By Bobby Genower
The White House, November 8th, 1961. President Kennedy’s 17th press conference. Kennedy has pioneered this regular, live televised “show” because he knows he’s good at it but also because he believes the American Press has a right to question the president, and the public has a right to hear his answers. During this conference, he is being interrogated by the redoubtable Mrs. May Craig, a veteran Washington correspondent. She is a regular questioner amongst the hundreds of reporters who attend these conferences. President Kennedy often chooses Mrs. Craig to be his interlocutor, as he enjoys her intelligent and challenging probing. “The Democratic platform in which you ran for election,” she says, “promises to work for equal rights for women, including equal pay, and to wipe out job opportunity discrimination. Now, you have made efforts on behalf of others. What have you done for the women, according to the promises of the platform?” Kennedy, looking quite awkward and shy, but smiling to himself, replies: “Well, I’m sure we haven’t done enough.” [Much laughter.] He continues: “I will say that I’m a strong believer in equal pay for equal work and I think that, er, we ought to do better than we’re doing, and I’m glad you reminded me of it, Mrs. Craig.” [More laughter.]
Kennedy did, in fact, fulfill his promise of the platform. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was aimed at abolishing wage disparity based on sex. That was 55 years ago, and in 1970 a similar law was passed in the UK. Nevertheless, women in America and the UK are still campaigning for equality with men in pay and other areas of life. Some men argue that there is no pay gap, as such, but an earnings gap, with some men earning more than women because they have tougher jobs or jobs that require more expertise. Women tend to take more part-time jobs, which are usually lower paid, and they often work in low-paid sectors such as care and leisure. Nevertheless, it is hard to understand why, if there’s a law enforcing equal pay for equal work, there aren’t more cases in court regarding the underpayment of women.
Empowerment, the buzzword that some women use today along with the demand for equality with men is a vague notion that I think refers to more than legal equality. Vociferous women claim that they are just as good as men. Indeed, in a recent essay in Hurtwood Muse, Paulina Placek claims that all a woman has to do to be as strong physically as a man is to do some weight training at the gym. (“…any female who focuses on working out to build strength can be equally strong to a typical male.”) In fact, physical strength is the one area in which men are superior to women in purely physiological terms. Women are superior in seven or eight other functions. Humanity needs more women than men, because of the limitation of reproductive capability to (usually) one baby per woman per nine months; in theory, one man can impregnate hundreds of women in that time. The importance of women is exemplified in the call on a sinking ship for “women and children first”. When the Titanic sank, 16% of adult male passengers survived, compared to 72% of adult female passengers.
Unfortunately, the reputation of men has been degraded by the current numerous claims by women of sexual abuse by men, often going back many years. An egregious example of a man abusing women was that of King Henry VIII, who had two wives executed (aka murdered) because he thought they were unfaithful, and summarily divorced two others because he didn’t like them anymore. No-one in their right mind can ever feel other than compassionately for the women who have suffered the unwonted (and unwanted) attentions of a sex pest, and, sadly, one hears all too often nowadays of the harassment that girls are subject to at school by boys who think they can mishandle girls with impunity. At present, there seems to be an epidemic of the shocking treatment of women. Even Oxfam relief workers have been exploiting vulnerable girls and women in Haiti. Being in a desperately poor country, with its people traumatised by a natural disaster, must have made some Oxfam workers feel their sins would not be exposed. Veteran US feminist Camille Paglia says that “sex is animated by primitive energies and instincts”, that “pursuit and seduction are the essence of sexuality”, and that “it is women who are responsible for how men treat them”. Yet in the Haiti case, men had the power to exploit women and girls. Other cases, such as those of “grooming” in Rochdale, Oxford and Newcastle are further stains on the reputation of all men. It is high time men incorporated more civility, self-discipline, and good manners into their behaviour. Self-control would not compromise their masculinity.
There’s a whole essay I could write on how badly and unfairly women are treated. It is bad enough in Western cultures, but far worse in other parts of the world. Ms. Placek points out that “many women are deprived of that basic human right [education],” but she doesn’t identify the patriarchal societies in which this is often the case. Malala Youfsaziz, in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, referred to the case of a 12-year-old girl in Pakistan who was forced to marry a much older man, to have children straightaway and therefore to forego the education she longed for that in turn would have allowed her to achieve her ambition of becoming a doctor.
And yet there is a blind spot in the way women view men. They do not, it seems to me, acknowledge that it is men (particularly in the developed countries) who have created the material world we all live in. Everything that a woman touches during a day has been provided by men: the tap she turns on, the water that flows from it, the electricity that boils the kettle, the mobile phone, the car she jumps in and the sat-nav in it. The list is endless. Go up on the London Eye and take in a 360 degree view – 99% of everything you see is literally man-made. The bridges, the boats, the tower blocks, the Houses of Parliament, the roads—all devised, organised, sweated over, died for…by men. As Camille Paglia famously wrote: “If civilisation had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts.” (It could be argued, of course, that a “grass hut” culture wouldn’t be such a bad thing!) Paglia acknowledges the fact that it is men who have shaped the material world and provided a standard of living that is taken for granted. Of course, most men are just as beholden to the male workers, inventors and entrepreneurs as most women are for the benefits of modern civilisation. Working in offices or in the service sector as so many do, they too have done nothing to bring material benefits to their communities.
Having “defended” men, Paglia contends that they are condemned to lifelong sexual anxiety which they fleetingly escape through rationalism and physical achievement. She claims that women do not recognise they have a power over men. They should not try to be equal to men – they are already naturally superior. (By “naturally”, Paglia means by virtue of Mother Nature.) Yet from a man’s simplistic point of view, women, to some extent, are held hostage by nature in respect of menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding …and having to queue for the loos at the theatre. It is men who have alleviated women’s pain and inconvenience in these reproductive areas by manufacturing forceps, devising the cesarean procedure, building the tampon factories and designing the machines in them, inventing the Pill, making the epidural available, etc.
Paglia says “Woman is the dominant sex. Men have to do all sorts of stuff to prove that they are worthy of a woman’s attention.” If this is true, despite the good that men do for women, many men need to undergo a change in attitude and to start trying to be worthy of women’s respect. May Craig was fearless in challenging JFK at his press conferences. She is an example of a woman holding a man to account and that he “do stuff” that would gain women’s approval. I admire Ms Placek’s concluding statement in her Muse essay: “I want to be reassured that just because I am a girl (or a boy in other cases) that doesn’t make me weaker or less powerful and doesn’t limit me in any way.” I would put my whole case as simply as this: let men and women treat each other with respect and acknowledge their dependence on each other.