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Myths of Female Weakness : Don't knock the Saudis. It can be rough for women here, too.

November 18, 1990|Caryl Rivers | Caryl Rivers, a professor of journalism at Boston University, is the author of "Indecent Behavior" (Dutton/NAL)

BOSTON — The images from the sands of Saudi Arabia offer a stark contrast: American servicewomen work in fatigues, while Saudi women are glimpsed briefly, shrouded head to toe in the veil. While the Americans were driving heavy equipment, a group of some 40 Saudi women staged a protest--dismissing their drivers and piloting their luxury cars through the streets of downtown Riyadh. Their demand? The right to drive, forbidden to women in their country. From all appearances, it's the modern, liberated society vs. the Middle Ages, as far as women are concerned.

But before we Americans start congratulating ourselves on how liberated we are, we might check recent headlines. Nobody's asking American women to dress from head to toe in black, but the mythology about women as "the other," in her strange and wondrous forms, has hardly vanished from the landscape. Peculiar notions about woman--as flawed weakling, sexual predator, neglectful mommy or breed mare--float about like toxic smoke as the subtext of recent controversies.

First, there was the incident in which a female sportswriter was surrounded in the locker room of the New England Patriots by naked players, who made obscene comments and suggestions.

Many of the cries of outrage were directed at the victim. Patriots' fans screamed obscenities at sportswriter Lisa Olson as she walked into the stadium. A Cincinnati coach declared people were tired of bitches and bra-burners; some players said their wives didn't like the idea of women in the locker rooms.

The implication of sexual threat--or misbehavior--by women lurked behind all of these comments. Does a woman "ask for it" if she goes about her job wearing something less body-obscuring than the veil? The notion that any woman who strays from proper female territory into male turf is a sexual aggressor and deserves any punishment she might encounter may be ancient history--but it's not as dead as we thought.

Invoking other women to validate the alleged threat should also be ancient history. Do players' wives really worry about sportswriters--when motel lobbies are filled with nubile groupies whose self-esteem is so low that they need to prove they are somebody by sleeping with celebrities? Do wives really believe that a sportswriter is rushing into the locker room each night worried not about a good quote to lead the next day's story, but breathless for a peek at sweaty, half-naked men--of which she has doubtless seen more than enough already?

Not many women get jobs as sportswriters, so another story--also about doors that could be closing to working women--is more ominous. Johnson Controls, one of the nation's largest car-battery manufacturers, barred all women employees of childbearing age--not just those who were pregnant--from jobs that would expose them to high levels of lead potentially damaging to a fetus. This is the Woman-as-Vessel theory. Women have no value, no lives, no purpose, except as breed mares. So, they should be barred from any activity with even a remote chance of impairing this.

More than half the jobs in the company were suddenly off-limits to women employees. Eight women sued, and the U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments. If the court backs the company, about 20 million American jobs--most of them well- paid--could be off-limits to women. Other companies that use toxic substances in manufacture have already put "fetal protection" policies into effect.

If women can be barred from working with any toxic substance, can they also be kept away from jobs in scientific research? Could they be prohibited from newspaper copy desks because rays from word processors might affect fertility? Construction workers handle solvents and chemicals. Should women be banned from that field? Women will be protected out of well-paying jobs--but no one is going to "protect" women from low-paying jobs slinging hash, scrubbing toilets or emptying bedpans.

The genes in male sperm can be damaged by toxins. But no one ever talks about taking jobs away from men, even though what's toxic for the goose may also be toxic for toxic for the gander.

Even as some declare that these vessels must be protected at all costs, others are saying the womb is simply a container and not very important at all. A California judge recently declared that a surrogate mother who bore a baby for a childless couple had no claim on the child. The embryo was the result of a union of the donor couple's egg and sperm, implanted into the surrogate mother.

The surrogate argued that while the child was not genetically hers, she had carried it for nine months and had formed a mother's bond with the child growing inside her. Nope, said the judge, that doesn't count. The ruling implied that the experience of birthing the child was of no significance. The mother was nothing more than a parking lot for the baby.

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