Participation or Contribution

Washington Times  11.26.96
Balint Vazsonyi

For countless thousands of years, men have subjugated, tortured, humiliated women. If one understood Joan Lunden correctly, women did not even receive medical attention until ABC -TV instituted Women's Health Week. The Congressional Women's Caucus will now oversee what Representatives Patricia Schroeder and Susan Molinari described as "breaking down the culture of the military." About time. The resentment that women feel toward this society grows every day and, should anyone's attention wander, network television provides a weekly diet of women wronged. How did we get here?

It's simple, I hear you say. One day women woke up, demanded the vote and Women's Lib was born. Maybe. Or could it have been even simpler, like soap and water?

About 150 years ago, Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweiss became obsessed with the infection that caused women to die in large numbers soon after giving birth. Eventually, he came up with one of the humblest means by which to usher in a global revolution: he required his colleagues to wash their hands with soap before examining women in labor.

When we disregard the past, we get all worked up about 'injustices' that did not really occur. We poison our current relationships and draw incorrect conclusions. We waste time and energy trying to reinvent the wheel. We impose our - pitifully recent - outlook upon thousands of years, as if all previous generations should have anticipated our present circumstances.

While we worry about over-population, from time immemorial our ancestors' concern was survival of the species. More than half of all children died before or soon after birth, and all too often the mothers died as well. Thus, amidst all the din about the "unfairness of a male-dominated society," the fact remains that women alone can bear children. Functions needed to be divided accordingly, and women were to be sheltered from extreme danger (which used to be much more common-place in many a daily activity) including the ravages of war. Moreover, it was recognized that families needed a center, and mother provided just that.

Let us remember those who began to dream of, and work for, the expansion of the woman's role in Western society, but not forget the shoulders upon which they stood. Lord Lister of Britain, father of modern surgery, held that the greatest debt was owed to the aforementioned Semmelweiss because without discovering the source of infections and finding a way to forestall them, surgery could not have advanced. The French Pasteur and the German Koch were other pioneers whose work reduced mortality to the point where Western society could accommodate a growing number of women doing what relatively few of them had done hitherto.

America - of all countries - had always portrayed the woman as a tower of strength and a fountain of inventiveness. Certainly, reading a great deal of American literature while growing up in Hungary, I would never have suspected that American women felt unappreciated. Hollywood, too, favored the strong and capable woman, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn and Greer Garson being cases in point. Given that more than half of the artistic product (painting, sculpture, plays, opera, novels) of our civilization has been about women, can anyone seriously suggest that women have been ignored?

And, before we further indict (and dismantle) Western society, it may be appropriate to consider its unique capacity to benefit, by example, women in other types of societies.

Knowledge of history would lessen resentment, bitterness and rampant reverse sexism in other areas as well. Take the past absence of women in many a profession. The professions themselves, along with their associated theoretical and practical skills, had been developed by men. This applies to a virtually endless range of activity, from inducing anaesthesia and building airplanes to mapping the Zambezi river and constructing zoological gardens. Is it not reasonable that, in the first instance, those who had come up with the activity were best qualified to work it?

History also reveals that hardcore man-haters are merely dressing in contemporary political language the age-old contention whereby sex is but a man's pleasure. Would that we heard from that great majority of women who are first to get up every day, do their never-ending work, run the engine of society, and tuck in the rest of us at night. Alas, they tend not to organize marches on Washington.

Cataloguing the contribution of women through the ages is not the purpose here. Men never questioned its enormity. It is women who are dissatisfied with its scope. Yet their 'gender war' seems to be all about participation, as opposed to making contributions. For the latter, the path has been open for some time.