology of Daily Life. Simon and Shuster: New York, 1981.

Illich, Ivan. Gender. New York: Random House, 1982.

Keen, Sam. Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man. New York: Bantam, 1991.

Kimbrell, Andrew. The Masculine Mystique: the Politics of Masculinity. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995.

Kimmel, Michael. Manhood in America: A Cultural History. New York: Free Press, 1996.

Moore, Robert and Douglas Gillette. King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

Orenstein, Yevrah. From the Hearts of Men. New York: Fawcett-Columbine, 1991.

Page, Clarence. "The Rudeness of Race." The Chicago Tribune Magazine, Feb. 11, 1996, p. 13. quoting from his book Showing My Color. (New York: HarperCollins, 1996.)

Potter-Efrom, Elizabeth and Ronald. Letting Go of Shame. San Francisco: Harper/Hazaldon, 1989.
"Promise Keepers -- Ecumenical 'Macho-Men' for Christ?" Biblical Discernment Ministries (March 1995): on-line Thompson, Keith. "The Virtuous Male." Utne Reader #73 (Jan-Feb, 1996) p. 68.

Tiger, Lionel. Men in Groups. New York: Marion Boyars, 1969.


Blogger Tim Janes said...

Very well written. I would love to hear what your current thoughts on the same subject are. I have a feeling that there is going to be an uptick in interest in men's movements again. It seems as if very little has changed in your analysis since 2004 and I think the answer to that stagnation lies at the crossroads of homophobia/homosexuality/homophilia/hpmoemotive conflict. Until the tribe can make peace within it's collective male self how to relate to each other with out fear of loss of phallic/phallos power it is paralyzed. I just found your site and will check further but thanks for this piece, I'd hug you but you know that might mean I'm queer.

August 9, 2016 at 6:52 PM  
Blogger JustJewell said...


February 3, 2017 at 11:22 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home