Recently, I was provided with a fascinating insight into the difference between men and women.
An article I had written on education had been sent to two experts in the field, one male, one female, for review. The subject was a state-wide plan to improve students’ “soft skills” by hiring 1,000 “creative types” to patrol K-12 classrooms and make sure, Barney the Purple Dinosaur-style, that kids were using their imaginations. I cruelly mocked the proposal as the “Whiteface Mime Full Employment Act.”
When the reviews came back, the man’s only comment was “Good article–comma in second sentence should be semicolon.” The woman, on the other hand, had obviously been up late agonizing over the tone and content of the piece. She had crossed out the line about the mimes, as well as several related jabs that turned it into a recurring leitmotif. (I didn’t go to college for nothing.)
When I asked the woman in an email exchange why she recommended the deletions, she said she thought they might be viewed as too critical and hurt someone’s feelings. I was, to put it mildly, dumbfounded. “Isn’t that the whole point?” I tapped back at her.
This is not the first time I’ve noticed this phenomenon. A female cartoonist whose work I’ve admired is known for her fine line drawings, and I suggested that we collaborate on a piece for a Sunday newspaper. In it, I made fun–equal opportunity style–of every institution of higher learning in the City of Boston (an exhausting task here in the Athens of America) and she provided the images. In her own work, however, the last panel is almost always a happy ending; the set-up may create conflict, but the punch-line is gentle, a slap on the wrist instead of a whack with a metal-edged ruler by Sister Mary Joseph Arimathea.
My experiences lead to an inevitable conclusion; women, as much as I hate to admit it, are simply nicer than men. Which is too bad.
There are, of course, exceptions. There was Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who said “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.” There was Flannery O’Connor, who wrote a short story, Good Country People, about a man who lures a rural bookworm into a hayloft and steals her wooden leg. There is Dorothy Parker, who in her ”Constant Reader” column, reviewed A.A. Milne’s House at Pooh Corner and wrote of the sickly-sweet children’s book, “Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”
For the most part, women seem to reserve their most venomous words for each other. Mary McCarthy said of Stalinist fellow-traveler Lillian Hellman that “Every word she’s ever said is a lie, and that includes ‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘the’.” Sweet old Barbara Bush referred to Geraldine Ferraro, her husband’s vice-presidential opponent, as “that four million dollar–I can’t say it, but it rhymes with ‘rich.’” I don’t think she meant “witch.”
A few years back as our state’s Attorney General Martha Coakley was going down to defeat in the Massachusetts Senate race, a woman sitting next to me asked ”How did she get to be the Democratic nominee?”
“Well,” I said, “she’s done a competent job as Attorney General, she’s a very polished and persuasive speaker, she’s attractive . . . “
“Attractive?” the woman–who by coincidence happens to be my wife–snorted. “Are you kidding? And look at that outfit!”
Martha Coakley: I guess reasonable men and women could disagree.
But when the guns are turned towards the open sea, so to speak, they go quiet, and without that undercurrent of malice always threatening to rock the boat, life can turn into one big game of Candyland. It’s a no-lose proposition, like the T-ball leagues where everybody gets a trophy just for showing up, even if they didn’t. That’s why I often urge my wife to honk at a driver in front of us who’s composing a text message to his next sales call as the light turns green. Go ahead, I say, lean on the horn–you’ll feel better.
People speak of a decline in civility, but I know better. The idealized image of the past, when men were men and women were frail, doily-like creatures who blushed if a harsh word were spoken at a tea dance, is a myth. My mother, for example, had a polite social face; she was officially of the “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” school of thought, a principle she drummed into me like a Buddy Rich solo. But like Walt Whitman she contained multitudes and had a stiletto-like tongue that she used to carve people up after the pleasantries were done with and she was in the privacy of her own home.
Her highest-octane malice was reserved for rivals of my two sisters. Of one young lady, said to be pretty, her assessment was “Pretty ugly and pretty apt to stay that way.”
Of another, who had declined a second helping at a dinner and flattered herself that she “ate like a bird,” my mother said “Yes–peck by peck.” (A peck, for metric-o-nomes, is a quarter of a bushel.)
And of a third young lady, who had bested one of my sisters in competition for one of those prizes of youth, like head cheerleader or homecoming queen, that seem so important when you’re young and so laughable when you’re older, my mother had this to say: “She looks like the Good Lord made her ugly and hit her with a stick.”
She would have been 100 years old this year. They don’t make ‘em like her anymore.