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Barbara writes

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The Rules



For most of my adolescent and adult life, I’ve taken to writing letters to newspapers when something, usually political, gets me mad. At one point my family threatened to submit my Unpublished Letters to the New York Times (my paper of choice) to a publisher, but, fortunately or unfortunately, they never followed through, partly because the Times started publishing my letters with relative frequency. Here, however, is a recent one that they passed on, but that really made me start thinking about the rules that I, and so many other women, grew up with.

To the Editor:

Lisa Lerer's News Analysis (Cuomo's Feminist Credentials Crumble As He Leaves Office in Scandal, 8/12/21), and her comments on Governor Cuomo's sense of entitlement, made me think about the dating rules that I grew up with during the late 1950's and 1960's. Those rules dictated that a boy/man should always take the lead in dating behavior; he should be the one who calls a girl/woman, asks for a date, pays for the date, and certainly makes the first move in physical contact. This was both a fact of male privilege, and a burden that men and boys had to bear. If a boy was too shy to assume his privilege, he was out of luck in the dating department, and many a girl/woman languished by the phone, waiting for his call. Oddly enough, I know feminist women, now in their 50's and 60's who still will not phone a man for a date, or initiate physical contact, so well have those lessons been ingrained. So, I do, as a lifelong feminist, have some understanding of Gov. Cuomo's ease at touching a woman and feeling that he did not "cross the line". I would never think of touching a male employee, but, then, I was never taught that I had that privilege. He, and most men of his generation and those after, did. This behavior won't change until "the rules" change, and they haven't yet.


As recently as 1995, The RulesT, by Sherrie Schneider and Ellen Fein, became a bestselling book by reiterating the rules that I grew up with in days gone by. It amazed me, and still does, that women in 1995 would take these dicta seriously, but they did, probably because the book reinforced the reasoning that was imprinted in their mothers and grandmothers, and was passed on, liminally or subliminally, to them (eg: never accept a date invitation for Saturday after Wednesday night. Tell the boy/man that you’re busy, so that he thinks you’re in demand.)


All these “don’ts” made adolescent dating onerous to me, as I was fairly assertive and ambitious in other areas of my life, and not being able to go for what I wanted just made me feel “not me”. I broke the first rule, “never call a boy/man for a date”, when I was 15, and wanted to date a young man of 24. He was my first crush, and I knew that he was not going to ask me out, as I was “jailbait”. So, I asked him, and, though he was surprised, we dated, much to my parents’ chagrin. Most of my romantic life during adolescence was with men older than I was, as the ones I met tended to be less conformist than my peers at school.


The rules still clung, however. As a divorced professional and mother in my late 20’s, I attended a feminist psychoanalytic conference, led, of course, by a man. An extremely attractive, and very bright man. There were about 200 attendees, mostly women, present. I asked smart questions, and hoped that, during a break in the conference, he would approach me. Instead, there were hordes of women approaching him with questions. I thought, “Wait. This is a conference about the empowerment of women. Am I going to stand here waiting until the handsome moderator notices me? Really? Why don’t I ask him to come out for a drink after the conference? ‘No’, my mother’s voice said. He might say no. He might be married. He might have other plans. He might have a girl friend’. It occurred to me then that men have to take that risk all the time. That, although they were given the privilege to act, they had to face rejection. If they could, and I wanted the same prerogative, I had to risk that also. So, I did. And he said that he had a party afterwards, but might I want to join him, which I did. The fact was that he turned out to be a terrible bore, but I was turned on. Not by him, but by me. I had taken the risk, and I had survived. I would even have survived a “No”. From that point on, I was myself in romantic relationships with men. I was the same me that I was at school, at work, in any situation where I went for something that might or might not work out. Some men liked that, and some didn’t. It comes with the privilege of taking the lead.


So, getting back to now ex-Governor Cuomo, I do understand his easy assumption of male privilege. I don’t like it, but it was in his mother’s milk, just as my assumption of lack of privilege was in mine.

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