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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

It’s the little things in life

Published: March 9, 2012
Section: Opinions

As more and more women pour into colleges across the country and the wage gap between men and women steadily decreases, it is evident that society is making progress toward greater gender equality. There is a long road ahead, yet one cannot deny that in many ways things have improved. With this improvement, however, comes one of the classic debates between men and women. This is the debate of equality versus chivalry.
I recall an episode of “Seinfeld” which illustrated the idea very well. Elaine was traveling on the subway and happened to be standing next to an older lady. The two began conversing about how men never gave up subway seats for women anymore like they once did and Elaine said—to paraphrase it—“it’s kind of sad. We’ve gotten equality, but we’ve lost some of the nice, little things.” The important thing to note is that they are little things generally. It is about the boyfriend who no longer feels the need to buy his girlfriend’s movie ticket and about the businessman who no longer holds the door for his female co-workers. Some women will complain about the loss of these little things but, in essence, it is the natural corollary of equality. If a man would not use exceptional manners for another man then why would he do so for an equal woman?
I’ve thought about this issue and argued about it on many occasions, and yet it fell from my mind until last night. Reading a comment on a Facebook post related to this idea has gotten me thinking that I should take a closer look. The comment read: “Women make up this whole ‘equal rights’ aspect but still expect people to follow gender norms like [p]aying on the first date, or not hitting a wom[a]n, or not sexually harassing her.” When I consider the idea in the comment, it seems very disjointed. On the one hand, you have the concept of paying on the first date being a little silly, with which I could agree, but then on the other hand there are comments suggesting that for some reason wanting not to be hit or sexually harassed are unreasonable expectations.
As is completely natural when someone posts something like that, I was getting locked and ready for an avalanche of comments in refutation. What I got, however, also didn’t sit completely right with me. One person wrote: “Yes I do think you should pay on the date and hold my door open … and at the same time respect me as an equal on the job. [W]hat is wrong with that?” Reading that, I cannot help but think that it’s built on flawed reasoning. To be given benefits that someone else does not get is inherently unequal.
By expecting men to hold open doors and pay the bill at restaurants, women, whether they intend to or not, are putting themselves at a fundamentally unequal position. Obviously each person has free will and if a woman wants those small perks and if her partner wants that too then it is totally fine. Each couple should do what makes them comfortable and happy. It does not change the fact that it promotes inequality. Perhaps it is a less malicious form of inequality than others, but inequality nonetheless.
That obviously, however, is not the major issue. The big issue is the attitude concerning the comments about physical abuse and sexual harassment. Once again, I was not satisfied with the response. The same responder from earlier continued: “I also am totally against domestic violence … I am not for women abusing men whatsoever … but I am DEFINITELY not [fine with] a man lay[ing] a finger on a woman.”
Domestic abuse and sexual harassment are wrong. They are wrong regardless of gender, and I am therefore rather irritated at both the original commentator’s point and this point. The original comment espoused the idea that abuse is not a big deal because men hit other men and therefore women should be OK with it. While I like the idea of full equality—even with negative things like losing the benefits of having doors opened or having movie tickets purchased—the idea of being OK with assault simply is not OK with me.
The other commentator, however, indicated their inherent sexism in their comment. While including the idea that it is wrong for women to abuse men, they then continued on to make it clear that it is worse for a man to abuse a woman.
Not only is the word “definitely” capitalized, but the writer indicates that the threshold is so incredibly low. A woman needs to abuse a man to be guilty of anything, and yet a man needs only to lay a finger on a woman to be culpable. Obviously, this is just an expression, and laying a finger on a woman implies something much more serious, and yet the tone remains.
We should try to cultivate an attitude of greater equality across the board, while trying also to change our standards about what is OK regardless of gender. If I want to pay for my girlfriend’s movie ticket because I’m in a good mood, then that’s totally within my right, and it’s absolutely within her right to be OK with it. That many expect it as a given fact, however, indicates an inequality in the system. If we are to achieve general equality then we must also achieve not only equality in the workplace, but also the less tangible social equality. This means being able to see women as not always the ones to be covered on date night. Perhaps some nights she feels like paying, and perhaps some nights the couple splits the check down the middle. It does not matter. The whole point is to separate holding doors and paying for things from gender.
Still, we must correct this notion of the woman as the defenseless victim of abuse whom we must place above men in our priorities of distribution of justice. I am not saying at all that we should not take a woman suffering domestic abuse seriously. I am merely saying that when we think of men as rough guys who can get hit and who can hit each other because they can take it, it contributes to persisting sexism in our society. We should make it clear that abuse is wrong. Sexual harassment is wrong. It does not matter whether it is a man or woman in the slightest.