Coping With Men

Adams Memorial or Grief, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1891

Adams Memorial or Grief, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1891

Coping With Men

Last night, Jerry and I were watching a netflick about Lillie Langtry, the celebrated Edwardian beauty. We are at the point in the story where she is beginning to be noticed by fashionable painters of the day (including the American painter, Whistler), and her husband is sinking deeper into The Manly Sulks.

As we turned off the TV, I was sounding off about the detestable husband who did not want his wife to shine. Jerry did not readily join in. His view was that this kind of “bad husband” role is a natural for men. Jerry did not think Lilly’s husband a bad sort. He felt left out, overshadowed and did not even know that he felt that way. Men, Jerry said, are not naturally in touch with their feelings and they don’t even know that they’re not.

Goodness, I thought. How depressing for women! Wouldn’t it cause our emotional range to contract, just weathering all the situations traceable to this fundamental asymmetry?

Meanwhile, on our national movie screen, the Courtship of the American Woman Voter is playing. We are being asked to say “yes” to one of the two presumptive suitors. To me, it looks like a rivalry between two proposed marriages, each a bad one.

I don’t want to get on the wrong side of either of these candidates for my hand. They both fight dirty. But it happens that I do have a sort of history with one of them and a lower-gut reaction to the other one.

Take the proposed marriage with the distaff side of the Clintons. I have not missed them during their years in private practice, because of one incident from their political life that I still remember vividly. He had just survived a blundering attempt to remove him from the presidency via the constitutional remedy of impeachment. In case you don’t know, or have forgotten the story, he was a womanizer who may have tried to silence his victims by suborning perjury. A special prosecutor was named who seemed to have a more unwholesome interest in the details of illicit affairs than in possible violations of law. Although the president survived the impeachment, the whole investigation coarsened the national mood without securing anything that resembled justice for anyone concerned.

To me, the sins of the president had seemed more a personal matter than the business of the public and I was glad for the whole thing to be over.

That said, I do take an interest in “unofficial history.” If something comes to my attention that’s not part of the official line, I file it under “anomalies” or “unofficial history” and keep it available for consultation, should its ramifications turn up later. That’s why I turned on NBC when, after the failed impeachment, I heard it was running an interview with a woman who claimed to have been criminally assaulted by Bill Clinton.

The woman’s name was Juanita Broaddrick. The alleged incident took place when the future president was attorney general and running for governor in his home state. The rape she described was the kind no unarmed woman can get away from. She plainly had not wanted to be interviewed. As she told me later, she had not wanted to come out of the closet at all. She’d been “outed” in the course of the impeachment investigations. She was what Christopher Hitchens later called a “respectable woman.” In other words, an ordinary person, not someone living at the margins of society. As one journalist reporting the story told me, “I believe Juanita.”

One part of the interview was not aired at the time by NBC, though it has come to light since. At a political gathering, where Juanita had not expected to see her assailant or his wife, his wife approached her in a threatening manner, to make sure that no trouble would block the ascent of the man who planned one day to run for president.

I will leave out of this account my frustrating, failed efforts to contact every feminist I knew, or knew of, to get someone known to the public to voice appropriate concern about this woman’s credible testimony. In the course of that effort, I also had a long-distance phone conversation with Juanita Broaddrick. About the feminists, she said, what they are doing is giving the president tips on how to handle his accuser. To my mind, she was a sane, normal, credible woman whose life had been twice overturned: once by the horrific assault, a second time by the impeachment investigation. Like the reporter,

I believe Juanita.

Why did I think this “incident” had vast importance in terms of the health and welfare of our nation? Could it be that I believe the protection of women to be the test of a nation’s virtue?

The great classical philosophers held the aim of politics to be the fostering of arête — human virtue or excellence.  In the 2400 or so years since Plato and Aristotle wrote on political topics, one feature has been added to their ancient script: the flourishing of women. (Actually, Plato did include it, but in a political treatise so abstract and idealized as to be impracticable.)

In the rough and tumble of the real world, a good deal of female flourishing depends on the cooperative actions of men. Without refrigerators, women would be house-bound, still stirring their cooking pots. Same goes for contraception. Not to mention the opening of respectable employment to women.

We don’t happily acknowledge these inter-dependencies. We don’t want our bluff called. That’s not the way the game is played. But the underlying preconditions are well understood and best left unmentioned.

Rape tears away that veil. The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, which aims to preserve domestic tranquility and secure the blessings of liberty – the sacred trust of government – suddenly falls away and fails. Women don’t talk about this. But I have seen the faces of fashionable women out jogging in Central Park the day after a gang rape had taken place on that very track around the reservoir. I saw the frozen fear on their faces.

What about the other suitor for our hand in the national marriage competition? He does seem to have a penchant for inflicting pain and suffering on elderly widows who want to keep their homes, where he wants to build a parking lot or a golf course. Has he ever raped a woman or menaced one to prevent public complaint? Not that I know of. One advantage of being shameless is that you don’t have to worry if someone tells on you.

That said, I have never met or heard of a man who spoke about women as this prospective suitor has done in recent months. He lashes out against specifically feminine vulnerabilities, cosmetic or hormonal. These are precisely the areas where liberated women in enlightened societies feel free of the need for male protection. He does the same with men, when he wants to beat them down. So why do I make a special to-do about his attacks on women?

Because he makes no distinction.   Around the age of twelve, boys and girls begin to notice that their old equality as playmates has undergone a change of some kind. The boys become stronger and it’s no fun to wrestle with them any more. As for girls, one’s body had been a neutral thing. Now it became a scene on which portentous dramas were to be played: of attraction, of failures to attract, of danger, of encoded signals. You couldn’t pretend to be a deer or Mowgli. You were a body bearing layers of inherited meanings.

Some of this inheritance turns out negotiable. Some of it is not. But every 12-year-old knows that it makes a difference. What does it mean that we have a candidate for the highest office in the land who does not know that?

Does he really not know? Or does he pretend not to know, so as to shirk the responsibility that every normal man feels to some degree, to be protective? The latter case is the more likely one.

Any woman who doesn’t feel alarmed by that 

is not paying close attention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, soon to appear in a revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to Coping With Men

  1. Elmer Sprague says:

    Abigail, what I’m going to write might not be for publication. Partly because my comment, though inspired by your blog, is but an aside, and partly because I’m not sure where it’s going: It seems to me that since I was a youngster, there has been a decline in decency in the United States. At home I was taught that in public, if I couldn’t say something nice to someone or about someone, I was not to say anything at all. I was also taught that one appeared in public dressed for the occasion, were it church, or job, or school, or shopping, or going downtown on Saturday night. Decent speech; decent dress. Now protesters and political candidates say anything they like, and it doesn’t have to be true and probably isn’t. As for dress, last night I bought a book at the Harvard Co–op, and the good looking young woman who took my money was wearing a top that stopped short of her navel, and her delicious flesh was visible down to the top of her pink panties, with pink showing down to the top of her low slung jeans. I am just your ordinary neighborhood lecher, and I was enthralled by what I was getting just for buying a book. Maybe I should buy another book to have the show all over again.
    I am sure there is plenty of theorizing about why there has been a decline in decency. So I won’t start on that. I’ll just say it’s a fact, and I think we all pay a price. Women perhaps more than men. I’ll also say I don’t need to hear everything that someone could say; I don’t need to see everything that someone could show me. I remember Joseph Welch saying to Senator McCarty, “Have you no decency, Sir?” Today, I think we could say that to a lot more people.
    Your loyal reader,
    Elmer

    Like

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