A couple of summers ago, my husband and I attended a wedding that took place just outside Missoula, Montana, where one of our sons lives. The groom is an incredibly nice man whose family is from India. He and his family are Christian, not Hindu. His uncle, who participated in the wedding ceremony, is a minister in the Pentecostal Church.
During the ceremony, it became obvious there is a philosophical and theological divide in the groom’s family. His generation, born in the United States, has rejected the values and beliefs, though not the religion, of the older generation. The women of the older generation are diffident, speaking only when spoken to, wearing only traditional Indian dress. The women of the younger generation are liberated American females. The “best man” at the wedding, in fact, was actually the groom’s sister. There were covert smiles passed amongst the younger generation, males and females, at the words of their uncle, who preached subservience and obedience for the bride, dominence for the groom. It was clear, while the younger generation respects its elders in that family and holds very closely to its Christian beliefs, it does not accept its old, rigid patriarchal mores.
It wasn’t clear to me until after the wedding just how rigid those patriarchal mores are. Because my father was a pastor in South Africa, and because the Indian preacher had also been a pastor in South Africa, I thought it quite appropriate to talk to him about our connection, but, to my surprise, his answers to me were very curt and he would not look at me when I spoke to him or when he answered me. At first, I was disconcerted, then bemused when I finally understood what was happening. As a woman, I was not supposed to be talking to him. It would have been acceptable for me to have offered to serve him as long as my eyes had been downcast, but I was talking to him as though we were equals, my life as important as his. Partly, of course, this was the arrogance of a certain type of preacher, but even more it was the arrogance of the patriarchal true believer, someone who has sanctified his fear of women and his misogyny through his religion.
I have never before personally experienced misogyny so intense, but it’s clear, from what we hear on the news and from what we read in books like Reading Lolita in Tehran and The Bookseller of Kabul it not only exists but is far more brutal than I experienced that day, and is making a vengeful comeback after briefly loosening its hold in many parts of the world. The subjugation of women in some Middle Eastern countries and in Africa and India and Pakistan is brutal beyond belief. Stories coming out of Afghanistan, telling of the Taliban’s barbaric treatment of women, seem to have come out of the Dark Ages rather than the 20th and 21st centuries.
But, of course, discrimination in more subtle forms exists almost universally. As a woman, and a small one, I feel as though I have been struggling, all my life, to be taken seriously. It wasn’t until after my mother’s death, when I was thirty and my father actually had to talk to me, he realized I was something more than “just a girl.” And even after he had recognized my abilities, he held to the belief my goal in life should be to serve in the background rather than shine in the foreground unless I shone in the foreground in such demure womanly arts as cooking, sewing, singing, raising children. Many women in our western world have struggled against the same tyranny of attitude, fighting not simply to gain equal pay for equal work, but to be recognized according to their abilities, not their gender. They have fought against sexual objectification that reduces them to symbols rather than individuals. They still fight against those male politicians and clergymen who seem to believe they must control women’s sexuality and their reproductive lives. I believe there is a bizarre male element in the Right to Life faction that is more concerned with this control than with saving fetuses from abortion. These men, it seems to me, are kindred spirits to the Moslem males who enforce female genital mutilation in Africa and other parts of the world in an attempt to control women’s sexuality.
But the older I get, the more I come to believe there is more going on here than simply some males’ need to believe in gender superiority. I think it is a need to believe in the sanctity of power that drives these ills, and not simply these ills. Surely, all the wars, all the ethnic cleansing, all the arrogance of blind patriotism, all the religious strife we see is the tragic result of this blind devotion to and lust for power. And I wonder about the fear behind this instinct.
Recently, my husband and I found ourselves driving our car behind someone who turned on the light bulb for me. This man was riding a motorcycle, an extremely noisy Harley Davidson. He made his presence felt through the growl of his vehicle and by his physical appearance. He was a giant of a man, not just overweight, but large, and dressed, of course, in black leather. He wore heavy boots and a shiny black helmet reminiscent of a Nazi soldier’s. The most telling detail of all, though, was the Confederate flag attached to the back of his bike, his true declaration of individualistic menace. My husband said, “There he is, the reason America is hated in the world, the perfect example of an American who believes he can impose himself on everyone else’s reality,” or words to that effect. And the insight that came to me for the first time was here was someone who believes if he does not demonstrate he is superior in whatever way passes as superiority for him, he will simply not exist. If he cannot believe he is all powerful, he has no reason to live. He is the quintessential ugly, brutish American, a man so insecure, so afraid he is worth nothing, he has to believe he can “take” the world, or he will fade into oblivion. He is deathly afraid.
It reminds me of what Doris Lessing describes in her second memoir, Walking in the Shade, about the bewildering loyalty to and worship of the power of God, king and country displayed by some of the British working class men she met in London after the Second World War. In Africa, during the war, she had been a member of the communist party, an affiliation she she continued briefly in England until the reality of communism’s abuses of power became clear. She and her fellow communists in Africa were attracted to the philosophy because of their idealism and belief in equality, their passionate desire to free black men and women from the yoke of colonialism. They were also passionate about improving the lot of the British working class, a class which had been as exploited, as abused as the black people in the British colonies. Most of her friends were British upper class, and their experiences in two world wars had brought them into contact with working men. They had become ashamed of their empire and its values. (Lessing points out the average working class people they encountered were a good foot shorter than the average upper class Britons, the result not of inferior genes, but of malnutrition.) But the point is, Lessing and her cohorts met almost universal and sometimes violent resistence to their ideas. The working class Britons they were trying to “save” would have none of it. They were fiercely loyal to their country, their rulers, their empire. I believe it was because they saw themselves as nothing without the very things that had created their miserable living conditions. Their only self-esteem came from their fierce patriotism, their pride in the power of the empire they had no hand in ruling. Their only self-esteem came from their belief they lived in the most powerful nation in the world, and without that power, they would have been nothing. If and when the majority of these working class people were able to escape from Britain and find opportunity in the colonies, they treated “the natives” as brutally as the British ruling class had treated them. They seized power as opportunistically as any duke or earl had ever done. And they believed they had a right to do so because they were British. Aldous Huxley described them and our motorcycle friend very aptly when he wrote the attraction to patriotism for people like this is “it fulfills [their] worst wishes. In the person of [their] nation [they] are able, vicariously, to bully and cheat. Bully and cheat, what’s more, with a feeling [they] are profoundly virtuous.”
And so it goes. Some of us are bewildered by the members of America’s working class who are anti union and appear slavishly devoted to the political party we believe perpetuates their struggle to survive with dignity. They, too, seem so devoid of self-esteem, they have to believe in the power and supremacy of their nation without which they would be nothing. We live in a world torn by genocide, war, arrogance, religious fundamentalism, lacking in compassion, lacking in almost anything we can call ethical. Too many of the leaders of our country, and too many of the people they lead, believe they have the right simply to take what America wants from the rest of the world, by force, if necessary. They are the heirs of the European colonials who believed the same thing. Few seem to recognize how these arrogant beliefs have created the escalating crises of environmental degradation, nationalism, fundamentalist religion that threaten our planet.
And there is no doubt it is men who have cast the die, have set the tone.
One of my colleagues at St. Charles Community College has a quote from a comedienne whose name escapes me taped to her office door. It reads, “If women ruled the world, and everyone got massages, there would be no war.” It’s a catchy slogan. I wonder if it’s true. Certainly, there are and have been women who have put their lives on the line to end injustice and violence. In South Africa, a group of white women calling themselves the Black Sash group, my stepmother among them, protested, placed themselves literally in the line of fire between black protesters and the white police intent on shooting the protesters. (Their name came from the black sashes they wore during public protests.) Many of them organized an underground railroad to smuggle African political dissidents out of South Africa to safe havens in Britain and elsewhere in Africa. They were heroines. In Northern Ireland, there were the mothers, both Protestant and Catholic, who banded together against their men to end the violence and murder killling their husbands and sons. They, too, were heroines. In Argentina, there were the mothers, so anguished by the police violence killling their children in the name of a corrupt regime, they defied the police, the government, the military, many dying protesting the senseless oppression. They were also heroines. The list goes on, and it is tempting to believe if we women were, by some miraculous sleight of hand, able to wrest power from the hands of the thugs who have created such misery in the world, we would make it all better, would set it all right. I would love to believe it, but I am unconvinced.
Sarah Hrdy, in her fascinating book, Mother Nature, traces motherhood through 25,000 years of human evolution, using the San (Bushmen) of Africa as the closest example we have of our hunter/gatherer forebears, and investigating examples of motherhood in nature. Her conclusions challenge our belief all females are more caring, more compassionate than all males. She compares Flo, Jane Goodall’s favorite chimanzee troop leader, with the female leader of a rival chimpanzee troop. Flo was what some envision all women rulers would be — the good mother who treated all the members of the troop fairly and kindly, took care of not only her own daughters but of other females’ chimpanzees. She was, however, not the prototype of a chimpanzee leader. Her troop was, at one point, at war with the chimpanzee troop led by the other female in question, who can only be described as evil. This female not only attacked Flo’s troop, attempting to kill its members and take over its territory, she ruled her own troop brutally. She favored her own daughters above all the other infants in the troop, going so far as to kill many newborns to ensure the supremacy of her own line. The members of her troop were terrified of her. They dared not challenge her. When she died, her oldest daughter took her place and was as brutal as her mother had been. It wasn’t until this daughter had also died, and the youngest female in the family had become leader, that peace was restored. Hrdy points out, this is not an anomaly. There is no guarantee female leaders among our closest primate relatives will be any nobler than their male human counterparts. It would seem the lust for power and prestige corrupts across species lines. When I read this account, it brought to mind the story of the mother of theTexas high school cheerleader who hired a hit man to eliminate her daughter’s rival in cheerleading competition.
Hrdy writes we must, however, reluctantly, face the fact most females, human and non-human, put the welfare of their own offspring before the welfare of any others. They are not concerned with the survival of their species. They, like their male counterparts, are concerned with the survival of their own genetic line.
And while many women are, of course, gentle and compassionate, it seems doubtful to me this is strictly the result of their essential nature. I’m convinced nurture has a great deal to do with it as well. There are so many examples of women who seem utterly lacking in compassion for me to believe otherwise. Let’s not forget some Native American tribes turned their prisoners of war over to their women to torture because the women were so good at it. My mother used to say she believed men don’t allow women to become soldiers because, once women have crossed a certain psychic threshold, , they are far more vicious fighters than men could ever be. I can’t help thinking she may have been right when I think of some eighth grade girls. Need I say more? It seems some of the members of this generation of females, schooled in the sense of entitlement rampant in our society, have crossed the threshold of which my mother spoke. They bully verbally, they bully physically, they torture in whatever ways they can. I used to say, when I taught public school, I could make the boys angry with me and have them won over in ten minutes. But if I once made some of the girls angry, they would still be plotting my demise in six months.
And for every Cindy Sheehan, there is a woman so lost in fear, so blindly patriotic, she will defend America’s imperialism no matter what. Historically, there were the women in Britain during two world wars who handed out white feathers to any male of fighting age not on the battlefront, the white feather being the symbol of cowardice. They handed these out even to men who had been wounded in combat.
So much for the gentler sex.
It’s my sense when some women declare their gender morally superior to men, they are indulging in the same self-serving, prejudiced and arrogant posturing as the men who declare the male gender superior. These women are the opposite side of the same bankrupt coin minted by patriarchy. In pigeonholing men, they are pigeonholing themselves, creating the very tyranny of attitude they claim to despise. They have created a stereotype for themselves every bit as sentimental and false as any created by the Victorians who idealized women as “the angels in the house.” And they are not proposing peace and equality, they are proposing dominance and exclusion.
I encounter women, in all walks of life from lower working class to intelligensia, who espouse the philosophy of female superiority. It is, somehow, more irritating for me to hear it espoused by highly educated women than by other women because I used to believe they were clear eyed critical thinkers, my own sentimental and elitist stereotype. Some of these women, who would never tolerate stereotyping of black people as stupid, lazy, violent and worthless, tar all men with that brush. The basis of the friendships of so many of these women is their professed contempt for men, their cynicism about marriage. This relentless cynicism may be the result of disappointment and fear, but it is a destructive, divisive force.
I believe these women have bought into the same kind of thinking as their male counterparts, and they are as trapped and crippled by it as are the men. They have bought into the same fears — they are afraid of men, perhaps afraid men really are superior, and so they have to believe in the superiority of women or they will not exist. They are not interested in being equal, they are interested in controlling, not only men but other women. They jockey for power amongst each themselves, deciding who, in their social circles, in their workplaces, will be on the A list and who will not. They compete with each other through their children’s accomplishments. Many of those who are teachers have contempt for their students, thinking of them, too, as inferior beings. I have encountered women like these in all the places where I have worked and in all the organizations to which I have belonged. No, they are not in the majority, but they are the alpha females, some of whom gain power in whatever arena they operate. They are hungry for power and will do what they have to do in order to get it. I would not want any of these women to rule the world. They are as flawed as the men they hate, and they justify their hunger for power by declaring they have no choice but to be what they are in a male dominated world.
It sounds like the rationalizations for global takeovers mouthed by our illustrious leaders, male and female. (Let’s not forget Condoleezza Rice.)
Please don’t think I’m advocating an end to the fight for women’s rights. Please don’t think I believe men are superior to women. I am acutely aware, had it not been for the suffragists of the first half of the twentieth century and the feminists of the 1960’s and 70’s, I would not be able to rant as I am doing. What I am advocating is we examine the nature of power and our motives in wanting it. What I am avowing is we need to be careful what we wish for. What I am suggesting is, too often, in revolution, all that happens is power changes hands. I am questioning if matriarchy would be any more compassionate, any more just, any more inclusive than patriarchy has been as long as it was driven simply by the need for and belief in power.
Surely, it’s time to end the divisiveness that has almost brought our planet to the point of extinction. Surely, it’s time to understand the only good power is the power shared by all, not preempted by the ruthless, greedy, aggressive few. What will we have changed if women rule the world alone? Will we not simply have replaced one flawed, short sighted system with another? It seems clear to me, when men exclude women and dismiss the female point of view, they become bizarre, unbalanced caricatures of masculinity. But it also seems as clear when women exclude men and dismiss their point of view, they become equally bizarre, unbalanced caricatures. I believe we need to balance the scales, not tip them in the favor of any group, nation, race, gender if our planet is to survive.