Saturday, December 31, 2005


"I AM WOMAN," she sang, "hear me roar." And so, with infectious exuberance, we did: "I am strong, I am invincible, I am wo-maaaan!" Heady, healthy days; by the time Helen Reddy's anthem became the singalong of the early 1970s, we already had the contraceptive pill, we had legal abortion and the youngest among us, at least, had choices far fitter and fatter than those of our mothers. We reclaimed the night, we grew shaggy armpits, we had a blast. In 1975, Parliament finally caught up with the prevailing mood and so, 30 years ago today, the Sex Discrimination Act was passed and the Equal Pay Act came into force: a decent crack was ours for the taking and woe betide he who would deny us.

As things turned out, however, it wasn't to be a he who dimmed the lights; it was a she. Moan all you will about glass ceilings and the still tenacious grip, in some quarters, of Neanderthal man; the terrible truth is that while it was women who fought for - and won - a historical advance for their sex, it was also women, thereafter, who blew it. The overwhelming achievement of these three decades of feminism and its worker bees in the "women's movement" has been to turn our triumph on its head. What was once about women's strengths is now about their weaknesses; where once we celebrated what women can do, we are asked, now, only to make allowances for what they cannot.

The purpose of the new law was to ensure what might loosely be called fair play; it beggars belief, looking back, that its proponents ever expected to see it invoked in so many cases that are, frankly, pathetic. Scarcely a week passes without some female high-flyer running to a tribunal with tales of men being beastly; in one memorable case this year a woman used in evidence the fact that her male colleagues often went to the pub without her. You might think that equality involves an equal chance of being disliked - she called it sex discrimination. (And prevailed.)

Being excessively liked, mind, causes as much grief: vast sums are paid to those propositioned by a sexually uppity colleague, as compensation for the gal being so traumatised that she is forced to retire and spend more time with her stress counsellor. Women in the Armed Forces seem especially attracted to this milch cow, with 2,400 of them last year complaining of harassment - in other words, the very women expected to produce superhuman effort under enemy fire cannot, apparently, be expected to produce a robust rebuttal of a smutty overture.

So here we are: victims all. Can't help ourselves. And proud of it. You will remember Sara Thornton, who stabbed her husband to death as he lay boozed into coma. She was entirely free to leave him, but given that he'd kicked her in the self-esteem she couldn't be expected to do that. And when the usual women's groups fought to have her released in 1995, she emerged from prison gates, clenched fists aloft, to applause fit for a heroine.

You won't, however, remember "Ann" - even if you did read the story I wrote about her in the same year. She was tied to a brute by lack of money, education, hope, opportunity and, oh yes, three small children. Nevertheless, on the day she determined that she had taken her very last fist, she bundled up her children and left, for ever, to and with nothing. An astoundingly brave move, from my kind of heroine - but, regrettably, only 20 years after the Sex Discrimination Act, a heroism of already unfashionable hue. Nobody even asks now, another ten years on, why a battered woman doesn't up sticks. Or stand up for herself: research suggests an average of 35 beatings before the first call to the police. I am strong, I am invincible?

Of course, we are never allowed to forget that it's hard to be strong when cussed by oestrogen. Where once the menstrual cycle was discreetly left to euphemistic allusions in intimate company, now it demands exemptions fit for war wounds as premenstrual tension has become an excuse for all peculiarities of behaviour. I recently heard an ambitious woman, who doubtless prides herself on being thoroughly modern, boldly blame her temporary ineptitude, to a male superior, upon her " time of the month"; in other words, "I'm as good as the men, gissa job . . . even though, by the way, I shall be howling at the moon one week in four."

Still, if our hormonally challenged flesh is weak, it is as nothing compared with our minds. This season's heated debate, for example, has concerned whether a woman's consent to sexual intercourse is valid if she is drunk. Feministas are adamant that it is not, arguing that a man who "takes advantage" of a woman rendered compliant by a few pints of snakebite is a fully-fledged rapist; again, their argument weakens us.

Allowing for the tautological assumption that "date rape" takes place on a date, and allowing therefore that both parties probably enjoyed several sherries before engaging in sex, what this means is that a man may be held responsible for his inebriated actions - but a woman need not be. A curious equality, is it not, that disallows an equal right to make our own mistakes?

The undermining of essentially female stoicism does, admittedly, benefit some: workers in equal ops quangos and viragos of agitprops, for instance, are bound to regard the naturally independent strengths of women with the same horror that a tenured environmentalist sniffs clean air. But those who follow their self-interested lead really must be daft as brushes. The evolution of the "can't cope, won't cope" philosophy has done most of us no favours at all - and it was not to make helpless wusses of ourselves that, 30 years ago, we grouped and moved, and marched and sang


The Christmas Kerfuffle

An unusual San Francisco Jewish viewpoint

Upon leaving a San Francisco shop last week, I wished the clerk a cheery "Merry Christmas," only to be met with a surly "Happy Holidays" in return. With that simple exchange, our positions at opposite ends of the political spectrum were revealed. The celebration of Christmas has indeed been overshadowed by politics in recent years, to the point where every greeting is pregnant with meaning. And even non-Christians are swept up in the Christmas kerfuffle.

As a member of the Jewish faith, I've never once felt intimidated, bothered or offended by Christmas. In fact, I grew up celebrating Christmas and still do to this day. Not the religious aspects, but rather the festive trappings of the holiday. I also light the menorah candles each year to mark Hanukkah. While this might earn me the disapproval of traditionalists on both sides of the fence, I confess it simply to illustrate that one holiday need not endanger another. Yet the political battle over Christmas rages on. Conservatives are upset over what has been dubbed the "war on Christmas," while liberals accuse them of overreacting to what is essentially a non-event. But who's right?

Skeptics of the "war on Christmas" narrative often point out that the trappings of Christmas are everywhere. The commercialization of Christmas has led to an onslaught of retail madness in recent years; the evidence is all around us. But the religious underpinnings of Christmas (the birth of Jesus Christ), not to mention the actual name of the holiday itself, are at risk of disappearing from the public sphere. All across the country, city halls, chain stores, and public squares are erecting "holiday trees" in lieu of Christmas trees. Nativity scenes are being banned in town squares, public buildings and even some malls. The singing of Christmas carols such as "Silent Night" in public schools and caroling in public parks and public housing are becoming rarities. Court cases brought by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have taken the clause that never appeared in the constitution to ridiculous levels -- and chipping away at Christmas is just one of the results.

The retail world has been the focus of much anti-Christmas activity. While profiting from the holiday, many stores seem to feel that specifying Christmas threatens the "inclusiveness" to which they seem to be pledged. A trip to Macy's, Nordstrom, Sears or just about any other department store these days will almost always result in the ubiquitous "Happy Holidays" greeting from employees as you pass through the door. Target in particular has taken a lot of heat for allegedly eliminating the word "Christmas" from its stores. Although they deny this policy, a brief look around any Target store will prove otherwise. Whether it's the advertising, the store decorations or the favored greetings of employees, "Happy Holidays" or "Seasons Greetings" has obviously overtaken Christmas. An online petition, signed by over 500,000 shoppers, produced a promise from Target to add more Christmas to the mix as the 25th approaches, but the result remains to be seen.

Even President Bush, the supposed leader of a new Christian theocracy (to hear some on the left tell it), seems to have succumbed to the forces of political correctness. The White House recently sent out its Christmas card. But as has been the custom since the Clinton presidency, it was instead a "holiday card." There was nary a mention of the word "Christmas." The bland holiday card angered many of Bush's supporters, while doing nothing to lessen the president's reputation among liberals as some sort of new pope. So one has to wonder why the White House promulgated a form of self-censorship with little or no reward involved. That Bush is the first president to honor Hanukkah and Ramadan at the White House certainly need not preclude mention of Christmas in the White House holiday card.

The excuse given by the White House for honoring this precedent is that one must be sensitive to the other holidays occurring at the same time of year -- Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and for the few pagans out there, Winter Solstice. But they really have nothing to do with the discussion. The federal holiday that the country is celebrating on the 25th of December is Christmas, period. With the exception of Hanukkah this year, which coincidentally begins on the 25th, that particular date does not belong to any other holiday. So what's wrong with acting accordingly?

Why is it that Christmas is the only holiday that must be downplayed so that other religions feel more "included"? We don't insist on calling the Muslim holiday of Ramadan by any other name, nor do we impose such restrictions on the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. In all fairness, we would have to label all religious and cultural occasions "holidays," not just Christmas. I wonder how long it would take for members of other religions to express their outrage? Yet when Christians fight back, as they are now with a concerted campaign to stem the anti-Christmas tide, they are ridiculed or vilified by their opponents.

This double standard when it comes to Christians can be seen in many spheres. A friend was shopping recently in one of those cute little neighborhood stores San Francisco prides itself on when she noticed that the man ringing her up was wearing a T-shirt that read, "So Many Rightwing Christians, So Few Lions." No doubt this was intended to be humorous, but the message has serious implications. Simply substitute the words "Jews," "blacks" or "gays" and the outrage would be immediate. But when it comes to Christians, such offensive rhetoric is somehow acceptable. There's even a term for it -- Christianophobia.

Often, the reason given by those who espouse this bigotry is that Christians themselves spew hatred toward other groups. But mostly what's being referred to is disapproval, not hatred. Criticism of another's lifestyle is not equivalent to hating someone or acting violently on hatred. While there will always be the few extremists, the majority of Christians espouse a peaceful approach to their fellow human beings. It would be nice if that fact were acknowledged now and then.

So what's at the heart of this campaign to erase Christmas? I argue that it's the creeping multiculturalism that has taken hold of our nation. Instead of a melting pot, we have a system whereby Christianity, the majority religion, is being subordinated to all the others in the interest of "equality." Accordingly, Christmas has to be diminished so that no feels left out. But this sort of excessive pandering to "diversity" is becoming ludicrous. Have we become a nation of insecure adherents to psychobabble? Does the mere presence of Christmas really threaten non-Christians?

During such times, I'm reminded of my mother's childhood in Australia and her experiences being the sole Jewish child in what was essentially a Christian school. Far from feeling left out, she simply accepted the situation at face value. Jewish traditions were kept alive both at home and in a thriving Jewish community, so they didn't need to be shared by the entire school for her to feel secure. She was never insulted or put upon for being Jewish -- that's just how it was. The point is, simply being a member of a minority group is not tantamount to being oppressed. Perhaps we should remember that lesson when thinking about the Christmas kerfuffle. And the next time someone wishes you a "Happy Holidays," wish them a hearty "Merry Christmas" in return.


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