Times Have Changed, But Men Haven't
I thought this would be an essay about women. Then I realized that women are just fine. It's men we need to worry about. Women, after all, are mostly law-abiding. We mostly manage to contribute productive, socially valuable work, paid or volunteer, while remaining responsive to the people we care about. We vote and go to college in greater numbers than men. We generally don't abandon our children or commit violent crimes or, for that matter, complain a whole hell of a lot about some of the bullshit we put up with. We are, in short and with a few exceptions, model citizens. Men, on the other hand, commit more than 95 percent of all violent crimes. They do far less than half of all child-raising and housework, even when their wives work full-time. If they're divorced, a lot of them don't pay the child-care or alimony they owe their former families. Men, in the words of author June Stephenson, are not cost-effective. Not that you'd know it from looking at workplace hierarchies or pay scales. You'd think that a society with a pretense toward fairness would reward women for their hard work with financial success, or at least a little respect. But any woman who has ever endeavored to be taken seriously by male acquaintances, or, for that matter, any woman who has ever walked down a street alone, knows that the ability of men to behave badly knows few bounds. Not all men, of course. This isn't about individuals. Many are wonderful human beings, as they should be. This is about a culture that lets men think they can get away with what's often simply unacceptable. As a woman born in 1972, I believed what I learned from magazines, from newspapers, from TV: Thanks to women's lib, almost all was well in women's worlds. Of course there were still the remaining horrors such as domestic violence or rape, as the news media sadly reported, not to mention the fact that four men murder their wives or girlfriends every day in this country. But aside from those unfortunate and tragic details, the conventional wisdom I remember went women were making inexorable progress toward equality, certainly the glass ceiling would be cracked any minute now. As a teenager, I believed the post-feminist hype about how the heroines of the women's movement had raised enough consciousness that I wouldn't have to worry ever again. I believed that, aside from the occasional throwback domineering male (whom everyone would shun anyway for his antiquated and self-serving agenda), women of my generation were the luckiest girls who ever lived. What a disappointment growing up has been. Just a few years out of college, a depressing number of my female friends and acquaintances have changed their jobs- and even their careers- because men harassed them or threatened them or excluded them. Maybe my disappointment just makes me naive. I think it points to something more significant. Though I'd never presume that my own experience stands in for the experience of Everywoman, I know that when I compare my world to my mother's, the pictures do look pretty different. In the 40-plus years between her birth and mine, women's roles have changed and our opportunities have changed- though not as much as some forces would have us believe. The structure of our lives has changed. Most importantly, our expectations for our lives- especially for who does the out-of-house work and who does the housework- have changed dramatically. There's just one problem: Men haven't changed. At least not nearly enough.A friend is agonizing about where to work after she receives her M.B.A. She's been offered two jobs: one as an investment banker for a high-powered Wall Street firm, one as a product manager for a mid-sized software company in a smaller city. She already worked three years for a different Wall Street firm; she spent a summer working at the software company. She eventually takes the job in the smaller city, though it doesn't pay quite as well. She likes the somewhat shorter hours, and she won't have to deal with the cigar-smoking, old-boy conservative bankers who tease her when she wears pants, who make snide comments about women's bodies, and who call her the office hippie if she objects to their conduct. A few days later, a friend from college calls. We haven't spoken in a year and a half and I find out she's living in Kentucky. Last I heard, she was working as a broker for a national bank in Ohio. She now tells me that she's back in school, studying to become an elementary school teacher. Why did she leave her old job? I ask. It had no meaning, she replies. Plus, I was sick of the sexual harassment.Another friend, seated across from me at dinner one evening, confesses that she's planning to quit her job. Ever since her college graduation, she's been an organizer for a progressive group, throwing her energies behind a cause that she's always believed in. Now, though, she's looking for a job as a pre-school teacher. She's tired of being called politically correct for suggesting that her male co-workers shouldn't make comments about women's bodies. She's tired of being seen as a troublemaker when she questions why the organization's leaders are all male when the group's membership is more than 90 percent female. She's sick of being left out of the after-work beer-drinking and gambling sessions at local bars, where much of the business of the organization gets decided. (And the boss wonders why women seem to quit so much sooner than men...) These three are the fortunate ones: lavished with privilege and education and a stable middle-class background. For women who don't get to choose a career, for whom questions of personal fulfillment are often nothing more than ironic footnotes, staying on the job and putting up with it is often the only option. If they do quit, they're often left stranded. That's what happened to Karen (not her real name), who used to have a job as a janitor at a local university, but left because of the "mens down there. I didn't want to be bothered." She ended up on welfare, then lost her welfare benefits under new state laws. She now babysits her sister's children for $50 a week. Listening to these stories, I didn't worry about the women. Life might not prove to be easy, but all four of them are strong and capable and will find a way to get along, thank you very much. But I was- and still am- outraged that they've had to make these decisions. I am outraged that sexual harassment, unresponsive male bosses, rude and degrading comments, are just another factor that many women have to consider when thinking about a career or a job. Sure, my friends could have brought sexual harassment lawsuits, they could have stayed and fought until they got fired or made a difference, they could have filed discrimination complaints if it turned out that men were promoted over them. For the most part, though, they would have been fighting alone. The nearly defunded Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has a backlog of 100,000 cases alleging discrimination of various sorts, many of which may never be settled at all. Any court case- much less a somewhat nebulous one like sexual harassment or discrimination or such- can take years to crawl through the courts. In many cases, the alienation that some women feel might not meet either standard of proof. Say they did succeed, though. Say they did bring sexual harassment suits and win back pay and damages. They'd still have fought alone. Because one of the most effective backlash tools of the "post-feminist" era has been to isolate women from each other. It's not just that the organized and active women's movement has shrunk. The message that "women have already won equality"- one of the most effective propaganda tools of the past decade- carries with it a second missive: Each woman's problems are now her own, divorced from social circumstance. So, we all pick and choose our battles. And some women who grew up in the "post-feminist" '70s and '80s simply know that they deserve better. Why should they spend their days battling with men behaving badly who, had they any inclination to be respectful or sensitive, would already know better than to act as they do?The behavior of a few odd men wouldn't be such a problem if there were any sort of consensus that women didn't deserve to be treated this way, that maybe we shouldn't be subjected to what often amounts to daily discrimination and harassment and sometimes violence. But the consensus, at least in the mainstream media and in the government institutions that are so gleefully dismantling affirmative action and rolling back discrimination law, seems to be that women already have it better. Maybe better than we deserve. No reputable publication or politician would say that, of course, at least not for the public record. Instead, it might be phrased like this: "The women's movement fought such a good fight that we don't need affirmative action, or effective discrimination law, or an Equal Rights Amendment." Or, conversely, "The women's movement fought such a good fight that we don't need feminism anymore." Or it might not be addressed at all. In recent cover stories based on The Time Bind , a new book by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and The New York Times Magazine all neglected to discuss in depth sexism or discrimination, though Hochschild herself had devoted several chapters of her book to it. Instead, the magazines focused blame on parents- and, more specifically, on mothers- for shirking their responsibilities. In some ways, the you're-so-lucky-to-live-in-the-'90s mantra is true. Thirty years ago, I would not have been admitted to the college I attended because of my gender. I might not have had the opportunity to become a reporter, or I might have been shunted off onto the "woman's page" (which, bizarrely, remains a staple of many area dailies). I would not, perhaps, have even thought that I could handle- or deserved- meaningful work. But while most women are no longer forced to listen to the one-note drone urging us to put ourselves aside to serve our husbands, most also still encounter hostile, sexist attitudes and structures that unnecessarily restrict our work-related decisions and future plans. We've come far enough to know that we don't deserve this treatment. Too bad men haven't. And too bad they won't- unless women make things so tough on them that they're forced to do so. Personally, I'd love not to deal with any of this, not to think about it, not to waste my valuable time and energy getting pissed off. Because, frankly, I shouldn't have to deal with it. None of us should. But we do. Every single day.