Men and women

Relationship resembles apples, oranges

I envy the young women in my office. They are so comfortable being women. They show up to work in skirts and blouses that don't hide the fact they have legs and breasts. Lace is not out of the question. As one late-20s, up-and-coming editor said to me, "I like girly things."

When I entered the business, I drank scotch and wore trousers and flat shoes and took to heart the advice not to write a "woman's" sports column because no one would accept me. Without thinking too hard on it, I strove to be a little man, which made perfect sense at the time. Men served as the sole model of human competence in the workplace.

This, it strikes me now, was like a cat striving to be a dog. It smacked of self-loathing, even if we didn't think of it that way. It suggested that femaleness was something to overcome. For decades, we held to the notion that there were no differences between men and women other than the obvious physical ones. The cultural and sociological ideal was sameness, which could be achieved simply by changing laws, enlightening schools and redirecting parents.

We rarely stopped to ask the next logical questions: What does sameness mean, exactly? How would it look? Were the two sexes trying to become some sort of third gender that was neither male nor female? The answer, of course, was no. We were going to achieve sameness and thus, somehow, equality by everyone being men.

Now the cloak of gender politics is lifting, and underneath are gads more pink than we've seen in a while.

Three major publishers released books earlier this year that examine what it means to be female, from the neurons in our brains to the cycles that regulate our bodies. Time magazine put the topic on its cover this spring. Medical seminars on gender-specific biology that attracted only a handful of doctors four years ago now fill to capacity. Researchers are feeling free to explore the science behind Venus and Mars without being accused of setting women back.

"What my book does, I think, is say, 'Let's look at ourselves and not feel defensive,'" says Dianne Hale, author of "Just Like a Woman: How Gender Science Is Redefining What Makes Us Female" (Bantam), published last month. Hale and the authors of two similar books have been described as "femaleists" rather than feminists. There is no political agenda in the books, though they probably would have been branded as sexist just 10 or 15 years ago.

"The social landscape has changed, so that now they can put these books out there without being lambasted," says comedian Rob Becker. A decade ago, when Becker first began performing "Defending the Caveman," his one-man show about hunter men and gatherer women, some critics called it insensitive, stereotypical and out of touch. But audiences loved it. They recognized what Becker was saying: All the well-intentioned, politically correct theories in the world can't, and shouldn't try to, change evolutionary biology. The show became the longest-running one-man show in the history of Broadway and is still selling out in theaters across the country.

"What bothers me about people saying men should be like women or women should be like men or that everyone needs to be the same," Becker says, "is that what they're really saying is that we're not OK the way we are."

We're finally moving to the point when we can stop making comparisons altogether and understand that we are what we are. Then when someone asks who is better, men or women, we'll answer as Samuel Johnson did: Which man? Which woman? (Copyright 1999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn. Joan Ryan is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.)

Send comments to her in care of this newspaper or send her e-mail at joanryan@sfgate.com.

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