The Early History of the American Men’s Studies Association and the Evolution of Men’s Studies
by James Doyle and Sam Femiano
Where to begin a history of the American Men’s Studies Association (AMSA)? Although AMSA is a relatively young organization, founded in 1991, its philosophical roots reach back to the early 1980’s (circa 1982) and the work of a small number of men’s studies scholars. These early men’s studies pioneers (e.g., Martin Acker, Shepherd Bliss, Harry Brod, Sam Femiano, Martin Fiebert, and Mike Messner; (see “Who We Are,” 1984) formed the Men’s Studies Task Group (MSTG) of the National Organization for Men (NOM). As NOM renamed itself the [National] Organization for Changing Men (NOCM) and finally the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS), MSTG became the Men’s Studies Association (MSA). So, let’s begin our history there, with the early years of MSTG/MSA.
The Men’s Studies Task Group
From its beginning NOM encouraged its membership to form affinity groups (called “Task Groups”) composed of people with similar personal and/or professional interests. NOM organized Men and Masculinity (M&M) conferences, which over the years have become annual events attended by mostly men supportive of an anti-sexist political and personal agenda. At these conferences NOM members affiliated with the various task groups could meet and share their work and common interests.
The Men’s Studies Task Group proved to be one of NOM’s (and beginning in 1984, NOCM’s) most active task groups, instituting its own newsletter, the “Men’s Studies Newsletter,” in early 1984 under Harry Brod’s editorship. A brief note appearing in the second issue of the “Men’s Studies Newsletter” (1984) provides a sense of MSTG’s presence at the Ninth M&M Conference (Washington, D.C., June 30-July 3, 1984):
The Men’s Studies Task Group is offering a workshop entitled “Men’s Studies: The Men’s Movement in the Academy,” facilitated by MSTG members Samuel Femiano and Leonard Levy . . . The Task Group will also meet twice during the conference to network, plan for the coming year, and discuss issues relating to men’s studies teaching and research. (“News of Men’s Studies,” 1984, 1)
Obviously the planning paid off, because at the Tenth M&M Conference (St. Louis, MO, June 20-23, 1985), MSTG’s presence became more prominent. Chronicling this growth, we read that:
The Men’s Studies Task Group is sponsoring three session[s] at this conference: “Men’s Studies: Defining its Contents and Boundaries” (organizer: Ted Davis), “Teaching Men’s Studies” (Martin Acker), and “New Research on Men’s Studies” (Al Lott). The Task Group will also hold a membership meeting during the NOCM “Action Day” at the conference (June 20). (“Men’s Studies Notes,” 1985, 1)
During the next several years, MSTG continued to grow, with its membership approaching a quarter of NOCM’s total constituency (“The 1985-86 Men’s Studies Task Group Roster,” 1985).
Men’s Studies Association Conferences
Then in 1989, the newly named Men’s Studies Association hosted its first Annual Interdisciplinary Men’s Studies Conference in conjunction with the Fourteenth M&M (Chatham College, Pittsburgh, PA, June 1-4). Panelists Martin Acker, Harry Brod, Clyde Franklin II and Michael Kaufman opened the day-long event, followed by four consecutive sessions featuring twenty papers (see “Program Schedule,” 1989, p.29).
The next year, at the Fifteenth M&M (Oglethorpe University, Atlanta, GA, May 31, 1990) a second men’s studies conference was held, which brought together “over sixty scholars from North America and Western Europe” (Editorial, 1990, p.3).
While in Atlanta, the MSA’s leadership openly discussed the creation of an independent men’s studies association. The following year, the Sixteenth M&M (Tucson, [AZ,] June 6-7, 1991), found the MSA’s leadership revisiting the organizational-separation issue.
MSA’s leaders had noted a growing concern over the troublesome logistics of hosting an expanding men’s studies conference within the time-frame of a national Men and Masculinity conference.
M&M’s predominately summer-month scheduling had become problematic for many presenters wanting to receive institutional funding for what was emerging as a primarily academically-oriented men’s studies event.
Thus, the MSA leadership left Tucson convinced that the Men’s Studies Association needed to hold a separate conference during the academic year, not only to accommodate a growing number of its long-standing NOCM/NOMAS-MSA members, but also to attract those men’s studies scholars who were not particularly in other M&M activities.
In a statement in the fall, 1991, issue of the Men’s Studies Review (the largely-expanded successor of the “Men’s Studies Newsletter”), Sam Femiano, then president of the Men’s Studies Association, wrote:
At the Atlanta Men’s Studies Conference in 1989, a decision was made to incorporate the Men’s Studies Association as a separate and autonomous organization and a charter and by-laws were drawn up. Implementation of that decision was slow but in September, 1991, we became incorporated and officially changed our name to the American Men’s Studies Association to mark our new status but also [to] mark the expanded scope of our work.
Although this move will formally separate the American Men’s Studies Association from its parent organization, the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS), everyone involved in this change is committed to a continued and mutually supportive affiliation between both organizations. [p.3, emphasis added]
Unfortunately, NOMAS’s leadership did not approve of the creation of an independent men’s studies organization nor a separate men’s studies conference. During the fall of 1991 NOMAS’s leadership summarily removed Femiano from his MSA office and banned any discussion of planning a separate men’s studies conference outside the M&M framework.
The American Men’s Studies Association’s Mission
Believing this decision to be unjustified and contrary to MSA’s stated collegial and democratic spirit, what had been the core of the MSA leadership, i.e., Martin Acker, Stephen Boyd, James Doyle, Sam Femiano, and Charles Miley, met the following May 29-31 at Stony Point, New York. They were joined on the phone by David Robinson.
At this meeting the group not only drafted a Mission Statement outlining a number of crucial issues fundamental to its academic and professional heritage, but also made plans for its first American Men’s Studies Association (AMSA) conference.
Initially, NOMAS’s leadership accused the AMSA leaders of betraying NOMAS and its long-standing alliance with feminist principles. However, AMSA’s “Mission Statement” (n.d.) made its position clear. Rather than supporting what some within NOMAS perceived as a shift toward an anti-feminist approach to men’s studies, AMSA steadfastly “encourage[s] the refinement of the parameters of men’s studies [based on] an ethical perspective which eschews oppression in all forms (namely, sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, classism, et al.).”
AMSA’s leadership did reject the tenet that men’s studies must be guided exclusively by feminist principles (see Brod, 1987). The leadership argued that given the “pluralistic nature of men’s studies,” AMSA would be committed to “providing a forum of open and inclusive dialogue which involves a spirit of mutual respect for our common humanity” (“Mission Statement,” n.d.).
Although AMSA’s birth was accompanied by much pain stemming from personal attacks on many of its leaders, in a few short years, AMSA not only has survived but has grown well beyond what its founders ever anticipated.
During its brief history, AMSA has hosted a richly diverse annual conference, provided a “spirited” Internet list server, and, more importantly, has grown into a vital and dynamic men’s studies organization that respects and gives forum to the many voices that are charting the emergent field of men’s studies.
Men’s Studies Evolves
Within the historical framework of organizational evolution, there has also been an evolution of men’s studies itself, as an academic discipline. The early conferences took place during a time of major growth and change, for men’s studies was just becoming recognized (perhaps one should say barely) as an equal in the academy. The people who were involved in these conferences as presenters were men and women who had taught for several years and were theorizing their own experiences.
After a few years, however, participation expanded as conferences began to draw more and more young scholars who were just breaking into the workplace. Their insightful ideas and viewpoints were deeply encouraging to those of us who had been in the field for many years, for it meant that the field would continue to be vital and to grow. Today, this energizing balance between senior and junior members of the men’s studies community is a hallmark of AMSA conferences.
Conference topics also have evolved over the years. The theorizing about power, patriarchy, and hierarchy of the early years seems now to be taken for granted, and people are free to move on to applications of those ideas. Analysis of men in literature continues to be of interest, as do historical studies. Theorizing about the experiences of gay men also is a consistent theme.
The relationship of men’s studies to feminism continues to appear as a topic but with a changing focus as feminism diversifies into groupings with differing perspectives on men. At the same time, men’s studies itself, once a strictly pro-feminist discipline, has become more diversified, and representatives of many currents in the men’s movement, particularly the mytho-poetic current are voicing their opinions and concerns.
Although men’s studies and religion have always been a part of the conference agenda, the relationship between these fields has broadened to encompass all aspects of men’s lives seen through the double lens of religion and men’s studies.
As this evolution continues, it will be very important to maintain men’s studies as the meeting point for many varying viewpoints.
As noted earlier in this article, a philosophical difference between NOMAS and AMSA emerged after the split (circa 1992). It has remained vitally important to AMSA to maintain an openness to all members of the men’s studies community. Looking back, we can see that this commitment to openness draws upon a significant legacy.
When Sam Femiano first began to investigate the field of Men’s Studies in 1984 to determine its extent and focus, he discovered that the men and women who had entered the field had done so largely out of personal motivation. Their lives had been touched by personal experiences or, in many cases, by the women’s movement, and they had begun to look more closely at issues of men and gender.
Femiano also found that men’s studies classes had been taught since the mid 1970’s in scattered colleges around the country. But until the Task Group of Men’s Studies was formed in 1983, there had been no central point of reference for people interested in the field.
These early men’s studies pioneers were, in many ways, beginning a revolution. For once you have begun to look at men as gendered persons, your perspective on life changes, and change, by its very nature, is a continuing process.
For that reason, we must always remain open to new ideas and new perspectives. Such had been the intent of AMSA’s mission statement, to open the field to all who wished to play.
Now that we have provided an all too brief overview of AMSA’s history and of the evolution of men’s studies, permit us to end this essay by redirecting our gaze forward. As we enter the new millennium and beyond, let us voice our hopes for both AMSA and men’s studies.
First, we hope that men’s studies as an academic discipline, will become a more accepted and integral part of the academy. Analyzing the male and male experiences as gendered constructions can only add to our understanding of the human condition.
And second, we hope that there may be a lessening, if not an end, to the perception that men’s studies is somehow by its very existence a threat to women’s studies. All too frequently we hear the charge that men’s studies courses and those involved with them somehow deplete the minimal resources the academy doles out to women’s studies programs. In our opinion this fear is groundless and only adds to what some might see as a turf-building or protectionist mindset.
The academy and its overarching goal to push forward the frontiers of understanding and knowledge are not well served when any of its members prevent admission of new perspectives or viewpoints. Obviously, we believe that men’s studies can and will add to the academy’s vitality and knowledge base.
Our hope for AMSA is that it will continue to grow and by growing reach out to an ever larger and more diverse constituency of men’s studies scholars and practitioners and provide them with a vital and useful organization that will serve their interests.
[James Doyle is professor of psychology at Roane State Community College in Harriman, TN, and general editor of the Journal of Men's Studies. He is the author of The Male Experience, (3rd ed.; Dubuque, IA: Brown & Benchmark, 1995). Sam Femiano is a psychotherapist practicing in Northampton, MA.]
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