Liberate Men! The Rise and Fall of the Swedish Men’s Movement
Is it possible to alter deeply ingrained gender patterns? And do we really want to? These questions were asked by a group of men in the late 1970s, and many people are still asking them today. A new dissertation from Umeå University in Sweden deals with the association Liberate Men! and what happens when a group of individuals tries to challenge the prevailing gender order.
Even though nearly thirty years have past since the Swedish men’s movement saw the light of day, a stereotypical image remains of what men and manliness are. Moreover there is a fear among men of being associated with the man of the men’s movement, the softy, the velour dad.
“When gender boundaries start to crumble, other forces attempt to retain clear and polarized gender ideals,” says intellectual historian Helena Hill of Umeå University.
The question of whether it is possible to challenge the prevailing gender order in society, and what happens when a group of individuals attempt to do so, runs as a thread through Helena Hill’s dissertation, Liberate Men! Ideas of Oppression, Liberation, and Change in the Swedish Men’s Movement in the 1970s and Early 1980s. The movement in focus in the dissertation was tiny, but it received a great deal of attention at the time. Helena Hill wanted to find answers to the question of what seemed so controversial about these men that even today the softy and the velour-clad dad are used as examples of how men should not be.
The 1970s men’s movement was formed in a context of questioning. It was not only common to attempt to create alternative ideals, it was downright modern to do so. The men of the men’s movement were therefore often depicted in the media as a hope for the future, the new man. However, not everyone was enthusiastic about the androgynous manifestations of the softy. Wearing velour clothing, attending men’s camps, and learning how to express emotions and truly connect with other men were all clear violations of gender boundaries.
“But this, of course, was also a stereotyped image of the men’s movement man. Their ideas for the future contained much more than that,” says Helena Hill.
“Gender equality and support for the ongoing women’s struggle were objectives that were seen as important. Making use of your right to take a paternal leave of absence and, instead of men’s and women’s roles, helping to create a ‘human role’ in which every individual could develop in accordance with their own personal capacity were other ideas that the men’s movement stood for.”
The dissertation describes how these men, who were originally called pioneers, soon came to be accused of having lost their masculine identity. What started out as a goal, to distance oneself from everything associated with traditional masculinity, turned out to be a burden. Challenging and altering the prevailing gender order was not as easy as the men’s movement had hoped. This ushered in a new era in the men’s movement: the image of the softy man had to be expunged. Instead, other characteristics would be put forward, like men’s presumed capacity to take action and their ability to think and act rationally. The fear of being seen as unmanly, feminine, or homosexual stands out clearly when boxing, poker-playing, running marathons, or drinking whiskey suddenly become important activities to stress in connection with any discussion of paternal leaves of absence from work. Men on paternal leave, associated in the 1980s with men in velour, had to evince these characteristics in order not to venture too far across the borders of gender.
“In the last documents saved from Liberate Men! this strategy is clear,” says Helena Hill. “The male role was no longer seen as being in need of an overhaul, but should instead be further developed and complemented. Manliness is also presented as something good and positive. This would then mean that nobody would have to question the gender of these men any longer. They were real men!”
On Thursday, February 22, Helena Hill, Department of Historical Studies, Umeå University, will publicly defend her dissertation. The public defense will take place at 10:00 a.m. in Auditorium E, Humanities Building, Umeå University. Title of dissertation: Liberate Men! Ideas of Oppression, Liberation, and Change in the Swedish Men’s Movement in the 1970s and Early 1980s The external examiner will be Jens Rydström, Department of History, Stockholm University.