Second Thoughts on Women’s Suffrage
From The New Criterion.
January 7, 2002.
“Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” says the best-selling pop psychologist John Gray, and no one thinks twice about it. For the high-brow set, best-selling pop linguist Deborah Tannen writes book after book to explain how men and women use language differently. At some level, presumably, we all still recognize the importance of the obvious and not-so obvious differences between the sexes as much as the Victorians did. Indeed, you could argue that an idea like “the power of sisterhood” among women of all ages, races, religions, classes and occupations, women united by anatomy alone, could only have occurred to an age fascinated almost to the point of obsession with the differences between the sexes. The Victorians were much readier to assume the irrelevance of sex to class or national or racial division, for example, and therefore were presumably closer than even the most “progressive” among us to the unisex ideal.
Three months out from September 11th, sexual difference was becoming more and more of a feature of the media conversation. Paul Farhi in the Washington Post called our attention to what he calls “the worry gap” between men and women.
Four in 10 women told pollsters from the Pew Research Center in late October that they had experienced feelings of depression after Sept. 11; only one in five men reported the same thing. Women were more than twice as likely as men to experience insomnia as a result of the news. And just over 50 percent of women told Pew researchers earlier this month that they're "very" or "somewhat" concerned about a new attack. The proportion of men who felt this way: 30 percent. These results are consistent with a study published in mid-November in the New England Journal of Medicine; it found higher "stress reactions" among women than men immediately after the attacks.
Fear and anxiety are common in both sexes; evolutionary biologists say such responses are "adaptive mechanisms" necessary for survival and hence propagation. But faced with the free-floating stress of threats unseen and unknowable, men and women tend to take distinctly different paths.
Women, that is, are more depressed and anxious and eager to talk about their feelings, while men are stoical and taciturn, tending to bottle things up. Who’d have guessed? “Man: rational. Woman: emotional”? asks Mr Farhi “A cheap stereotype, a gross generalization? It's never that simple. We're all sliding back and forth between those poles, driven by circumstance and temperament. But that doesn't mean it isn't generally true. . .”
The sexual dimension of tragedy was also Peggy Noonan’s theme when she announced in the Wall Street Journal that “men are back.”
A certain style of manliness is once again being honored and celebrated in America since Sept. 11. You might say it suddenly emerged from the rubble of the past quarter century, and emerged when a certain kind of man came forth to get a great country out of the fix it was in. I am speaking of masculine men, men who push things and pull things and haul things and build things, men who charge up the stairs in a hundred pounds of gear and tell everyone else where to go to be safe. . . .
Nor is it only right-wing women who grow all kittenish when those manly men ripple their muscles at them. Maureen Dowd, the doyenne of Chick Lit at the New York Times agrees with Peggy — up to a point, anyway.
Women used to get in a snit when a hardhat with a flag decal wolf-whistled at them.
Now women get in a swoon when a hardhat with a flag decal wolf-whistles at them.
In three decades, feminism has done a back flip. Once men in uniform were the oppressors. Now they're trophy mates. Once cops were pigs. Now they're foxes. Once firemen were the guys you brought home if you couldn't snag a doctor. Now they're the most sizzling accessory.
Bad news for the Dockers generation. "The Hunk Factor," blared the headline in Monday's USA Today. “Manly men and their uniforms muscle onto the scene.”
As usual, Miss Dowd is coyly non-committal about what makes her little heart go pit-a-pat, but I think we can safely surmise that “the hunk factor” does not leave her entirely cold. Nor would anyone think the less of her for acknowledging the fact. Instead, however, she was back a week later on the release of a re-make of the old Rat Pack picture, Ocean’s Eleven with a characteristically giggly comparison between the famed rodent ruck and the Bush administration:
Forget about Clooney and Pitt mimicking vintage testosterone in the new Rat Pack remake. We've got the real deal right here. Septuagenarian testosterone. The suave swagger of Rummy and Cheney, enhanced by cluster bombs and secure locations instead of martinis and broads.
Who needs the men of "Ocean's 11" when you've got the men of Sept. 11?
At the start of the 60's, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin's Rat Pack was regarded as the epitome of black-tie cool and male camaraderie and assertiveness. By the end of the decade, with the blue- jean social revolution, they were seen as passé figures of misogynistic brio.
This administration has reversed the arc. . .Once the Sinatra Rat Pack was regarded as the ultimate men's club, "the innest in-group," as Playboy decreed. Now the nation digs the Bush warriors, doing it Their Way.
Donald Rumsfeld, she thinks, who was proclaimed “the media star of America's new war,” is the new Sinatra, while Dick Cheney is Dean Martin because of his “aplomb and quiet assurance.” And if Tom Ridge is Peter Lawford, John Ashcroft (cue the giggles) has “that wacky, too-on-the- edge quality of, yes, Shirley MacLaine.” Of course it is pointless to complain about the vulgarity of this kind of thing, since vulgarity is the point of it. Girls like Maureen are vulgar on principle, to show that they have been liberated from the pre-feminist restraint that would have prevented their mothers or grandmothers from writing such stuff.
In another essay on the sexual politics of September 11th, Miss Dowd’s colleague Naomi Wax reported that it had revealed that “Real Men Can Cry” now, at least if the spectacle of Rudolph Giuliani and others breaking down or welling up on television is anything to go by. As the Tibetan Buddhist Chogyam Trungpa put it in his imperishable Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, “the ideal is that the warrior should be sad and tender, and because of that, the warrior can be very brave as well.” Doubtless Shambhala was to be found on the Mayor’s night stand. “How things have changed,” Miss Wax remarks, since public weeping scuppered the presidential campaign of Edmund Muskie in 1972. Indeed, she might have added that emotion is not only permitted, it is expected of men in the public eye, as Albert Gore Jr., a former vice-president, was constantly reminding us.
Thus in a section-front profile of Thomas Friedman by Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post “Style” section, the celebrity columnist tells us that “I’ve just been reacting to this story in a very gut way. . .I’m writing out of a real sense of anger.” Friedman can hardly expect that this news will give us greater confidence in the cogency of what he has to say, so what he must have intended by telling us that — those of us, that is, who however few in number are interested — is that he thinks this “anger” will demonstrate his authenticity as a person. Or as a celebrity. For celebrities are always telling us their feelings. Sometimes, too, they tell us their thoughts whenever some mischievous interviewer thinks we need a good laugh. But mostly they tell us their feelings. And for the same reason. Because by avouching their common humanity they invite us to participate vicariously in their feelings and so confirm their own celebrity.
Still, best not greet the dawn of the new era too enthusiastically. As Glenn Hendler, author of Sentimental Men: Masculinity and the Politics of Affect in American Culture" put it to Naomi Wax: “The meaning of a man's display of emotions depends a great deal on how he has performed masculinely in the past. . .If Giuliani hadn't seemed so unsentimental, even inhumane, previously, would we have been so affected by his display of emotion?” Moreover, as men are liberated from old emotional constraints, women are put into them. “It's doubtful, in other words, that leaders like Condoleezza Rice or Hillary Rodham Clinton would get much sympathy if they welled up.” In a woman, at least a woman with aspirations to political leadership, such weakness would be thought unbecoming. If manly men are back, womanly women are still rather an embarrassment.
Yet if all such discussion of the sexual markers attaching to emotional behavior presupposed fundamental male-female differences, any discussion of such differences as they might impinge on policy, military strategy or international relations remained in bad taste, like mentioning rope in the house of the hanged man — or, indeed, hanged woman. Only occasional hints of a distinctively feminine — or feminist — approach to war were allowed. Sarah Wildman, for instance, wrote an excellent piece in the New Republic remarking on the curious fact that, although movement feminists had been in the forefront of calling attention to the plight of women under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, they seemed to have fallen silent — or even to have gone into opposition — since the war began.
Brand-name feminists have retreated to clichés about women and nonviolence. ‘Women are not more moral than men, or even intrinsically different from men,” said feminist matriarch Gloria Steinem. “It’s just that we have been raised without our masculinity to prove. We. . .can come up with new and different solutions and end this cycle of violence and revenge.” Sisterhood is Powerful Editor Robin Morgan urged women on the Internet to “[t]alk about the root causes of terrorism, about the need to diminish this daily climate of patriarchal violence surrounding us in its state-sanctioned normalcy. Barbara Ehrenreich and Alice Walker weighed in with similarly worded missives. And the Third Wave Foundation, whose praiseworthy goal is to “inform and empower a generation of young women activists,” urged women to “unite in calls for a peaceful resolution to this attack.”
Interestingly, Osama bin Laden appears to have made somewhat the same point as Ms. Steinem’s only in a different way.
Our brothers who fought in Somalia saw wonders about the weakness, feebleness, and cowardliness of the US soldier [he said] . . .We believe that we are men, Muslim men who must have the honour of defending [Mecca]. We do not want American women soldiers defending [it]. . .The rulers in that region have been deprived of their manhood. And they think that the people are women. By God, Muslim women refuse to be defended by these American and Jewish prostitutes.
In his view too, men — at least American men — are “not. . .intrinsically different” from women and (good news, Gloria!) no longer have their masculinity to prove, since that quality has already been tested in Somalia and elsewhere and found wanting. It is possible that, since the war began, Osama has modified his view of American masculinity, though it seems highly doubtful that Ms. Steinem has.
Let us stipulate from the outset that she and a great many others of the sisterhood are quite right to call our attention to the absurdities of masculine vanity. From a woman’s point of view nothing could be more ridiculous than that a man will submit himself to being shot at or blown up simply so that he won’t appear a coward in the eyes of some other man — even when the other man may be someone he despises. Ah, well, men are from Mars. . . James Delingpole in The Spectator writes of the incomprehension of his female relatives when he can’t tear himself away from "Band of Brothers" on television. He imagines that they suppose he is thinking: "Ooh guns! Ooh tanks! Ooh blood!. . .Hey, cool!" But what he is really thinking is: “Jesus! How would I have coped?”
Women will never understand what a burden it is to live with this absurd vanity about our courage, but that is why they are women. Lots of their little vanities are lost on us, too. Women are from Venus. But it does seem a bit much that, having recognized the remarkably stubborn fact of masculine absurdity, they should then go on to behave as if it didn’t exist, as if merely calling attention to it were enough to make men slink shamefacedly away from their war movies and their wars, their cycles of violence and revenge, and turn their attention to the health, education and sartorial barbarity of Afghan women. A correspondent called Susan E. Reed of Swampscott, Massachusetts wrote to the New Republic a propos of Sarah Wildman’s article that the problem with it is that the author “assumes war is the solution when, for the women of Afghanistan, it has been the source of their long torture.”
Well, yes. By all means let’s stop it. But the fact that, in all human history, no war has ever been stopped without the defeat of one side or the other seems never to have entered Ms Reed’s calculations, nor those of other women who have been schooled to suppose that all men are as susceptible to moral intimidation as those of the American establishment have been for the last thirty years and more. The unspoken assumption here, it seems to me, is that war is just boys playing their silly boy-games, and that they will simply stop if spoken to sharply enough. That women are not disabused of this notion — at least not when they are sufficiently distant from the actual scenes of conflict — is perhaps owing to the sense men have, deep down, that war, even war whose aims have come to include establishing the right of foreign women not to have to go around sheathed in silk from head to foot, is a silly boy’s game and a hell of a thing to go and get yourself killed for.
Not that that sense is of the slightest use in providing any alternative to defeating the enemy or being defeated by him. Any number of sensible and upright schoolmarms telling us to stop behaving so childishly will never make the world otherwise than essentially childish. Yet it is as much in the nature of women, one must suppose, to go on nagging as if it would as it is in that of men to go on fighting. The media, as it happens, with their emphasis on talk and the display of feelings, are far better adapted to the nagging function than the fighting one. The media ethos is also congenial to the Venusian point of view in that both are founded on assertions of moral superiority. Whenever a journalist hears someone tell him that it is well not to “sink to the level” of those who achieve their ends by violence his (or her) bosom will always return an echo.
So accustomed to this pose of moral superiority have we become that we hardly notice it anymore. In a review in the Washington Post of a new movie about the ill-fated Shackleton expedition to the South Pole, Rita Kempley writes of Shackleton as “a bullheaded English explorer” and wonders whether his story is “one of perseverance or sheer stupidity.” More silly boy games! Some such assumption lies behind the hectoring of Katha Pollit of the Nation, who notoriously announced in the aftermath of the tragedy that the American flag "stands for jingoism and vengeance and war." Even the fact that men fighting under that flag helped to end the reign of the Taliban in Afghanistan has done nothing to mollify her since.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if the defeat of the Taliban also marked the end of the cultural-relativist pooh-poohing of women's rights? Only a few weeks ago, a Bush Administration spokesperson was refusing to promise that women would play a role in a new Afghan government: "We have to be careful not to look like we are imposing our values on them." A week before it began, no women had been mentioned as participants in the UN-sponsored Bonn conference to plan for a postwar Afghanistan.
Then, after some typical animadversions on President Bush’s “callous disregard for women's rights and health abroad” — her way of saying that he is morally opposed to abortion — she concludes: “That the Taliban are gone is cause for joy. A world that cared about women's rights would never have let them come to power in the first place.” This easy, contemptuous familiarity with the world, which to her is just “a world” — the indefinite article suggesting the sad failure of this particular world to live up to K. Pollit’s expectations (the shame! the shame!) of a world — and the assumption that if it were properly ordered it would be jumping, like a recalcitrant husband, to do her bidding is just one of those charming quirks of womankind that we have learned to put up with in our public discourse.
Perhaps the most hilariously misconceived and misguided feminist rant about the war came from the novelist Barbara Kingsolver, who wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post in which she purported to point out “where we have mislaid our sense of global honor” by citing Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech as an example of the absurd proposition that that president is to be distinguished from a certain unnamed successor of sixty years on because “instead of invoking fear of outsiders he embraced their needs as our own and called for defending, not just at home but on all the earth, what he called the four freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, freedom from want.”
This, mind you, of the man who just after a year later was to put thousands of Japanese Americans into concentration camps (something that she blames on skullduggery in the War Department). She goes on to claim that
He warned that it was immature and untrue "to brag that America, single-handed and with one hand tied behind its back, can hold off the whole world" and that any such "dictator's peace" could not be capable of international generosity or returning the world to any true independence. "Such a peace would bring no security for us or for our neighbors. Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
But the implicit and derogatory comparison to a certain American president whose name starts with B makes no sense. Roosevelt was warning against the counsels of the appeasers and isolationists who had been immensely influential in this country up until Pearl Harbor, just a month before this speech, and the “dictator’s peace” he refers to would have been the separate peace with Germany that they proposed which, after a subsequent German victory, would have left America in the pleonastic state — “single-handed and with one hand tied behind its back,” facing the Germans alone — that he warned against. In other words, he was warning against the counsel of those who did not want to fight, though Ms Kingsolver seems to be under the impression that he was on their side.
So here’s yet another woman who shouldn’t be bothering her pretty little head with politics — if only one had the testicular fortitude to say so.