“For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice. Jane Austen should have laid a wreath upon the grave of Fanny Burney, and George Eliot done homage to the robust shade of Eliza Carter – the valiant old woman who tied a bell to her bedstead in order that she might wake early and learn Greek.”
“The extreme activity of mind which showed itself in the later eighteenth century among women – the talking, and the meeting, the writing of essays on Shakespeare, the translating of the classics – was founded on the solid fact that women could make money by writing. Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for. It might still be well to sneer at ‘blue stockings with an itch for scribbling,’ but it could not be denied that they could put money in their purses. Thus, toward the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses. The middle-class woman began to write.”
“That one would find any woman in that state of mind in the sixteenth century was obviously impossible. One has only to think of the Elizabethan tombstones with all those children kneeling with clasped hands, and their early deaths; and to see their houses with their dark, cramped rooms, to realise that no woman could have written poetry then.”
Modern? I was born in 1942. But things have been going downhill for quite a while now. Let me tell you about it. Today, American men are sitting in the waiting room while the women give birth to a new nation. They have taken themselves out of the conversation. For me, the abandonment started with dancing. I was often given the choice of either dancing with a woman or not dancing at all. I hate dancing with women. My boobs are big and they keep bumping up against my partner’s boobs. It’s a free country. Men don’t have to dance. But even if it’s just out of compassion, they could reach out their hand and take a whirl every once in a while without making us feel like we were forcing them to do some kind of penance. We solved the dancing problem, turned into a joke by the women who keenly felt the absence of men, with standalone dancing. If you want to dance, you go out on the floor and strut your stuff. During social dancing, you have to enter into the rhythms and style of another person – a much more daunting interaction requiring training, humility, and forgiveness. And bringing a special kind of joy. I used to tell my son “If you want to meet girls, you should take ballet.” Hahahaha. Little boys in many countries take ballet, not here. I’d like to see a football player do what Mikhail Baryshnikov could do. I was raised to be someone’s wife, and had no objections to that. But the world changed, and I had to go to work. That meant working a full day, then coming home and doing all the housework, laundry, childcare, and cooking. “Who me?” men were saying. “I don’t know how to cook.” To which my friend Rita answers, “If you know how to read, you know how to cook.” They sabotaged chores, like putting the darks with the whites in the washing machine, ruining more than one white blouse, leaving the clothes to dry in the dryer, causing them to be hopelessly wrinkled, or burning a shirt with the iron. Talk to a woman my age. She’ll tell you all about it. We have solved the problem by having nobody cook. The restaurants and takeout joints are thriving, to hell with nutrition and togetherness, not to mention financial sanity. And we solved the cleaning thing by not cleaning at all. “Come in. It’s a mess,” is the new password. Our immune systems will probably benefit. When I started dating again after two divorces, I found there was no place to meet men. The women’s magazines earnestly urged women like to me to get out of the house. “Go to the adult school. Take a ceramics class. A dancing class. A class on welding.” Trouble was that in the ceramics, dancing, and even the welding class, almost all of the participants were women. For the past few years, I have given memoir workshops in libraries – almost all women. I have joined writing groups – all women. I was part of an all-woman choir, and my church choir has three-to-one women in it. I was a college professor for eight years, from 2007-2015, and over the years, the classes became more and more female. The freshman writing class was required, so everybody had to take it, yet there were more and more women as a percentage of each class. (One memorable class contained the entire men’s soccer team, but… well, we won’t get into that. Let’s just say that I discovered how to conduct a kinetic writing class.) Even when there were men in the class they would say such things as, “I’m afraid to say what I think because I don’t want the women jumping down my throat.” I’m organizing a carpool for the kickoff of the Poor People’s Campaign on Sunday. Eighteen women and three men, all three of whom are accompanying their wives. I have sought to explain men’s absence from public community life, and have come up with a couple of explanations which are entirely unscientific, but satisfactory to me. American men have a serious case of performance anxiety. For men my age, they had not only to perform in the bedroom, but they had to support their families. Braggadocio does not put food on the table. When social dancing, they were required to “lead” – failure was on them. I would put down the college freshman’s fear that women might “jump down his throat” to performance anxiety. A young man should be able to stand up for himself against even an onslaught of criticism, as Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, and Donald Trump are showing us. You don’t have to be insulting to stand up for yourself. These young men were afraid. When I started dating again at sixty, I discovered two kinds of contemporary men; the ones who were still living in 1959 and the ones who, like all their women contemporaries, had been forced to change their expectations and behavior with the times. At one high school reunion, the [male] organizer in charge of music refused to play any music from Elvis Presley on. We were dancing to “Earth Angel” and Perry Como. Men of my generation were raised to be providers and community networkers – think golf club and Rotary Club. Over the years, their wives went out to work, but they chugged along as a family provider, and nobody stopped them from going to the Rotary Club. These men jumped in front of me to open doors. I appreciate gallantry, but theirs was a gallantry that suggested that I couldn’t get through a door unless there was a man there to help me. It was a matter of attitude. I have no problem with someone calling me “honey” or “girl,” but sentences like, “She’s a nice gal,” sound archaic to me. I would have trouble sitting across the breakfast table with someone who uttered such sentences without realizing the baggage they carried. “I respect women” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and it took time to figure out what it meant to each man. My first husband did nothing around the house. I can’t tell you how thoroughly he did nothing. So before I married my second husband, a great respecter of women, I insisted on a solid agreement that would free me from some household duties – we were both working full-time, and it was only fair. We wrote down a series of household chores, divided them up, and signed the agreement. He was on board, “one hundred percent.” Then one day, after he had finished his three chores, he announced he was taking the kids to play baseball for a while. “But who’s going to sweep the porch? We need to clean out the refrigerator!” “I’ve done what I agreed to do,” he said and was out the door. It’s those dozen extra things that you can’t put on a list that keep you from having a fun game of baseball instead of sweeping the porch. He had not thought past that list. It’s a matter of attitude. So here we are today. Women are protesting, facing accusers in court, coming out publicly with their stories, complaining to their bosses though it might cost them their jobs, fielding painstaking parsing of what constitutes “harassment” – does it count if your boss just grabs your butt? while the men sit in their chairs and supervise. Sexual harassment and abuse is not a women’s problem. It is a men’s problem. There should be men’s marches, men’s unique hats, men’s tee shirts, and men’s testimony in court. We need a Truth and Reconciliation commission. My partner abandoned me when I was pregnant at 18 and the partners of numerous acquaintances who were in the same situation abandoned them, too. The men walked away. “That’s something for the girls to take care of.” And still, and still, and still, it is the women who are wearing their little pink hats, traveling to marches, testifying, railing, demanding respect and dignity. Where are the men? Are men taking on the job of escorting women to abortion clinics? They’re half the reason they’re there. Male doctors have not spoken up in their hospitals so that abortion can be moved to where it belongs, in hospitals. Leaving them in clinics makes the clinics and the workers in them vulnerable. If they were working in a hospital, there would be a measure of privacy and dignity. The doctors have allowed themselves to be intimidated by blowhards who don’t want the taint of abortion around them, though the one-third of American couples who have had abortions includes members of every demographic, including evangelical Christians and Catholics. In today's news, the female Olympic gymnasts are just halfway through the roster facing their abuser, Dr. Nassar in court. They are the public face of his abuse. Where are the men who were complicit, who covered up the girls’ stories, who promoted and voted for Nassar to join their boards of directors, who knew what was going on but did not send another woman into the examination room to protect the girls -- they were just girls, 12, 13, even younger? But to begin with, would some men please join our church choir?