To Be or Not to Be (Gender Equal), Part Two

Frances Tilney Burke may not know this, but her IFS article reflects American culture on the subject of gender equality pretty accurately.  As I said in my previous piece, Burke hasn’t the vaguest notion of what actual equality would be, and, in that, she’s much like the rest of the country and elsewhere.

Recall that Burke opposes requiring women to register with the Selective Service System.  She does so on the specious notion that women prefer caring for children and therefore - whether they have children or not – should be exempt from registration, conscription and combat.  That men too may have preferences that could conflict with military service went unmentioned by her.  That the entire concept of military conscription ignores individual preferences is, to Burke, an unsolved mystery.  Needless to say, her view is both frankly anti-egalitarian and blindly misandric, which is why I say it accurately reflects, if not society generally, then certainly elite values and public policy. 

As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Rostker v. Goldberg, the Selective Service System exists to provide personnel for combat in the event of war.  Requiring only men to register means that national policy is that only men must fight and die or be maimed in battle.  (Women may do so; men must do so.)  Our failure to require women to comply with the same legal requirements and run the same risks discounts men’s pain and suffering and, in so doing, recapitulates our blasé acceptance of men’s pain, not only in battle, but in fact, from birth to death.

We welcome newborn boys to the world with painful, bloody and medically pointless circumcision, a useful learning experience for them.  It trains them in the fine art of the stiff upper lip that’s a necessary feature of all of male life until it ends five years before women’s, yet another non-issue.  Throughout, society yawns not only at men’s pain and hardship, but at every effort to draw sympathetic attention to them. 

Where are the cries of indignation in the press, in legislatures, in presidential campaigns about the male suicide rate, the male homelessness rate, the rate at which men die or are injured on the job?  How is it that we are just now considering requiring women to register with the Selective Service System?  Why is the far harsher treatment of men by the criminal justice system - so often studied – utterly ignored by all?  Why are there 500 domestic violence shelters for women for every one for men, despite equal rates of perpetration and victimization?  Why do hundreds of thousands of fathers every year endure the agony of having their children taken from them by a court system that claims to act “in the best interests of the child?”

And why is every effort to draw attention to men’s pain and men’s inequality met with some combination of uninterest and derision?

The answer to all those questions lies partly in our evolution.  For untold millennia, we humans have survived by privileging female life over male life.  And for all those millennia, that made sense because the simple facts of human reproduction demand that women, far more than men, must be protected.  A single man can impregnate many women, but women still give birth to (almost invariably) a single offspring who takes years to reach sexual maturity and, for most of human history, often didn’t.  Until very recently, childbirth meant a high probability of death for the mother.  Without the dogged protection of women and girls, the chances that Homo sapiens would have survived “nature red in fang and claw” were vanishingly small.  After all, over time, there were a fair number of species of the genus Homo, but how many of them are still with us?  Only one – hardly a ringing endorsement of our “strategy” for survival.  Protecting females was necessary for the survival of the species; men were far more expendable.

Plus, our preference for women and girls isn’t only a part of the big picture, it’s an individual matter as well.  We are all carried in our mothers’ body, nurtured at her breast and cuddled in her arms.  Our earliest experiences of life are with her as our primary source of sustenance, warmth and love.  At the time when our brains are least formed and most forming, we have mother as our protector, nurturer and teacher.  No wonder we so highly value women.  Our preference for them over men is printed indelibly on our brains, psyches and souls.

But now things are different.  (Aren’t they?)  With seven billion people on a planet that’s straining to provide resources for all of us, it’s not as if we any longer need to optimize fertility.  Indeed, our survival may require doing the opposite.  Call it ironic, but our very success as a species may now mean that the time-honored strategies we’ve relied on must be refigured.  Our age-old roles of the protected woman and the dispensable man can, and perhaps should be, discarded.

Enter the concept of gender equality.  If women no longer need to be uniquely protected, then why can’t they do what men have traditionally done?  Why can’t they serve in military combat, work dangerous jobs, suffer the same treatment by the criminal justice system when they violate the law?  Why can’t we look impassively at their pain and tell them to “woman up?” 

On the other side of the same coin, why can’t men be protected the way women are?  Why can’t we be as alarmed at the male suicide rate as we would be if 75% of suicides were female?  Why can’t we demand that construction sites and logging camps be as safe as they would be if it were women doing those jobs?

The answer of course is that we can, but we don’t and we’re not about to start.  We still give special protection to women and girls, even to the extent of abandoning much of due process of law in order to do so.  Everything from #MeToo to “trauma-informed” policing to the “Dear Colleague” letter of the U.S. Department of Education to the law and practice on domestic violence eagerly marginalizes due process for the sole purpose of placing greater power in female hands – power to imprison men and destroy their careers and reputations.  Needless to say, we grant men no such power.

Western society sits astride a fence.  On one side is gender equality; on the other, tradition.  We can’t decide.  We’re not about to return to traditional gender roles, but true gender equality would mean taking real and revolutionary actions toward easing men’s lives, soothing our pain, making safe our endeavors, the very things no one is even talking about, much less addressing.

As things stand, gender equality is a lie that no observant person believes or believes that it’s anything but a lie.



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