To improve the lives of women and girls in our society, men’s and boys’ lives must change as well. For over three decades, the mission of the Ms. Foundation for Women has been to support the efforts of women and girls to govern their own lives and influence the world around them. This work has been done with the awareness that the lives and futures of women and girls are interwoven with those of men and boys, and that the gender order in our society has harmful effects on all members of the human community.
A focus on boys is crucial. Boys—and the men that they become—are active participants in and gatekeepers of a rigid gender order that structures our lives, informs our public policy, and creates and defeats possibilities for boys and men, and for girls and women. Masculinity, as it is culturally constructed, puts forth a constricted, often destructive, version of boyhood and manhood that limits the full range of emotional and behavioral potential that boys inherently possess.
In March 2004, the Ms. Foundation for Women held a symposium to address and explore these issues of gender and masculinity: “Supporting Boys’ Resilience: A Dialogue with Researchers, Practitioners, and the Media”. The symposium explored ways to support boys’ resilience by helping them remain healthy, strong, and confident in the face of obstacles. Leading members of the academic, media, and direct-service communities gathered to present and participate in a dialogue with an audience consisting of funders, academics, and direct-service practitioners. In a series of presentations, panel discussions, films, and breakout sessions, the presenters and attendees engaged in a challenging, complex, and sometimes difficult conversation about boys’ resilience, their resistance and capitulation to culturally constructed images of masculinity, and the possibilities of giving new meaning to manhood.
This document is a description of that conversation and a presentation of those possibilities. It begins with a discussion of feminist reflections on boys and men as allies. It goes on to address the obstacles—both perceived and real—to the healthy development of boys, and emphasizes the need to build resistance and resilience in the face of these obstacles. Next, it outlines new possibilities for boyhood and manhood and provides a rationale and prescriptions for rethinking masculinity as constructed by society-at-large, the media, and the social science literature. It then interrogates the connection between masculinity and violence, and highlights specific strategies for breaking this link and healing the wounds it has wrought. This document ends with charting the remaining challenges we face in supporting boys’—and, interrelatedly, girls’—resilience.