Now it was the men's turn to talk. It was their turn to sit down, at my invitation, and part the curtain that conceals their anxiety and their frustrations. Time to lay it out, to talk about the myths, the mistrust and all the sterotypes that have affected their dealings with women through the years.
Men and women. The topic is a hot item in town. A lot of people think about it, and some talk about it now and then. But it is a subject that is hard to discuss in public because it is hard to deal with in private. That is especially the case now because the women's movement has challenged traditional concepts of masculinity all over America.
It's super-tough here in Washington. The women of this city are independent and liberated -- women direct government agencies and draw super-grade salaries, women own their own homes, drive their own cars and tell presidents what should be done. And it's tougher because most of the District's men are black -- and are trying to deal with machismo, emotions and racism all at the same time.
Still, no less a personality than Andrew Young has suggested that it is time to put it all out on the table. "We've got to quit oppressing our wives and daughters," he told a black leadership conference in Richmond recently. For all too many black men, Young said, the following credo is true: "I believe in women's rights. Get me a cup of coffee, baby."
So Edward Norton, counsel to the Small Business Administration, spoke without hesitation the other night, admitting that he was not perfect.
"I am oppressive in that I insist on those positive aspects in the male culture which I think are valuable," he said, "and that is a sense that a task has got to be dealt with, that you can't shy away from it."
His wife, Eleanor Holmes Norton, chairwoman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, had that night brought home a soccer net for their son's birthday. She could not erect it, so he was expected to do it. "I say, 'Don't buy any gifts that you don't want to put together, but that are going to drive me crazy to do it.' I'm inclined to think about all the implications of my acts and that is arrogant in the extreme," the Yale-educated lawyer said.
But Norton suggested that he is able to work out most of his aggression and frustrations at his high-powered job, rather than taking them out on his wife.
"I have more whips to lay on other people's backs than they have whips to lay on mine, and that's a change in my circumstances. I don't have a hard life now (like many black men) the way it goes."
Twenty-six-year-old Kwame Holman, Mayor Marion Barry's acting press secretary, also deals with a world that is less racist than that faced by many black men.
He has a strong identity with black manhood and power, honed during a privileged middle-class Atlanta boyhood under the tutelage of his father, M. Carl Holman, president of the National Urban Coalition. And the younger Holman now works for a black man who projects a powerful image.
That helps when it comes to dealing with Washington's women -- women who are highly paid and highly intelligent, who want an equal partnership with a man based on filling each other's emotional needs. They are opting for a notion of masculinity that allows room for feelings, doubts, insecurities and uncertainties.
"I think I could accept that," Holman said. "There are a great many, many women nowadays, and especially here, who are self-sufficient though they might pretend not be sometimes. They still have to deal with these old images a bit. But I could accept a woman on that basis."
Edward G. Darden, a divorced father who investigates discrimination charges for the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, wasn't so sure. "I tend to have some problems with the 'me-generation' independent woman, because they often mean, 'I can take care of myself in spite of you,' and with that comes a very competitive mentality ... They have almost wholly adopted the material criteria for what it means to be independent and they bring that competition into a relationship.
"My back gets up because I get the feeling that all they want to do is just turn the tables and have the same kind of power relationship except with them on top -- use me like they think men use women, you know; 'Hop to it, give me sex when I want it, leave me alone when I don't want to see you' -- you know, abusive.
"The more mature woman knows what it means to be in an emotional symbiosis with another peron -- give-and-take, a real relationship. Those kinds of women I have found to be very rare.
"I think," he said, "that men are very confused and hostile. But that's inevitable if you're going to change the situation because nobody gives up power voluntarily."
Change. Communicating and negotiating for change were the themes as we talked that night. Couples must communicate, then negotiate for change, concentrating on self-worth, and releasing their energies in positive rather than negative ways.
At a time when masculinity is in transition, these men were struggling with their relationships with women who are changing their sense of themselves. wIt was clear at the end of the long evening that change was going to be as necessary as it was going to be hard.