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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S

Women and Men and the Head/Heart Business
by Jane Fonda

The following excerpt appears in Jane Fonda’s Words of Politics and Passion edited by Mary Hershberger (The New Press, November 2, 2006). Published with the permission of The New Press and available at good book stores everywhere.


[Speech prepared for Smart Talk Women’s Lecture Series, Hotel Dupont, Wilmington, Delaware, March 31, 2004.]

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this head/heart business in relation to the men in my life: specifically my three husbands and my father. All good men, none deliberately cruel or mean, but all with a disconnect between head and heart. And all of them have suffered from this disconnect and they numbed the pain of this in various ways including alcohol, sex, gambling, never being still.My dad was a little different. He managed to create safety valves through which he could express the other parts of himself, the heart parts, if you will: through acting, painting, needlepoint, macrame and gardening, all more or less solitary occupations that didn’t require him to relate to anyone.

All these men loved me, I think, but they didn’t know how to join me.And I was their accomplice in this because I never let them really know me. I learned early on, in those proverbial times when children learn everything, that to be loved, a girl has to be perfect. Oh, I was a rebellious girl, and when I grew up, I was a strong, independent woman professionally, politically, financially, even, but behind the closed doors of my most intimate relations, I could turn myself into a pretzel to be whatever the man wanted me to be because otherwise, how could he love me? I was really good at it. Trust me, my Academy Awards should be for my private life.

And what was I doing? I was creating the same bifurcation between my head and my heart that the men suffered from and I didn’t even know it. I was forfeiting relationship with myself in order to be in relationship with a man.

Being with a man, an alpha man, in particular, was so important that I was willing to leave myself behind—which wasn’t so difficult since I didn’t know who “myself ”was.

Up until that sixtieth birthday, I was a feminist in the sense that I supported women, I brought gender issues into my movie roles, helped women make their bodies strong, I read all the books. I had it in my head. I thought I had it in my heart, but I didn’t. Not where it really counts.It was too scary; it was like stepping off a cliff without knowing if there was a trampoline down below. I had to build my foundation first and it turned out that, by preparing for my sixtieth, by going all the way back to the beginning and feeling my way forward—it was like Hansel and Gretel’s path of breadcrumbs leading me along—that is when I was really helped by what Gloria Steinem has written about how we women leave behind the girl we were, strong and feisty, in order to become the “good”woman we’re “supposed to be” and when we get older, if we are lucky and work at it, how we can circle back to that feisty girl and know her again for the first time.

Right after the breakup of my last marriage I reread Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, which Gloria Steinem had given me years before when my second marriage had broken up.Timing is everything. I wasn’t ready then. From Carol’s book, I learned how the Male Role Belief System, that compartmentalized, hierarchical, ejaculatory, androcentric power structure that is patriarchy, is anathema to relationship. Patriarchy sustains itself and repeats itself by breaking relationships. It depends on the bifurcation of head and heart for its very existence and we tend to see this as “just the way things are—that’s life.” “The essence of human development is that psychological growth takes place in relationship. Relationship brings the oxygen of experience into the psyche.”

What I’ve discovered over the last four or five years as I try to understand my marriages (and my father) and the head/heart thing is how damaging patriarchy is, not just to women and girls, but to men and boys. I am glad that I really understand now in the most personal ways, why a feminist revolution will be good for men and boys. I am not talking about switching to a matriarchy and replacing one form of hierarchy with another.No, men have to make this journey with us. But it’s harder for them.

You see, while being “male” and “female” is innate, “masculinity” and “femininity” are not.They’re not states of being; they’re acquired social constructs. Masculinity is conferred, the way you confer membership in an exclusive club, and membership can always be revoked—men have to constantly prove, over and over again, through achievement (or, failing that, through violence), through being above someone else, that you are deserving of membership. How exhausting!

I think it was in Susan Faludi’s book Backlash where I read about an opinion poll that had been taken asking men and women around the world how they defined “masculinity.” The overwhelming response was “the ability to bring home the bacon, to support their family.”So, if this is the main criteria for membership in the “masculinity club” everywhere in the world, what happens when unemployment among men goes up while women (albeit at lower wages and no benefits) have jobs? Violence against women is what goes up . . . right? That’s the other big criteria for proving manhood, for membership in the club.You’re no wimp, you’re tough, someone’s below you who you can beat up on.

And guess what, there’s a new paradigm bubbling just beneath the surface ready to replace the old.People are calling it many different names: the Feminine, the Good Mother, the Politics of Caring. Call it what you will, it represents a changing of all the most fundamental precepts that have governed civilization for the last 10, 000 years, so that head and heart can be reunited and relationship and democracy restored.To me, this is what feminism means and it includes men . . . those men whose heads and hearts are united. All of us contain both masculine and feminine, but if the masculine aspect becomes overly predominant in its bifurcated, out-of-touch-with-feelings aggressiveness, that is when we are in trouble. If the men and women in whom these toxic traits are dominant also happen to be in leadership positions, then something decisive and immediate needs to happen to rectify things and bring back the balance.

I think it is up to women and girls to lead the way. I’d like to tell you a couple of stories that have shown me why this is true.Sometimes we can see things more clearly when we go outside of our own familiar context.

Several years ago, I traveled to Nigeria with the International Women’s Health Coalition to make a documentary on three girls’ programs which were started by Nigerian feminists in Nigeria.All three of these women had previously been part of a national organization called WIN—Women in Nigeria. After ten years of what had appeared on the surface to be a successful effort, these brave women decided to evaluate WIN’s work.

They learned that although Nigerian women had flocked to WIN’s workshops and conventions, they didn’t bring their newly acquired skills and consciousness home with them.Again, behind the closed doors of their intimate relationship, their newly acquired voice would go silent.

Faced with this discovery, the Nigerian women organizers decided they should change strategies and concentrate their efforts on the daughters, before they had internalized oppression the way their mothers had. And I can tell you, it is working—which is incredibly profound and important given that Nigeria is one of the most conservative countries in Africa. Each program takes a different approach as befits the local culture. In the more liberal south, they focus unapologetically, smack dab, on gender empowerment, helping girls understand why they have the right to safety, to say no, to control their bodies. In Lagos, the capital, in the middle part of Nigeria, the program focuses on reproductive rights and sexuality and includes boys. In the conservative, Muslim north, they focus on micro-enterprise, teaching poor women to type and sew. In all three places, girls (and vagina-friendly boys) are claiming their power. And what I learned there was that when girls get strong and connected with themselves, boys are forced to deal with it, to test their own capacity for emotion and authenticity. It starts sometimes with the boys pretending they’re feminists just to get these newly empowered girls to date them—because, of course, they are the most interesting girls! But, you know, if you pretend long enough you start to become.

Research over the last three or four decades has revealed the developmental underpinnings of why girls and women are the agents of change. Let me try to sum it up: boys lose their relational voice early in their development, as I just mentioned, usually around five years old, the time when they enter formal schooling. Boys become invested so early in the definition of masculinity as “man being entitled; man being superior to woman, man being superior to boys and other men.” It’s “just the way things are, ” it’s ordained.

Girls, on the other hand, have a good decade or more of experiencing their voice before they feel the pressure to become silent, which generally happens at the cusp of puberty when we are told what the criteria is to enter the “Femininity Club” and be “good girls, ”selfless, not too smart, not too loud, not too strong or uppity.

For girls, then, “fitting in, ” capitulating to cultural norms, is a learned experience. They remember the “before”part of it—we don’t need to scratch too deeply to get at it and release their righteous anger and raise their resistance. It’s much harder with boys; we need to get to them much earlier and offer attractive, safe, alternatives to membership in the “club.”

Another story: in 1994, I attended the United Nations Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt.The previous year there had been the United Nations Earth Summit conference in Rio. I was there and so was Bella Abzug and a whole lot of women.The thing is, though, that the women weren’t part of the official delegation where the Plans of Action that result from these international conferences are drawn up.Apparently, women, like all the other non-governmental organizations, were viewed as a special interest group that didn’t really have a place at the table.

Bella and her army of women began to study how the United Nations worked—where were the cracks and crevices, and how could they widen them and get themselves inside the next time?

The next time was the Cairo conference and its purpose was to figure out how to create sustainable development and stabilize population growth.The previous such conferences, like the one in Mexico City, had had Plans of Action written by men and female ventriloquists for the patriarchy and they focused on contraception and quotas.

Bella, by now, had figured out the UN. She had mobilized her troops, she had the support of a powerful but vagina-friendly man named Tim Wirth, former Colorado senator.

For the first time in the history of such UN conferences, women were organized and at the table, drafting the Plan of Action. These were women from all over the world. One hundred eighty-four countries were represented. They were the women who lived this issue of population and development. They were the front-line workers.The entire organizing aegis for the conference was gender. The message was, “If you want to eradicate poverty and create sustainable development, you—the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United States Agency for International Development and all other governments and NGOs—you have to view everything you do through a gender lens: Does your project help women and girls? Does it make their lives easier? Does it empower them? Is your structural adjustment scheme going to make it harder for women to get loans to start their own businesses? Is your proposed dam going to make it harder for girls to fetch water for their families?

Everywhere in the developing world it is women and girls who plant the seeds, till the land, harvest the crops, fetch the water, cook the food, bear the children, take charge of the family’s health, spend whatever monies they can scrape up on the family’s well-being. They are already stretched to their human limits and beyond. Make it worse for them and everything gets worse. Make it easier for them and everything gets better.

You want to reduce population growth, you have to stop thinking about contraception alone. Contraception is vital but it’s not enough. In some places, if a woman tries to use contraception she risks being beaten or even killed. In other places she needs all the children she can bear in order to have any status at all, in order to have enough hands to do all the work.

So—do you really want to reduce population growth? Try educating girls. Educated girl don’t want big families, they can read the labels on medicine bottles, they have the confidence to talk to the male doctors and really understand about heath risks.

Help girls and women start businesses or become wage earners. I visited a non-governmental organization in Cairo that teaches the daughters of the city’s garbage collectors (who live in the most unspeakable poverty) how to make things out of recycled garbage and it earns them $17 a month.When a girl brings home even this paltry amount, everything changes; the parents suddenly see that perhaps the girl is worthy to go to school after all.The girl feels empowered enough to say, “No, I will not be married off at thirteen to someone of your choice. I want to finish school, get a better job and marry who I like . . . and I don’t want a lot of children.” The simple fact of earning an income changes everything. That, of course, is why the same mind-set that opposes a woman’s right to reproductive freedom also opposes women working. Both of those are battles about power—not about the personhood of the fetus.

The year after the Cairo conference, there was the UN Women’s Conference in Beijing, China. I was there, too. And I returned the following year to visit family planning clinics and was told that the conference had had a profound effect on women in China who hadn’t even been to the conference.“Why?” I asked, and it was explained to me that the statement “Women’s rights are human rights” had leaked out and spread around the country and Chinese women had received this like, “Oh, my God! Our rights are human rights.” It had never occurred to them.

Okay. I carry within me now, all these stories and more, these concrete examples of what it means for the planet to move to the feminine. I need these things within me—I need to understand, for instance, that the entire framework of psychology up until the 1970s was based on a male-centered definition of what is normal and, as a result, women end up feeling there is something terribly wrong with our more relational, more feeling way of doing and seeing. Finally, our way is validated, put into a theoretical framework by this new wave of women psychologists.

I need to own this. You know why? For the times when patriarchy attacks and makes the criticisms that we are so vulnerable to. Hey, the Male Role Belief System hasn’t been around this long because it’s stupid. Well, it is stupid, but it’s not dumb—it knows our Achilles heel: “Oh, those women, they’re so fuzzy-headed, so impractical, so out of touch, so lacking in strategy.”And we internalize that and think it’s true, but it’s not true.We all need to hold that inside our bodies, have it anchored within us by our own examples, by our own stories that remind us that what is going to save people everywhere in the world is moving away from the paradigm that “might makes right” and that “power is all, ” to the balanced yin and yang, love, compassion and forgiveness existing along with the male qualities of efficiency, goal orientation and strength. No one can deny what patriarchy has done to our earth.

We have to understand that it is a belief system that is the enemy, not men.We have to understand that empathy is revolutionary— empathy for women, for men, for ourselves.We need to work to create a movement that is like a volcano which will erupt when the time is right, in a flow of soft, hot, empathic, breathing, authentic, vagina-friendly, relational lava that will circle patriarchy and smother it so that men and women, boys and girls, can be whole again, head and heart united.

* * *

© 2006 by Jane Fonda. This excerpt appears in Jane Fonda’s Words of Politics and Passion edited by Mary Hershberger (The New Press, November 2, 2006). Published with the permission of The New Press and available at good book stores everywhere.

Other Jane Fonda writings at Feminist.com:

  • Conversation with Jane Fonda: Interview by Marianne Schnall
  • Excerpt from My Life So Far
  • The New Feminism: Reuniting the Head, the Heart & the Body (Speech from 2004 Women & Power Conference)
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