LONELINESS, DISTRUST AND VIOLENCE MARK THE STATE OF MALE-FEMALE RELATIONSHIPS
THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES
LONELINESS, DISTRUST AND VIOLENCE MARK THE STATE OF MALE-FEMALE RELATIONSHIPS
What will happen between men and women in the 1990s? To gain any understanding of that involves looking at what is happening between them now and through the 1980s. In the Western world, nothing less than a great, complex, long-lasting revolution is unfolding. For feminists, it feels too slow: the same battles have to be fought over and over again. Tired, and growing cynical as they see that regulation and education have not done the trick, some women openly wonder if progress has been made. Yet for many other people, the changes in women’s roles are so shocking, so destabilizing, that they cannot cope. Anger, violence, loneliness and a widespread lack of trust are the result.
Diane, a 40-year-old, university-educated single woman from an old Ontario family, decided that she was finished with dates arranged by friends or with men she met at the YMCA. She might not have a man, but she could have a child. She arranged a pregnancy by artificial insemination and announced the fact, with her family’s full support. The person who was most shocked was Will, 44, also single, who had dated her but couldn’t move himself to a commitment.
Judy and Andrew, in their late 30s, were married for 14 years. She was a lawyer, he an executive. Early in their marriage, they agreed not to have children. As they approached 40, both began having affairs. He became infatuated with a younger woman, and their marriage broke up. Now, Judy is involved with a married man, and wants children. Andrew is seriously in debt, cries a lot and calls Judy for advice. “You are my best friend,” he tells her.
Tessy, 29 and the only member of her large Filipino family who could get into Canada,
worked as a domestic servant from the age of 17. When she became a Canadian citizen, she brought in her father, mother and brother, whom she put through university. She became, in effect, the head of the family. But no one, including her, could accept that fact. Intelligent, hardworking and thrifty, Tessy now works as a private nurse and invests in the stock market. She has just had a bitter rupture with her parents, who insist they have the right to tell her whom to marry.
Meanwhile, my parents recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and their friends, relations and children gathered to toast what is regarded, more and more, as an amazing achievement. And a high-school friend writes to me from Beaverlodge, Alta.: “The girls are 14 and 16,” she says. “Bruce and I are still in love. I love being a housewife!”
Trying to get a clear picture of where men and women are—and are going—is like shooting a photograph with a shattered lens. Everything comes out in a jumble; the messages are contradictory. Marriage is in trouble, but it’s back “in.” Having babies and “quality of life” is touted as the ethos of the 1990s. Yet people are working longer and longer hours. Sexual harassment, unequal pay and lack of advancement for women in the workplace are being assailed.
Ideals: That confused picture is repeated, within. Many women are, like me, one part nostalgic and one part impatient for progress. Men and women, in their ideals for themselves and each other, are caught somewhere between the 1950s world of Father Knows Best and this unknown, equality-based shape of the family of the 21st century.
Looking out for oneself has been a major preoccupation of the past decade, although that is going out of style. I still smart when I remember what a woman said to me 10 years ago when I took a detour in my “career path” and moved to Washington, where my husband had been transferred. She asked, “Does this
still happen in the Eighties?” Apparently, it was not supposed to.
But today, it is a different story. The past decade gave a lot of media space to individual women “achievers.” These women, in their 40s, and married, working, with children, are now rather noisily running out of steam. They have discovered that after-school day care and outside help keep their children busy, but they can’t hire out the responsibility of parenthood. They have all but given up on the myth of the supportive husband. Some of those who can afford to do it have cut back on work, even though no one stays in the fast track working part time. Cynicism about feminist reform in corporations, universities and industry is legion. Some female achievers even say that they are not so sure that reaching the top is worth the grind. They work, keep kids and home together, and barely manage to get out to the drugstore to buy antiaging cream after the kids are in bed.
Some energy is reserved, however, to sound off about men and their jobs, jobs whose demands seem to rise and rise, and men who can’t say no to the needs of their jobs. “We don’t worry about our relationship anymore,” a friend said of herself and her husband. “It’s his relationship with his job that’s got to be worked out.”
Sexism: Breathing life into the issues on university campuses is a new breed of feminists, bred on 1980s negotiating skills, who understand the pitfalls of the “achiever” syndrome. They see sexism and racism as one set of problems and education as the answer. But they have sprung up amidst a campus culture that now considers feminism the “f” word. They cite 20 years of media saturation with women’s issues, the perception that regulations now favor women, as well as the breakdown of family life, as reasons for the increased anger and intolerance of some men.
A great deal of our difficulty comes from the fact that women’s lives, much more than men’s, proceed in phases. The phases relate to reproduction, and also to women’s concept of themselves as being defined by their relationships. Although more women today either do not marry or marry but do not have children, the majority still have 30odd years to become educated and established in a job before the question of children comes up. Married women are likely to spend up to 10 years bearing the major responsibility for small children. Those who choose to quit work are most vulnerable. If their marriages end, they and their children are likely to swell the poverty figures. Those who continue working outside their home develop dangerous levels of fatigue and stress.
After the reproduction cycle, many women may take a job again. Paid less, and below the top levels in most job categories, these women nonetheless enjoy some of their best years, confident and more content. However, recently, late-blooming career women discover that their career paths are incompatible with their husbands’: as she gears up to join the workforce, he may be moving towards retirement. Such discontinuity works against women in systems that are based on men’s straighter lines of progress through life.
Skills: But there will be no retreat from jobs by women. Most work because they need to and their families need the money. For too long, women without marketable skills have suffered consequences. Now, few feel they can afford to go about protected only by marriage laws and the goodwill of men. If this is mistrust, it is well placed. But it has created a ripple effect: if you don’t trust me, I don’t trust you. Tougher matrimonial property laws make divorce costly.
Fifty years ago, men and women were married and made bargains: she would raise children, he would have a career, they would support each other. Now, the marital “bargain” is unclear. Differences of opinion about who supports whom, who looks after whom, who is in the driver’s seat, are constant and recurring. Divorce and contract lawyers make money. Many people never resolve their needs or expectations, and have only casual involvements with the other sex.
In the end, this is a social revolution. What happens to men and women in this decade must be worked out in pairs. Will the 1990s turn out to be the decade promised, where environmental action, “quality of life” and our own backyards are the big concerns? Then we shall find ourselves looking for love, negotiating terms over the compost heap.
Katherine Govier is a Toronto writer whose latest short-story collection, Before and After, deals with contemporary relationships.
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