Men, Go First

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    “Men go first, and if it works, women follow.” A Russian woman told me that proverb in Moscow many years ago. It’s interesting to see how women and men react to it these days. Most men scoff; most women get angry.

    It was my last night of an immersive business trip to Russia, about a year and a half before the Soviet Union collapsed. My host, the leader of a troika of powerful men, had been touted as a leading example of perestroika when he visited the States. But he had much more power than I’d realized before leaving the USA.

    I stayed with Andrei, Vera, and their two boys in their spacious Moscow apartment, and they even insisted I sleep in their room and bed. Americans had only months earlier been allowed to stay with Russians in their homes. (We’re talking about the Cold War here, ancient history.)

    Right away I was struck at how blatantly sexist Russian men were. My mouth literally fell open a few times at the things they said in the presence of their wives. A typical example occurred during an excellent dinner in the home of an editor of a popular newspaper. I commented that he had a lovely family and home. “Well, I have nice children,” he said. His wife looked crushed.

    Though I said nothing, except to my interpreter, who was the exception that proved the rule (men parted like the Red Sea before her, pardon the pun), the wives of the men with whom I’d spent most of my time invited me out to dinner the evening before my early morning flight back home. It was one of the most interesting conversations of my life.

    We spoke mostly of men and women–the cultural differences and human universality of the relations between the sexes. At that time, prior to the simultaneous collapse of both the USSR and US (a generation later and it’s still not acknowledged in America), men hadn’t quit on themselves and life en masse, and women weren’t ascendant.

    A much more recent conversation with a well-placed young woman in town illustrates how far both sexes have sunk in the West. Wildfires were raging in the area at the time, and I’d met a group of young men from Utah in a local pancake house. They had just completed firefighting one blaze, and were on their way to another. The young woman I met in the park afterward was of their generation.

    Our paths literally converged as we walked alone. She had two children, and her husband was a prominent businessman. I mentioned the pleasant encounter with the guys from Utah, and for some reason that elicited her gender and generational frustrations.

    “Men have become women, and women have become men,” she said passionately. Asked to explain what she meant, she spoke of how most men have quit on life, while women, not having the luxury of doing so, and being the stronger sex emotionally anyway, have had to step into the vacuum.

    Just then an average young couple, with a child in a carrier and dog on a leash, walked up and stood next to us on the pedestrian park road. The young man was pushing the carriage, to which an Irish setter was leashed, and the woman was walking beside him. To our left was the footbridge, and the guy said, “Let’s go that way.”

    “No,” came the categorical reply from the young woman, “we’ll keep going this way.”

    “See what I mean,” the young woman said when they were out of earshot. We agreed that it isn’t that a woman can’t direct, but that domination by a woman is no better than domination by a man.

    After voicing her displeasure with the cultural situation vis a vis the sexes, the young mother then spoke of a generational divide between younger and older women. “Many of them are bitter,” she said, “and jealous of my generation, though they have no need to be.”

    Surprised by her candor, I told her the Russian proverb. She said she was no traditionalist, but that she understood it. “Men realize they’re no longer needed as providers and protectors, and deep down they feel useless I think.” She added, “Many guys of my generation have no role models.”

    That’s true, I replied. I asked her if she’d ever heard the expression from anthropology, “women are the culture bearers.” She said, “yes, and that’s true as well.”

    Then why are women keep this dead culture going? Though it’s hyperbole to say women have become men, many have adopted the worst male traits, while retaining the worst of their own gender. (Such as domination, and not telling one’s friends the truth in the name of ‘support.’)

    In the past, when there were worlds and wilderness to conquer, men were the risk-takers, naturally and necessarily. Now both sexes, at least in the West, have become risk-averse, except when it comes to skydiving or bungee jumping.

    The wilderness is within now. Can women and men go into it together, and co-create a new culture? Or do men still need to go first?

    Of course, that means taking a different kind of risk altogether, one even scarier and more daunting than going into battle. But men need a new job.

    Martin LeFevre
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