Common Wisdom: Women and Children First

I don’t remember when it first dawned on me that I really lucked out being born female.

Maybe it occurred during the oppressive humidity of a New Jersey summer, as I played with paper dolls on our screened porch, a place ringed by rhododendrons which, even when the temperature sizzled, provided a cool refuge. From time to time Mother came out to sit on the rattan couch, sipping ice tea. It wasn’t until six o’clock, carrying his tie and jacket, shirt drenched, that my father made it to the porch. Observing their roles, I didn’t need coaching to perceive that Mother had the better deal.

This conviction solidified in winter, when I commuted to a private school some distance from home, necessitating a substantial walk to the bus, and another at the other end. I’d leave home bundled, never successfully, against the penetrating January cold, my father having shoveled out the driveway an hour earlier. As she served Wheatena, Mother rhapsodized about the snowy wonderland beyond the window — not required to brave its unfortunate side effects, which regularly assaulted commuters with bone chilling air. I recall feeling sorry for all men of the world, whose daily struggles with climate would not end with marriage. Alternately wilting with humidity or shivering in sleet was male destiny, and I thanked the genetic grab bag which spared me such a fate.

Further benefits of being female were brought acutely to my attention in my teens. If a boy liked a girl he necessarily revealed that affection by having to phone for a date. Girls could fancy a guy without facing the humiliation of public rejection. Not for our ears lame lies about “Gee, no, I have to go to Grandma’s that night.” Protecting pride is half any battle, and we had it made. Our secret remained safe and uncompromised later on at dances, when boys were routinely betrayed by biology. It was hard for them to keep enthusiasm for a partner unnoticed.

Statistics said we lived longer. Not even factored into these evaluations was the obvious reason: we didn’t have to go to war. We knitted scarves and bought bonds and wrote letters. But it was the boys who had to face combat, subjected to discomfort, deprivation, brutality, and, potentially, death. Once again I experienced relief that chance rendered me a girl. I felt overwhelming compassion for those who had to go, for men in general. In terms of escaping distress or imminent disaster, the chivalrous imperative “women and children first!” reverberated down the decades. I felt blessed by good fortune and guilty for the gratuitous security it delivered.

In the work force before marriage, and even after marriage before I had my first baby, deference to women was de rigueur. Doors were held, off color humor or language aborted when we approached, and every company for which I worked had a couch in the Ladies Lounge, in the event one of us felt the need to lie down. If men were ill, they were expected to tough it out. Everywhere I looked, cards were stacked in favor of women.

It struck me, therefore, as certifiable lunacy when assorted feminists suddenly fulminated about the wretchedness of our condition. Men, they thundered in books and at lecterns, have it all. Women are second class citizens. Malcontented with their lot, this collection of complainers demanded that women had a right to do everything men did, not excluding the thrill of going to war. Frenetic assertions of victimhood, in the face of the contradictory reality I lived as a woman myself, affected me as grotesque. They still do.

It is expected that everyone supports the plank of “equal pay for equal work.” As a matter of fact, I support it with reservation, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with gender. Justice seems to require that salary be parceled out as it is needed, and the principle is Christian charity not Marxist rhetoric. I actually translated this ethic into practice when I replaced in a job a man transferred, a man who was the sole support of his aged mother. Management wanted to pay me less than it paid him. At the time, I had no obligations; money earned was quickly exchanged for clothes, or entertainment. The idea that I, preoccupied with self, should be entitled to the same amount of money as my predecessor, struggling to pay his own and his mother’s bills, seemed the height of inequity. Without hesitation or tantrum, I accepted the lower salary. No feminist today would countenance for a minute my attitude or my acquiescence. Granted, the paradigm flunks manageability as an operable business procedure. But if we are going to get riled up about what is “fair” in terms of financial compensation, it is compassionate discrimination for which I would personally go to bat.

The primary feminist crusade about equal pay quickly metastasized into claims for all kinds of “rights,” descending even to the embarrassing level of petulance about exclusion from male clubs. It was the Catholic protestors in the hive, however, berating as they did the hierarchy and the Pope himself, for their bogus epiphany that the Church is steeped in sexism, which finally put an end to my tolerance and triggered a correlative fury matching anything they waved on placards. Their allegations that liturgical use of the word “men” was gender specific, and that a male priesthood indicated disdain for women, were distortions that betrayed real psychosis. One is on a sabbatical from sanity to deny that the Catholic Church holds women in any but the highest esteem. The Blessed Virgin, Joan of Arc, Therese of Liseux, Bernadette of Lourdes, and many others get as much — and in the case of Mary, more — attention, devotion, and “ink” as the likes of Thomas More, Francis of Assisi, et al. Moreover that the Son of God elected to live life as a celibate male, and that priests in the Latin Rite are celibate males, strikes the objective observer not as sexism but as an obvious attempt faithfully to emulate historical reality.

Wanting to be a man, wanting to do things traditionally male, reveals a neurotic devaluation of one’s own sex. Minus fancy window dressing and tortured logic, the movement incarnates the tired cliché about greener grass. Freud, encountering random female discontent, attributed the problem to phallus envy, the organ arbitrarily designated to symbolize power. Today, women are in positions of power, from heads of state to heads of companies. If we want to, we get to do all sorts of things, from lugging bags of cement on construction jobs to fighting four alarm fires. Exemptions from harsh, dangerous, or unsavory conditions extended to us (by men) during more enlightened days, when gender difference was respected, have been largely rescinded (by women).

So now it’s Dad, house-husband, having ice tea on the screened porch, and Mom battling the elements as she struggles towards the 7:32. And what has this brought? It’s produced an increasing flood of articles about women breaking under dual role pressures, handed her by a coterie of disturbed feminists. Scrapping her traditional role and her traditional perks, women wind up exhausted, confused, and frustrated. Women are more content today than yesterday? Marriages more solid? Families more intact? The exchange was beneficial? She is the winner in this revised script? Which sex, in fact, profits most from women in the marketplace, instructed to resent the confines of home? May I have the envelope, please?


  • B. F. Smith

    B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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