Friday, March 05, 2010

image, reality, and the gender issue

A couple of events this week got me thinking about our society and its rather contradictory attitudes toward gender. Last night I attended a dinner and presentation in New York as part of the NYU tax policy colloquium. The presenter and all of the dinner guests under 50 were women, all bright, confident, and in at least superficially high spirits. Students and faculty participated in the seminar without visible gender distinction. Other than a lame joke about water breaking (one of the participants was visibly pregnant), the gender issue, so to speak, was by and large invisible.

I then took my customary brisk walk to Penn Station [I lived until age 8 in lower Manhattan and there are memories everywhere] where the TV news was blaring as usual. It seems that the current Governor of New York, a liberal State, employed a substantial number of state officials in a (successful) effort to intimidate a woman from seeking a protective order against one of the Governor's key aides. I don't remember all the details, but there was something a woman being smashed into a mirror, her clothes stripped off, the kind of stuff you usually see only on CSI. To make matters worse a secondary scandal, involving the failure to report free baseball tickets, was being treated as on a par with this episode. The previous Governor resigned in a prostitution scandal.

What exactly is going on then? Call me cynical, but it seems to me women are now pretty much the equal of men . . . if they went to Ivy League schools, worked at fancy law firms, and teach at reasonably good universities. Beyond that I'm much less sure. Or perhaps we are all, at each income level, living in two worlds: an official one of equality and mutual respect and a real one, not far below the surface, in which everything continue more or less as before. I think of my 14-year old son, who can name all the female body parts but seems to have only a vague idea that they are connected to real people. Perhaps equality between the genders is a bit like the Exodus from Egypt in the Passover Haggadah: a lesson that has to be continually relearned because there is an inevitable tendency toward backsliding. Or perhaps we are in an intermediate zone, like Jews a hundred years ago, where we have the illusion of having made it and the real struggles have yet to begin.


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