Saturday, November 27, 2010


“Frailty, thy name is woman.” Hamlet refers, not to women’s physical weakness, but to their moral weakness, an idea going back at least as far as the Biblical story of Eve’s succumbing to the Serpent’s temptation. The fact that women are physically weaker than men has, on the assumption that might makes right, led to the idea that women are morally weaker than men. Of course, the assumption embraces a pro-male bias favoring physical strength.

Human evolution and group organization placed a premium on physical strength (as well as speed, stamina, and throwing ability) in the millennia when it counted for the survival of the species and the success of states. Reliance on physical strength inclined groups to accept male dominance and gender-based divisions of labor. Throughout human history, these adaptive arrangements have become societal norms in almost all cultures. A man’s place is in the world; a woman’s, in the home—so goes traditional thinking.

But—O temporal, o mores—they are a-changing. Medical science supplants myth about biological strength. Males may be physically stronger, but not all strengths are physical; in fact, females are stronger in other ways, from start to finish. Boys have a higher infant mortality rate, and men do not live so long as women. Disease for disease, injury for injury, men die at higher rates than women. Physiologically, if not physically, women are stronger than men.

Thanks to labor-saving devices, physical strength matters less and less. Such devices have reduced the number of people working on farms and ranches; in mines, forests, and fisheries; and on assembly lines. A need for heavy labor may always exist, but the market for it will continue to shrink. In post-industrial economies, more jobs require less brawn and more brain—not a change favorable to physical strength, male dominance, and gender-based divisions of labor.

Women are also stronger psychologically and morally. Although they suffer from depression many times more than men (from male domination?), women better support each other, work better together, and do the same work better. Women’s greater emotional and social competence suggests their greater moral strength of compassion, consideration, and cooperation.

The Industrial Age created the conditions for women’s efforts to secure rights comparable to men’s. Because cultural change lags technological change, progress has been erratic and slow. Women did not get the vote until 1920. They did not get many jobs until World War II, but were displaced by returning veterans. Not until the advent of women’s liberation, did women begin to make sizeable in-roads in the male-dominated economy and male-dominated professional fields. Their struggle for careers outside traditional women’s jobs—from low-level jobs as seamstresses, secretaries, telephone operators, waitresses, and other service jobs; to mid-level jobs as librarians, nurses, and teachers—and for compensation equivalent to their male peers has significantly, but not entirely, succeeded.

Men maintained dominance in education and employment as long they maintained economic hegemony. However, when women have had equal opportunity for education and careers which relied on intellectual capabilities, they have not only succeeded, but also surpassed men. They get higher grades than men; more women than men attend, and graduate from, college; and more women than men now enter the professions of engineering, law, and medicine. Women now run major corporations, and their numbers as elected state and federal officials are growing. All of these developments are good and for the better.

But not all the consequences are good and for the better. We are making progress toward a gender-neutral society, but that progress has its costs. One obvious cost is the decline in public education as many of the best and the brightest women who once entered teaching now enter professions previously denied them, to be replaced by their less academically oriented and talented sisters.

A barely acknowledged cost is the effect of this social change on men. Because of unprecedented competition in school and at work, men are leaving fields or losing benefits once reserved almost exclusively for them. The asymmetry of the change hurts. Women have long aspired to “men’s work”; men have long belittled “women’s work.” When women do “men’s work,” men, sexist as many are, redefine it as “women’s work.” The directionality of mobility also hurts. Women’s upward mobility corresponds to men’s downward mobility. As women enter the world of men, men exit it; as women move into academic positions and technical professions, men move out of them. Few appreciate the issue created by women’s equality with men: men’s equality with women.

Can men accept equality, and can they achieve it? Today, the weaker sex has its work cut out for it. Many men are confused about their identity and worth, and uncertain about roles no longer defined by physical strength or rewarded by men-only privileges. Many failing to cope increasingly resort to brute force to re-assert dominance; one result is increased domestic violence. Images of men show masculinity by a two- or three-day stubble and male vulnerability by a knee or blow to the groin. Advertising identifies “real men” by their interests in watching sports, drinking beer, ogling big breasts and flat bellies, and driving rugged trucks over rough terrain at unrealistic speeds. The cliché “boys will be boys” has an ominous significance. America now needs a concept or model of mature manhood to liberate men and make them strong enough for the so-called “weaker sex.”

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