Do American Men Like Women?

by DAVID L. COHN

1

IN MANY a bull session with our junior officers and GI’s during the war, in camps and billets around half of the world, I put this question: Do American men like women?

The men were invariably startled by my query. It seemed silly to them in view of the American soldiers’ universal reputation — one that does not do us too much good — as perhaps the most tireless skirt chasers of all time and all peoples. It was necessary to explain.

The question, I assured them, has nothing to do with psychologically abnormal males; nor with a man’s liking or loving one or more women in the course of a lifetime. It does not bear upon the professional amorist, for he usually subconsciously hates women. It does not contemplate the sweet-talking Southerner, the cowboy-gallant Westerner, or the generality of our men who automatically snatch their hats from their heads when ladies come into the elevator. The question is deeper and broader.

Do our men like women as people? Are they really interested in the ideas, the points of view, the conversation of women? Are they responsive to women when the physical connotations inseparable from any relationship of the sexes are weak, as when one lunches with a woman beyond her physical prime but attractive because she is mellow, mature, stimulating? Do our men admit women to a rounded intimacy with them and treat them as equals, or do they keep them in a mink-lined purdah beyond which they are not permitted to go?

This explanation of my question seemed as startling to my companions as the question itself. They took it for granted — being men — that they liked women. Hadn’t they wives or sweethearts at home, lights-o’-love throughout the world, and millions of pin-up girls on the walls of their billets? Hadn’t they seen a great deal of girls in high schools and coed universities, danced with them, swum with them, picnicked with them, daydreamed about them? Weren’t American men notoriously indulgent toward their women, making living as easy as possible for them, and smoothing their way at every step? Didn’t all this prove that they really liked women ?

Yet when the question had been tossed about, when it had been examined from a hitherto novel point of view, the great majority of the men said they did not like women in the terms of the question. It is scarcely necessary to add, however, that I do not state this as the conclusion of twelve million servicemen on the subject, but only of the limited group with whom I talked.

Illuminating my thesis by examples of everyday American life, I cited the urban dinner party. Here the so-called wise host usually serves an abundance of cocktails before dinner so that the men are glowing and talkative at table, each generous of talk with the lady to the right and the lady to the left of him; but as time passes and the dinner wines are not sufficiently potent to take up where the cocktails have left off, the men and the talk often slow down. Most of them, however, manage to stagger through the remainder of the meal with some grace, buoyed up by the knowledge that after the ice the company will separate for a time. Over coffee and brandy the men will have a dearly beloved stag party.

Released then from the heavy burden of women’s society, they can be themselves as they discuss business, politics, and other things that really concern them, and revel in the warm male camaraderie of the golf club locker room. It does not occur to them, as they linger inordinately, that the ladies may be bored talking with one another. It does not matter to them that no woman goes to her hairdresser in the morning to look her best at dinner in the evening for the sake of spending much of the time with other women who have done the same thing. But all this does concern the haggard hostess, who often has to drag the men — including her husband — out of their trance to rejoin the ladies in the living room.

A similar process is operative in the informal circles of small towns. There, after dinner, the men huddle together like quail in cold rain. They tell jokes, talk crops, baseball, business; rejoice in the solidarity of their male world which had been temporarily threatened during dinner. The women sit in their corner discussing items out of their exclusively feminine world: children, servants, gardens, gossip. Every little while the pattern is disrupted as a man darts into the kitchen to mix a drink, or a woman halfheartedly taps out a tune on the piano. Soon it is time to go home, and once more we have had a demonstration of the fact that, despite our gregariousness and slaphappy manners, we are perhaps the loneliest and most bored of peoples.

2

IN THIS country, where marriage, two times in five, is a stylized detour to arrive at a divorce (statisticians estimate that by 1965 more than one half of all marriages will end in divorce), the relationship between millions of couples is not a man-woman relationship. Shortly after Herbert and Azadia have married, he comes to regard her not as a woman but as the Little Woman, while she looks upon him not as a man but as a Boy. To her he is a dear, sweet boy, helpless and in need of mothering; the poor thing can never find his brief case and forgets his galoshes on rainy days. And if he cannot call her Mama instead of Azadia two years after marrying, he is likely to look upon the whole thing as a failure.

The maternal love of Azadia for Herbert may be all to the good so far as he is concerned. It permits him to remain spiritually in a state of suspended animation. He is the chrysalis which never becomes a butterfly, but sleeps always warm and secure within the cocoon without facing the dangers, or enjoying the sunshine delights, of living. A manwoman relationship would consume more of his time and energy than he is willing to devote to it. It might reduce some of the emotional content he pours into his work as assistant display manager for northwestern Minnesota for the International Tweezers Corporation. His full duty toward his wife — and proof of the fact in his mind that he is essentially a decent man — is discharged by regarding his wife as a lady in the sense that he regards his mother as a lady. In this way he continues to remember Mama without ever discovering Azadia, and the fact that she may secretly feel he is overdoing the lady business never enters his mind.

The Boys of this country are simply retarded adolescents whose ideal of femininity remains a girl in a bathing suit, and who are incapable of developing a mature feminine ideal through a synthesis of spiritual and physical values. Men of this kind are neither adult nor adequate in their relations with women. They are the oafs who make “propositions” to every woman in sight and then fly in panic to Mama’s protecting skirts when they fear the proposition is about to be accepted. They are the brave lads who spoil the evening slippers of ladies by playing footsie with them under the dinner table; who think it manly (“sophisticated”) to get drunk at the Country Club on Saturday nights and tell off-color stories to uninterested women, on the theory that this is virile and the stories are fatally aphrodisiac. They care nothing for an interchange of ideas with women, or for any wit more subtle than the barnyard joke. And the country is filled with them. Yet, mice tailored to look like men, they want to be mothered by their wives — a process that freezes their already arrested development and renders impossible any relationship on a mature man-woman basis.

Every day, therefore, is Mother’s Day in the lives of many women and without benefit even of a potted begonia. But these women weary of men whose emotional content is no greater than that of a Popsicle; who oscillate between the tepid and the torpid. As women they want, not unnaturally, to be loved by men. They long for that experience which is so often denied them and, longing for it, divorce one Boy only to find themselves presently married to another.

Men who like women have an intimate relationship with them; but marriage, among us, is frequently an intimate relationship without intimacy. Consequently the land is awash with charlatans who earn a fat living in the name of psychiatry by tell— ing Mama “Your husband does not understand you.” At the same moment, perhaps, Papa, taking the stock approach of the philandering husband, is telling some other woman whose husband does not understand her that his wife does not understand him.

Understanding is of course inseparable from intimacy, and this does not mean merely physical relations, for they are not necessarily any more a part of intimacy than, in the maxim of the Pullman washroom, they are an introduction which one must acknowledge on the street. Intimacy arises only when two persons move to one music. It involves an integrating and meshing of personalities; a deep interest in the flora, fauna, hills, valleys, and streams of the other person’s mind; in all that has lived there, has died, or is coming to birth. It implies a mutual respect for dignity; a time to speak, to be silent, to act, to refrain from acting. It can arise only when a man likes a woman as a woman: a concept transcending that of wife, mistress, or sweetheart.

Yet many of our marriages — two dimensional studies in frustration — are often lacking in intimacy of this kind, so that divorce, when it comes, is the putting apart of something that had never been joined. The results of lack of intimacy are disastrous. The woman who is not permitted to play a woman’s role in her husband’s life does not develp mentally and spiritually. She is simply in a marriage of which she is not a part. She remains a lonely woman and, failing to mature, seems to justify her husband’s retrospective opinion that she had always been incapable of maturing.

Nearly forty years ago, the dilemma of such women was admirably stated by Edith Wharton in The Custom of the Country. Let us note one scene. The marriage between Ralph Marvell, an attractive but weak member of the old school of fashionable gentlemen, and Undine Spragg, a social climber, is not going well. Laura Fairford, Marvell’s sister, is talking to Charles Bowen, a family friend: —

“Now that Ralph has had to go into business . . . it’s cruel of her to drag him out every night. . . . Undine doesn’t seem to notice how hard he works.”

Bowen gazed meditatively at the crumbling fire. “No — why should she?”

“Why should she? Really, Charles —!”

“Why should she, when she knows nothing about it?”

“She may know nothing about his business;but she must know it’s her extravagance that’s forced him into it. . . . You talk as if you were on her side!”

“Are there sides already? If so, I want to look down on them impartially from the heights of pure speculation. I want to get a general view of the whole problem of American marriages.”

Mrs. Fairford dropped into her arm-chair with a sigh. “If that’s what you want you must make haste! Most of them don’t last long enough to be classified.”

“I grant you it takes an active mind. But the weak point is so frequently the same that after a time one knows where to look for it.”

“What do you call the weak point?”

He paused. “ The fact that the average American looks down on his wife.” [My italics.]

Mrs. Fairford was up with a spring. “If that’s where paradox lands you!”

Bowen mildly stood his ground. “Well-doesn’t he prove it? How much does he let her share in the real business of life? How much does he rely on her judgment and help in the conduct of serious affairs? Take Ralph, for instance — you say his wife’s extravagance forces him to work too hard; but that’s not what’s wrong. It’s normal for a man to work hard for a woman — what’s abnormal is his not caring to tell her anything about it.”

“To tell Undine? She’d be bored to death if he did!”

“Just so; she’d even feel aggrieved. But why? Because it’s against the custom of the country. [My italics.] And whose fault is that? The man’s again — I don’t mean Ralph, I mean the genus he belongs to: homo sapiens, Americanus. Why haven’t we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don’t take enough interest in them. . . . To slave for women is part of the old American tradition; lots of people give their lives for dogmas they’ve ceased to believe in. . .”

If these should be regarded as the imaginings of a novelist, we may turn to that superb study of a typical American town, Middletown, by Robert and Helen Lynd. There the Lynds found husbands speaking of their wives as purer creatures than men, emotional, unstable, easily hurt, and “largely incapable of facing facts or doing hard thinking.” Middletown wives, on the other hand, said, “Men are nothing but big little boys who have grown up and must be treated as such.” These couples apparently did not regard a high degree of companionship as essential for marriage; aside from sharing its primary functions and the mutual concerns of family, they had little in common.

“The men and women frequently either gravitate apart to talk men’s talk and women’s talk, or the men do most of the talking ... !” Yet since some form of community social life must be maintained, since there must be some mutual interests between married couples, and since they are not interested in group talk, the dilemma is solved by playing cards. Consequently one of the commonest joint pursuits of Middletown couples is card playing.

There comes a moment, however, when couples must face it alone in Middletown as elsewhere. A few of them read aloud together, but only a few, because “literature and art have tended to disappear as male interests. . . . More usual is the situation described by one prominent woman. ‘He (my husband) is busy all day and when he gets home at night he just settles down with the paper and his cigar and radio and just rests.’”

Thus novelist and sociologist are one in their findings about this phase of American life. But in this land where men do not like women, where love is regarded as a secret infirmity, and where divorce, as we practice it, is the right of any husband (or wife) to leave his mate in the sleeping car and continue the journey with the girl (or man) he has just met in the diner, men put women on a pedestal. This treatment is often taken to be proof positive of the profound esteem in which we hold women; the pedestal being an American invention as distinctive as the cheeseburger. It is, to my mind, proof that men do not like women.

3

IT IS commonly assumed that American men began to put women on a pedestal in early pioneer days, when their scarcity gave them a high rarity value; and it is true that many a frail lady who went West to tend bar was soon snapped up in marriage and frequently became a good wife, good mother, and the matriarch of what are now first families. But it is also clear from the records that pioneer women were often treated pretty roughly; that their lives were hard and short, alternating painfully between repeated childbearing and strenuous physical labor. May it be that women were put on a pedestal for other reasons?

It seems to me that when pioneer times had passed, when men were no longer dependent upon their wives’ or their children’s labor, and above all, when they made the staggering discovery that there is more gold aboveground than underground, they placed woman on a pedestal because they did not know what else to do with her. She was not wanted at a man’s side. She was not desired as a companion in intimacy. She could be taken down and put back without disturbing the essential pattern of man’s life, and, at the same time, standing there on a pedestal she gives the satisfying appearance of a household goddess. One might pay homage to her at stated intervals and lay at her feet the fruits of the chase — cars, emeralds, country houses, old masters.

What are the reasons for our real attitudes toward women as opposed to our rather nauseating pretensions? One is, as R. H. Tawney puts it, that “industry has risen to such a position of exclusive prominence among human interests,” that the world is “like a hypochondriac . . . absorbed in the processes of his own digestion.” Among us the business of living is so often business that historians call our civilization a business civilization. Men, in an environment where competition is fierce but money-prestige rewards are high, have little time to give to anything but business.

Business is exciting. It is all-absorbing, filled with heady scents of power more alluring than any perfume, more demanding than any petulant mistress. It may be that men so absorbed are good providers and the backbone of the country. And it may also be that if they had time for women, if business were not more enchanting to them than women, they might one day discover them and, with a delicious shock of surprise, find they liked them.

Many men dislike women because they were dominated by them throughout childhood and early youth. In no other country is the development of boys molded by women, in home and school, to so great a degree as in the United States. Nowhere else is their early training so little distinct from that of girls, for nowhere else are women teachers and coeducation so common, while long ago in the home father gave way to mother as the head of the house. But at the same time their environment requires of them, more than elsewhere, that they behave like “red-blooded boys.” (One sees the outcroppings of this attitude in some of our novelists, who drag fourletter words into their texts as proof of their virility; in the language of young soldiers who mistake profanity for virility.) Hence in a violent reaction they exaggerate their maleness by rejecting all values that they regard as feminine: flowers, music, art.

One result of the system is that our men are as taboo-ridden as Andaman Islanders. In our culture, it is “manly” to drink whiskey but not wine; to take coffee but not tea; to collect daggers but not Persian silks. It is suspect to read verse; and to write it is almost certain to bring one’s sexual normality into question. The consequence of women’s guiding of boys’ instruction is that many of them go into manhood and marriage outwardly docile beneath the yoke of domesticity, but inwardly resentful of women.

This theme is elaborated upon by Henry Elkin, an Army veteran, in a recent issue of the American Journal of Sociology. He explains the constant use of profanity in the Army — “hardly a sentence was spoken, and no exclamation was uttered, without at least one profane term” — as a method by which “the GI symbolically throws off the shackles of the matriarchy in which he grew up.”

His conclusion — sound, as I see it, and capable of easy proof in terms of everyday life — is this: “It may be inferred from typical forms of Army speech and behavior that a very large proportion of American men have never developed beyond childhood stages of emotional experience and display strong anxieties and excessive reactions when they are expected to live by psychologically mature standards.” Such men, obviously, do not like women in the sense of this paper and, given their upbringing, it is unreasonable perhaps to expect that they should.

A large group of American men vaguely feel that they ought to be adventurers as were their ancestors who roamed this continent. They suspect that they have been domesticated by women as poultrymen have domesticated the wild jungle fowl and made a barnyard biddy out of a free bird. They have become proprietors of grocery stores. They are traveling salesmen who leave home at morning and return at night to pitch in after supper and help do the dishes. Instead of being adventurers on the Oregon Trail or voyagers to China in the fur trade, they are minions of business, slaves of a standard of living, robots of routine; and for this they often subconsciously blame women without a thought of how much their plight may be of their own making.

. Finally, the American male is resentful of women because, just as they first took away and then took over the saloon, he feels they have pre-empted many of his former prerogatives. He would like to dream of woman as the blue-eyed Helen — remote, inaccessible, and therefore maddeningly desirable. But actually she is the woman seated on the next chair at the cocktail bar, matching him drink for drink; the woman ahead of him on the golf course shooting in the low seventies; the woman telling him the offcolor story; the woman doing a job as well as he can and doing it for half his salary.

The attitudes of American males — inside and outside marriage — toward women remain primitive. Yet the American husband, generous, hard-working, sentimental, but essentially indifferent to his wife as he was to the girls he knew before marriage, tends to be what is called “a good man.” His kind is celebrated in a poem by D. H. Lawrence bearing the illuminating title “Good Husbands Make Unhappy Wives.”

There is nothing in the teaching the average man rceives at home as a youth, nothing in the hit-andrun amorous or sentimental relationships he has had outside the home, nothing in the literature of his country or in the philosophy of his elders or companions, to show him the profound satisfactions that may flow from cultivating a woman as a beloved garden is cultivated. It is for this reason that the United States is filled with neurotic wives, who, well kept but badly cared for, are potential material for the divorce mills, or who degenerate into that rather loathsome creature known as the spoiled woman.