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A Yankee Notebook

May 11, 2015


MONTPELIER, VT – It was a pretty quiet Mother’s Day around here: no kids sneaking up the stairs in the early light with coffee, juice, and breakfast on a tray with a flower floating in a custard cup. No homemade greeting cards that will be saved forever. In fact, no Mother. She’s been off in Atlanta visiting sisters and, according to her, getting the circulation back into her fingers and toes after the infamous February we had. In the confusion of getting off to Boston for her flight, though, she forgot to tell the kids she was going; so I’m tending a beautiful bouquet – carefully following the instructions that came with it – and it should still be blooming when she returns.

Being alone on Mother’s Day, though, gave me some time to think about what mothers, and women in general, mean in our lives, and what changes we’ve seen in our own 55 years of marriage. We were married at the end of the Fifties. Dwight Eisenhower was still in the White House. Television sitcoms all dressed mothers in full, skirts and bright-colored aprons, cheerfully looking after their scrubbed blond kids till their pleasant (if dimwitted) husbands came home from work for conversations about homework and school plays, and a dinner of chops and mashed potatoes. We were still a long way from the Virginia Slims cigarette ads declaring, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” I loved the riposte of one feminist: “I’m not a baby, and I haven’t come a long way.”

Our various cultures have defined our gender roles for many thousands of years; and even though the man of the family no longer trudges home with a bloody bison haunch over his shoulder, they still do. The days of the single schoolmarm who, if she married, lost her job, aren’t so far behind us. Nor have I forgotten how embarrassed I was for my wife when she came home with a signature card for me to endorse before she could open a charge account. Women in the United States still make significantly less than men with equivalent responsibilities, when just a few hours’ flight across the Atlantic, those differences have diminished to insignificance. While American legislators routinely curtail paid maternity or paternity leave “for the sake of small business,” many other countries require it, for both men and women.

In Afghanistan about a week ago, an argument between a street peddler and a young woman escalated rapidly into a grisly murder scene. The peddler waved some scorched pages and shouted to passersby that the woman had burned pages of the Qu’ran. A mob of men surrounded the woman, beat her unconscious with sticks, stomped her body, threw it off a roof, ran over it with a car, and finally set it alight beside the Kabul River. Then they threw it into the river. Local police stood by, not interfering with the attack. Social media came down on both sides of the incident, with some men bragging of their participation and others, describing themselves as moderates, saying that if the allegation was true, she deserved it. But a group of angry women, defying all cultural protocol, carried the woman’s coffin to her grave while chanting slogans about their much-trampled civil rights, supposedly guaranteed by the fairly recent Afghan constitution.

Mother hadn’t heard the story in Atlanta. When I told her about it, she said, “You know this isn’t about religion, don’t you? This is about men afraid of losing their power, and hiding behind religion to justify their actions.”

That observation rang the bell. In a declared or implicit theocracy – think of the Puritans in 17th-century New England – conformity is demanded and enforced; and aberrant behavior, in the absence of an authority willing to challenge the conformity, is punished with righteous anger. It reminded me of the old story of Susanna (or Shoshana), the young wife of a wealthy Jew during the Babylonian Exile. Her story appears in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bibles as part of the Book of Daniel, but Protestants place it in the Apocrypha. Doesn’t matter much; most scholars consider the story and its hero both mythical.

Susanna has caught the lustful eye of a couple of elderly Hebrew judges who frequent her husband’s house, which apparently is used as a court. They proposition her; she declines with fervor; they report that they’ve seen her consorting with a young man in the garden – for which the penalty is death by stoning. The old judges are respected, and Susanna led away to be stoned. But at that moment a young man calls out, demanding he be allowed to question the old men separately. It’s the first appearance of Daniel (remember Nebuchadnezzar and the lions’ den?), and more significantly, the first instance of cross-examination in a court of law. The old men’s stories, of course, don’t match, and they get what Susanna was going to get.

That poor Afghan woman didn’t have a chance in the face of a mob roused to homicidal rage by a supposed sacrilege committed by a woman. And there are others who suffer for threatening male dominance. The Taliban (ironically, “students”) have attacked university women with acid thrown into their faces. Boko Haram is most enraged by girls going to school. American college women are cautioned not to dress provocatively at a party, in order to avoid provoking an attack.

But there’s hope. More women than men are now matriculating at Western universities; more are going on to graduate degrees; more are insisting on control of their bodies. About a week ago a meeting at the offices of the International Monetary Fund was led by Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF, and Janet Yellen, chair of the United States Federal Reserve. All eighteen speakers were women involved with banking regulation. The message was clear to the men in the room. During a lighter moment, Lagarde asked, “What would have happened if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters?” That question’s been too long a-coming.

Photo by Willem lange