I’ve been thinking about this male/female thing that’s so loud and pervasive right now in politics, and I realize there are a lot of things in my life that I have just recently “heard” even though they were spoken decades ago. I am thinking of my Uncle Hank, the gentlest, most handsome man in the whole wide world.
His mom died when he was three. He was raised by aunts and his older sister. His dad was working on oil rigs in Oklahoma and that’s what Hank did, too, until the war. He joined the navy and in Washington State, Seattle, he met my Aunt Jo. He fell deeply, passionately and permanently in love with her. Theirs was a great love and it suffered the vicissitudes of life. Towards the end, when they were still in their house, before they were moved to “the home,” they sat together in the living room, each in their recliner, holding hands.
Hank was raised to respect and honor women and this was clear in everything he did.
He raised my cousins to respect and honor women. In fact, in the family (I lived with them for a while and visited frequently for most of my life) they talked about it a LOT as if it were something exceptional. I didn’t hear all of this because respect for women wasn’t exceptional in my family. I think I had only one uncle who treated women (including my aunt to whom he was married) disrespectfully. It really was the “code of the west” (as I had been told it was) not to cheat on your girl, not to hit your girl, not to take advantage of any female in any way because women were special. Women were a paradoxical combination of fragility — their feelings were softer, more tender, more romantic and more vulnerable — and hearty farmwife who could take care of everything. “Nothing stronger than a good woman. Look at grandma.” Men and women were helpmeets and partners, different but equal, complementary.
Why did the men in my family discuss this (sometimes vociferously) at the supper table? Sometimes explaining that women ought to be treated almost as if we were another species, much to the consternation of my unmarried aunt, Martha, who (rightly) argued there wasn’t much a man could do that a woman couldn’t do just as well? And how important it was to be good to your girlfriend, sister, cousin, mother, aunt and grandma because she WAS a girl or woman? That her being female was WHY a boy or man should care for her gently and generously? “Don’t be mean to Martha Ann. She’s a girl and she’s your cousin.”
I think, now, the men in my family knew men who were NOT like that, who did NOT respect women, who did not “get” women’s special abilities and who thought women were creatures who should be humiliated, abused, belittled and beaten. Maybe there were — literally — two “camps.” Men who respected women and men who didn’t.
I’ll be straight here. Men scare me, categorically. Once, they didn’t. What changed? Being beaten, kicked in the crotch, gaslighted, cheated on — really the whole litany of abuse (except by the men in my family I am very happy to say) began when I entered the dating world and marriage. I have men friends but my radar is always up when I’m out in the world for signals that a stranger might be dangerous to me. Did all this happen to me partly because I grew up around men who devoutly respected women and I entered the world not knowing there was any other kind?