Laura, wife of the Captain in Strindberg’s play The Father is a feminist’s dream and a woman far ahead of her time. Living in rural 19th Century Sweden, Laura has few marital rights and even less control over the upbringing of her daughter. The State has conferred all legal authority on the male head of household, and the social conventions of the time rigidly adhere to this traditional family hierarchy.
Laura, however, is having none of it. She will destroy her husband, thereby inheriting all rights and responsibility for her child. Iago-like, she sows seeds of doubt about their daughter’s paternity, and Othello-like the Captain goes mad, is committed to a mental institution and is history. Not only does she progressively and insidiously insinuate that the Captain is not Bertha’s father, but as he is about to be carted off, she says to him:
Now you have fulfilled your function as an unfortunately necessary father and breadwinner, you are not needed any longer and you must go. You must go, since you have realized that my intellect is as strong as my will, and since you will not stay and acknowledge it.She is malevolent, powerful, and as willful and determined as any Superman of Nietzsche. Men are good for one thing and one thing only, she tells her husband – the rooster’s contribution – and when he has disgustingly dribbled his seed into her, she has absolutely, positively, irreversibly no need for him at all.
Laura is more purposeful, further beyond any trace of morality than even Iago, a man with no principle, no moral code, and no guiding principles. He destroys Othello because his will demands it. He shows no remorse, no concern for the consequences of his actions. Laura is cut from the same mold.
Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, and Hilda Wangel have the same iron will, determination, and disdain for traditional morality as Laura. Hedda destroys her lover. Rebekka destroys Rosmer; and Hilda destroys the Master Builder because they can. The profit little from their evil enterprise. They are proto-Nietzschean and ur-Feminists. It is only Laura, however, who makes explicit her total disdain for her husband and all men. They are nothing more than insignificant seed-bearers, dumb roosters who peck, cluck, deposit their genetic bit, and fly up to the top of the weathervane to crow at sunup. Useless, irrelevant, and laughable.
A lot has been made recently of the book The End of Men by Hanna Rosin in which she makes the case that the movement towards female dominance in the workplace has now become unstoppable. There are no brakes on the express train which left the station a decade or two ago and is only now picking up speed. Men are increasingly irrelevant in the workplace, the author contends. Women can do just fine on their own – and if the truth be known, do far better than their extremely limited, testosterone-driven, myopic male colleagues. Women, following their natural biological tendencies to seek consensus, relate with compassion, and act with tact and diplomacy, are innately better managers, leaders, and political strategists.
“Cardboard Man” is rigid, stuck in old habits, mentally muscle-bound and unable to adapt to the fleet-footed and mercurial global economy. “Plastic Woman” (an unfortunate name choice, given the surgical “adaptability” it calls to mind) is infinitely malleable, nimble and endowed with “traditionally feminine attributes, like empathy, patience and communal problem-solving,” that make her the perfect match for the new economy. For her, the only way forward is up. (Jennifer Homans, NYT, September 2012)This is all well and good, although I saw nary a trace of this plasticity in the character of the female supervisor I had a few years ago. Linda (not her real name) was as unstoppably, resolutely, and absolutely male as any other director in the corporation. She took no prisoners, ruled with complete and absolute authority, intimidated, threatened, and browbeat her subordinates; and was canny enough to fool Senior Management into thinking she was an ideal manager. In the short term, which is all American profit-making companies are interested in, her bottom lines were unmatched. And, I suspect, she was not alone.
This is neither here nor there, for anyone who has worked for both men and women, know that the most successful women are still the ones who have some mutated form of testosterone in their bloodstream. Those caring, compassionate, and conciliatory women Rosin talks about are kindergarten teachers. The only legitimate point in the argument is that women are on their way to being represented far beyond their 50 percent proportion of the population; and savvy men are very happy about it. There is no gender crisis at this simple, workplace level. Men have wanted women to do their fair share for a long time. Why should they be the only ones with heart attacks, stifled rage syndrome, and frustration? These alert and canny men know that doing a few more dishes and laundry is well worth the second salary and the flexibility to take a lighter workload or even take off a few years.
The problems seems to be that many women are stressed and conflicted about this rapid rise to power. Not only do they hear the biological clock ticking, but have to wonder if denying their female biological imperative is such a good idea. In the middle of night, tossing and turning after a brutal day at the office, they must feel a visceral, XX chromosome, gene-driven angst about motherhood and responsibility. Only women can have babies, these restless, sleepless, and overwhelmed women spin in their sleepless 3am brains. Doesn’t that tell us something? Can we – or better should we – ignore our God-given and –ordained purpose in life?
Men understand this, and far from being sympathetic, use this feminine insecurity and indecisiveness to their advantage. After all, they never have had such dilemmas to face. Feminists are right in one thing – men are definitely single-minded and testosterone-driven and couldn’t be conciliatory and caring if they tried; and because of that singularity are automatically in a position of psychological authority.
Both men and women are adept at twisting mates around their fingers. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra felt nothing for poor, besotted Antony who followed her around like a little puppy. Rosalind, Beatrice, Viola in Shakespeare’s Comedies ran rings around their male suitors. The New Age Man, however, far from being the complaisant and dutiful water boy for successful spouses, preys just as easily on women seduced by power, status, and recognition.
The rapid ascendency of women in the workplace is but one variable in the gender calculus. Ever since the advent of women’s rights, marriage has become a contract to be negotiated, arbitrated, and contested. It is no longer a simple, stable field of encounter. Roles are changing as are expectations, contributions, and responsibilities; but gender imperatives are not. I know many 30-something women who are eminently successful in their professional careers; but when they leave their corporate offices, they blubber to their female friends about their husbands’ and boyfriends’ abuse, infidelity, and callous indifference. Their worldview – caring, conciliatory, and inclusive – runs into the male buzz saw of determined self interest every single night.
Boyfriends, however, have learned to benefit from women’s biological clock and their determined pursuit of professional success. They can exact far more concessions from a woman nearing their pull-by fertility date than from one who unhesitatingly talks of marriage and children.
In other words, although women have made noteworthy progress in the world of the workplace, they still have a lot to work out on the home front. Who exactly am I? is not so easy to answer.
The gender dust has not yet settled. The thirty-something women of today are still working out their relationships with pre-Feminist mothers and traditional fathers. Freud simply won’t go away, and men still marry their mothers and daughters their fathers. No wonder women still start blubbering when their boyfriend/father shows indifference regardless of their professional acclaim.
On the other hand, all the thirty-something men I know are not going through any of this. Other than a little more ‘consideration’ shown to their hard-working partners or spouses, they still do what they damn please because they know that in a shrinking market, eligible men are hard to find. Young men have serial girlfriends through their twenties and early thirties; and then are deluged by sexual offers by women who finally have to choose a mate or lose out on motherhood.
So most men I know are totally unconcerned about becoming irrelevant. They know, after all the corporate balance sheets have been tallied; after all the VP and SVP titles recorded, they still rule the gender roost.
This will certainly change. Women will sort through all this gender noise and chart truer paths to complete professional and personal success. Men’s cynical sexual games will be exposed once and for all, and all relational contracts renegotiated. Women’s liberation is really only a few decades old, and women are still caught in the backwash of the engines taking them forward; but when they find themselves in calmer waters, they will regain both flotation and equality.
Until then men still have a pretty easy ride. Now, there are some men who have bought into the whole women’s rights thing and still prefer the role of water boy and gofer. They attend women’s conferences, write articles about equality and rights, and neuter themselves in the name of Progressivism, but fortunately they are few and far between.
Although superficially society has changed, and women have certainly emerged into a much brighter world than they lived in for hundreds of years, human nature – and male and female natures – have not changed at all. The savvy, confident, self-assured men will leave far more progeny behind than those who attend women’s conferences.
Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, Laura, Hilde Wangel, Constance, Margaret, and Rosalind will always be my heroes. They are unafraid to express their will and defy men, convention, and morality to get what they want. They have no equals, and I have met many women in real life who could have been models for Ibsen, Strindberg, or Shakespeare in their time. Most women, however, are conflicted, unsure, burdened by their past and their XX chromosomes. They are Chekhov people – intelligent, but hesitant.
The real gender wars have only begun. Men are by no means irrelevant, and never will be, so equally matched are males and females. We have the upper hand for a while, but history has shown that those on top always come a cropper.