A Traditional Respect For Women

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - June 09, 2005
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I was a very lucky kid to have a mother well-versed in the social graces, and who took seriously her responsibility to pass them on to me.

She, of course, taught me how to dance, and then made sure I taught my younger sister. But more importantly, she emphasized the importance of respecting women, and “how to treat a lady” — opening doors for her, pulling out her chair to seat her, walking between her and the street, to offer assistance, and to always carry a clean handkerchief to wipe her lipstick from my cheek or a tear from her eye. But then in those days, womanhood seemed more special, even though equality had a long way to go.

Yet in absolute terms — and probably to most men of my “geezer” generation — women are still special — special in terms of their awesome ability to bring forth and nurture new life and to mother it to maturity, special as the irreplaceable life partners and companions without whom man could not achieve and be fulfilled, and special for their civilizing influence — the softening of our society. And in terms of gender equality, we have come a long way.

But the journey through the 1970s and 1980s wasn’t always a smooth one, and with progress came some unintended consequences. With greater equality came men’s changing perceptions of womanhood, and some confusion as to their own gender roles. This “saming of the sexes” was reinforced by other social phenomena of the time.

For example:
• The feminist agenda to erase all differences between men and women; so if men and women are equal, why should women be treated any differently, with any more or less respect?

• The rising number of boys and young men raised in fatherless households through divorce or desertion: If a young man has no older male role model, how is he to know and appreciate the differences between male and female?

• The rising number of women in equal professional and workplace roles (a positive development, of course, but not without consequences).

• The propensity of the “sitcom mentality” in mainstream media to denigrate the role of the father as the buffoon as opposed to the mother’s situation- saving wisdom.

• The increased opportunities and visibility for women in athletics due to Title IX.

• The increasing role of women in the military with what would have been unthinkable 20 years ago: the equal right to be killed or captured by a brutal enemy.

In the aftermath of the Navy’s Tailhook scandal in ’91, the impact of the above phenomena was painfully apparent. As more and more women filled the ranks of Naval aviation, the gender complexion of the gathering changed as well.

The traditional after-hours partying had always been wild, but that year it resulted in several Navy and civilian women participants being groped and molested to the point of criminality. Many careers, from the top down, were effectively ended.

My own theory — and this is not meant to justify in any way the actions of those young “Top Guns” — men had gradually been socialized to see and treat women differently than “in my day!”

“Hey, these gals fly the same airplanes I do, share the same risks, get paid the same. They’re just other Navy pilots with breasts. What’s the big deal?”

Well, of course, it was a “big deal,” but we’ve come a long way from Tailhook ’91. The advancements in equal access and opportunity for women have been enormous, and have been a very positive element in our society, economy, government and, to a large extent, our military.

There was a point in this whole evolution when young liberated women actually resented those traditional courtesies of opened doors and pulled back chairs — “As if I’m too weak to do that for myself!” Hopefully now, as women actually lead the way in so many fields, and are more secure in their status and opportunities, there will be a renewed appreciation for the traditional “gentlemanly” courtesies.

Personally, unlike Sir Walter Raleigh, I haven’t laid my cloak across a mud puddle for a lady to pass with dry shoes, but I am teaching my 16-year-old granddaughter to show her beaus that she appreciates having the car door opened for her, and the chair pulled out, too, and to enjoy the respect tendered simply for the “specialness” of being a woman.

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