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Can Men and Women Be Friends?

Floyd Dell
Excerpted from the May 28, 1924 Issue

Friendship between men and women is rather a new thing in the history of the world. Friendship depends upon equality and choice, and there has been very little of either in the relations of the sexes, up to the present. A woman does not choose her male relatives, nor is she according to archaic family laws their equal; motives other than personal choice might lead her to become a man’s wife; wholly impersonal reasons might place her in the relationship of kept mistress. Only in her role of paramour was there any implication of free choice; and even here there was no full equality, not even of danger. None of these customary relationships of the past can be said to have fostered friendship between men and women. Doubtless it did exist, but under difficulties.

Family bonds, however, are being more and more relaxed, women are no longer the wards of their male relatives, and friendship with a father or brother is more than ever possible. The free personal choice which marked only the romantic amours of the age of chivalry is now regarded in America as essential to any decent marriage, while the possibility of divorce tends to make free choice something besides a mere youthful illusion. More than ever before, husbands and wives are friends.

[Yet even] today extra-marital friendship exists in an atmosphere of social suspicion. If dancing were not a general custom, if it were the enlightened practice of an advanced few, how peculiar would seem the desire of Mr. X and Mrs. Y to embrace each other to music; and how scandalized the neighbors would be to hear that they did! No one would rest until the pair had been driven into an elopement.

We build huge palaces for the kind of happy communion which dancing furnishes; we tend more and more to behave like civilized beings about the impulses which are thus given scope. We are less socially hospitable to the impulses of friendship between men and women.

In friendship there are many moods; but the universal rite of friendship is talk. Talk needs no palaces for its encouragement; it is not an expensive affair; it would seem to be well within the reach of all. Yet it isn’t. For the talk of friendship requires privacy—though the privacy of a table for two in a crowded and noisy restaurant will suffice—and it requires time. It is a flower slow in unfolding; and it seems to come to its most perfect bloom only after midnight. But, unfortunately, not every restaurant keeps open all night. It is satisfied with two comfortable chairs; a table to lean elbows on is good, too; in winter an open fire, where friendly eyes may stare dreamily into the glowing coals—that is very good; hot or cold drinks according to the season, and a cigarette—these are almost the height of friendship’s luxury. These seem not too much to ask. Yet the desire for privacy and uncounted hours of time together is, when considered from that point of view, scandalous in its implications; quite as much so as the desire of Mr. X and Mrs. Y to embrace each other to music. However, Mr. X and Mrs. Y do, under the aegis of a convention, indulge their desire and embrace each other to their heart’s content with the full approval of civilized society; and it seems as though another convention might grow up, under the protection of which Mr. X and Mrs. Y might sit up and talk all night without its seeming queer of them.

Queer, at the least, it does seem nowadays, except under the conventions of courtship; friends who happen to be married to each other can of course talk comfortably in bed. These bare facts are sufficient to explain why so many men and women who really want to be friends and sit up all night occasionally and talk find it easy to believe that they are in love with each other. They find it all the easier to believe this, because friendship between the sexes is usually spiced with some degree of sexual attraction. But a degree of sexual attraction which might have kept a friendship forever sweet may prove unequal to the requirements of a more serious and intimate relationship. Disillusionment is the penalty, at the very least. Society could well afford to grant more freedom to friendship between men and women, and save the expense of a large number of broken hearts.

And this might have an effect unsuspected by those whom such a prospect of liberty would most alarm today. When a moment’s rashness does not necessarily imply red ruin, when sex is freed to a degree from the sense of overwhelming social consequences, it may well become a matter of more profound personal consequence; and with nothing to fear except the spoiling of their friendship, men and women in an ardent friendship may yet prefer talk to kisses.

“But what if they don’t?” A complete answer to that question, from the Utopian point of view, would take us far afield from the subject of friendship; yet some further answer may seem to be required. Such friendships, let us agree, tend to merge insensibly into romantic sexual love: but perhaps in a future where extra-marital romance is made room for with a tender and humorous courtesy, it may actually learn to smile at its illusions—illusions which will still give the zest of ultimate danger to relationships of merely happy and light-hearted play. Thus life will continue to be interesting.

As for the talk of friendship, my Utopian speculations uncover for me no respect in which the thing itself can be improved upon. At its best it has, despite its personal aspect, an impersonal beauty; it is a poignant fulfillment of those profound impulses which we call curiosity and candor; it serves human needs as deep as those which poetry and music serve, and is an art like them. The art exists, and it remains only for the future to give it an adequate hospitality.

Floyd Dell (1887–1969), a critic, playwright and novelist, was managing editor of The Masses until it was suppressed as “treasonable material” during World War I. 

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Friendship in the Digital Age

Michelle Goldberg
April 6, 2015

The feminism of Floyd Dell, the early-twentieth-century radical novelist, social critic, editor of The Masses and frequent contributor to The Nation, is striking for its lusty enthusiasm. Reading him, one never gets the sense that he was congratulating himself for his broad-mindedness or making unctuous, covertly condescending arguments about women’s higher nature. He was genuinely convinced that feminism was a great boon for men, liberating them from the burdens of sole breadwinning and turning their wives into real friends and comrades.

“Men are tired of subservient women; or, to speak more exactly, of the seemingly subservient woman who effects her will by stealth—the pretty slave with all the slave’s subtlety and cleverness,” Dell wrote in his 1913 book Women as World Builders: Studies in Modern Feminism, a collection of biographical essays about pioneering figures like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Emma Goldman and Ellen Key. “So long as it was possible for men to imagine themselves masters, they were satisfied. But when they found out that they were dupes, they wanted a change. If only for self-protection, they desired to find in woman a comrade and an equal. In reality they desired it because it promised to be more fun.”

This admirable conviction could, at times, slide into its own kind of chauvinism, though given how much ahead of his time he was, it’s perhaps forgivable. Dell, who once wrote an essay titled “Feminism for Men,” occasionally acted as if feminism were actually for men, valuable chiefly for providing them with the company of scintillating, liberated women. In the introduction to Women as World Builders, for example, he sought to explain why, as a man, he’d endeavored to write about feminism. Women, he wrote, have always shaped themselves according to male ideals, and in his view feminism was “but another example of that readiness of women to adapt themselves to a masculine demand”—in this case, the demand for women who would be partners rather than dependents. Since male desire informed the movement, he wrote, men had every right to sit in judgment of it, as it was their “demands it must ultimately fulfill.”

Again and again, when Dell wrote about women, there was a tension between his sincere espousal of equality and a view of the world that continued to put men and their needs firmly at the center. This tension runs through Dell’s 1924 essay for The Nation, “Can Men and Women Be Friends?” The full question, of course, is whether men and women can be friends without sex getting in the way. Dell, a decade older and less callow than when he wrote Women as World Builders, doesn’t entirely answer it, though he moves through interesting twists and intellectual switchbacks as he tries.

At first, it seems like he’s making a forthright case for extramarital friendships that are intense but unromantic; he calls for a new set of social conventions by which “Mr. X and Mrs. Y might sit up and talk all night without its seeming queer of them.” Such talk, he argues, should not threaten their spouses; rather, it is the absence of conventions allowing it that is the real threat to marriage, since this leads people who might simply want to be friends to believe that they are in love. “It is worth while to wonder if a good deal of ‘romance’ is not, after all, friendship mistaking itself for something else; or rather, finding its only opportunity for expression in that mistake,” he writes.

But then comes the doubling back, as Dell suggests, in the very next paragraph, that he can’t quite imagine a friendship with a woman that is not in some sense erotic: “friendship between the sexes is usually spiced with some degree of sexual attraction.” Shortly after that, he writes that men and women who try to be friends might discover “that friendship and sexual romance may sometimes be difficult to relegate to previously determined boundaries.” And this might, in fact, threaten marriage; if so, Dell says, marriage must yield some of its rights so that friendships can flourish.

At this point, those who are suspicious of free-love ideologies—and the people, usually men, who invoke them to squirm out of domestic responsibilities—might start rolling their eyes. But Dell isn’t making a utopian argument for unfettered sexual license. At least in theory, he espoused the ideal, widespread among today’s elite, of committed, egalitarian marriage. (In his 1930 book Love in the Machine Age, which declared the patriarchal family obsolete, he dismissed “sexual ‘freedom’” as “the old patriarchal conventions and compromises and infantilities in a pseudo-modern disguise.”) He’s doing something more subtle, arguing that if flirtatious, erotically charged extramarital friendships were respected, they’d be less likely to ignite into torrid, destructive affairs.

“[P]erhaps in a future where extra-marital romance is made room for with a tender and humorous courtesy,” Dell writes, “it may give up these preposterous and solemn airs, and actually learn to smile at its illusions—illusions which will still give the zest of ultimate danger to relationships of merely happy and light-hearted play.”

What has happened instead, in the ninety years since Dell’s essay, is that feminism has opened up far more space for friendships between men and women than he could have imagined. Today, the idea that all friendships between people of different genders must be at some level sexual seems hopelessly retrograde. But give Dell credit for this: underlying his passionate brief for allowing men and women more opportunities to converse was the assumption that women have something to say, and that men’s lives might be as enriched by listening to women as by sleeping with them. “[W]ith nothing to fear except the spoiling of their friendship,” he wrote, “men and women in an ardent friendship may yet prefer talk to kisses.”