I don’t which infuriated me more: Bob Herbert’s sanctimonious Sunday column describing American society as “saturated with misogyny,” or the unusually thoughtless, “right-on” commentary that followed it. Herbert’s thesis echoes the drumbeat of self-pity that has been coming out of paleo-feminist groups and women’s studies departments for decades: America, in their view, is a country where “barbaric treatment of women has come to be more accepted,” where we are all so inured to the victimization of the female half of the population that we don’t even notice it anymore. Presumably because he is unable to prove this ludicrous proposition in any other way, Herbert uses the case of a single, certifiably insane mass-murderer to argue that all of American culture is anti-woman. The implication: All American men are, deep down, in sympathy with this crazed killer, thanks to our mass media that denigrates women, etc.
What on earth is he talking about? Having lived in several allegedly more progressive European countries, and having visited many far less female-friendly parts of the world, I can testify that American society is, at this point in history, one of the least misogynist on earth, one of the few in which real female achievement is possible, and perhaps the only one where women can and do succeed on a large scale. We are now on our third female Secretary of State; in Afghanistan, three women running for parliament have been chased out of their houses in the past few weeks. We consider it normal for women with children to work; at the school my children attended in Germany, this was considered borderline socially unacceptable. The majority of American university students are now women; in Saudi Arabia, women can’t even leave the house without a male relative.
Maybe it’s unfair to compare the U.S. to Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, or even Germany, but if we are talking about “barbaric treatment of women” then I think it’s important that we all understand what the word “barbaric” really means. As for all the respondents who wrote in to Herbert thanking him for his profound comments, I recommend that all of them pay a visit to Iran, where women are fighting-and dying-for the kinds of basic rights that American women achieved decades ago: the rights to testify in court, to be treated equally under the law, to inherit property, to make their own decisions about marriage and divorce. American society is far from perfect, in this respect as in many others, but if we can’t recognize how far we have come then it won’t be possible to assess, with any degree of realism, how far we have to go.
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