Monday, 14 September 2015

A letter on gender and generational relations

Victorian family


I think the relationship between the sexes / genders owes a great deal to the fact that before the second half of the twentieth century, and certainly in times before, most women had babies, a great many babies when they were poor, partly because they couldn't help it for lack of reliable contraception, and partly because having a lot of children offered some economic security through the extended family when the children turned into adults and the state wouldn't provide. It should also be added that a good many of the babies, and often the women themselves, died in giving birth. During her lifetime a woman might have been pregnant ten times or more.

Under the circumstances the role of the husband was to provide by any means, and the vast majority of men who did so did not do that through 'careers' but by means of a job, often a very hard one. Even in the lower end of the middle class, hours were long and jobs tedious or dangerous. Manners, sometimes crude, sometimes courteous (because courtesy, like, say, dancing, was a welcome change from the harshness of work) sprang out of that.

With older men like my father, who really did work very hard to provide for us (six days a week, seven to seven back in Hungary, with night classes on top) the manners he regarded as courtesies were by no means patronising or belittling. They were what helped him, and the very hard working women (including my mother), make the world go round. His own father worked on the shop-floor of a shoe factory. His mother took in sewing, as did her sisters.

As to 'power', beyond my father's very limited power at work I did not think he had more power than my mother, indeed rather less, since she made all the important domestic decisions. His work was never brought home. We never saw it but it was he who had the industrial accident that meant he had to walk with painful pins holding his ankle together for the rest of his life. We did see the results of his work.

I sometimes feel that younger, educated middle-class women have no idea of what life was like. All they see in their own lives and their idea of gender relations is the potential indignity and disadvantage to themselves. They are full of self-righteous anger - which is a form of idealism - and can be arrogant and bullying in their language without realising this.

I myself am now getting on for sixty-seven, have retired from teaching (though not from writing, of course) and have no stake in permanent employment. Besides all that I have been very happily married for forty-five years and have two grandchildren so have decided not to allow myself - or indeed my father (especially not him!) - to be verbally chastised by someone younger than my own daughter, who has lived a great deal less and seems to have little historical perspective.

I am of course glad of the changes. I am thoroughly glad that women have many more options than they once had, and am sorry indeed to see them patronised or mistreated. I have both a son and a daughter and wish the very best to them both.

Beyond that life goes on as it does. I am very fond of our women friends and they seem to like me. I don't behave like my father who, as far as I know, never made a pass at anyone but whose ideas of courtesy now appear quaint to some and offensive to others. I don't behave like him because I was born later among different circumstances.

I wish sometimes younger people realised this, or were a little more charitable in their thoughts and imaginations. I realise I now sound very old indeed. There I go again, 'mansplaining'. And somehow I don't care. I really don't care.

Yours, etc…


Unknown said...

As an older European interested in gender in the twenty-first century, I have found reading invaluable in broadening my own lived experiences of family, work and so on. For instance Plato, St Paul, William Shakespeare, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida. I would like to suggest that it may enhance your patience with younger women if you cast your mind back to your own formative reading of authors such as Christine de Pisan, Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Bronte, Simone de Beauvoir, Tillie Olsen, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins and Sandra Harding.

Unknown said...

I meant 'broadening my understanding of my own lived experiences'.

George S said...

Thank you,Sarah - I do of course know a good many of the writers you name, though not the last three.

George S said...

ps Only to add that I take your point but I would find it easier to be patient with younger women if they were a little more patient with those older than themselves.

LadiesAlone said...

Thanks for going to the trouble to explain your position. Unfortunately, I don't care.

George S said...

Thank you for reading despite not caring LadiesAlone. That makes two of us now.

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear George

Most western women have jam on it and the honest ones (like my wife and sister) freely admit it. Feminists ought to be focusing their attention on women in third world and Islamic countries who seem to have almost no rights. Instead they prefer to moan about the disparity between what men and women earn in places like Hollywood.

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish