What I Want to Teach My Son (If I Have One)

2 Nov

I just witnessed a most disgusting display of juvenile chauvinism at lunchtime in the quad.  Discussions like the one I overheard should never be part of a mutually respectful environment such as a college campus, but so often are.  These discussions lead to a male sense of entitlement that, in turn, leads grown men to believe that their paternalistic view of the world is what’s best for women in general.

Allow me to elaborate.

A young college student, I hesitate to call him a “young man” because it implies manners and respect that he has not yet achieved, was discussing his girlfriend with a friend of his.  Talking about how she was always down, depressed.  How her job prospects were slim.  How she didn’t care to ask his dad for help.  “It’s just calling on a contact!” he argued.  “You know, they say that guys are the more immature of the species, and I guess in some ways we are, since we make more immature jokes at older ages.  But women?  They’re such children when it comes to stuff like this…”

He went on. “You know, there’s a reason why things have turned out the way they did.  I mean, can you imagine if we had a woman president and she was on her period?  And other countries just wouldn’t talk to us if they were on their periods too?  I mean, obviously, there’s a reason why men are in power, right?  There’s a natural order to things.  If it was supposed to be the other way, we’d be the ones without the power.”

To his friend’s credit, he answered, “Well, does that mean that black people were obviously supposed to be slaves, since that’s how THAT turned out for such a long time?”

The misogynist laughed.  “I don’t know man, I guess that’s true, but women…  They’re just a species of their own.  They make no sense.  They’re just totally irrational.”

Their conversation continued.  I seethed.  How, in this day and age, could a young person say such a completely irrational, insensitive, illogical, and chauvinistic statement?  Aren’t today’s students meant to be enlightened?  Public education is supposed to widen your worldview.  Is it possible that this student had missed the very point?  At the college where I work, by the way, women are the majority; not in every major, and we’re still making progress in the STEM majors.  But I would have thought that outside of the 1950s or 60s, such ideas would have been limited to backwoods country types with very little education (my apologies to anyone who lives in the country).

I was silent until I got up, finished with my lunch.  I couldn’t take it anymore.  I turned around and faced the child.  A jock with a muscle shirt on, he looked like the very definition of everything I don’t want my future son to be.  “If your mother heard what you said about women and presidents,” I said, quietly, but startling him just the same, “she would be most disappointed.”  I walked away.  I wanted to tell him about all the women we have serving in high office around the world, and all the women who managed to get over their “periods” and get some excellent work done.  Eleanor Roosevelt.  Margaret Thatcher.  Sally Ride.  Madame Curie.  Mother Teresa.  Benazir Bhutto.  For God’s sakes, the last two Secretaries of State – the very people who talk to other countries on a daily basis as the representatives of our country – had two X chromosomes.

I’m certain that he’s now rationalized to his friend that I proved his point; women are crazy.  Or something.  But maybe, just maybe, I got through to him.  Perhaps.  If only it were that easy in every instance.

At any rate, this got me thinking.  As you may know, I’m expecting.  I find out in under three weeks whether we’re having a boy or a girl.  At this point, everyone’s been saying girl, but I know my husband has a (small) preference for a boy.  Either way, I’m thrilled.  But I started thinking hard about what I want to teach my son, if I were to have one (now or in the future), about the differences between men and women.  Such as:

  • Women are just as smart and capable as men.  There is no physiological reason that women’s brains would not function as well as men’s.  In fact, studies have shown that women generally have better capacity for memory and multitasking.  Want to see this in action?  Go ask any mother.
  • Women are very much capable of higher-level thought and study.  Often, lack of opportunity is confused with lack of achievement.  But women can and have broken the glass ceiling for hundreds of years in the fields of science and math; whether or not we know their names is another matter.  Anyone know about Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin?  She discovered that the sun is made up of hydrogen, and that hydrogen and helium are the most abundant elements in the universe.   Before women had the right to vote in this country.  And before she, an English woman, could officially be awarded a degree at Cambridge (they didn’t give degrees to women until 1948).
  • Women might not be as physically strong as men, overall (that is, they can’t bench press as much).  However, their bodies are made with reproduction in mind.  Physically, someone with both X and Y chromosomes (biologically male) cannot get pregnant.  No, the movie Junior couldn’t possibly happen in real life.  Anyone who has studied any part of the science of reproduction can tell you that this is a pretty incredible feat, and that women’s bodies are well-equipped for the task.  Anyone who has gone through natural childbirth can tell you that there is very likely no greater pain that can be survived; and it takes an awful lot of strength to do that.
  • EVERYONE has specific reasons why they might do things (apply for/not apply for a job, be friends with someone in particular, act a certain way in a relationship).  These reasons are built on both nature and nurture – personality and environment – and our ideas about what is right and wrong are formed through our experiences.  Therefore, just because something makes perfect sense to you doesn’t mean it makes perfect sense to someone else.  Therefore, we have to do our very best to treat everyone’s decisions with respect.
  • On that note, women’s hormones do sometimes affect how they feel.  Contrary to popular belief, SO DO MEN’S.  There is a vast psychological arena studying things like responses to hormonal and pheremonal stimuli and decision making.  Generally speaking, large decisions are not affected.  So whether a country would “not talk to us” or, as has been argued, bomb another country, based on a single woman’s hormones, is not something that could ever be tested.  But if it were, we would inevitably find that a woman has no more chance of making an irrational decision on that sort of scale based on hormonal changes than a man does.
  • Mutual respect should be the number one priority of anyone, man or woman.  I believe that this extends to respecting one’s wishes, beliefs, religious or political affiliations, and right to control one’s own destiny.  In case anyone’s wondering, joking about a woman’s lack of judgement when she’s hormonal, or her inability to make a decision, or her education, or her sexuality, or her weight are disrespectful.  Likewise joking about how men “always think with their reproductive organs,” or how they can’t have a fulfilling emotional relationship, or how they are too sensitive, are disrespectful too.

I hope that my calling upon his mother helped me to get through to that particular young person.  Perhaps he can, in time, call himself a man.  Maybe when he learns respect for everyone – and doesn’t make such illogical statements.  But even if I didn’t, I hope that I can teach my future son that viewpoints such as these are not only uncalled-for, they’re flat wrong.

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