don't hit girls

You Don’t Hit Girls

Women’s physical vulnerability is real, but men need not hold back in debate

One of the clearest messages I heard from my father when I was a boy was this: You don’t hit girls. I wasn’t supposed to start fights with boys either, but if one of them were to hit me, my dad made it clear that I could, and, in fact, should hit back. But girls, no. It was an absolute rule, and I heard it loud and clear: You don’t hit girls. As an adult, of course, this translated into You don’t hit women.

There were definite and strong implications in my father’s words: First, girls were different from boys; and a main aspect of this was there was something fragile or delicate about them. As a child of the 1940s and ’50s, I found this perfectly reasonable, and my beliefs about female fragility extended to early adulthood. Right up until the mid-1960s, it was the men who both literally and figuratively wore the pants in the family. The fight for female equality, as expressed in second-wave feminism, was just starting in the mid-’60s. (NOW started in 1966. Ms. magazine published its first issue in 1972.)

So back then it was easy to extend the concept of women’s vulnerability way beyond the physical, to the intellectual and emotional. This directly affected me in my collaborative research and writing–which were on issues related to gender–in the mid-1970s through the early 1980s. When I worked with a male colleague, when we disagreed–which was often–I didn’t hold back at all in putting my views forward. But when I worked with a woman on another project, I did. So aware was I of how men were seen as dominant, that I didn’t express myself honestly, and I think our work suffered for it. I wound up doing far better when I wrote up our work on my own–of course, giving her full coauthorship. And she had a similar experience.

Keep in mind that in both cases, we were friends. But when it was man-to-man, I felt free. When it was man-and-woman, I did not. Metaphorically, my dad’s words had hung on and affected my willingness to be genuine in my opposition to some of her views. I held back, which is really not good for any collaboration.

I am far less concerned about speaking out today, but I am still worried that anything I say which even vaguely critiques feminism will be met with outrage–not only by women, but also by feminist-supporting men.

But women’s anger directed at men is helping me overcome my years of deference. And the recent publication of an opinion piece titled “Why Can’t We Hate Men?” in the prestigious Washington Post, a piece written by the director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at a major university in the northeast, has encouraged me more than ever to really treat women as equals, in the sense of fighting back strongly against tirades attacking me, my sons, and my grandsons.

Men should never hit women (actually, I don’t think men or women should hit anybody). That’s about upper body strength, where clearly we differ. But we don’t differ in brain strength, and it does women a disservice when men hold back from debating them with the same passion with which we would debate other men.

Mark Sherman, Ph.D.

View posts by Mark Sherman, Ph.D.
Mark Sherman is a professor emeritus of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. After receiving his Ph.D. in psychology, he taught for 25 years at SUNY New Paltz, soon specializing in gender issues. By the early 1990s, his principal interest was -- and remains -- the crises facing boys and men (especially young men). He is a member of the multi-partisan coalition for the establishment of a White House Council on Boys and Men, and writes regularly for Psychology Today, principally on issues facing males -- especially those under the age of 30. His strong interest in this comes not only from his academic background and his social concerns, but are quite personal as well: Sherman is the father of three sons and the grandfather of five grandsons.

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