I am of that generation. I went from radio to television, from party-line phones to poolside portables and from typewriters to computers. I flew prop, drove cars with the gearshift on the steering column, remember running boards and pressure cookers, hanging the wash on the line, shoveling coal into the furnace, seeing the ice man (not to mention the seltzer man) cometh, doctors who made house calls, ballparks with grass, nights without air conditioning, long-distance calls that were an event and when women -- no matter what their age -- were called girls. I am of THAT generation, a wan hand reaching up through the avalanche of every technological and social revolution of the last 50 years. Like the Abbe Sieye`s when asked how he spent the French Revolution, the best I can say is ... I survived.
And I have assimilated most of these changes. Except for one -- the one wrought by feminism. It has been 25 years since that one hit -- and it keeps on hitting. For the most part, I approve of it, have enlisted in it, see it accomplishing almost nothing but good. But my approval, and that of a lot of men, I suspect, is more intellectual than emotional, rather like an appreciation of someone else's religion.
I sometimes think of men, especially men of my generation, as being like dogs: domesticated, groomed, given names and even provided beds but who nevertheless sometimes howl at the moon or go for the throat of a squirrel. Twenty-five years after the first shots of the feminist revolution, I still sometimes hear the call of the wild.
It is 1957 and I am in the seventh grade. This is a big day, a rite-of-passage day. The boys are being marched off to shop, the girls to cooking. No one asks if any of the boys want to cook or if any of the girls want to learn a bit of carpentry. We just go. It seems natural, ordained, the way God wanted it -- until later, of course, when he changed both His sex and Her intentions.
My twin sister goes off to make toast (the first lesson), and I am instructed in the mysteries of planing a board. I am on a certain track. I will have a job, maybe a career. My sister will have a job, but no career except that of marriage -- housewife and mother. No one questions this -- not my sister who, it turned out, had a career -- nor my mother, who always worked, nor (I bet) any of the other girls in the class, including Judy Levine, now Judith Lichtman, executive director of the Women's Legal Defense Fund and a foremost feminist. Let the record show that as the girls were being led off to cooking, the future Judith Lichtman said nothing. I was there. I am, as I said, of THAT generation.
From the start, I took the express to feminism's Finland Station. I loved the very idea of it -- the concept, the notion, the precise "rightness" of what it was striving for: equality. Yes, that was it -- equality. And so what if female feminists had one view of equality and I had my own? I shared their aspirations. Their enemy, the men who locked them out of jobs or barred them from the links on weekends, guys who thought of women as possessions and who have all sort of silly codes of conduct ("My wife will never work") -- what did I have in common with them?
Supposedly, I was a member of the white-male ruling class, but if so, membership in this club seemed to be nothing but one obligation after another, with the initiation then being a bit of combat in Vietnam. In fact, it seemed to me that being a man wasn't all that it was cracked up to be. It was a treadmill of commuter trains, hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and a lifetime of obligation and responsibility -- a war, a job, a house, a family.
It is 1958. The beach club is called El Patio. Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme entertain at night. I have worked this and other clubs while in high school and college. I am a counterman, a sandwich man, a busboy and a waiter. I am a chair boy and a cabana boy and I park cars. The money is good, the work is hard. Not a single woman works at any of these jobs. But, during the week, women are who we work for. Monday through Friday, the men are in the city, working mostly in the garment business. The women are at the beach. I bring drinks to their cabanas. I set up their chairs on the sand. I sweep out, set up, clean up. The women are luscious, tanned, slim. They are fully employed at being nothing other than women. They have nails and hair, skin and bodies. Each is an enterprise. Each has to be colored or tanned, slimmed or clothed. I hate them. I love them.
On the weekends, husbands arrive. They are pale and paunchy, weary around the eyes, their bodies heading downward, as if pulled by the center of the earth. Ailments attack them like mosquitoes and dominate their conversation. The air is fetid with ulcers and coronaries. The handball court is a killing field, and bankruptcies mysteriously strike the least likely. At midseason, sometimes, lockers and cabanas are abandoned, and we all know enough not to allow anyone to run too big a tab.
I think there are two classes in the world: men and women. They are not genders to me, not only genders anyway, but really social classes like servants and masters in England. The women, by virtue of birth, don't have to do anything. They can spend their lives preening and shopping, and this gives them immunity from death. At the beach club, only the men die. Never the women. It's always Mister So-and-So from Cabana Court 4 who died. "From what?" someone asks. From being a man, I say.
Yes. Of course, there's resentment here. I know that in some cases the women were doing the only thing their husbands allowed them to do. And, besides, these were particular women, married to particular men. My mother was not like them. She worked. My friends' mothers were not like that, either. Most of them worked . . . At times . . . When they had to. But here was the thing: Those women, those beach club women, they were the ones we were supposed to marry when we got SUCCESSFUL.
And so, to be perfectly truthful, when feminists started talking about equality, I said (to myself) fine. Great. Now you, too, can get drafted and commute to work and be pale in the summer and pop Gelusil and clean out your locker in the middle of the night because the midsummer payment is due. Welcome to equality.
But there was something else as well. Deep down I sensed that feminism would aid me. I could use it. It meant, among other things, that all the pre-feminist silliness would disappear. It would mean -- it would have to mean -- that if I were taking out some girl whose father owned a skyscraper and who had been to Europe in her junior year and was forever prattling about French men and just about daring me to order wine so I could make a fool of myself -- it would mean, it OUGHT to mean, that it was not written anywhere that I had to pay for dinner.
And it meant -- it ought to mean -- that I did not have to be the sole provider for my family. It might mean a kind of freedom, a true sharing of financial responsibility. It somehow never occurred to me that things might get out of control, that the revolution could not be contained -- that it would rush beyond the barriers of natural childbirth (push, push), which, come to think of it, became a kind of metaphor for the whole movement. Here we were, we men, sharing in the childbirth experience -- lying down on the floor next to mounds of pregnant women, pretending that we were in this thing, too, expressing our good intentions in the basement of some church, acting as if childbirth could in fact be shared.
We were oh-so-helpful. An army of us, the new breed, descended on the Safeway and we would, should duty call, stay home with the child from time to time. Fathers were as important as mothers, we proclaimed, and women were entitled to their careers, too.
But it was all "natural childbirth," a pretense, because the shopping list had been prepared by our wives. Suzanne Levine, a founding editor of Ms. magazine, pointed this out to me. Most men were helpers, not sharers, she said. Try making up the shopping list yourself, she told me. That's sharing. That's planning the menu for every meal, for running through every meal in your head, for taking into account who likes meat and who hates fish, who is allergic to what and which child is suddenly a vegetarian -- Hare Krishna and Oy Gevalt!
Okay. But if men helped and didn't share when it came to all the things that women traditionally did, then we men thought (quietly and to ourselves) that women played the same game. Theirs was mock careerism, the pretense that they were going all the way, having a job like a man. Maybe this is what women thought, but men thought they knew better. No matter what a woman did, no matter what a woman said, her career was -- to a man -- helping, not sharing. All those working couples, all those tales about the man sacrificing his career for hers -- all of that was one sweet lie.
In the entire United States, there was not a single man who did not know fundamentally and without even thinking about it that the financial well-being of his family was HIS responsibility -- that he could never quit, never take time off to have a baby, never decide that raising children was more important than punching a time clock. We men, after all, measure ourselves by careers, by our jobs, by how much we earn. We are what we do for a living.
Deep down, we never accepted women as comrades in the combat of work. They could cut and run, have a baby, announce that biology had come knocking -- that they had been abducted by their own genes, forced against their will to abandon their career -- a career, incidentally, that had become a drudge, that had run out of steam, that had become a job, that had become a matter of taking commuter trains and being passed over for promotion. Mother Nature had intervened, but she seemed, sometimes, to sound like Tokyo Rose: Desert. Surrender. Join a beach club.
It's 1976 or thereabouts. I am having lunch with a high-ranking, exalted editor of The Washington Post. It's time, once again, to discuss my career, and I am working my way through a chef's salad with aplomb, when in comes yet another editor, somewhat less exalted than the one I am with, who has taken to lunch a woman who had that day been promoted -- to a job I wanted.
"We needed a woman," explained my editor. I nod. I pretend to understand. Yes. The Cause. I act honored to have been chosen for this sacrifice, like some Inca about to have his heart cut out, thrilled to have the job I want go to a woman because she is a woman, to lend myself and the only life I have to the company's effort to have precisely the correct number of women in every department. And never mind that this particular woman is a graduate of a fancy college, that she is rich, that she was born with lots of advantages and that I, in case you're the least bit interested, attended college at night, worked during the day, was an undergraduate for something like nine years, got to class after a full day's work and failed art appreciation because when the lights went out and the slide projector went on, an entire day's activity settled on my eyelids and pushed them closed. Yes, a woman, I nod. Great choice, I agree. Golly, is there anything else I can do for The Cause?
Yes. Of course, There's resentment here and criminal oversimplification. Much has changed. Probably economics -- an era of inflation, the demand for workers of all sorts -- had more to do with putting women into the workplace than ideology, but the ideology was nonetheless important. It may well have turned economic necessity into political virtue. But something happened on the way to sexual equality. If it was liberating for women, it was even more liberating for men. We were off the hook.
"What has 25 years of the women's movement meant to men?" I asked my friends. The advances made by women -- wasn't it a wonderful thing? Of course, there was some griping and some joking about feminists in combat boots, but all in all, the men pronounced the era a remarkable success. In fact, they were much more celebratory than women to whom I put the same question. It was as I suspected: 25 years of women's liberation had liberated men.
"From what?" you might ask. Well, primarily from obligation. The singular success of the women's movement was to demolish the stereotype of women as dependent. The phrase "women and children first" comes to mind, not as a priority for abandoning ship but, really, as a mindset. They both needed protection. They both were inept. Neither could be relied upon to be logical, rational, not to mention ruthless, which is what it took to be in business. They were both wards -- helpless and, of course, innocent.
Naturally, none of this applied to particular women -- mothers, sisters, wives or girlfriends -- just women in general. In this, they were like blacks of old, stereotyped as being childlike and often depicted that way in the movies. And just as the Civil War freed the slaveholder from the obligations of slavery, so did the women's movement free men from their sexual and economic obligations. They no longer have to be the sole providers for their families, no longer have to pay for any and all dates, no longer have to be quaintly chivalrous about sex since it, too, is a female entitlement -- and men can abandon women with abandon since they can make their own way in the world.
As a man, I have to wonder at some of the changes. I hear women denounce alimony as sexist and, of course, I agree. I hear women talk about sex the way men are supposed to (but almost never do) and frankly acknowledge a sex drive that from around 1945 to 1965 was in deep Doris Day remission. I listen to all this and I have to conclude that this is the most wonderful of all revolutions, maybe the only one where the ancien re'gime (men) reaped most of the benefits, where the idea was not to overturn or smash the establishment but to join it -- have women become more like men.
Trouble is, somewhere along the line the dogma of equality -- of equal opportunity -- got perverted into something else: sameness. Women and men, given a few minor exceptions, were supposed to be the same.
Well, they are not. They don't look the same, they don't act the same, they don't age the same, and they don't talk the same. I don't want to get into what is cultural and what is genetic, but it seemed to be the presumption of feminists that culture was always the villain. But a parent, not to mention a sociobiologist, watching infants strut their gender stuff had to question some of that. It seemed something other than culture was at work. At any rate, a reappraisal is now underway.
I wonder, for instance, if something inherent in men makes them less communicative than women, less able to say how they feel. The men I know, the men women tell me about, see no advantage in a Gary Cooperish silence and recognize the importance of communication in maintaining a relationship. Yet almost to a man, they are failures at saying what they feel, even sometimes at knowing what they feel. They are like some primitive fish, looking from the sea to the land, wanting to take that next evolutionary step but lacking little legs.
Those legs, those little legs -- they are my metaphor for a kind of male striving, an attempt to make the body or the genes (or is it the hormones?) catch up with or match the intellect. They are what's lacking when a man of my generation nods and agrees that a woman is a person and not a sex object. They are what's missing when men mouth the rhetoric of feminism but then in a burst of irrationality take up with some 19-year-old and find themselves using the word "like" much too often. It's like they're missing their, like, little legs.
Two decades of feminism have taken their toll, and some men, maybe men of my generation in particular, reel from the vertigo of challenged assumptions and constant reproofs. Feminism seems constantly to be nagging, wagging a finger, saying don't see what you see, don't feel what you feel. But sex and sex roles are like boulders, and it will take eons of pounding to erode them. It's not surprising that for some of the society not much has changed -- and even where the changes have been welcomed, they are only superficial. We are talking, after all, not just about some ideology called feminism but of the way men and women relate to one another -- of that silly course from college, "Marriage and the Family." Change is glacial.
But, for me at least, there is no turning back. I believe that what is good and worthy in feminism will be retained. What is faddish and silly, not to mention what might be called counter-hormonal, will soon be forgotten. In the meantime, it hardly seems too early to say that feminism has already made a difference, that it has caused me and men like me to question all sorts of assumptions, to say, yes, that a particular woman can be a combat soldier -- or promoted to a job I want. Feminism means, among other things, being receptive to exceptions.
On vacation, I am reading a local newspaper-a weekly. It says the son of a local personage has married the daughter or a local personage. The name of the son is given but not that of the daughter. I recoil. I seethe. I think of writing a letter to the editor and whacking him on the side of the head with my feminist purse.
Outside and down the road a bit is a cemetery, old and weathered. I read the tombstones. The men die sufficient unto themselves. But Elizabeth, who died in 1861, was the widow of Jesse, and Mary was the wife of Frank, and Charity was the wife of Rensselaer. No one, I think, would put up such a tombstone nowadays, and once, of course, I would not have noticed if they had. But I am a changed man, a man increasingly uncertain of his certainties, born in one era, raised in another -- a man of THAT generation.
Richard Cohen is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post.