27 January, 2013

Being Female, Being Soldiers, Being Alone

This is a complicated topic for me so I’m going to mull rather than follow my usual M.O. and pronounce! I’m really interested in knowing what people think – and please, a real conversation, not a bandwagon holler from one POV or the other. I’d have written this as an op ed piece for one or more of the places where my writing usually appears, but I just didn’t feel as though I’d sorted things out enough myself to opine with any real clarity so here I am: thinking aloud more than saying anything definite, setting a few thoughts down.

From Elizabeth Wurtzel’s most recent nerve-irritating, naval-gazing rant on one end and the lifting of the ban on women in combat at the other, and Ann Sheybani’s musing on why men don’t want you to kick their ass, I’ve been dwelling on the matter of what it means to be female in America, a very different variety of female than is found, say, in Sri Lanka.

The Pentagon ruling, in particular, has made me think deeply about what is expected of women – which is very different from what they are physically capable of doing should the need arise. I acknowledge that there are some who agree with Loudon Wainwright III and the sentiments expressed in his classic, ‘Men,’ (listen below), but I wonder if they are the majority. Maybe they are.

NPR has a quick, five-point run down on the basics of the ruling here, so I won’t go into the technicalities around the decision, I am more interested in talking about what our collective consciousness is about women, particularly as it relates to their sense of worth and the realization of their potential.

I’ve been following the posts following Wurtzel’s piece on Facebook, where 40 something, serially heart-broken women claim she is articulating their particular angst, and where the vast majority of women simply want people like Wurtzel to quit whining about their bourgeois troubles. Elsewhere, there are people screaming about how women in combat positions will have to deal with having to relieve themselves in public, and others – mostly women already in combat – swearing that they have what it takes to fulfill their mission in the military.

In my piece for VQR on feminism I spoke about what it meant to grow up in a culture that expected everything from girls/women – an “everything” that was large enough to include both professional success and a joyous embrace of femininity. And though I take exception with some of what Ann Sheybani’s advocacy, (mostly because it is a predominantly heterosexual dealing with of our gender), I understand exactly what she is talking about. I can find a stool and climb up to fetch myself some vast tin of, say, olive oil from the upper reaches of a supermarket shelf, but I routinely glance around and ask for help from the nearest guy (or a taller woman). If I rent a car and cannot figure out the half a dozen new-fangled operations, I find a guy who can do it for me. A full 100% of the time the men to whom I turn for help oblige with charm and a certain self-conscious delight. I am pretty sure it is not that different from the happy feeling I get when a guy turns to me and says “which shirt do you think might look better with this tie?” When a man runs ahead to hold a door open for me and I turn to smile in thanks, I know there is a moment of mutual recognition that we are both playing a role that is as natural as breathing – where I am grateful for being cared for, and he is grateful for the ability to be a caregiver. And it lasts even if I keep walking on and hold the next door open for him.

We talk so much about the fact that there is violence perpetrated against women and yet we seem, as a culture, more often than not, to ask men not to treat us with any gentleness. To be saying, I can look after myself, you don’t need to. I wonder if this world view reduces us, more than it ever has before, to being simply bodies with female parts, rather than human beings with a feminine air, an air that softens the eye of the beholder and thereby protects us from the body with male parts?

Okay, so I know that all sounds very old-fashioned, Southern-belle, conservative, Republican – none of which I am, ack ack – but I hope that I’m getting close to getting at what I’m thinking here. And before somebody starts throwing the phrase “blame the victim” at me, let me categorically state that I am a strong advocate of all of our usual progressive causes surrounding violence against women in any form.

Some things to ponder: many American men of my generation married non-American women; many women of my generation remain terrifyingly accomplished, impeccably turned out, and alone; a disproportionate number of men end up unhappily married to dreadfully shallow women who are, nonetheless, undoubtedly female; the number of wonderful men married to equally wonderful women is alarmingly low. It’s a WTF moment. And it is particularly true for the young girls and boys whom we are raising right now, the ones who will go off into the future imagining that, somewhere down the line, they will be able to make the right partnership (whatever their sexual orientation), with the right person, that it will all just “happen” because it should, even though nearly everything we are teaching them to be right now stacks the odds against that eventuality.

I’m thinking also about two guys I know, Shann Ray, and Elliott Woods. Shann’s reflection on the women he is surrounded by, for Poets and Writers, captures some of the what I imagine “femaleness” means to a man. And Elliott (who served in the US military and has since returned to cover the war in its aftermath), and I have had many conversations about American masculinity, what has become of it, a conversation that skirts (sorry) the issue of what has become of American femininity. Both of these guys are men among men: solidly in thrall of women, appreciative of their immeasurable gifts and strengths, yet also aware of what they, as men, bring to the table, a warm, care-giving, courageousness that is as humble before fragility as it is brave before challenge.

It makes me think about war. About women heaving 200 pound men fallen in battle back to safety as a way of life, not in a time of dire necessity. About men fighting to “protect a homeland,” yet wondering (setting aside the political discussion of wars and invasions undertaken on a whim), what there is to protect if it is nothing more than themselves. It makes me think of the kids that Sonia Nazario speak of in her book Enrique’s Journey, the ones who say, repeatedly, “yes, she can send us money, but we’d rather have our mother with us here.” About what we create as a culture when we say all of can do everything, yet forget that if all of us do everything then there really is no need for the creation of meaningful relationships with each other, or for the establishment and nurturing of a collective community to which we bring what small or great part it is in us to bring to it.

It makes me think about an exchange with an old friend who has been undergoing a lot of turmoil who said, when I congratulated her on her strength, how tired she was of being strong, how ready she was to embrace that part of her that was fragile and have someone else (in this case her partner), carry her through the tough times. It makes me think of the junior prom, and the beautiful, smart, absolutely amazing girls who went alone, and the equally wonderful boys who also went alone, because the girls did not know how to let the boys know they cared about being asked, and the boys were too intimidated to do the asking of girls who never looked like they needed anything from anybody that they couldn’t get for themselves.

So there’s my thinking for this Sunday. How about you?

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

9 Responses to “Being Female, Being Soldiers, Being Alone”

  1. Shann Ray says:

    Your line of thought and the power and elegance of the heart you give to the world heals us all, heals our culture, our gendered uniqueness, and our good and hopeful desire for one another as women and men. Thank you Ru!

    I’m reminded of a few circumstances that among so many others, have informed my life with women.

    I hope this passage from an essay I wrote on the masculine and the feminine is an affirmation of the clarion call you give us as men and women:

    One could say an extreme mediocrity exists in much of the masculine in America today, characterized by emptiness, impoverished relational capacity, an overblown or under-developed sense of self, and a life with others that is often devoid of meaning. Such men are filled of things like excess television, excess media, excess sexual focus, emotional shallowness, and the man’s agenda at the expense of others. No words for feelings. Violence. Privilege for privilege sake, which results in decadence, and in the end decay, and finally death. The Western world is currently experiencing this decadence, decay, and death. Carl Jung gave a lucid and fear-invoking expression of the masculine and the feminine. In Jung’s conception the masculine is symbolized by the logos, which he referred to as the power to make meaning, to be meaningful, and to be experienced as meaningful by loved ones and by the collective humanity around us. Not the super-rational Western man, incapable of emotion and in fact regret, but a man who lives well, loves well, and is well loved. A question then rises, how many men do you know who are experienced as meaningful in their relationships with women, with their children, with others?

    Now this brings me, in a postmodern sense, to the good involved in multiple views, and to the Jesuit and Quaker notions of the need for persuasion rather than coercion, listening rather than over-talking, and the idea that among many good possibilities the mature person seeks ultimate good. We uphold Jung’s typology as well as the current complexities that exist in human relations by noticing that all of us have both masculine and feminine within us and the extent to which we hide or subdue either of these, we harm ourselves and others.

    Jung conceived of the feminine as the eros, but not the blown-out glammed and glitzed porn culture of American media and overblown masculine agendas. Rather, he conceptualized the eros as the womblike existence that gives peace, the life-giving sacrificial essence willing to undergo almost anything in order to preserve life, the wild mystery at odds with all who might try to come against the the child, the family, or the future. For me, Mochis comes to mind, the Cheyenne woman warrior whose ferocity is legendary. After the Sand Creek Massacre in the late 1800s in which US Cavalry slaughtered the Cheyenne, Mochis took up the axe and fought as a warrior and killed many for eleven years until she was captured and shipped by train to Florida where she was incarcerated by the United States Army as a Prisoner of War. My mother comes to mind, with her bravery and her heart of forgiveness, and my wife with her vivacity and wisdom. Not to mention my Czech grandmother. In our family, we call her the Great One.
    I think we can see today how often the masculine has tried to subdue and in fact overtake the feminine. The masculine is infatuated with a pseudo eros, an eros he himself has pumped up to proportions that amount to oblivion. That brand of masculine cannot face its own feminine, for to do so would shatter him and he would then have to integrate the feminine, honor the feminine and in fact truly love the feminine in order to be healed and made whole. In like fashion the feminine has often usurped the masculine, setting itself against the masculine through bitterness, anger, and condemnation that amounts to giving the man pariah status, sometimes naming the man as meaningless and in fact absurd not only in the core of relationships, but also at national and international levels. That form of feminine cannot face its own masculine, for to do so would be too shattering and would then require the feminine to integrate the masculine, to take him in with care and enduring affection, to truly love in order to be healed and made whole. In my experience working with women and men as a systems psychologist, we carry mutual desolation in our hands. Women and men are made of bone and blood, heart and spirit. Understanding and love are required if we are to embrace and heal the feminine and the masculine inside ourselves and in our relationships with others.

    Not suprisingly, Lewis Hiede in his vital and ultimate book The Gift, calls the gifting culture one that does not expect a return and names it as the erotic or eros culture. The reciprocal culture, or the utilitarian culture is for him bound by the linear and therefore the logos. As I see it both are important and beautiful in their way and entail great danger also and so they require great discernment. And again, we have both in our soul, and each one calls to the other.

    Good poetry and good prose sees far into the mystery and depicts men who are often disintegrated, void, violent, and at odds with the feminine and in effect, at odds with themselves. These men, like myself, and many men I know, desire to move and change and become capable of giving and receiving love. Women are depicted as silenced or enraged, embittered, and critically at odds with the masculine. Women also desire an unfolding that results in unity over fragmentation. But to become humble often requires being humbled. I know such women and men, whose shadows extend and do harm, and who are sometimes blessed to come into what bell hooks calls “redemptive love,” and who have wept at the beauty that exists when they let themselves be broken and let themselves emerge from that long darkness into something new. I hope to be with them when the dawn comes.

  2. Sara Stowell says:

    Ru, On women in combat, I have two thoughts… one is, of course we can. my sisters in other fronts have been doing it for years. and the other is stolen from a cartoon… family in afghanistan, iran, iraq, syria, pakistan, name your favorite country currently under attach or under the threat of attack… man comes home to wife and children and says, ¨good news honey, now we´ll get to have women blowing us up too.”
    I hate that women´s rights get tied up with militarism, not because I think we are actually more capable of being peaceful…. certainly Margaret Thatcher and Madeline Albreight and Hillary Clinton and Jeanne Kirkpatrick and and and have shown that we are as capable of being dickish imperialists as the next man… I just don´t want the right to kill and die to be equated with the right to equal pay, the right to an education, the right to free, informed and prior consent about decisions being made that affect us, about the right to control our own bodies, the right to love whom we want, how we want… the right to be joyful, and then the human rights… you know, food, housing, education, healthcare, life, livelihood.

    As for your other question: Hell yes. I am fully capable of doing everything I need to do to support myself and my children. I do not need a man for anything. But I want to be treated like a princess. And I want to treat my (non-existant) man as a prince. I think the act of caring for another, for carrying their weight when they are down, of carrying them an unexpected cup of tea or handful of flowers is delightful, and the act of receiving is an act of surrendering that is so powerful and wonderful that I could get into the habit of doing it all the time. I am not sure it has to exist along the gender lines it has traditionally. I don´t necessarily want to ask a man to help me get something down that I can get down from a high place just because he is a man, but I do want to ask a friend, or a stranger, to steady the ladder for me, and to offer the same when they need it. I think the act of caring for one another, strangers, friends and family, could be seen as that – the emotional and physical act of steadying the ladder for a fellow human being.

  3. Sara Taddeo says:

    “Mum’s the word”

    I am profoundly troubled by the notion of women in combat, not least because all the justification of the need for this policy focuses on furthering women’s CAREERS! The military is not just another career option, it is an institution based on death, sometimes necessary, often not. Dreadful as it is for fathers to be separated from their children, I think it is even worse FOR THE CHILDREN to be separated from their mothers, particularly in such a way, which must alter them for the worse. The next step should be drafting women. Is this really what we want? Perhaps it would give more people, especially women, pause.

    Like you, Ru, I have seen that there is a difference between the sexes, not culturally-imposed nor crudely authoritarian, and it combines to
    make us all better! The stories of girls beating each other into the hospital and engaging in rites of passage which rival the disgusting antics of boys’ worst excesses – do these represent progress? Is the current epidemic of promiscuity (with attendant epidemic of venereal diseases) and binge-drinking what the suffragettes gave their lives and health to achieve? I’m sure someone else has said this better, but we’re reduced to depravity in a culture of deprivation.

    As far as Wurtzel’s rant, it is sadly amusing and adolescent. Is she really only discovering these things at her age? Perhaps she never considered the emptiness of living her life solely for self (or judging others for needing help and/or support) is the fact that she did not have children. After all, the angst of the modern woman has been a popular topic for a full century: options breed uncertainty and change is threatening. Single young women, especially those of means, have many choices and few, if any, responsibilities. The pressure point, as ever, is motherhood, the crux of the dilemma, physically as well as intellectually. Once you make the transition to being the life-giver and care-giver for another human being, you are altered, and your needs are also altered, unless you reject one or both of those roles. The connection between mother and child is literally visceral. A woman can move from this animal connection to a deeper, more spiritual one, or not, as her condition and inclinations lead her, but she will not be unchanged by the experience.

    As feminism in the US has distanced itself from what is best for women AND children, it has left disenchantment in its wake. A career is a luxury for most women; motherhood is their most profound and enduring vocation. The 1% of highly educated, professional women who disparage this reality rather than
    acknowledging its power to connect us to one another and shape a society that is truly more friendly to women, without disenfranchising men, are playing out the old stereotypes of woman as mother-animal, stumbling block or muse, never intelligent creator.

    This is not really surprising, since higher education for women has always struggled against the notion that the life of the mind unfits women for motherhood, and the old boys’ “biology is destiny” chant, that motherhood unfits women for the life of the mind. At the same time, the “founding mothers” of many of these schools were lesbians who at that time would not/could not be mothers. No provision was historically made for pregnancy or child-birth in the policies of these institutions nor in the career-paths they exhort their alumnae to pursue. In my experience, in fact, an all-women’s college proved to be far more narrow-minded than a parochial school, in part because of class barriers, but also in part because it seems inherent in single-sex institutions, where the demands of a heterogenous society can be ignored in a homogenous environment. A woman may certainly learn to appreciate the unconstrained joys of an unfettered life of the mind in these sheltered surroundings, but she is unlikely to have her comfortable beliefs challenged by her peers in any meaningful way.

    Isn’t it ironic that the women’s schools, founded to combat the prejudices of all-male schools, have succeeded most clearly at producing their mirror image? I believe this is the origin of the patronizing attitudes so many professional women display towards other women (why does Wurtzel, for example, hurl the words “hooker” and “prostitute” so casually at other women?). Something has been lost in the rush to “equal opportunity:” individuality is increasingly subsumed under group headings.

    Equal opportunity in this reading afforded me the choice to behave like a nun or like a man and to be unhappy in either enforced role. Marriage and/or children may now be acceptable, but they are still seen as a distraction from the life of the mind. How much have things really changed from the times when female professors informed me that I clearly “wasn’t serious about my career” as I was married, or advised me to hide my pregnancy (neither desirable nor possible in my case) in order to obtain a tenure-track job?

    The eternal verities were abolished by mob action in ’68, but seeking truth, though difficult, will still lead you towards answers that our ancestors would recognize. The questions are the same, no matter your time or place; the answer too is unchanging: “put not your trust in princes, in man in whom there is no salvation.” I would add, as a post-script for our post-modern age, “in woman either”.

  4. Mary Akers says:

    In debates such as the women-in-combat debate, where the gray areas are vast and miasmatic, I can only find purchase in the simplest of arguments. For me, a staunch believer that women should get to decide what they do with their bodies, this includes military service, pornography, and any number of other things about which I may have strong personal reservations. Remembering the bottom line of “her body, her choice” helps to keep me from going mad over the possibilities.

    Also, as you know Ru, I spend a lot of time in deep thought about gender roles. I believe that the truest expression and realization of our collective humanity will only come when we can finally let gender expression be what it will be with no judgments. My husband is the decorator of our house. He washes the clothes, he cares about fashion, he loves to shop. He also drives a Jeep and likes to go hunting and fishing. He brings home wild game for us to eat, quite literally providing for his family. I enjoy fixing things with tools and shoveling the driveway and generally being the problem solver. I try to care about fashion and shopping, but I don’t, not really. But I do nurture everyone under my roof and cook every meal. I’m the touchy-feely talker and I sew and knit. And yet, despite being more-or-less free-form in our gender roles at home, the times when I/we feel we are most truly ourselves is when we are backpacking in the wilderness. In the woods, one of us cannot survive without the other. We have each saved the other from various perils in the wilds. We carry what we need upon our backs and combine our efforts when travel and when we make camp. I never feel more at peace and never more alive than when we are exerting ourselves in this 50-50 way, toward a shared goal. I doubt it is possible for this to translate into a real-world experience, but if it could, that is how I would strive to live.

  5. Francie McComb says:

    Ru:
    Having two children who seriously consider the military as a career, I think the focus on careers is entirely appropriate. My third child, a lovely very strong 17 year old, is not interested in the military. But if she were should the same opportunities be denied her? To protect all soldiers there need to be strict physical requirements. I am quite confident many women will meet those standards, as they have in other fields.

    With respect to the draft, that seems a very remote possibility; indeed the military is getting much more selective with harder enlisted and ROTC standards coming out each year. Were the draft to become a reality, I would want the same obligations for my daughter as for my sons. The military has always led the nation in social change- first with race and then with gay rights. It provides job training and opportunities to many across a variety of social and economic strata. It must finally recognize that women are capable of being warriors. Not all women are capable, just as not all men are capable. All deserve the chance to prove themselves.

    With respect to Wurtzel, she is just self indulgent, and from what I have read has always been so (though I have never met her). We attended the same college, in the same class, and both went to law school. The difference in our life choices were just that—choices. While she was doing heroin and writing best sellers, I was popping out three children and practicing law full time. Later, she became a lawyer and I became someone who worked at home and attended many, many, many sporting events. Happiness comes not just from success, but also embracing the choices you make and not blaming others for the results.

    I know oodles of women who successfully balance families and careers. But that balance is a seesaw-something always up and something always down. Or, as my sons would say, “a clusterfuck in some way all the time”. Military Moms will have a very hard balancing act, but it is patronizing to think that they cannot do it or that the family units cannot adapt.

    I hope my boys will learn to be gentlemen in part by having strong women friends, neighbors (yes you!), coaches, teachers, bosses, commanding officers, and even their older sister in their lives. As for my daughter, as my athletic competitive princess prepares for the prom I do not worry too much about her ability to juggle just about anything that comes her way, especially if it involves shopping. Should she or your daughters choose the military in a combat role; I think the military would be lucky to have them.

  6. Ru says:

    I love the range of responses here, and the people who have written – all of whom I admire for numerous reasons, mostly different except for one – that you are all people equally committed to raising good human beings.

    I don’t want to monopolize the discussion, since I’ve already gone on at some length above (!), but I’ll chime in as succinctly as it is possible for a prose-writer to be.

    Shann, I relate to the argument you make above regarding the existence of – and the need to nurture – the feminine and masculine within us all. In the Buddhist tradition – which is my faith tradition – this is what we believe as well. (As a complete aside, therefore, it baffles me that so many of us are uncomfortable expressing our enjoyment/appreciation of the physical body of someone of our own gender; it is as though to acknowledge this attraction is tantamount to declaring a particular sexual orientation rather than a simple expression of what the female in us sees as beautiful in another man or the male in us sees as beautiful in another woman). I think that your observation of the Eros that defines women as “the life-giving sacrificial essence willing to undergo almost anything in order to preserve life, the wild mystery at odds with all who might try to come against the the child, the family, or the future,” is perhaps precisely what prompts the revolutionary women whom Sara Stowell refers to above, from taking up arms, if arms are all that are left.

    We all know that we can’t think about meaningful work if we are starving (though some of us – me – can certainly think about beautiful clothes even if I’m hungry!). Similarly, we can’t think about who is doing the fighting if there is nobody to do it but us, for the protection of our children or families or friends or homes. Under such circumstances, I will willingly lay down my life on the battlefront.

    But if I say that am I not also saying that if it were a matter of keeping my child from dying or resorting to cannibalism, I would do that too? That is the essential question in Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD. And the reason why I love that book and find it so affirming is because it asks the question – if everything was gone, if monstrosity were all that was left, and you had a child to take care of, and death was almost certain, how would you live? I like to imagine that I would live as the father did, that “good people” (incidentally, the original title of my new novel, since changed!), remain so.

    I agree with you, Sara (Stowell), that the right to kill ought not to head the charge for women. And that cartoon is as ominous as it is funny. Francie, I don’t know that the girls will want to join the military – though at least the oldest has gone up to female soldiers at airports and engaged them in conversation, from a sense of compassion rather than a sense of wanting to be in their shoes. And if they ever did my question to them would not be, “are you prepared to die?” but, rather, “are you prepared to kill?” Because no matter what we say about war, about nobility, courage, fortitude, perseverence, stamina, etc. in the same way that people don’t buy guns because they like to look at them, they buy them because they hope one day to shoot with them, we don’t go to war to observe its progress, we go to war to kill and wreak unimaginable devastation upon people we don’t know, and to do the same to our own internal psyche.

    Another aside on that note – I just watched “Restrepo” and even when the soldiers were uttering moronic statements they’d been fed by the US government, what came through was their utter innocence, their humanity, and the fact that what they were doing was damaging them every second of every day.

    Mary, your description of life on the trail is terrific – and it is partly what Sara (Stowell) talks about too – that we hold the ladder steady for each other. But I disagree so utterly with the idea that “rights” should include the right to self-destruction or self-hate or any of the other things that we deal with when we talk about prostitution or porn or dropping bombs on people. These are not things that I feel are beneficial to our society and it is society with which I am most concerned, not the individual.

    More asides – For this same reason I do not support (though I was once almost hired by) the ACLU. The “right” to line up at the graves of soldiers who have been killed and throw insults at them, and to say that is a fundamental right to free speech is just idiotic. Of course we should have the right to free speech, to choose what we put on and in our bodies, etc. etc. but when our rights destroy the elemental compassion that makes us human and humble before each other, we are not merely doing a disservice to ourselves, we actively destroy the society in which we say we want to live.

    Which brings me to you, Sara (Taddeo), and the discussion of how far we’ve stepped as a culture from preserving ourselves as a community. I was a girl who never dreamed of marriage and children. My desire in life was to work at the UN, work for social justice, be a human rights lawyer and write books. I was a girl who used to scorn the women who wanted nothing more than to stay at home and take care of their kids. Then I grew up. I met women whose choice to forego their careers in whole or in part (like you, Francie, me), took far more courage and resilience and adaptability than it did to beat the established path to work that came with a bi-monthly pay-cheque and perks. It was a harder path precisely because it has been belittled by far too many, particularly those who agitate for womens rights, including single-sex colleges. I try now, whenever I speak, to affirm the choices we all make – to stay at a job that takes us away from home, to stay home at a job that takes us away from public acknowledgement of our existence!, or any combination thereof. I don’t know that I succeed.

    Okay – so I have rambled on. I told you I would.

  7. Sara Taddeo says:

    I must take exception to the notion that I am condescending to “military moms”. As a military wife for more than 25 years, I have experienced the disruptions to family of constant moves (5 in the first 5 years) to places far from friends or family, extended separations (at least 6 mos/year) and peril to a loved one that this life entails. My husband’s last deployment was to Afghanistan, where, as a trauma surgeon, he witnessed the mayhem of war “up close and personal”, though thankfully he wasn’t called upon to inflict it. Combat involves dealing out – and possibly receiving – death and dismemberment. The sacrifices required by the military are completely unlike those of any other job. The unseen injuries can be as crippling as those that are visible. I invite you to visit Walter Reed or any VA hospital to witness the toll that this “career” often takes.

    The military may be progressive – because it is ordered to be – but it is a life of service, not just a “career option”. It says more about the decline of our country that this is where we look for progress than it does about the desirability of such a choice for young women. The enlisted ranks are composed primarily of those who have no other means of upward mobility, but the burdens of combat, as of all the other stressors of this life, fall most heavily on them, who have fewer civilian choices and generally the least resilient support systems. Single mothers abound as do dual-service couples. When both parents are called overseas, as has happened more and more frequently during this, our longest war, the children, including infants, must be farmed out to relatives. Some, unfortunately, have even been left to fend for themselves, surely a statement of how desperate the single mother was. Do we want to promote a society in which mothers must be separated from their children?

    > > Of course, when so few people serve, it is easy to avoid these painful truths. That is why I spoke about the draft: if we really think women should serve in combat, then we should be prepared to offer up our daughters, and our sons. Perhaps there would be less willingness to go to war if this were so. I would rather none of my children had to go to war to earn a living or to gain respect, but our society continues to accord status (money and honor) to work traditionally done by men rather than to that traditionally done by women. Instead of raising the salaries of teachers, for example, we shunt the money, literally and figuratively, into the armed forces.
    > >
    > > Yes! Women CAN do anything, but should they? Should children be expected to cope with the wounds their mothers bring home? When all are warriors, who will nurture? This is not about gender roles, which are societal and individual, but about the most basic sexual task: pregnancy, childbirth and nursing can be done ONLY by women. It is no more desirable to deny the importance and dignity of these tasks than to insist that this be women’s only focus and function in life.
    > > Sara A. Taddeo, Ph.D.

  8. Arjuna Seneviratne says:

    A range of ideas here. Excellent all. Since I am not an American, I am an outsider looking in with respect to the American idea of the place of men and women in society. However, I defend my writing into this series of posts on two fronts. One, I have a deep, joyous love for the people of America and two, I have bummed around the world talking to, engaging with and smiling for the rural and pastoral communities of the world who, as the largest group of human beings on earth by far, are most affected by the ideas, policies and promotional tactics of a few (economic modeling, socio-anthropological musings, policy frameworks, marketing, research, blogging, novel writing and any number of other so-called soft pursuits on the one side and hard pursuits such as trade, aid and war on the other).

    With respect to the American people, it is good and right that they have these debates and idea exchanges and it is equally good and right that they will move not a whit the agendas of the powers that be who are even fewer in number than those who write and speak on these matters in watering holes such as these. To debate at great length is uniquely American (almost all of the rest of the world debates less and decides more) and in such exercises, there is a perceived sense of equality although no real proof of it. I love this practical naiveté because it is not naïve at all. Rather, it is, on the one hand, a mechanism of engagement, and, on the other, a pressure releasing instrument. Both throw up a result more closely aligned with censured, conditional harmony than anything else. Indeed, in the world we live in, that is the best we can all hope to achieve regardless of what geography we live in or what nation we call our own. In this as in many other things, America has shown the world the “how-to” in achieving the best possible imbalance where worry, doubt, question, complaint, contention and compromise are kept in a mild state of flux by gently, subtly and carefully preserving a continuous torque rather than by exorcising them through the application of a combination of force and fear which seems to be the preferred mode of response for a larger part of the rest of the world.

    Now, as to that “rest of the world” I do have a bit more to say than just a paragraph. *grins*

    With respect to the majority of human beings on the planet who will never speak up on forums such as this or even want to, I consider myself an insider looking out, and, frankly, as a group, we are, at best, neutral and at worst, insulted. The neutrality stems from the irrelevance of these debates to that truth sustained over millennia. A truth which is, as articulated so well by Ru, as natural as breathing. The insult stems from the massively negative impact of such minority promoted ideas such as “equality” on the greater citizenry of the world.

    I queried a young Afghan woman last year on women in conflict. I believe she had links to or was at one point a member of RAWA .Her response was along these lines (I am trying to quote this verbatim as her translator stated it because it was powerful testimony stated in short sentences like one-second bursts from an Uzi machine pistol): “Why do women take up arms? Why do women have to do (emphasis hers) anything at all? It is only because their men are weak. When their ability to protect us is gone. When their ability to feed us is gone. When their ability to support our children is gone. This is why RAWA happened. Because we did not believe our men were strong. Because we believed our men were hurting us. Islam did much to protect women. Shariya did much to destroy women. It is a good tool in the hands of a strong man. It is a terrible tool in the hands of a weak man. To do, for many women in this world, is not something that comes out of choice but something that comes out of necessity. This is why we help in the field. This is why we help in the fishing. This is why we do not farm or fish ourselves but keep at the side of our men when they work and support them. They in turn protect us. This is why we are amused by western women going to war in other countries. Their men are strong enough. Their weapons are strong enough. There is no necessity. We see a person who can be safe, protected and a good wife. So why fight? I think Hussain was right when he said the aggressor has brought his wife with him. When our women fight we have no choice. When their women fight they have no reason”.

    Similar sentiments were echoed by some female ex- combatants in the north of Sri Lanka. It is, at least at face value, the recognition by women of the general mediocrity of men that Shann points out and the natural, albeit uncomfortable response of women to such mediocrity but it is not specific to America. It can be generalized across the planet. The lessening of the man and his masculinity has put a lot of unfair and uncalled for pressure on the woman and her femininity. When a woman steps into the shoes of a man who is weak it makes that same man react in accordance with his frailty, spitting and foaming at the mouth, kicking and screaming, condemning, judging, subjugating, raping, murdering, revealing his inadequacies in naked, inglorious silhouette for the world to see and condemn. Shann highlights this outcome excellently in his post. However, it must be noted that the fact that this occurs, at least for rurals and pastorals results less in a sense of emancipation and more in a sense of tragedy. It is not a situation that calls for women to overtake masculinity but one that calls for both sorrow for their lot and shame for the lot of their men. For these people, a weak man is not to be condemned, ignored or marginalized but rather, to be worried over … and over… and over. Reading between the lines of that brutally honest Afgani woman warrior, the reversal of this tragic situation is laid squarely on the shoulders of men. If they are strong in the maleness the women can be equally strong in their femaleness.

    Last week, I was in rural Sri Lanka, researching on gender dynamics in situational conflict and conflict emergent situations. In terms of situational conflict, the community I studied is representative to at least a 90% level of accuracy of the roughly 70% of human beings who live in South Asia or 16% of the world’s population. Although there are no comparative anthropological studies done, it is probably representative of at least 4- 4.5 billion human beings who live on earth. I asked a series of questions related to gender that were based on a project to rehabilitate rural access roads with gravel where 100% of the work was implicitly supposed to be done by women (digging side drains, thinning and compacting the gravel). I got 95% agreement for the questions 1) What do you want most from a man? (protection) 2) Do you get that protection? (yes, if they don’t drink), 3) How do you deal with drinking? (we rooted out the illicit hooch dens from a 15 km radius), 4) Who should have worked on the road? (the men, not us) 5) was the money you earned captured by the men? (yes in three families, the men were alcoholics brewing for themselves so we could do nothing about it without causing the families to suffer more) 6) In the others? (general answer: it is a struggle to survive. We pool all our resources as a family, as a community, otherwise we will be in trouble. If they only want to give money to women we will be forced to work to get it and we needed this money)

    Additionally, in terms of armed conflict, 85% of the women (up to 34 years of age) have been impacted by conflict for the entirety of their lives and have seen and experienced the results of armed activity in the first person (as opposed to someone doing a job such as say, a career soldier in the US army) for continuous stretches of time that are far greater than those that cause PTSD amongst war vets from America. 80% of them have sent a close male relative to war (son, husband, father), 60% have taken arms to protect, 40% have experienced loss of relatives or property as a direct result of war and 0% of them show mental stress as a result. I am not too sure why this is but I think the Asian acceptance of karmic reward plays a major role. While I am not going to try to second guess its efficacy, this much is true: while a large majority of the world refuses to accept their own circumstances, gnashes its collective teeth, fights tooth and claw to reverse its lot, shout for equality and give many couches and shrinks a reason for existence, these people have managed to live in relative serenity despite some of the harshest and most mind destroying circumstances known to humankind.

    So, where does all of this leave us? In a rapidly shrinking world, the majority idea of what flies and what dies would in all probability win out over minority ideas – especially since such majority ideas are not coined in social forums, policy boilers, international summits (read: spit-balling sessions) or legislative frameworks but in the cauldron of life itself. They will probably win because it took hundreds of years to boil out of that cauldron and were used for thousands of years more subsequent to their distillation. They will probably win because they enabled a resource enriching system of existence. They will probably win because they do not have a change cycle of a few dozen years as has been the trend with human identified “truths” of the last 400 years. They will probably win because they subsume their individual identity and individual gain into the collective identity and the collective gain. They will probably win because strong societies are strong because of the integration and enmeshment of diversity not because of a misguided idea that everyone is capable of doing exceedingly well at what everyone else is capable of doing exceedingly well.
    Take away the social service department, take away the hospitals, take away the constitution, state and legislative instruments. Take the raw reality that exists in such circumstances. The reality that is faced daily by a majority of the peopled earth.

    There, the woman is better at handling the rearing of an infant child, the man is better at finding food to feed it with and the midwife is the greatest historian of a community for she has helped give birth to every single child of the next generation and knows exactly how that particular seedling became a sapling and then a tree and from generation to generation that family of midwives was revered for their incredibly detailed social and anthropological insights.

    There, war and its attendant miseries are things to react to not things to subscribe to. There, especially for the women, none went to war. War, instead, visited them. Much like in the America revolution, these women played critical supportive roles and only when all other possibilities were exhausted, or, when they were coerced or forced, did they actually engage in armed battle.

    For the modern American woman, that eventuality has not occurred – yet.

  9. Mary Akers says:

    There is much eloquence of thought and word here. I’m sure mine won’t compare, but even with all the wonderful points made about society, and what’s best for the children, and gender relations, there is a bottom-line argument for me. As a woman (as a human!), I want to decide what to do with MY body. If I want to use it to bring children into the world and nurture them, that is my right. If I want to use it to fight for my country or my ideals, that is my right (leaving aside the argument of whether or not war should even be waged). My body, my life, my choices. Not all women want to be mothers. Not all women want to get married. Not all women even want to be women. Whenever we limit what a person can do based on their (biologically predetermined) sex, we are assuming we know best for someone else. I don’t believe that’s my place. I may disagree with your choices–fervently–but I don’t deny that you should be allowed to make them. Your path, your life, your destiny, your karma. Not mine.

Leave a Reply

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


Twitter