Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
“Women and Men – Vive la Difference!”
May 8, 2017
“As a distinguished colleague of mine once noted,
there is very little difference between men and women, but…vive la difference!”
Pepe le Pew
“Heaven Scent” 1956
“And she‘s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need.”
P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975)
Mostly Sally, 1923
We live in an age of identity politics, which is a misleading way of saying we are segregated – by race, religion, socio-economic positions and sex. Differences do exist, and highlighting them is a way to spotlight societal problems. But partition today is done, cynically, for political purposes – to compartmentalize voters for easy access. As a nation, we need debate but should focus on commonalities. However, in the matter of the sexes, it is the difference between men and women that is fundamental to our continued existence. After all, without procreation we would die off.
All agree, there is no excuse for sexual harassment and that there should be equal pay for equal work – that women should have the same opportunity as men in terms of education and careers. And – despite the above Wodehouse quote – intelligence is not confined to one gender. Respect should have no boundaries.
We are formed by our past. While I went to an all-boys high school and spent forty years on male-dominated Wall Street trading floors, I was fortunate to have been raised in a household, and in a family, where women were always considered equal to men. Of my parents, my mother was the more dominant, and certainly had more of a head for business than my father. While both were artists, he was quiet and reserved, interested in sculpture, nature and his children. My maternal grandmother was raised in the south and in Washington, D.C. She married at 18 and, with her husband, moved into the New Haven home of her widowed father-in-law, where she became the head of a large household. While she never went to college, she was, according to my father, as well-read as anyone he knew. My paternal grandmother married at age 31. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, she spent six years studying at M.I.T., which accepted her tuition, but refused to grant her a degree because of her sex. She always remembered that slight, but didn’t let it consume her. She lived to be 93, and maintained a life-long interest in public health, an interest nurtured at M.I.T.
The gender equality I encountered in my youth was accompanied with a chivalrous attitude toward women. I was taught to remove my hat and open doors for women, to pull out their chair when they came to the table. This was not because they were incapable of doing so themselves, but as a sign of respect. (If you had seen my mother on a horse you would know she wasn’t fragile.) Shortly after I met my wife, she and I drove out to Wellesley to visit my paternal grandparents. My grandfather had just turned 89 and Caroline was in her early 20s. When she walked into the room, he stood. Civility and manners that make for genteel behavior are neither condescending nor patronizing. They lubricate rules of civility.
The 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was ratified in August 1920, a hundred and thirty-one years after George Washington was inaugurated. Neither of my grandmothers could vote until they were middle-aged. When I was growing up most women did not go to college and careers open to men were not open to them. In high school, girls took “home economics,” while boys took “shop.” Ten years later, in the mid 1960s, opportunities for women were still limited. The feminist movement was well-timed. Women like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem led marches for jobs, equal treatment and rights. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was passed by Congress in 1972, but only ratified by 32 States, so never became part of the Constitution. Phyllis Schlafly was, in part, responsible for its failure. Her argument: women bear babies, so must be cared for by the men who get them pregnant, an observation rooted in biology. Nevertheless, over time, most of what the ERA demanded has been enacted into law, and/or have become part of the accepted norm. There are more women in universities today than men. While not equally represented in government, business, law, academia and the military, they have made in-roads inconceivable to those of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation.
In this Country we love, there should be no room for discrimination against anyone for any reason. People have the right to live as they choose, so long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others. But, in terms of women’s rights, progressives see the battle as not won, and in some ways, it has not been. But much of the urgency of fifty years ago – a time of clearly discriminatory behavior – has morphed into silliness. A society fixated on avoiding hurtful speech, harboring safe spaces, ensuring co-ed bathrooms and promoting gender neutral pronouns has little in common with one demanding jobs, the right to vote or equal pay. Worse, advocates for women’s rights have often been hypocritical, as President Clinton demonstrated.
Inanity has inundated our campuses. In a decision that would have confounded Darwin, University of California students can now choose from six gender identities! Carleton College officials point out that pronouns like “he” and “she” are “uncomfortable and limiting.” In the UK, Peter Tatchell, a human rights campaigner and LGBT activist said: “It’s about respecting people’s right to define themselves as neither male nor female.” According to Lindsey Beaver, writing last October in The Washington Post, “Fifty [U.S. colleges and universities] allow students to choose their genders without documentation of medical intervention.” (One student at the University of Michigan, when asked to choose his preferred identity, opted for “His Majesty.”) At many of our finest universities, it is no longer enough to substitute they for he or she; we now are expected to use pronouns like ze, xe, or xyr. What would Webster say?
You smile. Youth has always challenged their elders. More than 150 years ago Anthony Trollope wrote, “The impudence of the young is very sore to the prudence of their elders.” But there are serious repercussions to today’s foppery. Procreation is critical to the survival of all species. Yet, birthrates in most developed – and some developing – nations are in decline. A nation needs a total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.1 to maintain its population. So, consider the following: The TFR in the U.S. is 1.86; in the European Union, 1.58; in China, 1.56; in Japan, 1.42; in Russia, 1.70; in Canada, 1.61, and in Australia, 1.86. The reasons for the decline include the ubiquity of birth control methods, abortions, the liberation of women, and economic factors that have made putting off childbirth a preferred choice among couples. These are practices many would prefer not to change, but we cannot hide from their consequences.
In contrast, while TFR numbers in the developed world have declined, fertility rates in the Middle East and Africa average about 2.85. Muslims have the highest birthrates of any major religion, with a TFR of 3.1. (Christians: 2.7.) The effects of slowing population growth rates and aging demographics are, and will be, substantial. They will affect our societies and our economies for decades to come.
I don’t pretend to have answers, but these are matters worthy of thought. Phyllis Schlafly was right. Men and women are anatomically different – for a reason. It is not a question of men putting women on pedestals, though some, like my wife, deserve to be. Certainly they should not be denigrated. What is wanted is civility and mutual respect, along with an appreciation of our differences. As Pepe le Pew said, Vive la difference!