Sharp Women, Smart Men

I am reading two books now, SHARP: THE WOMEN WHO MADE AN ART OF HAVING AN OPINION by Michelle Dean and THE OTHER EINSTEIN by Marie Benedict.  I am reluctantly following the Brett Kavanaugh debacle.  Amy Goodman (of DemocracyNow) is reporting that Jocelyn Bell Burnell finally got her Nobel award just 50 years after her male advisor stole her work and credit for her discovery.

While Marie Benedict’s book is fiction, it’s based on historic events.  The choices faced by women attempting to pursue training and employment in scientific fields during Albert Einstein’s time were awful, but their treatment by family and friends was worse.  And the fundamental underlying concepts remain active today.

  1.  Women MUST place the support and care of others about their own interests.
  2.  Men and family (even society in general) are entitled to that support and care.
  3.  Women can contribute, but only men excel.  Genius belongs to men.
  4.  Women just need to get over it.  Men should be forgiven.

In practice, this means that men who support and care for others (perhaps placing those interests about their own) are worthy of praise.  Women who chose to excel while making other individuals responsible for their own support and care are selfish and worthy of criticism.  Men and women in competition with one another are judged by inherent biases that most people prefer to remain unaware of.

Michelle Dean calls “sharpness” the ability to cut to the quick with precision of thought and wit.  Men in particular prefer not to have their illusions (I call that their inflated self-image) challenged.

In daily life, men interrupt and talk over women constantly.  Women who adapt this strategy have it called into question.  The men do not.  Men are determined, women are pushy.  Men are passionate, women are hysterical.  A woman speaking (especially when testifying in an official capacity) as Brett Kavanaugh has, would be pilloried:  emotional outbursts, displays of anger, poor memory, evasiveness, disrespect etc.

On a larger stage, why does a competent and independent woman like Hilary Clinton need to remain fashionable, compassionate, respectful and humorous?  Why are her choices, good or bad, judged by different standards than her male counterparts?  Why should women be held accountable not only for their own behavior, but for the behavior of all others they interact with?  A handsome man isn’t immediately considered stupid, but we have a cultural meme based on the dumb blonde.  Why are women responsible for protecting themselves FROM men?  Why aren’t men responsible for their own behavior in a way that doesn’t require women to constantly be assessing themselves, their actions and their circumstances for degrees of vulnerability and potential harm or judgement?  Why must women always be “appropriate” and men can just be “men?”

Teenagers make stupid mistakes.  Factually, their brains are still developing.  They are inexperienced.  They are products of their environment and their culture.  However, why is a woman at a party who drinks and is assaulted by a man, drinking or not, responsible for that assault? She shouldn’t have gone to THAT party.  She shouldn’t have been drinking or gotten drunk.  She should have dressed differently.  She should have taken more precautions.  She should just GET OVER IT.

If Bill Clinton had just admitted to his inappropriate sexual encounters and offered an apology, I’d have been ready to move on.  I dislike every other thing about Brett Kavanaugh, but if he’d just admitted to drinking and inappropriate behavior in high school and college, I’d again be ready to move on.

Individual men need to be held accountable for individual behavior, but nothing will change until we acknowledge their behavior is a direct product of our culture.  Degrees of behavior and environment matter, acknowledgement and restitution matter, changing the conduct and the conversation matter.

I grew up loving Bill Cosby.  He is a cultural icon.  Michael Jackson’s music is part of my life’s soundtrack.  Al Franken was a good comic and a better senator.  What they all have in common is a sense of entitlement that they used to excuse bad behavior.  They abused their power and influence.  They also had life experiences and wounds that influenced that behavior.  They were part of their family, their immediate culture and the broader national culture.

We need to live up to better standards in our daily lives and to call out bad behavior in those daily lives.  Don’t wink and joke, don’t deflect, don’t look the other way.  If women need to be SHARP to wake up SMART men, we need to embrace that characteristic.  If not now, when?  If not you, who?