My mother, may she rest in peace (or already be reborn and growing in learning in her or his next life), was an ardent anti-communist. “When the Russians finally throw off the chains of communism,” she would often say, “we Americans will be there to help them build a democracy and market.”
After a dozen repetitions, that bromide went in one year and out the other. But something must have stuck, and providence, or fate, or whatever, was at work, because I found myself meeting high-level Russians in San Francisco during the heady days of glasnost and perestroika. In short order, I accepted an invitation to Moscow in January of 1990 to start a joint-venture company.
This piece isn’t about that failed venture however, which was more about philosophy as praxis than business practices. It’s about what Russian women taught me about the relationship between the sexes long before the Pyrrhic victory of American women in the war between the sexes.
We’ve come to a place where leading female voices evince the hubris usually associated with men, uttering poppycock such as, “All of us [meaning, all you men] must confront exactly what so many women have known all too well: You are a body, only a body, and nothing more.”
Though I was the guest of very powerful men as the USSR teetered on the edge of collapse, it was Russian women that impressed me. I was feted wherever I went as the vanguard of a coming wave of Americans. Like me, Russians naively believed Americans would help them build a democracy and market as their hated communist system crumbled around them (as if from mother’s mouth to their ears).
The greatest honor was being invited to dinner my last night in Russia by a six Russian women I had the privilege to get to know a bit.
They had noticed my reaction to the blatant male chauvinism and domination by Russian men. I responded to their Russian honesty (which can be brutally blunt at times), by saying that in the face of male domination that few American women can even imagine, clearly Russian women had to be strong.
During that memorable conversation, in which we talked about the superficial differences and underlying similarities between men and women in what was then a bipolar world of antagonistic and agonistic superpowers, one of the women uttered a memorable Russian proverb.
“Men go first,” she said, “and if it works, women follow.”
I asked whether that implied male domination, superiority and privilege. We agreed it did not necessarily imply these things, just that traditionally men tended to take greater risks, and go into uncharted territory before women do.
In the years since, I’ve told the story of the dinner with Russian women culminating in the proverb to numerous American women, without philosophical embellishment. Almost to a one, they’ve had the same reaction, “Now it’s our turn to go first.” I’ve felt that to be a cringeworthy misunderstanding bordering on misandry.
There’s a word you’ve probably never heard. It means the opposite of misogyny, the hatred of women. More and more, it cuts the other way. There’s a lot of misandry in America today, sleazebags like Harvey Weinstein and Steve Wynn, and true monsters like Larry Nassar notwithstanding.
Truth be told, men are the weaker sex. About a generation ago, right around the time the USSR collapsed externally and the US collapsed internally, American men quit on life en masse. Women, not having that option, had to step into the vacuum left by so-called male leadership.
So it’s little wonder, as a 20-something woman put it to me a few years ago, that “men have become women, and women have become men.” Nor that we have a complete retrograde, Rat pack, male chauvinist pig president. Men are lost in a way that women aren’t, and perhaps cannot be.
About 15 years ago, I asked a well-known poet in town if she agreed with the old expression from anthropology, “women are the culture bearers.” She said she did. I asked whether she agreed that this is a dead culture. She said yes.
Then why, I inquired, are women keeping this dead culture going?
She had no response. Is it because not enough men have gone into the wilderness within and come back intact to say, ‘let’s go, we can live and thrive here?’ Is it because too many women assume power and domination are givens, and ‘it’s our turn to rule?’
Power is not a given, any more than domination by men or women is a given. The infinite frontier is not outer space, but inner space. It cannot be ‘conquered’ however, only continuously learned about through abiding self-knowing.
Perhaps, when more men truly begin exploring it, we’ll find that women have been there all along, waiting for us. In any case, only when men and women walk and work together as equals will things change.