Gender Equity

Edith Wharton was an early champion of gender equity, though I am not sure she gets the credit she deserves. One of the numerous targets she has in her sights is the infamous “double standard,” which applauds men for sexual prowess while at the same time condemning women for the exact same thing. In Age of Innocence, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, she tells us that “All the elderly ladies whom [the hero] knew regarded any woman who loved imprudently as necessarily unscrupulous and designing, and mere simple-minded man as powerless in her clutches. The only thing was to persuade him, as early as possible, to marry a nice girl, and then trust her to look after him.” In this particular novel, the tale winds in a compelling way around the theme of a woman who “loved imprudently” — Wharton’s compelling way. But the double standard is only one of the problems the women in Wharton’s day had, living as they did vapid lives in a man’s world. And Wharton is eager to point them out. She led a movement in its earliest stages of development. The movement has grown and now has a great many zealous followers.

There’s no question that the feminist movement has good grounds for their fervor and enthusiasms as women were silenced far too long. And they have drawn attention to a great many unacceptable, and even unethical, practices in our culture. Many of these practices still remain even after sustained attacks, however, as does the double standard. Martina Navratilova noted when Magic Johnson bragged about his “thousand infidelities” that a woman would have been tarred and feathered for making such a claim publicly. Further, there aren’t many women among the 1% of those who control the wealth in this country. However, painfully slow as it has been, there has also been some progress.

But with the progress there has also been the seemingly inevitable exaggeration as the notion of “equity” has been identified in the minds of many with “sameness,” and important differences are slighted over or shunted aside; certainly disallowed. This has occurred on many fronts, of course, and not just in the camp of women’s rights. The claim that women (in this case) have the same rights as men — or ought to — is based on a moral grounds, involving moral and civil rights. There can be no question that this argument is well founded. But when the notion of “equity” expands to include “sameness,” we are venturing into the realm of the absurd. There are important social, intellectual, physical, biological, and cultural differences among all human beings, not only between men and women. All of these differences should be duly noted while at the same time we acknowledge the rights of all. We should celebrate differences, not brush them aside in the name of “equity.”  Wharton certainly knew this.

There are many intriguing differences between males and females and it is one of the sad consequences of the feminist movement, and so-called “political correctness,” that we have become afraid to mention them for fear of the wrath of the Commissar of Culture. Noting differences between the sexes is dismissed as “stereotyping” and noting differences in general suggests that nasty word “discrimination,” which we forget was once a good thing. We have become oversensitive to the legitimate grievances of those who have been chronically disadvantaged. And in our concern that someone’s feeling might get hurt we become tongue-tied and intellectually impotent. It is wrong to hurt anyone’s feelings, but it is also wrong to hamstring those who have important things to say.

Fortunately, Wharton was not caught up in the gender equity frenzy, though she was wide awake to the plight of women. She most certainly was not tongue-tied nor intellectually impotent. Her main objective was to draw attention to the follies and injustices of her age. In doing so she was able to discriminate between pretense and honesty, the way the world was and the way she knew it should be.  She was aware of the slights that were being perpetrated daily against women in her culture and saw the reality that was buried beneath social protocols and propriety. And she was unafraid to speak about them. Most importantly, she didn’t have to look over her shoulder to see if she was being watched by the Commissar of Culture. That made it possible for her to speak her mind most eloquently.


5 thoughts on “Gender Equity

  1. Hugh, you are quite right to applaud Wharton’s wisdom and ability to see the flaws — the double-standards — in how women of her era were treated, as well as the many other flaws in attitudes and behavior of the culture she lived in. She was bold as a writer, taking these issues on, often with some of the best writing ever done. But it is perhaps a reach to say she didn’t have to worry about a “Commissar of Culture,” and that such a commissar inhibits how we express things today, or even what we express.

    Today, just to name a few performers/writers who are very bold, explicit in the ideas they express — and, certainly, in how they express them: Madonna, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Stieg Larson (the author of the “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” series), Philip Roth (who condemns everyone and everything in American culture with a masterly ferocity, and often concludes that no matter how good an individual’s heart or mind may be, his life usually ends up being a waste — pretty harsh stuff), the filmmakers David Fincher and Christopher Nolan, the animated TV series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (of “South Park”), to name a few. The guys from South Park, like Madonna, usually find great glee in jabbing hard into the eye of the commissar of culture, especially when the commissar hits them first — they hit back so much harder.

    For a long time, centuries even, there were incredible societal pressures and laws that restricted what could be written, said, or sung. That was true in America and in Europe. Until the 1960s, for instance, the Hays Code was a more or less government mandated form of censorship on Hollywood movies, forbidding nudity, limiting profanity and usually requiring a morally uplifting ending (or one that gave the message: bad guys always get it in the end). Movie-makers could make films the way the wanted and ignore the Hays Code if they wanted, but that meant no Hollywood studio production or distribution, and no theaters would show them. De facto commissar of culture, in other words. On TV into the 1970s, it was not permitted to show married couples sleeping in the same beds: Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore slept in the same room, but in twin beds separated by about three feet. And it was not until the late 1960s that blacks had a leading role in a TV series (Bill Cosby, Diahn Carroll), an unfortunate echo of baseball’s color line, one of the worst of all impositions of a commissar of culture, and one that for 25 years actually had a commissioner — Judge Landis — who ruled baseball with a racist iron fist. It was not until his death that Jackie Robinson was signed by the Dodgers.

    Authors faced similar restrictions. Hemingway was pressured into using euphemisms for profanity in “For Whom The Bell Tolls.” Many subjects and words — especially sexual references, bi-racial relationships, even friendships, women showing independence, among them — were either taboo or broached with great difficulty and consequence. Heck, go back a few centuries further and authors of Shakespeare’s time had to work hard to curry favor of the court if they wanted to be published, and, sometimes, if they wanted to keep their head, as well! That makes what Wharton achieved even more impressive, but should also require us to remember that today’s political correctness is not an isolated thing. There has always been a heavy, heavy cultural pressure on authors, composers, etc. While today’s performers and writers may face backlash over things that performers and writers a century ago would not have gotten backlash on, the reverse is also true, probably more so: Today’s performers, writers, actors push and exceed boundaries in areas those a century ago would not have dreamed of even touching.

    It’s an important discussion to have, Hugh, and I am grateful that you bring up this topic from time to time. The collisions between artists and others in culture and the culture they represent or challenge is an interesting topic to study, and one that ever fluid.



  2. The Commissar of Culture today, as I thought I made clear, is Political Correctness. Wharton didn’t have to deal with that! I need to work on my writing, maker it clearer.

  3. Hugh, I totally understand you’re talking about a concept, not an actual person! My shorter point: Wharton didn’t have to deal with Political Correctness but still had plenty of similar and dissimilar obstacles. For instance, she couldn’t even vote until 1920, when she was 58. The mere fact that she was an American woman writing serious literature at that time makes what she did really remarkable, but also speaks to the cultural barriers that existed. It was pretty much her, Cather, maybe Edna Ferber (a Pulitzer winner and huge seller, but maybe not as critically great), and few if any others. My very short point: Whether it is today’s political correctness, or some of the very strict cultural mores (the “banned in Boston/banned in Peoria” sorts of things) and cultural codes and laws that flat-out prohibited or intimidated women, blacks, etc., from writing or performing much at all a century ago, I don’t know that it’s any worse today than it was back then. By any name, cultural repression and backlash has usually been there. It’s those who are bold, gifted and have the conviction of their work who press on regardless of consequence, in any era. 🙂

  4. I don’t disagree about the woman’s courage. Indeed, she had obstacles. But as a writer, I do think political correctness puts psychological constraints on the way he or she can write. It inhibits and restricts the free flow of ideas in a way that the sorts of social obstacles you mention do not.

  5. Just a footnote: I also think the social obstacles can inspire a writer and make them reach new heights of creativity — witness Dante, for example. As I say, political correctness is another thing altogether.

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