Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Simper Fidelis

It is a commonplace that women outlive men, but this demographic factoid only holds under modern conditions of sanitation and medicine. In most of history, the husbands buried the wives because of the high mortality associated with childbirth. The physiological advantages of femininity, like many another natural fact, is a function of context. The same can be said of the relative abilities of the genders. We know from anthropology and the historical record that in the vast majority of instances the men lord it over the women—the relative equality of the sexes in modern times is very much an outlier in a statistical sense. In a peaceful world where competition is based on intelligence and social skill rather than violence and sheer strength, women may be superior to men. Under more normal conditions, the females can be easily intimidated by the larger and more aggressive males, especially where a higher birth rate guarantees that they will be a vulnerable state for much of the time. Indeed, in many contemporary situations, women still live in fear from their menfolk; and we’re not that far in time from the era when beating your wife was as legal as paddling your kids, permissible when not obligatory.

My impression—and it’s only that—is that women, at least in this country, are losing much of the ground they won over the last century. Walking about in the cloak of invisibility that is late middle age, I eavesdrop on the conversations of young women in coffee bars and on busses; and I hear America simpering. Women do not dress and act like amateur trollops in eras of sexual freedom and gender equality. Playing up to men flourishes on in times when fewer girls aspire to their own power and place in the world and more calculate that latching on to a useful male is the way to go. Of course, even if my admittedly anecdotal impression is correct, it may be that what’s going on is merely a cultural fluctuation—after all, women were also trying out for Stepford wife during the Eisenhower administration—but I suspect that the fluctuation is embedded in a wider trend with far more serious consequences than the proliferation of girls-gone-wild videos.

In many countries, the fall of Marxist regimes was accompanied by a decline in the political and social standing of women. Muslim fundamentalism is deeply anti-feminist and the status of women is also at risk in non-Muslim developing countries as evidenced by the widespread practice of aborting female offspring. In the rapidly emerging Post-post-industrial world, the largest fraction of the population is made up of what Pierre Bourdieu called the subproletariat. These peasants and the offspring of peasants, displaced factory workers, and underemployed college grads depend for their survival and sense of identity upon membership in non-economic groups such as clans, religious sects, mafias, and political parties—just the kind of organizations in which testosterone counts much more than brains. Small wonder that women, like drugs and guns, have become a major trade good in the underside of the global economy.

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