My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 1, #26, February, 1996


One of the reasons I'm a feminist is that gender roles are so limiting. It's like we are all raised to be half of a couple: he does financial security, she does emotional security; he does outside, she does inside; he does tough, she does tender. That actually works pretty well inside of a family, because we all can concentrate on doing our half of the bargain really well. But it also leaves each of us only half a human when we're on our own.

The feminist way of dealing with this, too often, has been a matter of telling guys to change and take on some of the feminine virtues. Not a bad idea, but again, only half the picture. What about also asking women to take on some of men's virtues?

Men's virtues? you say?

Yeah. Men's virtues. Don't hear about them very much, do you? But there is such a lot to admire about men. One of the things I really like about guys is that they are raised to take responsibility for their actions. They don't make excuses, and they don't have a whole lot of tolerance for people who do make excuses, who try to weasel out from their responsibility.

I was thinking about this last week when one of our Congresswomen, Enid Waldholz, gave a press conference, explaining at length that yes, her campaign had done some very bad, illegal financial maneuvering, but no, she didn't do it, her husband did it, and no, she wasn't planning to resign because she was an important part of the Republican plan to restore fiscal responsibility to government. She stood there for four hours saying this, apparently without the faintest hint of irony. A man doing the same thing and blaming his wife would have been laughed into private life within 24 hours.

And I thought about it when the jury ruled, or rather failed to rule, in the case of the Menendez brothers, two young men who became wealthy by blasting their parents with shotguns. The jury was hung along gender lines. The men saw premeditated greed and murder, and wanted to send them to the gas chamber. The women looked at these young men, crying on the witness stand, where they talked about sexual abuse, and how they feared for their lives, (the mother was apparently in the act of filling out college application forms for one of them when she was shot),and they saw victims in need of therapy.

The men are in the right on this. The congresswoman benefited from illegal acts, and she should have accepted the responsibility and resigned. The Menendez brothers should pay the price for their actions; even crooks know that if you do the crime, you should be ready to do the time. "Take what you want, and pay for it, says God" is not just the belief of Zorba the Greek, but of most men.

The act of being responsible goes along with men's role as designated risk- taker. They're the ones who get the women and children into the lifeboats first, the ones who go to war to keep their country and women and children safe. They're the ones who are rushing into burning buildings when everyone else is fighting to get out. They're the ones who stand up to the bad guys, even if it means the bad guys might shoot them; they're the ones who, when the bad guys run out the door, are foolhardy enough to follow them and try to catch them. They're the ones who die building bridges and dams and high-rise buildings. They're the ones who went south during freedom summer, outfacing people who wanted to kill them; the Viola Liuzzos in the civil rights struggles were few and far between.

Men do a lot of the emotional risk-taking, too, and get damn little credit for it. They're the ones who have to speak first, make the first moves, and take the ultimate emotional risk of saying "Will you marry me?" At every step, they have a vivid mental picture of the woman saying "Me? Go out with you?" Or "You've GOT to be kidding!" Or worst of all, breaking into uncontrollable giggles. And yet men take those risks anyway. And then have women tell them that they're too emotionally shut down.

Guys are brought up to be problem-solvers. It's one of the reasons men and women get so frustrated talking to each other, according to Debra Tannen, the woman who writes about the conversational styles of men and women. She says that when women are complaining about a person or situation, they want to vent, to verbalize as a way of thinking about the problem, and to get a little sympathy. It drives them crazy when men instantly switch into problem-solving mode and start saying "You should..." Men, on the other hand, don't understand someone just sitting around bitching and whining when they could be doing something about the problem.

Women should appreciate how extremely helpful this approach to life makes men. When I was getting ready to buy a house, the head of our maintenance department assumed (correctly) that I knew very little about roofs and furnaces and water heaters and such, and offered to check everything out for me before I bought it. Next time your car breaks down, look and see who it is that stops and offers help; nine times out of ten, it's a guy. When you're carrying something heavy, chances are a guy will offer to help you with it.

And nowadays, when they do, they run the risk of getting bawled out for treating women unequally. That's not feminist, incidentally; that's just mean. When someone is trying to do something nice for you, you should appreciate it, even if you don't happen to need the assistance. And women should be just as eager to help anyone who is burdened. It is safe for men and women alike to assume that a heavily pregnant woman, or a woman with several little kids attached to her, or anyone carrying heavy stuff, could use a little help with doors and such.

The other thing I really like about guys is their boundless energy. Six women in a room is cozy and intimate. Six male creatures in a room makes it seem on the verge of exploding, like a laboratory full of unknown but volatile chemicals. This energy could erupt in violence and aggression, or in a belching contest, or in a serious attempt to put an empty beer can on every single spike in a wrought iron fence (after, of course, emptying the beer cans). But it could also result in going out and building a new house for a family whose home burned down, or in a new political movement.

Most of our institutions and laws are there to contain and channel that boundless male energy, to redirect male aggression into useful social purposes. Marriage limits men's sexual opportunism (ideally), while the economic burden of children forces men into productive labor. One of the saddest things about civilization is the way it takes a wildly funny, unpredictable, prank-playing 18 year old boy and turns him into a 22 year old man worrying about life insurance and pension plans.

But that energy remains, and manifests itself, often, in grand designs, for new buildings or businesses or inventions or creations, or ways of organizing the world anew. It gives us Stephen Spielberg and Jim Henson, Henry Ford and Bill Gates, Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

So, here's to the virtues of men, and the virtues of women. And to the hope that someday, all of us will have a fair sprinkling of both.

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