“The Lure of Androgyny” is the title of an article I just read.  It reports that the trend to downplay biological differences between the sexes is now world-wide.  This is different from giving women equal opportunity.  More like:


The writer, Mary Eberstadt, gives many illustrations.

Of late, physical qualifications for serving in the military, the police and fire departments have been (as Eberstadt puts it tactfully) “altered.”

Yeah, altered.  Having myself been caught in a very bad city fire, where one woman died, I would not have liked to peer down at the floor of flames below, only to see a fire-woman climbing toward me up the rescue ladder.

In the entertainment fields and the arts, prizes are no longer awarded to actors and actresses.  Everybody’s an actor now, Hamlet and Ophelia both.  (Okay, as long as she can drown like she used to.)  Pop music is following suit, but I don’t know enough about that to recognize Eberstadt’s examples.

Blue jeans (as it happens, my garment of choice) have been unisex for decades of course, but now high fashion designers are turning out unisex outfits for every occasion.  Could be cute; what do I know?

Bathrooms are going unisex.  (No need to go there; I have a whole column about the effects on my bladder.)

So are sports, to the manifest disadvantage of women athletes.  (One of the beauties of sport is its truthfulness.  The question of who won and who lost can’t be fudged.)

Why did all this happen, some of it fairly recently?  The writer offers her own explanations.

For one thing, the sexual revolution – from Woodstock to now — urged women to make unencumbered “pleasure” their objective.  Make love like a man – you can do it, girl!  This purportedly liberating desideratum came with a tacit social threat:

“if you, little girl, are looking for security,

trust, respect, etcetera,

 you’re probably INHIBITED.

And God forbid you should be inhibited.”

Another factor, possibly related, was the proliferation of single parents, usually female.  What with one thing and another, women had to learn to defend themselves and boys, raised without protective fathers, grew up without the influence of that role model.

When Jerry and I fell in love, one of the things he said to me was that he wanted to protect me.

Protect me? I thought indignantly. 

Why would I need protection?

I’m a New York girl!

In the years we’ve been married, I couldn’t begin to enumerate the times when Jerry’s world-wise, steady, intelligent protection proved to be absolutely necessary for me.

Eberstadt’s article also covers the corresponding pressures on men and boys to act less obviously male.  In the past year, The New York Review of Books reviewed a book that dealt with the effects on boys of this new devaluing of maleness.  Although the review avoided polemic and dealt tactfully with this delicate subject, it must have drawn some push-back.  This in turn prompted the management to issue a formal apology.  Which in turn led the staff to protest the apology as censorship.  (Naturally, I’m with the staff.)

Chewing on all this, I retrieved the essay, “And God Created Woman,” by the widely respected and influential French Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas.  He is commenting on a rather intricate rabbinic discussion of the relations between the sexes.  The upshot, for Levinas, is that the highest relation between men and women is as one human being to another – NOT as man to woman.

Here he sums up his view.

Woman is not at the summit of the spiritual life

the way Beatrice is for Dante.

It is not the “Eternal Feminine”

which leads us to the heights.

Hmn.  One human being to another?  One reason that a truthful woman who’s been victimized by a man will be reluctant to come forward is that her very complaint draws unwanted attention to her vulnerability.  The woman hopes that her complaint will summon gallant men to defend her honor.

What she fears is the debased response to her report that she’s been treated as a target.

The debased man will treat her complaint

as a prompt

 to target her again.

The vulnerability of women has not gone away.  What has been discouraged and derided is the urge to respond to that vulnerability honorably.

What’s the moral?  Debased homo sapiens sapiens will see in weakness the opportunity to exploit and misuse it.

By contrast, seen through the lens of ideality, vulnerability prompts protectiveness.  Ideality prompts even more than that.  The poet put the matter plainly:

I could not love thee, Dear, so


Loved I not Honour more. 

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, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. 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 and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( 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. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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