The Role of Women

I do not mean to offend anyone by acknowledging this, but I am the only male I know who does not consider himself to be a Feminist. That means I do not think women have been subject to discrimination in law or in practice in the United States by and large since the end of the Second World War except in the case of abortion, which is an issue that is fraught with complexities because childbirth is one of those existential issues, one not easily comparable to any other, that just have to be managed somehow, just as is the fact that men live on average seven years less than women do, and I prefer Bill Clinton’s position that abortions should be legal, safe and rare to the view that they are just another form of birth control. I come by this position honestly in that I was told by my mother that she would have aborted me if she had had the courage to do so. There are not many survivors to speak up in the name of those who did not survive. The law and customs against abortions saved my life even as some women lost theirs because of botched kitchen table abortions and other women were saved from having a child by successful kitchen table abortions. (It can hardly be tasteless of me to mention this bit of personal information when so many women have come forward to defend abortion by pointing out that they had undergone abortions in their youth.)

Let us turn to the general issue of discrimination against women who, to make a long story short, got into medical schools and law schools in large number as soon as they requested something more than token representation. There is a more upbeat account of the advancement of the equality of women over the past one hundred years than is usually provided. By the Nineteen Twenties, women had significantly lower mortality rates in pregnancy than had previously been the case, possibly because hospital based obstetrical care had replaced home delivery as the major way children were brought into the world. And according to Robert Lynd’s “Middletown”, women had more leisure time on their hands in the Twenties because their husbands worked to provide them with the labor saving machines that were then becoming widely available on the market: refrigerators, washing machines, sewing machines, vacuum cleaners, and so on. Women were also doubling their membership in the workforce every decade. Graduation from a high school, which was a coeducational public institution, opened positions for women as secretaries and bookkeepers and telephone operators. These jobs were safer and cleaner and generally more pleasant than the jobs available to young men at the local factory or mine. There were colleges for women that were every bit as good as the Ivies for those women in the Talented Tenth of their gender. There were at least token positions available in medical and law schools. Women were dressing differently. They had abandoned corsets and long dresses for short skirts, flattened bosoms, and bobbed hair, a change as profound as when Asian men and women both adopted Western dress after the Second World War. How you dress shows what you are.

By the Nineteen Fifties, these trends had accelerated. Women who stayed at home had significant leisure. Their men went off to work, let us say, in the garment industry in midtown Manhattan, while the women stayed home in the bedroom neighborhoods of the outer boroughs of New York City. After getting the children off to school, they finished their housework by ten or eleven, and then whiled away their time until the children got home from school to greet them on park benches where they were chatting with their fellow housewives. Then into the house or apartment to make dinner for the husband who returned from work at six from a far more stressful and alienating job. It is far more satisfying to raise children, given the variety of challenges and rewards that provides, than it is to satisfy a boss even if one is an elite pattern cutter in the garment industry. Co-educational college was available for girls who wanted it. This is the world of Lucy Ricardo, free to plan escapades with her friend Ethel because she has little else with which to occupy her time other than having coffee and yet sure to reserve her caustic wit lest it offend one or another of the men around her. There was the episode when Lucy looked with anger at Ricky when she got up because he just turned over rather than respond to her request that he get up to deal with the crying baby. Women, in those times, are controlled from within rather than from without, which means what keeps them down are their own inhibitions. Feminists can argue, of course, that ingrained inhibitions are more difficult to shed than is the structural oppression through law and violence as that was experienced by African Americans and the working class, but it is certainly different, a matter of will rather than a matter of opportunity. 

So the rising equality of women in the past one hundred years has been relatively smooth and successful. As soon as a barrier is encountered, it is overcome. Girls were, on average, always better at school than boys, and as soon as they arrived at Ivy League colleges, went to the top of the class. They now outnumber males in medical school. Women at the moment make up 13% of the people in the United States Senate, which is still less than their fifty percent of the population, but there are still only two African-Americans in the United States Senate. That 2% is far less than the 12% African Americans comprise of the population of the United States. It is much more difficult to make your way as an African American than it is as a woman. African Americans may have successfully converted in the past fifty years from being a caste group to an ethnic group. That means that they are not separated from other groups by being relegated to certain occupations and are no longer barred from marrying or even eating across caste lines, as was the case not so long ago. And there just was an African American President. But the struggle against poverty and discrimination is not over, the fight for voting rights, for example, needing to be constantly refought. Women, on the other hand, came from the same social class as their brothers and so it was easy enough for them to fit into the lives their brothers led once they insisted upon doing so. And more than that, they slept with the enemy, which was a good thing, because it meant that the enemy was softened up to meet their demands while residential and social segregation persisted in keeping the African American underclass from assimilating into the larger society.

So if that is the case, then why are women so angry, why does their rage persist? It lies in the sociological concept of deviance. A deviant is not, as Emile Durkheim, the originator of the concept, thought, just any unusual person and therefore shunned by society. People are not shunned if they are great athletes or lawyers. Rather, as Erving Goffman, a more recent major sociologist, had it, a deviant person is someone who is a defective human being, somehow lessened from being a fully human being by one or another characteristic or role. Goffman included among such people criminals, cripples and colostomy patients. Each of these carries with them what Goffman, in his very important book by that name on the subject, called “stigmas”, which are signs of their inferiority that may or may not be visible. If they are invisible, then the stigmatized person works hard to cover up any sign that reveals their wound or prior life, and that is true of the colostomy patient and the ex-con. If the stigma is visible, then the person works very hard to manage the stigma by making people feel at ease with their condition. That is true of the blind person or the person in the wheelchair who call attention to their condition so as to make it other than a constant preoccupation of those around them.

It is important to note that African Americans are not deviants except when they, until quite recently, showed up in situations where they did not “belong”. Then they would indeed have to put white people at ease about why they were just someone else trying to make it as a lawyer or a politician. Most of the time, back then, African Americans were members of a caste living lives segregated from those in other castes by restrictions on who they could eat or sleep with, the two criteria used by Max Weber to define the boundaries between social groups.

Women, on the other hand, are not members of a caste. They eat and they sleep with men. They are a deviant group (to the extent that they are not simply a sui generis category) in that they are defective versions of the strictly defined members of the species, the men, an assertion of inferiority as old as Adam and Eve, she being created in one of two defective ways, either from Adam’s rib or from the sand, while Adam had been created in the ordinary way, the one used for the making of the animals. Women show off their deviant character by having a shape altered enough from that of the male so that they are noticeable, though not so different that their sexual characteristics are not attractive, as well as secondary sexual characteristics, such as a differently pitched voice, that can be regarded as inferior, even if also attractive. Indeed, women emphasize their distinctive body types through their clothing, such as by wearing high heel shoes, so as to increase their allure.

Women are deviant precisely because of their allure for men. They are readily judged as beauties or as dogs, as sexy or cold, even when such matters may not seem relevant, because men are preoccupied with seeing them in a sexual way. Their differences can be given false praise, as when it was said of women that they knew the secrets of the universe by intuition rather than through learning, and that they had a mysterious relation to the universe because it is they who bear children. In any event, women have to constantly manage the fact that they are visible as women, even to the extent of disguising their allure should they be captured on a battlefield. Traditionally, they covered up their intelligence so as not to intimidate men who they wanted to prize them for their allure, and in some places they cover their faces lest it provoke lust on the part of men, men understood not able to contain their lust while women have to manage both the control and the satisfaction of male lust. Women dress so as to be particularly attractive on the occasions when they want to be or underdress or otherwise dress as is appropriate to an occasion, while men, for the most part, are less concerned about their appearance. Women pamper their bodies and wear makeup. Some women may always hide or deny their allure while others play it up and enjoy doing so or are discrete enough to know when to hide and when to display.  Men just have to suppress their lust until the occasion arises when they can express it. Their lust is not problematic while the lust of women is, at least on any given occasion. Freud was right to think that he understood what men wanted but not what women wanted. This asymmetry between the sexes, as I have also suggested in a previous blog post,"Pretty People", is what is at the heart of Feminism, rather than structural discrimination, even if it is easier to speak of unfairness in occupational life than it is to speak of the existential condition of the sexes.  (See Big Little Lies and "Lady Agnew": Portrait of a Beauty.)