by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – Noodling through the Internet this past weekend, I couldn’t help but see the hundreds of tributes inspired by the observance of Mother’s Day. Most were accompanied by photographs from decades ago, when the mothers were young and beautiful. The kids, full of promise, smiled uncertainly and squinted into the sunshine.
I was struck by one contemporary photo of three great, strapping men towering over a wrinkled little old lady who gazed, with a faint smile, straight into the camera, clearly proud of and a bit amused by the prodigies she’d borne and raised. There was also in those posts a lot of sweetness and light, much nostalgia and gratitude, and expressions of the hope to be reunited someday with the women who’d meant so much in the posters’ lives.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, some men (a fact that goes without saying) detonated powerful car bombs outside an Afghan girls’ school, killing or maiming several dozens of students and citizens, as well as many who rushed to help them.
Of all the fraught and complicated relationships between human beings – religious, political, ethnic, caste, gender identification, equity – the one between the sexes seems the most unyielding to solution.
Comedians from Jack Benny, Henny Youngman (“Now, you take my wife – please!”), and Red Skelton riffed on it generations ago. Jack Kennedy treated it with irony, as when asked by Helen Thomas what his administration was doing for women, “I’m not sure, but I am sure that, whatever it is, it isn’t enough.” And in recent years, movements from Women’s Lib to #MeToo have kept a dynamic tension on the issue. Lawsuits citing violations of Title IX, as well as others alleging sexual harassment and bullying, have become increasingly incisive and effective.
I broach the subject with considerable trepidation, given the virulence of the opinions it engenders – plus the fact that, as a man, I’m probably on the stupid side of the issue – just as, being a white person, I can’t empathize with the experience of being Black in America. But as someone now not unhappily past sexual politics (there’s a reason philosophers are old guys, if not in body, at least in spirit), I’m out of the hurly-burly and can look back more or less dispassionately at what once was, still is, and probably what still will be.
Raised on a heavy-handed dose of Levitical patriarchy – a small boy is worth five shekels, a small girl, three – and the apostle Paul, and further encouraged by the vestiges of the Victorian canard that young women needed protection both from and by young men, I was too indoctrinated to protest when, as recently as 1960, my wife, who’d already been on her own for years, was denied a savings or checking account without my signature. It would have been counterproductive for me to have objected; but the shame of my silence lingers still. Decades later, after a bankruptcy, she took over our family financial affairs, and did much better than I had.
From my vantage point at the end of an electronic funnel into which the affairs of the world are poured 24 hours a day, it seems patent that the women of the United States are making strides toward eventual equality. But those strides aren’t without menace; many men feel threatened by that progress, seeing it, perhaps, as the worm turning, and then turning on them. The fact that they are already a diminishing demographic must also haunt them, often to lethal effect. The big, rumbling pickup trucks blowing black smoke and waving large flags are symbols of that anxiety.
That lethal effect is also what we’re witnessing in Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, in some Arab countries. The patriarchy still thrives: Of two parties “taken in adultery,” one is chided by the clerics and the other fiercely stoned to death. That has to stop, and it will. But not soon enough.
One of my heroes in this tumultuous relationship (“hero” being now gender-unspecific) is Lysistrata, who in Aristophanes’ comedy of the same name determines to end the interminable Peloponnesian wars by persuading the women of Greece to withhold sex from their husbands ‘til they sign a peace treaty. Hardly a laughing matter for the patriarchy, the play was banned in its native Greece, in 411 BC. Sadly, it was not approved for performance in the United States till the 1930s. I suppose that’s progress. But there’s still a rough climb ahead to the glass ceiling.