10 March 2008

A Short Trip to Stepford

If you don’t follow the Washington Post on a regular basis, you may have missed one of the more interesting contretemps to dust up the (virtual) pages of a major newspaper in recent times. Last week, the paper published an opinion piece, “We Scream. We Swoon. How Dumb Can We Get?” by Charlotte Allen. The piece caught my eye because it spoke of the phenomenon of fainting at Obama rallies, something I’d heard of only lately, but that was only one of the topics Ms. Allen touched on.

“I can't help it, but reading about such episodes of screaming, gushing and swooning makes me wonder whether women — I should say, ‘we women,’ of course — aren't the weaker sex after all,” the article begins. “Or even the stupid sex, our brains permanently occluded by random emotions, psychosomatic flailings and distraction by the superficial. Women ‘are only children of a larger growth,’ wrote the 18th-century Earl of Chesterfield. Could he have been right?”

“I meant it to be funny but with a serious point — that women want to be taken seriously but quite often don’t act serious,” she explained later, in an online chat. “Also, that women and men really are different.”

To bolster her argument, she attacked women’s television preferences (Oprah Winfrey, Grey’s Anatomy) and reading habits (Eat, Shop, Pray, which a friend has been urging on me, as it happens), and found statistics to “prove” that women are worse drivers, have smaller brains, can’t visualize three-dimensional concepts, etc. Having assembled (loosely, lightly) these arguments, she concluded:
I don't understand why more women don't relax, enjoy the innate abilities most of us possess (as well as the ones fewer of us possess) and revel in the things most important to life at which nearly all of us excel: tenderness toward children and men and the weak and the ability to make a house a home. (Even I, who inherited my interior-decorating skills from my Bronx Irish paternal grandmother, whose idea of upgrading the living-room sofa was to throw a blanket over it, can make a house a home.) Then we could shriek and swoon and gossip and read chick lit to our hearts' content and not mind the fact that way down deep, we are . . . kind of dim.
The story provoked protests (and a few cheers) in hundreds of e-mailed messages from readers, and a controversy in the editorial offices. The piece was badly written and should never have been published in the first place, it was said. (In truth, it’s a difficult kind of writing to pull off. Allen kept the tone light, yet it was hard to tell how seriously she intended her message to be understood.) Others argued that the paper would never run any article on other groups, such as blacks and Asians, and they wanted to know why it was okay to write about women this way.

The editor of the piece, a woman, declared herself unprepared for the backlash: she thought the article was funny. It’s a safe bet she wouldn’t have been laughing had the author been a man, and not many other people were laughing, either, as it was.

The Post called a few heavy hitters to weigh in. Katha Pollitt, the feminist author, assailed Allen’s statistics and the bases of all her arguments, while pointing out the lack of women on the paper’s editorial staff and among its opinion columnists. The paper’s own ombudsman, Deborah Howell, largely agreed with Pollitt and raised another good reason to dislike Allen’s article: it’s not funny. Caitlin Gibson, the paper’s legal administrator, and Rachel Manteuffel, a local actor and writer, co-signed an analysis of Allen’s article, asking, “What is it?” and “Why did she write it?”

Even before the backlash gained momentum, I shared the article with two of the smartest women I know. One, a Wellesley grad, was infuriated. The other, an alumna of Rice, was too busy managing her career and family to read the article closely, yet she immediately identified the dichotomy between women’s emotional and intellectual intelligence, which Allen confounded in order to buttress her claims.

Which leads me to my own reactions. I found the piece sloppily written and unsatisfying. It promised far more than it delivered: by the time I got to the end, I was already dismissing it. That doesn’t mean that Charlotte Allen is dumb — au contraire, she’s a highly intelligent person who works for a conservative think tank.

So why did she write the piece? Does she really want women to skip cheerfully off to Stepford? Does anybody want that? I mean — ye gods — how boring! For everybody!

I’m amazed that in 2008 people are still talking this way. The last time society tried to treat women as silly helpless creatures, the result was the 1950s, an era that’s fondly recalled by many: the streets were safe, the economy was good, people never complained. Oh, and the clothes were pretty. Forget about the witch hunts, the lynchings, the repression and frustration, — and the example of my late aunt Louise.

Louise passed away a few weeks ago. Sex and history denied her the opportunity to exploit her staggering intellect the way she would have preferred: fully. If she’d been born a few decades later, she’d have wound up a research scientist, a college professor. No such luck. She was never a Stepford Wife, and she did find outlets for her abilities, but she never shook off the resentment. Indeed, she could be incredibly unpleasant to be around. Is this what we want for our aunts — our mothers — our wives and sisters and daughters?

The question of women’s intelligence was answered for me before I was born. Both my grandmothers were college graduates — unusual, for their generation. Both were schoolteachers, and only because my maternal grandmother held a job did her family survive the Depression. My mother, my godmother, and many of my aunts were schoolteachers, as well, and outside the circle of my family, I have benefited from the lessons of smart, strong women: teachers, from Pamela Morton to Carolyn Heilbrun; role models, like Beverly Sills and Katharine Hepburn; and every one of my female friends.

As for the superiority or inferiority of either sex, Dr. Heilbrun liked to point out that all the qualities that we typically associate with women (nurturing, healing, teaching, and communicating) are those we associate with civilization; those we associate with men (fighting, fighting, and fighting) are those we associate with barbarism.

I suppose I owe Charlotte Allen a debt of gratitude for reminding me which side I’m on.