On a summer vacation from Moscow I was again visiting the California coastal town – Santa Cruz – where I had lived before I moved to Russia in 1994. And though it was “summer” in Moscow, I still rather more enjoyed the short pants and sun of California – as well as the view of Monterey Bay and the Pacific Ocean. A young Russian woman – about eighteen years old – in a chance conversation in an outdoor Mexican-food cafe about the good and bad aspects of life in Russia vs. California, said to me, that ‘one doesn’t want or need to read Dostoyevsky in Hawaii’. Dostoyevsky in this conversation represented the serious and deep elements of Russian literature, suffering, history, soul and culture – and the point was that Dostoyevsky just is not really needed or understood in the easy life, of which Hawaii was an even more superlative (and, by inexpensive flight, nearby) example than even self-glorifying California.
One lazy afternoon I enter a very well-stocked used bookstore in Santa Cruz – the town is now “Silicon Beach” for “dot-comers” from Silicon Valley – and headed to the large history section. There I immediately noticed an attractive woman who though dressed mostly in the very casual unisex California style – cut-off blue jeans; a casual, not very “sexy” blouse; very little make-up; modest if any jewelry – seemed to be dressed up somewhat more than the average woman one would often see there. I could see that she had clearly attempted to make herself attractive – the color combination, a certain “neatness” in her clothes, some tasteful jewelry,…in short, she looked “more like a woman” than most women one would see in California. I observed and considered her with curiosity, as I semi-seriously looked amongst the history books. Then the mystery was solved: a young girl – her daughter – ran up to her speaking Russian.
I lived the first two decades of my life not in liberal, “crazy” California, but in Alabama – one of the most culturally and socially conservative states in America. (It is part of what is called “the Bible Belt”, and considers itself “the heart of Dixie”.) There, when I was a youth in the 1950’s and 1960’s, if a visiting woman (or guest) entered a room, all of the boys and men stood up immediately. (This can still occur in some social circles to this day.) To adults in general, one always said “yes sir” and “yes ma’am” – at least in “middle” (or higher) socio-economic class families. One always opened a door for a woman; if walking on a sidewalk, the man had to walk on the side nearest the moving cars (to protect her); one always helped a woman with her coat; the male always paid for a “date”; in short: “ladies first”. On the other hand, my high school girlfriend usually required two hours “to get ready for a date” – and though I was never exactly sure what could possibly take so long to do, the results were most often pretty and pleasing.
In California, over time, I came to realize that all of these “social manners”, chivalrous or not, to a woman or not, were only very rarely if at all expected socially. One was not expected to: open doors of cars for women, help them carry heavy items, pay for “dates”, …indeed, one was not often expected to treat women in any special way at all. In fact, one was most often expected to not treat women in any special way. Due to the very real influence of a certain type of feminism (there are other “streams” in the entire women’s movement), I gradually discerned that I was expected to treat women as some said they wanted and expected: as “equals”. This was not just feminist rhetoric – but, to certain degrees, depending somewhat on the social circle and individual, the social realities of daily life there. Feminist theory – less or more legitimately following an idea in the American Declaration of Independence – said that all men and women are “equal”, and that in every way. With some women that one could meet, it came to be rejected as sexist arrogant for a man to imagine that a woman needed a man’s special attention or help, or that a woman was in any way “unequal” (or weaker) than a male. An eighty-year-old, independent woman there criticized such people as can only understand “equality” as “identity”. As it could be said: Eve demanded to be viewed, and treated, as equal to Adam (both of whom are said to be “fallen” – but, whom, as is clear in Margaret’s assistance in ultimately saving Faust, or in Beatrice’s heavenly aid to the wandering Dante, were held to be especially able to lead men back to God). To some theorists, there developed an animosity to any idea, custom, manner, expression, joke, etc…that even possibly implied or hinted any inequality between man and woman. Bodily differences were, by some of these “scholars”, treated as unfortunate and unfair…but in every case inessential to the “equality” they asserted. On this assumption feminist scholars for example revised and rewrote most all important texts (e.g. Bible), myths, philosophies, histories, interpretations, etc to show how either they had been misinterpreted – or interpreted in a “sexist” manner, by men obviously – and so able to be reinterpreted to show that woman are in no way less (perhaps rather greater) than men. (“Scholarship” was here subjected to the politics of “women’s liberation”.)
My grandmother had been, in childhood, the daughter of a “Deep South” riverboat captain – and thus the little queen of the ship. Later, as the decades past and American culture increasingly changed, in the last years of her life, when she heard that some women in the USA wanted the “equal right” to be drafted into the US military, and to fight in combat as soldiers (“equally with men”), I well remember how she said: “This country has gone crazy!” In her life she had kept home; her husband (my grandfather) had earned money. Then there were clearer differences in the “roles” of men and women in many parts of the USA than there are today, where many more women work (“two-income households”) – many by economic necessity. My mother’s generation was similar. Even today some women do not need, or want, to work; when it is not necessary for the family.
When I was visiting some circles of cultured, “well-to-do” people in Switzerland from California once, I noted that all of the social manners of a “Southern gentlemen”, which my mother had done so much to teach us children, which were next to useless in California, I could use again. These people in Switzerland would probably have just accepted me as an American “barbarian” from California, if I had not known and been able to use such social manners; but I was rather glad to find that I could revive them again there, after lying dormant and all but forgotten during nearly 20 years in CA.
I very well remember attending a university course lecture at the University of California at Santa Cruz by a well-known, influential professor in the “Women’s Studies” department, where this feminist (also a lesbian and a Marxist) was lecturing to a large hall full of young, impressionable, first-year university female students (when I was young the word “girl” had not been banished as “anathema” by feminists), and hearing of the male exploitation and oppression of women, in almost every way, in history and the social realities today. The lecturer was in this lecture considering how much money a mother should be paid for her “mothering work” when she, and her child, were asleep. There were exact dollar figures she suggested for the day-time hourly work rate, but the amount the mother should receive while sleeping (but in the house ready to work) was much more problematic. This was all discussed with great serious, and self-righteousness, and with a discernible, aggressive animosity to men. (And all the young girls were learning how evil men were, and are.)
In these circles, there are some feminist scholars who have discerned male oppression of women (“sexism”), people of color (“racism”), working people (“classism”), etc, as the source of evil almost all in human history. These lectures in “history” (or “herstory” of “womyn” – as some came to re-write these ancient words) also affected the real attitudes of women. I recall in the mid-1980s, how – as one of the incarnations of evil in human history, a male, just to approach an attractive woman in this time in this university town to start a conversation could be greeted not only by “bad vibes” (as they say in CA), but even by yelling at you to not hassle her. This was all often quite loud, and in public. I recall sitting with a group of about seven sweet, kind and sensitive men in CA, and sharing dismaying, astonishing, irritating stories of similar encounters with such women. There was an atmosphere of hate to men; just to look at an attractive woman was often rejected as offensive. For some such women even their own desire to appear attractive to men, came to be seen as a symptom of weakness, inequality, “internalized oppression” and non-liberated, “sexist” ideas. Males were viewed as the source of evil in human history, …and there we were walking down the streets – even looking at women!
So, in my life in the USA in the last four decades of the 20th century, I have experienced social conditions where I was supported to be a polite “southern gentlemen” to “ladies”; when for women to be feminine was not anti-“feminist”; the word “girl” could still be spoken; and in general social courteousness was not only right, it was expected. And I have experienced social conditions where to use the word “man” or “mankind” – not to mention “girl” – was immediately, openly, publically attacked. And to even give the most innocent or incidental, unintended implication that women are not completely equal to men in abilities, character, psychology, etc, could be aggressively verbally attacked. This was not all women…thank goodness, but sometimes even sweet, intuitive women were affected by such ideas.
Obviously, the way Russian women expect to be treated – after living in California for almost two decades – meant that I had to again remember, revive and refine, social manners quite different from those in California.
First published in the magazine English, #10, 2001, p. 15.
See also the essay Why is it Mankind’s History? (English, #17, 1997).