We don't generally get lessons in new math from writers. Writers work with words. Even the ones who get paid by the line have a bit of trouble with their multiplication tables.
But last week at the PEN International Writers Congress in New York, women writers including Betty Friedan, Gail Sheehy, Grace Paley and Margaret Atwood added up the panelists for the meeting and then divided the total by two: two sexes. There were 120 men speaking to the group and only 20 women.
When Friedan went to deliver the imbalance sheet to PEN President Norman Mailer, he reportedly laughed and said, "Oh, who's counting?"
Numbers, numbers, numbers. What a bore. The PEN conference was concerned with such lofty ideas as imagination, the writer and the state. Here was a group of small-minded accountants, literary inchworms measuring the marigold.
Who's counting? It was, of course, the minority who were counting. It always is.
Most of the women I know today would dearly like to use their fingers and toes for some activity more enthralling than counting. They have been counting for so long. But the peculiar problem of the new math is that every time we stop adding, somebody starts subtracting. At the very least (the advanced students will understand this) the rate of increase slows.
When the Reagan administration stops counting female Cabinet members, the number goes down from three to one. When those in charge stop making a conscious effort to add women to a board of directors or a faculty or a firm, they unconsciously stop adding. The minority members of any group or profession have two answers: they can keep score or they can lose.
The woman in the board room or on the committee -- two if they are lucky -- is left holding the calculator. She can risk being labeled petty and tiresome or she can stand by while other women get eliminated from the equation.
There is a new philosophy that comes with the new math. The mid-'80s have been cheerfully designated the "post- civil-rights era." Some in the establishment have declared "victory" over discrimination, the way others once urged us to declare victory in Vietnam so we could leave the field of combat.
They say that women and blacks can now rise on merit. We won't insult them anymore, we won't injure their mental health and self-esteem by considering them in percentages instead of unique digits. But by some mysterious calculation, the same men who invited women in because they "needed one," now find it remarkably difficult to identify women who "merit" inclusion. To wit, Norman Mailer: "More men are intellectuals first, so there was a certain natural tendency to pick more men than women."
Forgive me if I step ggerly from the turf of Mailer to that of Ed Meese. A more deadly version of new math is now on the White House blackboard. Today if employers with federal contracts ask "who's counting?" they are told that it's the government. Under affirmative-action orders, 125,000 employers have to meet "goals and timetables" for hiring women and minorities.
The government is an easy grader. In 1983, the Labor Department found that companies were reaching only 10 percent of their goals. But only 15 companies have been barred from government work in the past decade.
Not surprisingly, the best hiring records were held by companies that were getting their records checked. Now the attorney general, among others, says the government should lay down its arms, or rather its fingers and toes.
According to his new math, goals equal quotas; affirmative action equals discrimination. It's enough to make you math-phobic.
If we lived in a post-civl-rights era, I would turn over my Arabic numbers and Roman numerals to Meese. I know no woman, no minority who doesn't want to be accepted as an individual rather than as a class action. But in large measure, women and minorities still have only two choices: affirmative action or reaction. The sums can come up positive or negative, plus or minus.
Numbers may not be as eloquent as literary or political ideas. Goalkeepers and timetable makers may not always be welcome. But from PEN to Pennsylvania Avenue, somebody has to keep counting.