New York writer Susan Squire needed 13 years of research to complete I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage, her wicked and scholarly look at how, ever since men figured out that penetration leads to procreation, reproduction has been all about them. It's their ''seed'' that gets the starring role in the Bible, their penises which get statues in ancient Greece and Rome.
I wish I could convey to you how much I learned, not about women so much but about men, and their fears of and vulnerability to women.
That's because, as Squire points out, the history of male-female relations has been documented by men, not women. Any female experience has been filtered through male perceptions of that experience. Which reveals more than you can imagine.
But first, a story:
The other day I was sitting on the patio reading the book when the man I was sitting with wanted to know how I would improve the world. Long story short, we ended up on the hypothetical scenario, strictly for argument's sake, on what would happen if all men suddenly disappeared from the planet. My gentleman friend suggested that women would get into one gigantic catfight.
"Over what?'' I asked.
Women, I posited, have been hardwired to seek out men and hold on to them for survival's sake. Once upon a time we wanted the brawniest guy in the cave so that we'd have lots of woolly mammoth to feed our offspring and also because he could fend off predators and the pillagers from the next cave. Today, brawn is more about bank account. But you get the picture.
If women no longer need to compete for men, what would they fight over? Shoes? Ha. You wanna bet we'd all be in comfy flats?
My friend really couldn't answer because he has little clue, just like many men, of what drives women on a primal level, aside from the urge to couple up and nest. That has been his experience of women. And it is that kind of experience that has affected male-female relations through the years while ending up in the historical and religious narrative.
But, here's the thing: Men always have wanted to control their image, usually among men. So they came up with so-called manly notions about power and potency.
Well, as any married man can tell you, the little woman pretty much knows all your weaknesses. Hence, she can expose you.
Which explains, according to Squire anyway, why men have struggled to constrain, contain and confine women through the centuries. They didn't want women giving them up.
Monday, she and I talked for two hours on the phone. I wish I could share that entire exchange but it would take too long to type up. Here are some excerpts from an edited version The Star ran today:
Q: You say it wasn't misogyny, but gynophobia, fear of women, that led to all this regulation of wives, marriage and lust. What were men so afraid of?
A: In everything they've written over all these thousands of years, men are pretty consistent about what they want and fear. It all comes down to wanting, in general, peace of mind from a wife. That includes trusting her, being sure she wasn't going to be unfaithful, that she would support him, that she wouldn't embarrass him or expose him as a weak human being, that he was not in charge.
I think marriage put men in the most vulnerable position of all because they couldn't help being exposed to the woman they lived with and shared a bed with.
Q: Why didn't women rebel?
A: Who knows if women felt oppressed? The condition of society at the time was hierarchical. The king answered to the pope, the pope answered to God.
But women had a lot of power without having any authority. The power came from being able to affect how men were perceived as men within society.
When you place yourself at the top you have a lot to lose. A man's identity was pretty much formed in social opinion by the behaviour of the woman he was supposedly in control of. So if a wife addressed him too familiarly in public, or wore too much makeup, or drank too much, let alone slept around, a man was emasculated.
Men dug their own hole here.
Q: Has much changed today?
A: Men still are very needy and very fragile. The fragility of the penis, one way or the other, seems to be at the root of everything. And I don't want to knock men. I feel sorry for them.
It has always been about what women could show or reveal about men. Over and over again, all these attempts, all the laws, all the double standards, all put in place by religious life or secular life, were to neutralize women, to keep them from showing that men were not men. The solution is for men to not have to be constantly hard, because they aren't. But we're still not there.
As if marriage or male-female relations is strictly a woman's issue.
But it isn't, of course.
As she told me,
I feel the book is about the male psyche, as revealed by men. If I were a man I would want to know about that.
Funny because, today, a loyal male reader wrote to me to ask why I am always writing about stuff from ''a woman's point of view.'' He's not sexist. He just doesn't get it.
When women write about men, it's our ''point of view.''
When men write about women (or men or anything), it's not ''the male point of view'' but media coverage, history and religious doctrine.
MEOW: Speaking of catfights, I had a little column about that too today. It's been bugging me how the anointing of Alaska governor Sarah Pailin has resulted women going against women, as I noted last week.
We have the likes of Barbara Amiel, U.S. social critic Camille Paglia and the National Post's Barbara Kay penning anti-feminist screeds, cherry-picking quotes or taking them out of context, to spout such kitty litter as how "Palin proved you don't need the sisterhood to pierce the glass ceiling."
As author and former New York Times op-ed columnist Anna Quindlen writes in the current Newsweek, "If (Palin) had been born 30 years earlier, the PTA would likely have been her last stop, not her first. Her political ascendancy is a direct result of the women's movement, which has changed the world utterly for women of all persuasions."
Even the fact we have so many women columnists going at each other would not have happened back in 1984, when Palin was strutting about in the swimsuit competition as Miss Wasilla.
But now, feminist women have a voice, and they're using it to roar.
And so, unable to put women back "in their place," the Bible-thumping, Original Sin-expounding, submit-to-your-husband, anti-choice, anti-equal rights crowd has figured out how to silence the beast.
They have set the Palin pigeon among the cats, and laugh while the fur flies.
There's no need for a backlash when we're busy stabbing each other in the back.