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Women: Parasites or Saviors?

This post was originally published on June 11, 2008. If you would like to comment on it, please go here.

Are women different from men? Of course they are, though I believe that women and men share many of the attributes that make them different. Women can be competitive, and men can be emotionally sensitive. The same is true for any two groups that are different, such as Chinese and Italians, Catholics and Buddhists, doctors and bricklayers. When you stop looking at the general group and compare individuals, you find many more traits in common than opposite traits, because we are one species. Yet it’s true that women and men are a special case, because there is a clear biologic basis for some of the differences.

So are women inferior to men? I hate this question. It feels to me like it comes from the dark shadows of our ignorant past. Yet a few months ago a Moroccan friend sent me this extract from Arthur Schopenhauer, a philosopher who had no use for women, seeing them as decorative parasites at best. It should go without saying that Schopenhauer’s only friend in life was his dog. He writes:

    One needs only to see the way she is built to realize that woman is not intended for great mental or physical labor. … Women are suited to being the nurses and teachers of our earliest childhood precisely because they themselves are childish, silly and short-sighted, in a word big children, their whole lives long…. [Nature] has provided her with superabundant beauty and charm for a few years at the expense of the whole remainder of her life, so that during these years she may so capture the imagination of a man that he is carried away into undertaking to support her honorably in some form or another for the rest of her life, a step he would seem hardly likely to take for purely rational considerations. Thus nature has equipped women, as it has all its creatures, with the tools and weapons she needs for securing her existence, and at just the time she needs them…. As the weaker sex, they are driven to rely not on force but on cunning: hence their instinctive subtlety and their ineradicable tendency to tell lies: for, as nature has equipped the lion with claws and teeth…so it has equipped woman with the power of dissimulation as her means of attack and defence….. To make use of it at every opportunity is as natural to her as it is for an animal to employ its means of defence whenever it is attacked, and when she does so she feels that to some extent she is only exercising her rights.

In other words, never has such a one-sided view of women been committed to paper, and with such self-satisfaction about it too! Schopenhauer claims that women use their beauty to trick men into taking care of them, because they have neither the intelligence nor the strength to care for themselves, and that lies and cunning are their basic survival strategy. He probably thought he was being contrarian, undermining the prevailing (and no less condescending) view of his time that women are men’s “better half,” noble in spirit but physically frail, the muse and inspiration for all masculine achievement.

Schopenhauer’s ideas came to mind again recently when I came across a piece by Rebecca Solnit, a talented essayist who has written several books including Hope in the Dark and A Field Guide to Getting Lost. In “Men Explain Things to Me,” which appeared on where she is a regular contributor, she discusses male arrogance, the idea that men “know” they are right even when proof they are wrong is staring them in the face. Worse, if you’re a woman and try to show them that proof, they simply won’t listen.

    Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men.
    Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence. …
    Violence is one way to silence people, to deny their voice and their credibility, to assert your right to control over their right to exist. About three women a day are murdered by spouses or ex-spouses in this country. … I tend to believe that women acquired the status of human beings when these kinds of acts started to be taken seriously, when the big things that stop us and kill us were addressed legally….
    Being told that…he knows what he’s talking about and she doesn’t, however minor a part of any given conversation, perpetuates the ugliness of this world and holds back its light. … Most of my life, I would have doubted myself and backed down. Having public standing as a writer of history helped me stand my ground, but few women get that boost….
    Men explain things to me, still. And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don’t.

I had the good luck, I suppose, to be born a man, so that even on the many occasions when my ideas haven’t been taken seriously, at least I haven’t had to wonder if it was my condition as a woman that was getting in the way. I’m not going to argue with how Solnit perceives things, because I’ve experienced male arrogance for myself, even though I’m not a woman, and the blistering condescension of people like Schopenhauer is further proof. If a man “knows” in advance that women are parasites who want to trick him with their feminine wiles, he won’t even bother to listen to what a woman is saying, and she will be powerless to persuade him that she is smarter, more qualified and better informed than he is. Of course, that suits him just fine.

I thought of sending Solnit’s article to my Moroccan friend as a response to Schopenhauer, but we hadn’t raised the topic for some time, so I sent it instead to a friend of mine whom I felt would identify with Solnit from her own experience. In our discussion, I raised a question the article had left me with. Granted that women are faced with intellectual (and other) bullying from men. Why do they so often turn the other cheek?

    One thing I felt in reading this, is that men are more willing than women to stand their ground when their authority is challenged. Solnit documents not just male arrogance, but her own self-doubt despite her ample credentials. The female instinct to give in is the flip side of male arrogance. Where does that submissive posture come from? Biology? Social conditioning? If women had the same blind confidence in their authority as men, the world wouldn’t be a better place; but at least male arrogance would have nowhere to go without resistance.

My friend replied:

    From my experience, women have to be forced, coerced, or seduced in order to submit. They don’t, otherwise, willingly give in to authority. The wiser (and more survival-prone) response is avoidance. Women are good at avoiding distasteful situations.

I came back with more questions, which led to an exchange which is best presented as a dialogue.

    me: But is that enough? I wonder. Don’t we sometimes call that avoidance, denial, sticking one’s head in the sand?
    her: Only if the person avoiding isn’t consciously aware of what she is doing. Consciously avoiding is a perfectly good strategy for limiting damage or even death.
    me: The distasteful situation doesn’t go away simply because you’ve managed to strategically walk away from it. And the children you’ve protected will grow up into it.
    her: Yes, but they’ll be alive, and in the meantime, the situation may have changed. Think of the situation as it is today that is lived by the children of war-time German women, for example.
    me: Some things need to be confronted. Or are you saying that confrontation validates the abuse?
    her: I have to admit that I hadn’t thought of it that way. I suppose that would be true if the abuser were a masochist who was seeking a violent response. I think many abusers are really cowards, so the answer to your question, then, is, “No.”
    me: Again, I would argue that this is precisely the reason (in part) that women haven’t played the role in history that they deserve. Until they began to challenge patricarchal authority head-on, that authority could safely ignore them.
    her: I’d argue that that’s a male perspective. I think Solnit would say that the patriarchal “authority” wouldn’t hear or see them anyway.
    me: I suspect that women are much less likely than men to die in the Iraqi chaos. But the cost of this is rarely to leave the house.
    her: No, that’s the cost in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc. In the “developed” world the cost is that women don’t get elected president of the country, don’t get acknowledged for the books they write, don’t get the job as CEO.
    me: When all the men have slaughtered each other, will women eat chocolates in the ruins?
    her: The Minoans managed to live quite well together. Why not try that paradigm?

The Minoans were an ancient people who lived on the Mediterranean island of Crete. They were known for their matriarchal society in which women, though not dominant in the sense that men dominate a patriarchal society, were at the center of daily life. The Minoans lived at peace with their neighbors, worshipped nature instead of an angry sky god, loved music and art, and built one of the great civilizations of the ancient world. They were eventually destroyed by the arrival of warrior peoples from the East who formed the culture of classical Greece.

I attempted to back down from the men-vs.-women dynamic I was getting into with my friend by offering a compromise.

    When you say the male authority wouldn’t hear women anyway, even if they did stand up for themselves, I think Rebecca Solnit would reply that women should learn to assert the legitimacy of their viewpoint more, just as men should learn to listen more. She said there is a large middle ground between the two extremes where we would all feel more comfortable.
    Certainly I think that women’s increased influence in society, in recent years, has had beneficial effects for men. For example, women tend to take a more holistic view of their careers, and are more willing to seek a balanced role of professional life, family life and personal interests, rather than the competition-driven model of fighting their way to the top. This has given more room for men, as well, to try career tangents, step back from the rat race, and give place to personal growth or emotional balance.

In a striking coincidence, my Moroccan friend wrote me just then with a new link on the subject of women, this time to the writings of Esther Vilar, who had a moment of fame in 1971 as the author of The Manipulated Man, a book which advances claims very much like Schopenhauer’s, namely that women are the weaker and more ignorant sex that survives by manipulating the noble intentions (or sexual desire) of men. The link presents the first chapter of the book, enough to get the flavor of Vilar’s ideas. After telling a story about a man who stops by the roadside to help a woman change her tire, Vilar comments:

    Without thinking…a woman will make use of a man whenever there is the opportunity. What else could the woman have done when her car broke down? She has been taught to get a man to help. Thanks to his knowledge, he was able to change the tire quickly—and at no cost to herself. True, he ruined his clothes, put his business in jeopardy, and endangered his own life by driving too fast afterwards. Had he found something else wrong with her car, however, he would have repaired that, too. … Why should a woman learn to change a flat tire when the opposite sex (half the world’s population) is able and willing to do it for her?
    Women let men work for them, think for them, and take on their responsibilities—in fact, they exploit them. Since men are strong, intelligent and imaginative, while women are weak, unimaginative and stupid, why isn’t it men who exploit women? … Could it be that the world is not being ruled by experts but by beings who are not fit for anything else—by women?

My friend asked me what I thought about this, and I responded by sending him the essay by Rebecca Solnit, with this explanation.

    Here’s an article that expresses a perspective on women that I agree with. It’s a feminist perspective, but not caricaturally so. I think it’s an excellent answer to all those who claim that women have the advantage because they are faking weakness and incompetence to take advantage of men. For me, this is foolish and dangerous behavior, because it encourages the male sense of superiority which is very real. For that reason, if such behavior really exists among women, a feminist would be the first to condemn it.
    My overall take on “thinking” like Esther Vilar’s is that it is simliar to the kind of anti-Islamic “thinking” that goes into works like Oriana Fallaci‘s The Rage and the Pride or Bat Ye’or‘s Eurabia—or to take another example, the kind of “thinking” that motivates people to write books questioning whether the Jewish Holocaust ever happened—in other words, more polemic than reason, a piling-on of arguments that seem exciting and convincing at first glance, an indifference to contrasting views and immunity to doubt. I guess you can see that I despise this kind of “thinking”! And I definitely put polemics justifying the view that women are biologically weak, manipulative, irrational, or intellectually inferior in this category.

I went on to explain my feelings on the “woman question” in more detail. I’m convinced that in our multifaceted, rapidly changing world, women are actually better adapted for guiding our future evolution than men. (I’d already touched on this with my female friend, when I said that women’s greater involvement in public life has improved it in many ways, adding flexiblity and balance that weren’t there before.)

    I think it’s true that throughout centuries of history until very recently, women have often manipulated men through seduction and intruigue, rather than stepping forward to perform their own accomplishments. But think about it, there’s a reason for that. Women were excluded from holding power, so they had no choice, to protect themselves and their children, but to work behind the scenes and use men as their shield. Since they didn’t have anything else that men admired, they had to use their sexual charms. This isn’t proof that women are that way—it shows their capacity to adapt in challenging conditions.
    A more healthy balance of power between men and women, as we see in the West and parts of Asia or Latin America today, proves that women can govern, excel in the sciences and the arts, engage in intellectual debate or lead corporations as well as men. There is no special compensation being given to women who achieve these things. They do it on their own merit, by the same standards as men. In fact, in some cases the obstacles are higher, and they have more to prove, because men are used to dominating and condescending, and assuming that women are shallow. But I think the female mentality is smarter and better adapted to our mulitfaceted, cooperative world—so men need to learn to be more like women and not the other way around.
    Did you know that the male Y chromosone is far less complex than the second X chromosone in women? In fact it’s decaying over time, throwing away genetic material it used to contain.
    Finally, some historians have shown that before the era of the great patriarchal religions, back in the “mists of time” before recorded history, the first intelligent humans organized themselves with women in the center, not men. These societies were more peaceful and egalitarian than those that followed. There was a major reversal around the time of the rise of the first great empires, with men becoming dominant and organizing society for war. Mythology and religion were rewritten to make women look weak. Probably the classic book about this is The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler. I’ve just started reading it, and have finished the introduction. So far, it looks like Eisler is going to make the point that human evolution took a wrong turn when we started rewarding the most aggressive among us. That may have worked until now, but we’re at a critical point where humanity can no longer survive more wars and environmental destruction.

Once again, doesn’t it seem that women, with their cooperative instinct and ability to empathize with others, are better adapted to the challenges of a networked world, than men with their endless combats?