Ashley and I had a talk about women tonight after I read her an essay about the evolution of Lois Lane from a book I got, The Man From Krypton, a collection of essays about Superman from the pointy-headed perspective. For proof of my girl’s vast patience and tolerance, look no further than her indulgence of my vain compulsion for reading shit out loud to her. Blog entries, stories I’ve written, essays from this or that geeky compilation – even if she isn’t the least bit interested, she graciously hears me out. Does wonders for the ego.
We got into it about feminism, about the contradictory expectations society places on women. She asked me what I thought about it, which got me to thinking: What do I think about it? I’ve always said I believed in sexual equality, but what does that mean? “It means that a woman can go out into the world and do as well for herself as a man could” is what I told her, and that still sounds like a good enough definition to me. My mother never really had a career. She’s worked off and on since I was about ten, at Ole Trail Video for a lot of years, then at the Amoco, then at First Data and a slew of other places, including a real estate office for awhile; now she works at Curves. Not exactly the path to wealth, but I’d like to think that if Mom had pursued a serious career, had gone to college or gotten otherwise trained, that she could have done at least as well for herself as Dad. How is it fair for someone’s opportunities to be limited by their sex? How could anything be more arbitrary than that?
“Why is it that conservatives, especially religious conservatives, are so threatened by single mothers?” I asked Ashley. It’s the deviation from the traditional family, she said. Christian conservatives defend their narrow notion of what a family ought to be as doggedly as they defend their equally limited view of what God ought to be. What defines a family is not love and devotion between people, but technicalities such as whether or not the parents have unlike genitalia. Single fathers, to the contrary, are perceived sympathetically – not as threats, but as nobly trying to do the best they can within difficult circumstances. A single father household is still headed by a man, which is closer to the Biblically-prescribed model than a single mother. So long as the single father is also a heterosexual, not many people at the church are going to complain. Ashley told me that it’s common practice at her parents’ church to make girls who have become pregnant out of wedlock to go before the congregation to ask forgiveness for their sins; she can’t recall when a man has been forced to do the same for knocking up his girlfriend.
I think religion is a big part of why men are often threatened by feminism, but I also think it’s self-preservation. Let’s face it – those of us with the penises lucked out. Back when we were all living in caves, and living day to day depended on how many berries we could pick or how many antelope we could spear, the fact that the women carried most of the physical burdens of parenthood allowed us to take charge. Biologically, we’re only necessary for conception; carrying the child to term and then raising it to self-sufficiency has always been the mother’s job. For a few hundred thousand years or so, we’ve been free to take over the world while the wives stayed at home ensuring the survival of the fucking species. Swap a few chromosomes and it could have been we fellas who were stuck with pregnancy and child-rearing, and the gals who went out and made the money while we sat at home breast-feeding and bemoaning the evils of the matriarchy.
We’re in charge, and regardless of how we feel individually about sexism, collectively we like being in charge and don’t particularly want that to change. Check out how women are treated in fundamentalist Muslim countries for an extreme example of how jealously men guard their authority. At least we in the west have evolved past burqas and honor killings, though we do love our glass ceilings. When I worked at Pilot we would often receive visits from corporate representatives, regional managers and district managers and other people who stood around in the way of customers and being generally useless. Overwhelmingly male, except for one woman. I don’t remember her name, but the guys treated her with the kind of patronizing politeness you’d expect them to offer a secretary. Once I happened to be passing through the restaurant when one of the guys mentioned there was a smudge on the glass door. I walked outside to do whatever I was doing and when I walked by again a minute or so later, there was the lone woman in their group on her knees at the door, paper towel and bottle of Windex in hand, scrubbing away the smudge. On the plus side for her, it’s the only time I remember ever seeing someone from corporate doing anything resembling work during a visit. I’m sure they would have asked the black member of the group to mop the floor as well, if they’d noticed a spot on the floor, and if there had been a black member of the group.
“Men run the world and women are fucked” is what it boils down to, I suppose. I heard a story once that the only reason women were granted the right to vote in the U.S. is because in the late 1910’s John D. Rockefeller called up his lackeys in Congress (also known as “Congressmen”) to inform them that half the country’s adult population could not be taxed, and that a measure of women’s equality was worth it for the added tax revenue, which would benefit private enterprise in the form of larger government contracts. Reminds me of the All in the Family episode when liberal Mike tells Gloria that he believes in complete equality of the sexes – but first, women have to admit their total inferiority, so that men can then elevate them to equal status.
As men, is equality ours to give? For the sake of the women, I hope not.