A Woman’s Place

In this post I want to play the devil’s advocate, to see if any sense whatever can be made of the conservative position regarding women that would keep them in the home rather than have them compete in a man’s world (as it has come to be called). I repeat: I am playing the devil’s advocate here: I am not committed to this point of view, though I do not find it silly or frivolous — especially when those on this side of the issue can enlist the likes of George Eliot. It is an issue that requires careful and dispassionate thought, not knee-jerk reactions and name-calling.

In her influential book, The Female Eunich, first appearing in  1970, Germaine Greer told the world that:

“Women have somehow been separated from their libido, from their faculty of desire, from their sexuality. They’ve become suspicious about it. Like beasts, for example, who are castrated in farming in order to serve their master’s ulterior motives—to be fattened or made docile—women have been cut off from their capacity for action. It’s a process that sacrifices vigor for delicacy and succulence, and one that’s got to be changed.”

Many have taken this to mean that women should become more like men, aggressive, assertive, even vulgar. But there was another feminist voice that directed the conversation toward a broader interpretation of the preferred role of women while, at the same time, insisting that women should be accorded the same rights as men. That was the voice of the psychologist Carol Gilligan who in 1982 insisted in her book In A Different Voice that women should not seek to imitate men and their ethics of duty and responsibility but, rather, follow their feelings toward an ethics of care, which is more natural to women and allows them to carve out for themselves a healthier and more embracing ethics, a more positive ethics than one based on the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant, for example. Gilligan stresses the fact that women naturally feel a sympathy for other humans and should build their ethical system around that. As Gilligan herself put it:

“The moral imperative that emerges repeatedly in interviews with women is an injunction to care, a responsibility to discern and alleviate the ‘real and recognizable trouble’ of this world. For men, the moral imperative appears rather as an injunction to respect the rights of others and thus to protect from interference the rights to life and self-fulfillment.”

Thus we have conflicting views within the feminist camp. On the one hand, Greer stresses the need for women to grasp and hold some of the territory men have always claimed for themselves, while Gilligan stresses the differences between men and women and the need to develop a feminine ethics of care. But are these two points of view really so much in conflict? I think not, because each stresses in her own way the need for women to acknowledge their differences while, at the same time, refusing to accept an inferior social role. The problem is in determining what that “inferior” role might be.

For many feminists that inferior role is in the home raising children. Thus, in order to achieve autonomy they must go off to work each day leaving their kids (if they have any) in Day Care and hoping that television doesn’t do too much damage to their children’s psyches. The assumption here is that self-worth is predicated on having a job that pays less than a living wage and fighting against the glass ceiling each day in the hope that at some point women will be paid what they are worth. This is an assumption that will not withstand scrutiny.

People like Lord Acton, a self-proclaimed “Liberal Catholic,” argued against women’s suffrage in Victorian England on the grounds that “in the interest of humanity” taking their place in the hurly-burly of the world outside the home would destroy their essential nature and eliminate the much-needed influence of the woman at home with the children teaching them right from wrong and helping them to grow into responsible adults. This view was echoed in many of Joseph Conrad’s novels as well, since that author regarded women as somehow too “pure” to mix in the world of men without losing their feminine nature entirely — a nature that society as a whole requires in order to achieve and maintain some sort of moral perspective. In Heart of Darkness, for example, Marlowe is reluctant to tell Kurtz’s “intended” how the man deteriorated and became bestial toward the end of his ongoing orgy in Africa for fear that it would disillusion her and make her cynical and hard, like a man.

This is not to say that women are the “weaker sex.” On the contrary, it suggests that they are the stronger sex because the role they play is more basic, and at times more difficult, than the role of provider that is played by the male in the traditional view. Strength is not a matter of what we do but how we do it. Men tend to be aggressive and bellicose and bring those qualities to the competitive job arena; the role of women is to temper that aggression and bring calm to a masculine world — behind the scenes, as it were. But both Conrad and Acton would insist that this role is essential to a healthy society. Surprisingly, George Eliot would agree with Conrad and Acton. In opposing John Stuart Mill’s amendment to the Reform Bill of 1867 which would have enfranchised women she noted that:

“While the zoological evolution has given women the worse share in existence, moral evolution has endowed them with an art which does not amend nature. That art is love. It is the function of love in the largest sense to mitigate the harshness of all frailties. And in the thorough recognition of that worse share, I think there is a basis for a sublimer resignation in woman and a more regenerate tenderness in man.”

In saying this, Eliot sided with such other notable women as Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Florence Nightingale.  Note that this view doesn’t fly in the face of what Greer and Gilligan are insisting upon, either. Not really. There is no real conflict between the claim, on the one hand, that women should assert themselves as women, demand their rights, and insist that they be recognized as essential to a complex society, and the claim, on the other hand, that if they have children their basic role is in the household (with a room their own as Virginia Woolf would have it) raising those children and helping them achieve adulthood in the face of the undue pressures of a commodified culture, the entertainment industry, and their peers. If the goal is to achieve autonomy, the issue is not what women do, it is what women think of themselves. As Greer herself said, twenty years after the publication her book:

“The freedom I pleaded for twenty years ago was freedom to be a person, with dignity, integrity, nobility, passion, pride that constitute personhood.”

Autonomy is inner freedom and does not require that women (or men) play specific roles.  The fact that in our society self-worth is predicated on what we do (rather than how we do it) is a mere accident of our capitalistic ethos and should not be the driving force behind basic social choices.

Is it possible (I ask, somewhat facetiously) that the movement to demand that women and men play the same roles in society not only ignores important differences but has weakened the fabric of society and eliminated almost entirely that essential, if often ignored, effect women traditionally had raising the children and taking charge of the household — again, assuming that they have children? To even ask this question in this day and age seems like heresy, but it is worth pondering if we are to penetrate to the causes of the current American malaise: the fact that our society increasingly shows signs of social unrest, political deterioration, and the absence of a moral compass.

At the very least, we seem to be on the horns of a dilemma, devil or no devil.

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Do We Hate Women?

In a most intriguing episode of ESPN’s show, “Highly Questionable” in which Dan Le Batard and Bomani Jones sit on either side of Le Batard’s father and respond to the questions sent in by viewers, there recently occurred a discussion of numerous tweets that have been sent by avid (rabid?) male sports fans to female reporters and journalists who are audacious enough to report on male sports. The tweets were disgusting and very disturbing — so much so that several of them couldn’t be read on air. The question before the group was what would drive those men to say those terrible things to those women? After a number of suggestions by both Batard and Jones the latter finally said: it’s simple, in this society we hate women [his emphasis]. I paraphrase here because I don’t have the episode near at hand, but this was the final point the Jones made and it is worth pondering.

Bomani’s comment would certainly explain why those men would say such awful things to those women. But that is a small sample (we would hope) and certainly doesn’t make a case for the truth of Jones’ comment. However, Jones’ claim would also help to explain such things as pornography and prostitution not to mention the singular lack of popularity of women’s sports and the disappointing  popularity of such men as Donald Trump. Further, when we reflect on the nearly 5 million known cases of of domestic abuse each year in the U.S. alone, taken together with the undeniable fact that women have had to struggle throughout history against  male dominance to assert their minimal claims to human rights, the case begins to take on a semblance of credibility.

It is even possible to explain the sudden burst of radical feminism not so many years ago on the grounds that those women themselves were filled with hatred not only of the males who dominate over them but, possibly, of themselves — perhaps as a result of a need to play a male role in order to succeed in a culture where women are chronically marginalized. This might well result in hatred not only of the role women are forced to play in a male-dominated culture, but even of the women themselves for being forced to appear to be what they are not. Clearly, it is impossible for someone who is not a trained psychologist to draw any hard and fast conclusions about what might be explained otherwise, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that a great many women in this culture mimic the men who dominate over them and may well hate themselves for it.

While it might be a stretch to insist that many women hate themselves, it is fairly clear that Bomani Jones might be correct in saying that men hate women in this culture, generally speaking. That is, those men who wrote those horrible things about those women were symptomatic of a deeper hatred among men generally toward the women who throughout their lives have assumed the role of authority figures — namely, mothers and teachers who, in the lower grades, are almost always women. These women have been telling men for years what they should and shouldn’t do and this may well explain why a certain amount of resentment would build up which might then result in hatred of women generally who stand between so many men and what they think they want.

Needless to say, I am engaged in borderline speculation here, but that’s what this blog is about: to raise interesting questions and generate thought. Bomani Jones is a bright and articulate man who makes many a good point in what is otherwise a silly TV show. In this case, what he had to say is well worth pondering, since it does explain a great many things that are hard to explain otherwise — including ugly tweets that twisted men direct toward women who have the audacity to report on male sports.

Flight From Woman

Despite the fact that he never married, Henry Adams held women in the highest possible regard and often, in his autobiography, tells the reader how he was “rescued as often before by a woman.” In most cases it was Senator Cabot Lodge’s wife, who, with her husband and children, accompanied Adams on many of his travels. Indeed, it was with the Lodges that Adams first visited Mont St. Michel and Chartres and later wrote his remarkable study. He spends the bulk of one chapter in his autobiography taking about the plight of women in his age and says, in passing, “Adams owed more to the American woman than to all the American men he ever heard of, and felt not the smallest call to defend his sex who seemed able to take care of themselves. . . . woman was the superior.” In addition, Adams wrote two novels that center around women: Sybil and Madeline Ross in Democracy, and Esther in the novel by that name. In the former, Madeline Ross finds herself unable to “purify politics” in all-male Washington because she discovers “an atrophy of the moral sense by disuse.” Indeed.  For the most part the women stand head and shoulders above the men in the novels as they did with the women in Adams’ life.  I suspect that it was Adams’ high regard for women that drew him to the Chartres Cathedral which was built as homage to the Virgin Mary. As I suggested in an earlier blog, the Virgin represented to medieval men and women the Earth Mother from whom we all came and whose warm embrace will enfold us all in the end. What is this all about?

I would suggest that this has nothing whatever to do with modern feminism. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that modern feminism has helped to effectively eliminate from common discourse any discussion of the woman as she was viewed by such men as Henry Adams. Some would insist that this is for the better. But let us pause and reflect. To Adams, women represent the softer and more gentle side of life, the intuitive and emotional, caring and loving side. Woman represents feeling, man represents reason and cold, hard logic. And despite the fact that Adams himself had a mind like a steel trap and could reason with the best, he preferred feeling which he insists brings us all closer to one another and to life itself. His heroes and heroines show extraordinary sensitivity and he himself was drawn to beauty in all its forms. Adams would have agreed with Jung who insisted on the duality within each of us and tended, for his part, to prefer the side of feeling, the compassion and love that was represented by women and which he was not himself afraid to acknowledge in himself. In fact, he seems throughout his autobiography to regret deeply not having lived in the medieval period when the Virgin Mary was very real and gave meaning to life; she was available to all as a source of comfort and succor.

But what of this duality? Why is it that so much of what is written and spoken about women and men today seems directed toward a categorical denial, a leveling down, an insistence of no difference where differences clearly exist? Why is it that today women so often must seek success in men’s terms, by wearing pants and being assertive and tough enough to break the “glass ceiling”? The male is hard and repellant in so many respects. As Karl Stern points out in his interesting book Flight From Woman,

“Just as in the function of the spermatozoon in its relation to the ovum, man’s attitude toward nature is that of attack and penetrate. He removes rocks and uproots forests to make space for agriculture. He dams up rivers and harnesses the power of water. Chemistry breaks up the compound of molecules and rearranges the position of atoms. Physics overcomes the law of nature, gravity, first in the invention of the wheel — last in the supersonic rocket that soars into the stratosphere. . . . Man’s activity is always directed against nature.”

Men are leading the onslaught against the Earth Mother today: why would women want to be like men? The answer is that society demands it. We have defined success in monetary terms and the only way women can be successful, as we define that term today, is to play a man’s game. and play it as well as or better than the men. However, it is not demeaning to women to insist that they are different, especially if that difference amounts to a superiority. And it assuredly doesn’t imply that women should be denied the same rights as men. For centuries, of course, they were denied a voice and recognition as morally equal to men. It is certainly understandable that women have become defensive about being set apart: they want the recognition they deserve and have been so long denied. But perhaps the fight has progressed a few steps too far. That is one of the consequences of the trend toward equality that slowly emerged from the age of Enlightenment when people first started thinking about moral equality and the need to recognize the rights of all. But moral equality does not translate into sameness: we should  eschew any leveling down, recognize difference and accept it.

As Stern insists in a remark that would offend many women today, women “act and react out of the dark, mysterious depths of the unconscious, i.e., affectively,  intuitively, mysteriously. This is no judgment of value, but a statement of fact.”  This does not mean that women should not pursue mathematics and science or become police officers, which are supposed to be more “manly” activities, but simply that we should all acknowledge that there are differences between men and women and that every one of us is an intriguing combination of the two natures. Some women make better physicists or mathematicians than men and some men make better poets or writers than many women do. Recent testing suggests that young girls do as well as or even better than young boys in tests involving math and science. But that does not mean that there are not differences between the two aspects of the human psyche or that women and men are not different from one another in ways that subtend the physical. It is precisely because we come to this topic with bags choked with prejudice and suspicions that when differences are pointed out we insist that value judgments are being made; we refuse to acknowledge the facts that stare us in the face.

But if in the end we insist upon making those value judgments, rather than simply to acknowledge that there are ineluctable differences between the sexes, then perhaps we should simply agree with Adams that the female is superior to the male. Love trumps aggression every time. As Joseph Conrad would have it, women are “not the playthings of Time,” they shine forth with “an unearthly glow in the darkness.” And that darkness is the result of man’s unfettered rapaciousness over the centuries.

But as I write these words I wonder if we have come to the point where they simply no longer make any sense.

Co-opting Women

One of the more disturbing consequences of the growth of capitalism and the attendant world view that insists on measuring success in terms of income and possessions is the dissolution of the family. This may seem a strange claim to make, but when one considers the factors involved it will hold up to scrutiny.

In a commodified culture such as ours where success is measured by buying power, the pressure becomes intense on women to join the work force in order to become empowered  in the only way such a culture knows how to measure power. As an early feminist writer,  Jane Addams, noted as early as 1910, women who stayed at home to raise the family were little more than “parasites, unproductive, consumers upon the state.” If women were to become empowered and free themselves from the chains that bound them to a home and family, they had to go to work and challenge the men on their own ground. The alternative was unacceptable: self-fulfillment could only be achieved in the real world making real money. As Christopher Lasch has pointed out in his disturbing book on the dissolution of the American family (Haven in a Heartless World), “faced with an argument that condemned leisure as a form of parasitism, antifeminists could have insisted on the positive value of leisure as the precondition of art, learning, and the higher form of thought — arguing that those benefits ought to be extended to the American businessman.” And this despite the fact that one of the original feminists, Virginia Woolf, argued persuasively that a woman requires a “room of her own” in order to write fiction — i.e., improve her mind –not make money.

In any event, such an argument in a commodified culture would sound other-worldly and it would never pass muster with women (or men) who have been raised to believe in their heart of hearts that the only things that truly matter have dollar signs attached. Success in our culture is all about money and power and one cannot obtain either of those by staying at home taking care of the kids. The seeds for the idea that emancipation and true self-fulfillment in a consumer society were only possible with increased buying power were sown by the advertising agencies which, in the 20s and 30s of the last century increasingly targeted women, convincing them that their freedom was predicated on buying things they didn’t need. Eventually their message devolved into the slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby!” This necessitated women’s financial independence from their husbands, which, in turn, translated into the urge to leave the household and find work. The assumption here that self-fulfillment and independence, indeed, true success, rest on increased purchasing power, is an assumption that is seldom questioned in our culture.

However, the notion that true empowerment may be a function of the pursuit of goals higher than financial well-being deserves attention, because it is one that goes back at least to Aristotle and the ancient Greeks who treasured their leisure and knew how to make the best of their spare time. A reflective life dedicated to art, literature, and learning was for them one well worth living. But such a life seems unattractive to Americans of both sexes who have been conditioned to believe that such pursuits are frivolous and not worth serious time and attention: we have become an increasingly anti-intellectual society as we have grown older. Further, we have forgotten how to use our leisure time and especially forgotten that for centuries people were convinced that it was during those moments of creativity, contemplation, and reflection that one achieved true success. Our measure has become that of  dollars and cents: success must be measured to be real.

In this process, women have become convinced that real success can only be achieved “out there” in the real world breaking the glass ceiling and fighting for their place at the table of wealth and prestige that our culture blindly insists is the only one worth occupying. The result, of course, is children raised in day-care and the all-too-common phenomenon of the “latch-key” child who comes home each day to an empty home and whose parents are riddled with guilt and determined to make it up to them by spoiling them rotten. As Lasch points out, “Feminists have not answered the argument that day care provides no substitute for the family.” One can hardly argue any more  that children are more well-adjusted and happier today than they were when they were raised by authoritarian parents who attempted in their stumbling ways to instill discipline. As Lasch has argued at length, children desperately need strong authority figures or they conjure up their own and the ones they imagine are much more damaging to their psyches than the real thing and often lead to twisted personalities and violent actions. In any event, child rearing has been taken over by psychologists and social workers and other members of the “helping professions” as well as the schools and television; the parents of both sexes have found that their time is better spent elsewhere.

This is not to say that the urge to empower women is somehow wrong-headed. Clearly, women have been powerless and marginalized for centuries and their time to shine is long overdue. But it is sad that in our culture the only way they think they can shine is in the limelight their male counterparts have stolen and keep to themselves. But it is a pale light indeed. The problem here is the misconception involved in measuring success and power in terms of income and credit card limits. It would be better for us all if it were measured by those things that really matter, those things that make human lives fuller and richer. And this goes not only for the women who have in effect abandoned their families and turned them over to the helping professions. It also goes for the businessman who, as Lasch suggests, could also benefit from a life measured in more meaningful terms than mere financial achievement.  Making a living is necessary, of course. But it shouldn’t be the measure of a man’s worth — or a woman’s either.

Protecting The Young

I recall that in Plato’s Republic Socrates recommends that in the ideal society precocious young boys and girls be taken from their parents at a very early age and raised by the state until they reach their mid-thirties at which point they will enter public service and eventually be qualified to rule. The idea is that the state will raise the children into middle age, educate them and prepare them for kingship. The notion is radical, not only because it involves taking children from their parents at an early age, but also because it involves both boys and girls. Though he may have taken his lead from Pythagoras who welcomed women into his school in Italy, Plato was probably the first feminist: he thought women should be allowed to rule the Republic along with the men.

Whenever I taught this book, however, at least one student could be counted on to raise the following objection: by taking the children from their parents and raising them apart, when the time comes to rule they will be naive and unprepared for the “real world” where there is strife and struggle. The philosopher kings, as Plato liked to call them, would be unprepared for the hurly-burly of the real world. Aristotle agreed with my students; he was relentless in his criticism of Plato’s notion of philosopher kings and this is a large part of the reason: they need real-world experience and what Aristotle called “practical wisdom.” Philosophers who have been raised apart from the people in the political state would not be able to function effectively.

This is a telling criticism and accords with common sense. And yet isn’t this precisely what we are doing in our schools when we continually stroke the kids and tell therm they are wonderful? Granted, the state hasn’t taken the children from their parents, though one might want to argue that electronic toys have in effect done precisely that. In any event, even though the public schools are not set apart and the kids who attend those schools are not selected for their precociousness, they still are made to feel as though they are potential philosopher kings — without the philosophy.

I have blogged about this absurd situation previously, but it remains the case that parents and teachers need to keep fixed in their minds that they are preparing kids for the real world where there is failure and disappointment and things don’t always work out the way we had hoped. The fundamental flaw in the “self-esteem” movement that has gripped this country is that it turns out young adults who have a deep-seated sense of entitlement and who are not prepared for the shock that the real world of marriage and work have in store for them. It is ironic that in the interest of doing the right thing by our kids in trying to raise  their self-esteem we may well be robbing them of the equipment they require to be successful in the work-a-day world.

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.