The Legacy of Men’s Movement

 Your teenage son just broke up with his first girlfriend.  He tells his buddies about it and here’s what is so different from previous generations of men: he feels absolutely free to ask them for support to get over it. He even sheds a few tears but not one of them makes fun of him or calls him names. His masculinity is never called into question. How did this happen?

Your stressed out husband or boyfriend opens up and tells you just how scared he is in the down economy and you don’t think he is weak or inferior in any way. You are not nearly as worried as you would be if he kept all his feelings buried or bottled up like your father and grandfather were taught to do. How did this come about?

Your boss is interested in all his employees’ well-being and has even been described as a man who puts people before profits. Many have commented that he is a man who really listens and cares.  Your youngest nephew is often paraded out as a man who does not hesitate to nurture his new baby and takes a leave of absence from his job to do so. Remember the day when two gay men could not adopt and certainly no prime time television show would dare show it. How in the hell did this transformation from Don Draper of Mad Men to Dr. McDreamy from Grey’s Anatomy happen?  This article Man 2.0 is going to tell you.

There is a new man in town… in our homes, in office buildings and factories, in the Speaker of the House chair and behind the desk in the Oval Office.  He makes regular appearances on the big and little screens, on our iPods and on YouTube. This is Man 2.0.  He and his sons have been given a full pass to be as emotionally expressive and expansive as their wives, daughters or mothers have always been. Where did this new man come from? What brought about this sea change?  Who was behind it and where is that story discussed and documented?

We all have heard about the feminist movement and what it achieved. Everyone knows what a huge impact the Civil Rights movement has had on society. Both movements made us more conscious human beings and worked toward leveling the economic and political playing fields.  But what about this thing called The Men’s Movement? The role this movement played in changing the status quo, redefining masculinity, and freeing men in a multitude of ways impacts nearly every facet of daily life?  Yes.  There really was a Men’s Movement and its legacy is now a set of norms we take for granted.

Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem became household names but what about their counterparts—Robert Bly, Sam Keen, Michael Meade and even me— John Lee? We don’t know much about the movement that began as a quiet murmur in the mid-seventies, grew strong and saw its heyday in the eighties and early nineties, and continues to impact how manhood and masculinity is perceived, discussed, and acted out in the twenty-first century. Of course, men have always had feelings.  But acknowledging them, let alone sharing them were unheard of in the 50’s and 60’s.  And most certainly, it was not something the books and the media held up as manly, valuable, and a model for boys and young men to emulate.  How things have changed.

This little known movement has changed societies both here and abroad forever. The Men’s Movement has affected parents, parishes, and prisons.  It has transformed psychology, politics and poetry.  And it has irreversibly altered relationships, homes, health, happiness, and the workplaces.  The legacy of this movement is all around us in both subtle and profound ways that the average reader may not have recognized…until now.

Relatively few people know the names of the conscious cadre of men (Warren Ferrell, Jed Diamond, Sam Osherman, Shepherd Bliss, Bill Kauth, Rich Tossi, just to name a few) who were instrumental in bringing change and leading men out of the clutches of emotional numbness, silent stoicism and emotional ineptness.    The men’s movement made it possible for Speaker of the House John Boehner to unapologetically weep before millions and for President Barack Obama to publicly embrace his interest in parenting…to the degree that he attends his daughters’ parent teacher conferences.  Imagine a generation ago how people would have looked on that.  The men’s movement is why we toast pop stars like Will. I. Am. and Bono for wearing their emotions and hearts on their sleeves. Even the poster child for the strong silent man, Clint Eastwood has embraced emotional honesty and probed the complexity and depth of masculine emotions.  From Unforgiven to Million Dollar Baby to Gran Torino, the movies he has made since 1990 exemplify the transformation in how manliness is defined and reflect changes in society’s comfort level with men being fully emotional and expressive.   I am also pretty certain the “Man with No Name” would agree with another man of quintessential masculine credentials–General Norman Schwarzkopf– who says candidly, “I wouldn’t trust a man who couldn’t cry.” While crying, grieving, weeping or whatever you call it is a major emotional achievement, it is only a small contribution to the elevation of a man’s E.Q. (emotional intelligence.)  There is much, much more.

Yes, I know that when you think of the men’s movement (if you think about it at all) you see bearded escapees from the Sixties piling out of their tie-dyed VW van, hugging trees, running naked in the woods, beating drum and catharting like crazy. While this may have been the picture of a handful, tens of thousands of men of all ages, backgrounds and socio-economic strata and some of us so-called pioneers and leaders of the movement brought a good deal more to the table and most folks feasting at our 21st century table have no idea how that cultural cornucopia came about.

 The Early Days

The early days of the men’s movement were serendipitous, happily unplanned. James Hillman, a rogue neo-Jungian intellectual, and a scrappy, street-smart man named Michael Meade joined Robert Bly on his jaunt across America giving lectures, workshops and conferences with hundreds sometimes thousands of men in attendance. Men were drumming, making masks, singing, reciting poetry and listening to the three of them tell ancient stories from a variety of different cultures. It was the outspoken, charismatic Robert Bly that mesmerized people with his raw emotions and his “leaping” poetry but also his incredible story-telling ability. G.I. Gurdjieff, a Russian philosopher and mystic, wrote a book, Meetings With Remarkable Men.  Had he lived long enough Gurdjieff would have surely added one more man’s name to the list—the poet, translator, story-teller, and designated father of the men’s movement, Robert Bly.

Before I left my teaching position at the University of Alabama and made my way to Austin, Texas to enter my doctorate program in American Studies, my friend Deryle Perryman showed me an interview with Robert that appeared in New Age Magazine in 1981. In that short interview Bly talked about the necessity for men to grieve. In a later article appearing in the Sun Magazine the American poet spoke of a fairy-tale about a mother who took her sons out in the woods to hide them from their father. The absent or emotionally distant father was and continues to be a major theme the men’s movement addresses.  Cutting to the chase or rather the flight—a witch turns the boys into beautiful, long-necked swans and they flew away from their mother.  I closed my eyes and pictured myself flying from my mother, unsure who my father really was hidden under the ravages of alcohol, work and rage.  I was a swan.  I was a Flying Boy.  I had the title for my first book thanks to Bly who said, “To some extent, the young man, each time he leaves a woman, feels it as a victory, because he has escaped from his mother.” My book The Flying Boy: Healing the Wounded Man was the first of its kind—a personal memoir of growing up with an emotionally and physically abusive father, a smothering mother both contributed to my inability to commit to relationships, projects and self-care. It became a bestseller.  It turns out my story was many men’s story. It, along with Robert’s tour de force Iron John, Sam Keen’s Fire In the Belly and a few dozen lesser known books like Robert Moore’s and Douglas Gillette’s book King, Warrior, Magician and Lover, galvanized this very misunderstood and underrated cultural upheaval.

The journalist L.M. Kit Carson described Robert Bly as a “cantankerous, hulking, white-haired man, who looked like a cross between a grizzly bear and a wizard.”  By 1984 I had been following this controversial Norwegian’s work for three years. Finally the fruits of that labor were being realized in my own life. I was simultaneously, like many men I was working with my own damaged “deep masculinity,” which was another one of the many themes the men’s movement identified and addressed.  Robert had properly labeled himself and a couple of generations of men as “Soft Males.” Bly contends that the modern “soft-male” is afflicted with self-destructive grief, anger, and passivity stemming from a lack of guidance from older men. The more we worked on our wounds the more we became proud to be men again. I was spending an equal amount of time with men, where previously I had trusted only women enough to share my secrets and pain another common trait of “Flying Boys.” The lack of close male friends was a common complaint of men who had grown up distrusting their fathers and men in authority. I was learning to trust men and open up to them, in part thanks to Robert Bly’s essays, interviews and poems.

It was about this time that my friend and mentor, Dr. Betty Sue Flowers, an English Professor at the University of Texas helped set the stage for mine and Robert Bly’s first meeting. She was very familiar with Bly’s work and helped arrange a scholarship for me to attend the conference he was presenting to Jungian therapists in Salado, Texas. I received notice that I could come and hear Bly as her guest.

Bly got up and began his two-hour discussion of what it means to be a male in the ‘80s after having lost touch with our masculinity at the time of the Industrial Revolution and losing our fathers to offices and factories.  Bly, up to this time was widely recognized as a gifted poet, provocative social commentator, and captivating public speaker whose advocacy of spiritual introspection and creativity is responsible for a resurgence of popular interest in contemporary poetry. By the end of his talk on men, masculinity, fathers and sons and an ecstatic reading of his poetry I knew why I was there. I would devote the next twenty-five years of my life to this thing called The Men’s Movement.

In Part II this article will deal with the different leaders and variations of the movement during the mid-nineties up to today.

John Lee

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John Lee has been a leader and author in men’s health issues for over a decade. Lee began his career as a professor at Austin Community College, the University of Alabama, and the University of Texas. He has written 18 self-help, psychology, recovery, creativity, or relationship non-fiction books that explore men’s health issues, like alcoholism and co-dependency. In addition to literature, Lee has advocated for the maintenance and improvement of men’s health in magazines, like Newsweek and on shows such as Oprah and 20/20. In 1986, Lee co-founded Primary, Emotional, Energy, Recovery (P.E.E.R.), a training program for counselors, social workers, and psychotherapists. Two years later, he founded and directed Austin’s Men’s Center, a counseling center that specializes in men’s issues. In the late 1980’s, he opened his own private practice in Austin, Texas specializing in men’s issues, relationships, adult children of alcoholics, and co-dependency. His latest two books, The Anger Solution and When the Buddha Met Bubba, are on sale now on More information about John Lee can be found on his web site and on his daily blog at

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