In vain did the hapless male protest, in vain did he cite male-specific diseases with research unfunded by Congress, in vain proclaim his love for wife and daughters, nay, for women in general. The heads of his adversaries shook unforgivingly, eyes flashed, lips curled in scorn. “Just like a man!“ Perhaps each of the females present saw fit silently to exempt her own husband from the categorical indictment. Judging by many attitudinal surveys, most women do—a fact that, even so, has had little impact on stereotypes currently in fashion. Never in history has the male of the species been publicly held in such low esteem, never before been given so little benefit of the doubt, not to mention understanding or sympathy. Since each of the gender roles is defined in large part by its opposite number, how do poor ratings affect the ordinary male's view of himself?
Pretty badly, one might guess. Enough to render him unsure of his gender role, awkward in it and resentful at having to be so. Fortunately, however, other definitions also apply. In any culture, members of one sex evolve their own views of themselves—what they do, what they are, what they ought to be—and they judge one another accordingly. Anticipation of judgment is often enough to keep in line the willful and wayward. Evolution of image, it should be noted, is usually accomplished by elites—those who write the books, who teach, who occupy high-ranking positions; those whose utterances influence the tenor of attitudes and behavior.
For English-speaking cultures of Victorian times, Rudyard Kipling's poem If captured the ideal role definition. His recipe for manliness included courage, self-mastery, singleness of purpose, nobility of spirit untarnished by hatred or lies. And he advised,
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And—which is more—you'll be a Man, my son!
Another English Victorian, Sir R. S. S. Baden-Powell, founded the Boy Scouts with similar ideals in mind. The organization was designed to train young males in a spirit of civic duty, in self-reliance, reverence, patriotism, and service to others. The proper Boy Scout was, in addition, to keep himself “physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”
Unless a society seeks to repeal the laws of nature, role prescriptions must inevitably derive from biological dispensation. Victorian nursery rhymes convey the sense of inherent temperament. “Sugar and spice, and everything nice. That's what little girls are made of.” And little boys? “Snakes and snails, and puppy dogs' tails.” The restless energy characteristic of the latter is contrasted with the more sedate demeanor of the former. It was not in those times thought necessary to qualify and apologize: Yes, some little girls are born rowdy; some little boys are not. It was quite enough to note what was true of most boys and girls—underwritten, we now know, not only by anatomical distinctions but by those of hormonal pattern and cerebral structure.
Differences observable even among infants intensify with puberty, which for girls arrives in dramatic fashion. Unheralded and unbidden, the tides of blood ebb and flow. The male child's transition to reproductive maturity is far less spectacular and takes place at a later age. In many societies of small scale there is general anxiety that the event might not happen at all. Certainly not without help, without active human intervention. Among the Asmat of New Guinea (and as late as 1956), the father of a pubescent youth was in duty bound to acquire the head of a stranger. Never mind how he got it. This trophy would then be placed between the thighs of the initiate, tight against his crotch where it would stimulate sexual maturation.
There are other mysterious differences. There is the matter of birth, that most wonderful of nature's gifts to females. The most daunting and the most awesome, too. Certainly it was for men still ignorant of their own part in it. That there remain even to this day a few tribal folk innocent of the facts of life suggests what was once true for all. No wonder, then, that across time and place one can find a pervasive sense that women possess naturally a power that must be painfully earned by men. Men knew it. Women knew it, too. As an old Papago woman once told anthropologist Ruth Underhill: “Men have to dream to get power from the spirits, and they think of everything they can—songs and speeches and marching around—hoping that the spirits will notice them and give them some power. But we have power.”
Women, it seems, are born; men must be made, must be carefully shaped to life's purposes. This is the message of the puberty rites, greatest of male religious celebrations. For there is more to being a man than the mere fulfillment of biological imperatives. An initiate must be seasoned to hardship, to difficult tasks and difficult decisions; seasoned to receive and transmit life's special meanings. Seasoned how? With pain. With fear. With abstinence. And always under the tutelage of men. Indeed, pubertal transformation is often explicitly phrased as death and rebirth. A woman may well bear the boy-child. He must be born again, as a man, to men.
Perhaps as an aspect of symbolic male parturition, the boy may be formally separated from the contact of women and given over to the long-term care and company of men. In some New Guinea tribes he must be nourished entirely on the special foods of men or, as in Australia, made to camp for years in the bush, a virtual outcast from society. There are functional reasons for separation and indoctrination. Boys in whom hormonal saps are on the rise tend to be volatile, impulsive, triggery with aggression. All this virile energy must be harnessed to the good of society and brought under the control of elders who have learned long since to master themselves.
In Western societies of other times, segregated schools for young males (especially the military academies) served to foster self-discipline, to transmit society's values through hard tests and trials. Camps removed from female distractions, separate organizations such as Boy Scouts, the YMCA, and the CCC, were at various times quite consciously founded to achieve these same ends. Then slowly through the years and in a rush during the 1960s, Western societies came to favor unisex education, and nobody seriously attempted any longer to define the ideal man, to test for attainment of standards, or to tell the youth just when he had made the grade. Scouting went into a temporary eclipse. The military was despised. Few families needed a son's earnings to survive, so honest work lost its power to confirm adulthood. Even the need for fathers and male mentors was called into question.
No wonder that young males came to formulate their own rites and tests: How much booze can you hold? What risks do you dare? Whom will you challenge? How near crashing a car are you willing to go before turning chicken? No wonder young males of the underclass choose to segregate themselves from females in marauding gangs and find in crime, drugs, and the wholesale insemination of teenage girls the missing passage rites of manhood.
The marvel is that some young men of this nether world have themselves sought to turn the volatile behavior of youth to constructive social purpose. Despite the recent scandal concerning their founder, the Guardian Angels have created an initiation to manhood as well-suited to these troubled times as the earning of Boy Scout merit badges was to an earlier, more innocent, period. Through hard tests and trials, young males are transformed into protectors of the very people on whom they might otherwise have preyed.
Tests of the Guardian Angels or of modern military academies include bruises and exhaustion. In the primitive world there is also pain. Circumcision is everywhere the mutilation of choice, always in a ritual setting. Often there is more. Scarification, whippings, the insertion of bristles up penis or nose, of vomiting sticks down the throat, stinging nettles or ants applied to the skin, the removal of fingers or teeth. And always the question, “How much pain can you endure without flinching, fainting, crying out? Are you as brave as your peers? Braver? Are you worthy to be a man?”
But it is seldom in pain alone that manhood is tested. Tribal elders ever seek to measure the initiate's fortitude, steadfastness, and strength of will. Alone he may be sent to face the supernatural, to face witches and ancestral ghosts thought to be very near at this time. He may be consigned to the wilderness, there to remain sleepless, unclothed, unfed until the Great Powers grant him a vision of good or ill. To become a man he must learn to conquer fear. To become a man he must master the imperious calls of the flesh.
Hard tests hone men to hard tasks. What tasks? Why, those that enhance group survival and the continuity of its way of life. The tasks are universally the same, universally rooted in strength and energy biologically conferred. They are, moreover, so often foreshadowed among our primate kin as to suggest generic role. The male of the species must be able to protect and defend; must be resolute and strong; must, in the face of adversity, hold steady and endure; must, above all, provide.
Generic Male: The Protector. The young, the old, the weak, females of any age must be defended from dangers posed by wild beasts or strangers of one's own kind. To see Savannah baboons on the move is to see this directive in action. Males are always deployed protectively around a core of mothers and offspring. Similar defensive patterns mark the migrations of human hunting bands. Being human, however, they have things to move as well as people. Household gear, the evening's meal, sticks of firewood as well as babies are all carried on the heads of women in the core group. The menfolk stride ahead unencumbered.
“Just like a man!” bristles the modern woman viewing a photograph of this disparity in burdening. She fails to notice that the men are armed and alert to danger, ready to do battle. Indeed, she may prefer not to notice since current orthodoxy decries combat in any venue. Modern nations are frequently exhorted by hopeful utopians to emulate the “gentler” cultures of the primitive world, nearly every one of which, upon closer examination, has proved to be more combative than was once believed. Truly gentle people inevitably risk being driven into arid wastes, if not extinguished outright, by those with better martial skills and the will to use them. Even the “gentle” chimpanzees, as Jane Goodall reports, wage war against other groups of chimpanzees. In their world as in ours, weakness invites aggression.
Where primal society remains untouched by modern times, the tribe that hopes to survive must train pubescent boys in defense and perhaps in offense, too. There war provides—as it once did everywhere—an organizing principle around which life can be patterned. And not just for men. Although tribal women seldom participate in war, they can and do incite it. Women of the fierce Yanomamo (a people who live today along the Orinoco River in Venezuela-Brazil) are, by modern standards, a browbeaten lot. They do, however, unite to provoke their menfolk into war. Why? Because they dread abduction by raiders and subsequent removal to villages far from the protection of their brothers. The best defense, they reason, is a strong offense. Even better is a reputation for invincibility. So they call their men cowards, brandishing the word like a machete. Stung, the warriors rise to seek battle. They can do no less and still call themselves men.
Generic Male: The Strong in Heart. In every culture females learn early the uses of the goad applied by Yanomamo wives. Consider this bit of dialogue used in the Disney film Child of Glass. A young boy and girl are about to open a cemetery crypt. She quails at the entrance and moves behind him.
She: Boys first.
He: What happened to Women's Lib?
She: What's the matter? Chicken?
Guess who goes in first.
The strong heart and the brave front are required of every man who wants to validate manhood. In the presence of others, he must be decisive and confident, a rock on which weaker souls may lean. Whether or not his hormonal batteries are fully charged, he must never permit himself to cower, falter, or retreat (unless his fellows are doing the same). The rules are strict and unremitting. Perhaps this is the reason why so many cultures provide safety valves, approved outlets for the fear, insecurity, weakness the individual male may feel but must never display.
Traditional Iroquois of upper New York State found release in dreaming. Dreams were believed to predict, to diagnose ailments, to heal, to uncover the secret places of the heart, to discover the wishes of Power Beings. Typically, individuals in fear and conflict experienced the most vivid dreams, particularly warriors who feared capture in battle and the ritual torture that would inevitably follow. Childlike, unable to interpret his own dream, the dreamer depended on his fellows, not only to divine the wishes of his soul, but to make sure they were gratified. Says anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace:
In their daily affairs, Iroquois men were brave, active, self-reliant, and autonomous; they cringed to no one and begged for nothing. But no man can balance forever on such a pinnacle of masculinity, where asking and being given are unknown. Iroquois men dreamt; and, without shame, they received the fruits of their dreams and their souls were satisfied.
Many Native American societies reserved a special place—often an honored place—for men who chose or were directed by a Power to assume the female role. The French word berdache has been used to describe the phenomenon. Although the choice was, in some groups, sexually motivated, it appears more often to have offered an escape for those men who could not live up to the stringent demands of the warrior status.
Temporary cross-dressing turns up as this kind of outlet in a number of modern societies, most interestingly in Japan where the brave front has always been a rigid male requirement. Cross-dressing was a privately indulged fantasy until, in 1970, a local entrepreneur made it big business. He and his wife founded the Elizabeth Club, a successful haven for closet transvestites, all of them “typical married men” with typical lifestyles. It is stocked with everything necessary for the fashionable female alter ego. Habitueas of the club told Wall Street Journal reporter Peter Waldman that here they could relax. Here they could feel light and carefree. Here they could forget for a moment the need to uphold the family's dignity. Here they could escape the judgment of their peers.
Although transsexualism—the phenomenon of feeling trapped in the wrong body—should probably not be located in the outlet department, it is worth noting that three times as many American males as females request sex-change surgery. What of the discrimination and oppression supposedly suffered by females in this society? What of the trumpeted disadvantages? The male changeling sees none. A woman, after all, need not keep up a brave front, and she may wear her heart on her sleeve.
Generic Male: Enduring and Steadfast. All animals compete as well as cooperate with members of their own sex. Among males competition is particularly keen and serves, along with other useful purposes, to keep genetic quality up to snuff. Primate bands, we now know, are by no means closed, inbreeding communities. One sex or the other—sometimes both—look elsewhere for mates. Female emigreas achieve universal welcome by males (though not always by resident females). Male newcomers receive quite another sort of reception. They can expect constant challenge by other males for rank and prominence, and female tolerance is not guaranteed. In order to remain in a chosen troop, the young Savannah baboon must find and keep female friends and acquire infant “passports” to carry. With baby in hand, he is safe from attack.
Primatologist Shirley Strum, who went to East Africa to study female Savannah baboons, soon found herself captivated by the males and their plight. In her book, Almost Human, she writes:
The more I understood males, the clearer it seemed that they had a hard life. Where did their size, strength, and physical power get them? . . . They had to construct whole new lives for themselves after leaving behind all that was friendly, secure, and familiar. Once in their new troop, they had to recapture all they had lost. . . . Despite great effort and enduring patience, they ended up with less than females who had never left home and could command simply with a look, gesture, or grunt. I felt sorry for males.
The human male in a new school or job is often in no better situation. He must establish by contest and competition a place among his peers and adjust as well to the prevailing order of dominance. Subjected to abuse by a superior officer, manager, or boss, he must strive to keep his cool while taking heat. Indeed, keeping cool is essential if he needs the job, if others depend upon his having it. He must be steadfast under pressure. He must endure. Sometimes, after a day of skirmishing, he may go home to face yet another kind of heat.
In traditional America, the man with a shrewish wife was pityingly described as “henpecked.” He could not, however, counter with force and still retain the respect of his peers. He was expected to “take it like a man,” contain the problem if possible, and, if not, to escape often to the refuge of male clubs and male activities. Dominating women were then popularly described as “battle axes.” They were believed to throw crockery and to wield a mean rolling-pin, aimed always at the offending spouse's head. Maggie and Jiggs, a popular comic strip of the 1930s and beyond, regularly depicted such a scene. It was an image with worldwide acceptance. Immigrant women of those days (and these, too, it seems) longed to acquire pliable American husbands with their soft hearts and open wallets. Immigrant men were advised by their peers to import wives from the Old Country; bold American women would eat them alive. The stereotypical American household of the 1950s, portrayed in countless television comedies, was built around a bumbling, well-meaning, permissive Dad continually baffled by his brighter and more manipulating wife and kids.
Today other images are purveyed, and men must endure public heat of a different sort. Once-bumbling Dad has become a brute, the perpetrator of violence in the home, the abuser of children and women who are helpless, defenseless, imprisoned in marriage. This is the popular stereotype echoed in the media, in the courts, and in the halls of Congress. Has Dad become a brute? According to many specialists, realities are more complicated than stereotype admits.
Although the incidence of domestic violence is up, not all violent acts are committed by men. In a controversial 1987 article for the journal Social Work, Professor R. L. McNeeley and Gloria Robinson-Simpson, a supervisor of mental health programs in Virginia, concluded that, in terms of domestic violence, ours is an equal opportunity society. The data are hard to come by, say the authors, because a double standard prevails. Men are reluctant to admit being victims of abuse at the hands of women. (Wives are more likely to admit their own violence against their husbands than the latter are likely to report them.) Men will not usually call the police unless weapons are involved or unless they are severely injured. And no wonder. When in April of last year reports of a new advocacy group planning to open a shelter for battered men appeared in the New York Times, they soon prompted a Washington Times editorial. It began, “If there's anything sadder than a battered woman, it's a battered man, and the saddest thing of all is for battered men to start whining about it.” Take the heat, the editorialist seems to advise; rather harassment than ridicule. Rather play the brute than the brutalized. Be steadfast. Be enduring. Be a man!
Like domestic violence, infidelity has become a game either sex may play. Yet here, too, different standards apply. The woman with a philandering mate is considered the injured party and receives the pity and commiseration of her peers. The cuckold garners from his peers rather more scorn than sympathy. His unfaithful wife, however, is likely to become something of a heroine, her adventuring warranted by the presumed deficiencies of her spouse and her own need to play the field. Indeed, in just about any sort of male/female imbroglio, the female can never be at fault. Such is the decree of current orthodoxy. If a guilty verdict is inevitable, there is always the body itself to provide reliable extenuation. A woman may plead premenstrual syndrome, pre-and post-partum depression, menopausal madness, or just plain “nervousness” and expect a sympathetic hearing. No such biological excuses are available to men.
Is that fair? “No!” cries a chorus of wives who love their husbands and are thus disposed to charity toward men in general. Their unfashionable protests, alas, are seldom heard in any public forum. Their husbands may not even complain. Treated to feminist hatred and scorn, they may not express resentment. They must keep stiff upper lips. They must take the heat and endure. To do otherwise would subject them to accusations of fomenting backlash, of being “macho,” of being—just like a man.
Generic Male: The Provider. Of all the basic tasks, this one is most peculiarly human. It seems rooted in the very nature of hominid evolution. From studies of fossil forms and the reproductive patterns of living nonhuman primates, physical anthropologists deduce that, sometime between four and five million years ago, our ancestors attained upright posture, very useful in freeing the hands to carry things: food, implements, babies. At the same time, upright posture and expanding brains required the birth of infants in a less complete state of readiness than those of other advanced primates, more helpless, in need of more and longer parental care. Hominid mothers were thus more burdened than their primate counterparts, perhaps more dependent on meat, which increasingly figured in the diet. Enter the permanent consort. In order to sustain their slow-growing offspring, the mated pair divided the economic turf. She gathered plant foods; he hunted; they shared. Each benefited from the other's skills and strengths, and the babies thrived, growing ever smarter and more inventive.
The gender equation among primates is writ in body size. Male baboons are twice as large as females. Ditto gorillas and orangutans. A bit less difference obtains among chimpanzees. The operative question is not why these males are so large but rather why females are so small. The answer is a reproductive one. Procreation, lactation, care and carrying of the young constitute a tremendous drain on female energy. A mother cannot find and eat enough food to maintain decent size and offspring, too. Yet, in the few primate species given to monogamous pairings and equal care of progeny, the body sizes of males and females are more nearly on a par. The human sexes achieved this physical validation of partnership sometime around two million years ago, together with a pattern of food sharing unlike that of any other primate.
There are foreshadowing, of course. Chimpanzees like meat, and males cooperate in hunting monkeys and other prey. The animal bagged is divided among the hunters who themselves become targets of entreaty by other members of the band. Meat is bestowed according to kinship and popularity, and most females do very well indeed. One unpopular and therefore meatless female was observed by Jane Goodall to resort to cannibalizing the infants of other females in order to obtain her protein quota.
Meat is the most prized food among human communities, too (otherwise vegetarianism would soon cease to be a religiously approved form of self-denial). In all the wild places of the earth, meat is hard to come by, and hunting a dangerous and often disappointing task. So it is that tribal elders take care to train their young men, not only in hunting skills, but also in the techniques of fasting and sexual abstinence that will induce the Great Powers to take pity and reveal the elusive game. Although women's gathering typically supplies two-thirds of the diet in foraging societies, it is the meat that is prized and the work of the hunter that is praised.
“That's exactly how division of respect begins,” complains the militant feminist. “They wouldn't let women hunt, would they? Just like men to want all the glory for themselves.”
Was it a sexist plot in the beginning that kept women out of the limelight, or were more fundamental considerations at work? Biologists tell us that the tribe whose women hunt full time might well face extinction. Why? It has to do with fat. According to geneticist Rose E. Frisch, the female body must retain about a quarter of its weight in fat if it is to achieve ovulation. No ovulation, no conception. No conception, no births. The woman who runs off fat in the hunt will have the same trouble in cycling experienced by today's female athletes and female soldiers in basic training.
Are we to suppose that recognition of this basic truth dawned on some unwontedly brainy hominid? Did he then relegate the less glamorous but also less fat-expending jobs to women? Or might the primordial division of labor bear some connection, after all, to female inclinations prompted by physiological givens?
For a glimpse of possibilities, consider the Agta, a tribe of foragers and part-time farmers living today in the forested mountains of Luzon, one of the Philippine Islands. Here women are free to choose their own activities in the food quest but make choices quite different from those of men. Anthropologists P. Bion Griffen and Agnes Estioko-Griffen report that Agta men are pleased to hunt with their wives or in large mixed parties. Men use the bow; women hunt with trained dogs and a knife. Only some women hunt, however, and when they do, they always hunt in company—whereas all men hunt, are passionately fond of hunting, and often prefer to hunt alone. Not surprisingly, men provide the largest percentage of the game bagged. On the other hand, women supply the bulk of gatheredand harvested food. These are Agta variations on primordial themes.
Few foraging societies of yesteryear could afford freedom of choice. Men and women performed quite different and equally important tasks, each essential to survival. The traditional Eskimo hunter could not bring home the bacon unless provided with the fur clothing, tailored by his wife that permitted him to do his job in all types of weather. Because his was the more hazardous work, however, it is not surprising that the man became the job, his sense of self entirely dependent on his ability to provide. Such was the case in any foraging society. When farming came to supplant hunting as a primary source of sustenance and men adopted it as a full-time occupation, the old equation of man and job—success or failure—continued to apply. It does so still.
Before the 1960s American wives praised their husbands by calling them “good providers,” and the ordinary working man wore as a badge of honor his ability to maintain wife and children without assistance. Joblessness wounded a man's pride as nothing else. Being a good provider often required a man to commit himself early to a calling and to stay in it until retirement, whether or not he enjoyed the work or was fitted for it. It was not only women who, trapped in household drudgery, were moved to cry, “Is this all there is to life?” Men, too, have seen their ambitions thwarted, their dreams scattered while they kept noses faithfully to the grindstone. Nor might they make public complaint. The code of the provider did not permit that.
Even today, when women are exhorted by their elites to put workplace ahead of home, to find true fulfillment in a career, their earnings (particularly those of married women) seldom supply a reliable core of family income because they do not work as much or as regularly as men. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972, sociologist Audrey VandenHeuvel recently traced the history of more than 2,000 women through the seven years following the births of their first children. Only one-third of the mothers in her sample followed expectable choices: full-time mother and homemaker or full-time worker. The remaining two-thirds made nearly as many individual choices about the worker/student/mother combination as there were women involved. Fluctuations and choices were presumably underwritten by a primary provider: the man of the house. Such realities may not be politically correct, but they make good family sense. Part-time callings add up to most-of-the-time mothering for children who need it now more than ever.
Industrial and technological innovations have been opening up new occupational choices for Western women since the nineteenth century. And yet, all the while, and in a manner reminiscent of Agta gender differences in the hunt, preferences and specialties have reemerged. Look for a doctor in what was once the Soviet Union and one will discover that most general practitioners are female, most specialists male. In American medicine, fewer female physicians go into surgery than into pediatrics, gynecology, dermatology, and preventive medicine. Though the numbers of female attorneys, accountants, and financial managers are drawing even with those of their male counterparts, fewer women than men go into engineering, science, and math. In the trucking industry, fewer women than men own large rigs and are willing to undertake long hauls. Fewer women than men opt for a military career, and though female officers may demand the right to serve in combat, enlisted women express much less fervor at the prospect of frontline duty. Fewer women than men enter politics. Fewer women than men go into high-powered sales. And the overall earnings of women are lower than those of men.
Is that evidence of discrimination? Should earnings be equalized by decree, whether or not the same numbers of hours are worked? Should the ranks of female politicians, engineers, and combat soldiers be forcibly expanded? Should the relative rewards of occupations be determined, not by market forces, but by the arbitrary assignment of “comparable worth”? For feminist orthodoxy these are articles of faith. For the ideologically uncommitted, such prospects raise troubling questions. What happens to biological differences, they wonder, when work is allocated by the numbers? What happens to individual preference when equivalence is the order of the day? What happens to the pairs of opposites, bound together by their very differences and by mutual need, when even the possibility of gender distinctions in occupation is suppressed?
The primitive world offers some limited insights. One comes from a small area of New Guinea where Margaret Mead studied variability in male/female roles. She described the fierce Mundugamor, whose ideal male was “a lion fighting for his share . . . surrounded by several equally violent lionesses.” Both genders were expected to be aggressive, demanding, the most successful of each managing to compete their less ambitious and weaker rivals into subservience. Yet there also remained a prescribed division in tasks, activities, and responses until Mundugamor women began to demand the right to initiation, a ritual formerly reserved to men. “It is not surprising,” Mead reported in 1935,
that Mundugamor ceremonial life has dwindled. The actors have lost their audience and one vivid artistic element in the life of the Mundugamor. . . . The sacrifice of sex difference has meant a loss in complexity to the society. . . . To insist that there are no sex differences . . . may be as subtle a form of standardizing personality as to insist that there are many sex differences.
With standardization, what happens to comity? What happens to the quality of life when mandated sameness forbids those reciprocal courtesies that once confirmed the mutual appreciation of men and women? It is already clear that success in erasing divisions of labor in America has not served to reduce gender tensions. Neither has the energetic application of female advantage in hiring, promotion, and college admissions. Ditto the careful neutering of job titles and the expurgation of the language to remove every possible insensitivity. The more that middle-aged, middle-class males accommodate to feminist demands, it seems, the more they are hated, reviled, and feared by so-called feminists. The battle has been won, but still peace somehow cannot be concluded.
Conflict may be dictated by structure. The feminist movement, after all, has institutionalized, that is, has developed, permanent organizations and media outlets. It is now a source of jobs as well as a quasi-religious ideology. It has found a secure home in higher education. And there are feminist attorneys, writers, editors, journalists, filmmakers, and politicians. Feminist heroines are supported in style by feminist audiences on the lecture circuit. The paid staffs of feminist advocacy groups lobby Congress on “women's issues,” every one of which lays claim, not only to public concern, but to the public purse. Organized feminism thus has a vested interest in escalating strife. New victims of the hated enemy must continually be found, new oppressors denounced, new and more lurid violations of rights uncovered. To do otherwise would be to commit institutional suicide, and no entrenched bureaucracy does that willingly.
So hostilities continue to flare, often in unlikely places: In faculty meetings, where the male professor who innocently utters the damning “lady” or “girl” can be howled derisively off the floor. On the road, where the female speedster can flip “the finger” as she passes a more prudent male driver. At the entrance to a building, where the man who opens the door for a pretty creature can be suitably shocked with a snarled obscenity. The usual objects of target practice are graying, gentlemen-of-the-old-school who wonder sadly, “What is the world coming to? Women used to be so nice.”
And they were. Or if they weren't, they tried to be. That was what the prevailing image required. Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting America in 1830, conveyed the outsider's impression. American women, he said, were “happily bold.” Compared to their European sisters, they were well and fully educated, were told everything about the corruption of the world, and were taught to defend their virtue with a “masculine strength of understanding and manly energy.” They nevertheless, he said, “always retain the manners of women.” While there was not much maneuvering room in terms of occupation, respect for the individual female's mind and courage was high. Men seemed to feel that she could do anything she chose, but chose to do her duty instead. Her honor was held precious, said Tocqueville, adding:
Such is the respect entertained for the moral freedom of the sex that in the presence of a woman the most guarded language is used lest her ear should be offended by an expression. . . . In America a young unmarried woman may alone and without fear undertake a long journey. . . .
Women were then considered morally superior to men and esthetically more refined. However much a gentleman in behavior and intention, the male of the species was, after all, fallible, prey to powerful urges. Men could be seduced by drink, by gambling, by a painted face. They could be heartless bullies, selfish, combative, and loud. They had to “sow wild oats” but afterward could be redeemed by the “love of a good woman.” When Katherine Lee Bates wrote “America the Beautiful” and included these lines, “Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law,” she doubtless had men in mind. Or rather, she had in mind the counter-image that men themselves struggled to transcend, the opposite of the ideal as defined by Kipling and in the Boy Scout creed.
And yet it is that opposite, that Caliban persona decried by men, that has appealed to feminists—so much so that they have willingly abandoned their moral pedestal in order to embrace it. No wonder the favored role model for many of today's young professional women is Madonna, the singing star who has given the term “slut” not only positive connotations, but a heavy charge of ruthlessness and power. Her iconography glorifies and exalts the feminist credo: “Anything men can do I can do better. I can beat them at their own game and on their own playing field.”
Not all women are finding that so easy to do. Men programmed to accept gender equivalence see no reason to offer quarter on the playing field, no reason why they should not subject women to the same rough treatment they visit upon one another. Under such conditions, women usually lose. For in spite of the many films of mayhem featuring valorous female cops and starship troopers, no one has yet managed to repeal biology: most men are bigger and stronger than most women. Once upon a time, women knew how to turn male strength to their own advantage. By being physically weak but morally strong, women could claim protection. Feminist doctrine forbids that right and seeks instead a playing field tilted in female favor. Adjustments have also been made in the image department. Woman-as-victim has replaced the Amazon figure on the media stage. That switch has required additional accent on the image of man-as-victimizer. Are there more brutes today than in yesteryear? Believing and expecting may well have helped to make it so.
Nowhere has the ambivalence of image, the confusion in rules and roles, had a greater impact than on the college campus. In a venue where reasonable decorum once prevailed, where female virtue was (but is no longer) guaranteed by chaperones, parietals, sex-segregated dorms, and watchful deans of women, there is now escalating date rape and other forms of abuse. Much soul-searching has ensued, often in courts and other public arenas, and also between the parties of the first part, the college man and woman whose dilemmas of misunderstanding can be evoked in the following dialogue:
He: I thought the double standard was dead.
She: It is; I have the same right you do to express my sexuality. But I get to say “yes” or “no.” It's your obligation to respect that and respect me.
He: Some girls say “yes” and then change their minds. Some say “no” and mean “yes,” and if we don't make a pass, they call us wimps. How can we know which is which?
She: That's your problem.
He: What is a guy supposed to think when his date wears see-through this-and-that and skirts up to here?
She: That's not a come-on. That's fashion. I have the right to be fashionable. You have no right to leer.
He: What if a girl visits a guy's bedroom or crashes a stag party she knows will be rough? What then?
She: Tone down your party, that's what. I have the right to go wherever I please. You're obligated to make sure I can.
He: What about booze? Suppose you're dead drunk and say “yes.” Does that really mean “no”? Should it mean “no”?
She: I have the right to get just as drunk as you do. But my personhood must be held sacred, drunk or sober.
He: You mean, even if you're in no condition to know or care about your personhood, a guy is supposed to be responsible for it? Even if he's dead drunk, too?
He: How come you get all the rights and I get all the obligations? Sounds to me like just another double standard.
Implicit somewhere in the new sexual scenarios is a developing expectation that men will now learn to apply the forethought and restraint once considered a woman's responsibility. Are men expected also to be more in command of the flesh than females, better able to apply the brakes? Given the state of male hormones, that would seem an irrational expectation. But maybe not. Today's fashionable preoccupation with sex and dread of its repression is not universal. Many of the world's cultures (simpler, closer to the land, and therefore more “natural”) do not hold self-mastery to be beyond a man's power, though it might well be beyond that of a woman.
Consider the traditional Yurok, a foraging/fishing people of northern California. For them the accumulation of shell money was a dominating goal in life. Couples normally abstained from sex the whole winter long. Why? Because hoarded treasure disliked hanky-panky in the house and would desert owners unable to wait until they could sleep decently out of doors. The man whose many children born out of season bespoke weakness of will was dismissed with the epithet, “Just like a dog.”
Cheyenne of the Great Plains considered energy, including virile energy, a nonrenewable resource that should never be squandered in frivolous excess. Indeed, when his wife bore a son, the man of truly strong character determined to focus all his energy for a period of years on the child, remaining celibate the while. A lesser man, unable to master his appetites, might be pitied; he did not deserve to be a chief.
Some new sex education curricula highly contested in today's public schools press a similar message. Boys are urged to have confidence in their powers of self-control even when taunted and tempted by seductive girls. The value of deferring sex until marriage and taking responsibility for what children ensue is stressed. The new curricula have emerged as a response to the threat of AIDS and the increasing numbers of babies born to unwed teenage mothers, both problems that traditional forms of sex education have done little to abate. Unlike them, abstinence programs do not offer safer ways to do the same old things. Instead, they challenge boys with hard tests, inviting them to be more resolute than girls and other, weaker males. It is a challenge that may prove irresistible, especially at a time when the free exercise of folly bids fair to become not only fatal, but the ultimate bore.
Similar challenges are surfacing in other aspects of life. Quietly, of course, so as not to raise a fuss. A recent letter to John Molloy, author of the syndicated column Dress for Success, offers an illustration. An insurance salesman complained of sexism in his workplace. Women, he said, could wear sneakers to work any time they chose and get away with it. When he wore sneakers, the boss chewed him out, even though he changed immediately to wingtips. The boss admitted unfairness but insisted on the no-sneakers dictum; if the salesman couldn't understand, too bad. Wasn't that a double standard? You bet, Molloy replied, adding,
but don't feel persecuted. You and all other men gain from it. Most bosses who are men insist that men dress in more businesslike style than women. It is their not-so-subtle way of announcing that they expect more of men than of women, with all that implies.
Will men increasingly come to define themselves according to their perceptions of what women are not? Will they be drawn to occupy the moral high ground vacated by women? Nature, it seems, enjoins duality, even in the matter of archetype and stereotype. The more women are encouraged by their elites to press for rights, the more men will be asked to shoulder obligations. The more women are taught to see the world through a gender lens, the more men will have to take a broader view. The more women are urged to kick over marital traces, the more men will value monogamy and family ties. The more women find the mother role confining and dull, the more men will be drawn to fatherhood. (Is it too farfetched to suppose that men may one day choose their mates—as women once did—with some view to parenting potential?)
The slow shift in image and roles highlights the significance of primal tasks, redesigned for modern times but no less essential to survival of a way of life in the children who are its future. Because those are the tasks of generic male, he is not endangered but merely in eclipse. And he may not be that when he ceases to see himself as feminism would like him to be seen. Not when he learns once more to judge himself and his peers by the standards of other, older times. As men seek their better natures, they may well manage to bring back into style those women who have never given up their own. Those “manly-hearted” women who decline to be imitation men and reject alike the images of Amazon and victim. Those old-fashioned women for whom loyalty, honor, duty are not dirty words. Those fair-minded women, glad to give generic male his due. When they use the phrase, “just like a man,” they mean it as a compliment and say it with a smile.
Olivia Vlahos contributed “The Goddess That Failed” to our December 1992 issue.