The Reasonable Woman Standard

This may sound strange coming from a life-long feminist, but I've had it with Women's History Month. It's hard for me to believe that Betty Friedan wrote "The Feminine Mystique," protesters trashed the Miss America Pageant and countless women hazarded class-action suits so that each March fourth graders could learn fun facts about Eleanor Roosevelt. Sometimes it seems to me the event is just a sad symbol of how little change we were willing to settle for. A month? We ought to get most of the year.

Sure, I get the point: I made it through girlhood without ever hearing of Sojourner Truth or Marie Curie, and I am willing to acknowledge progress. Nearly half the medical students in the country are female. So is the secretary of state. Girls play ice hockey in the Olympics. No one blinks at the sight of a woman cop. Fewer parents believe that their sons should check out colleges and their daughters check out catering halls. Rapes are reported, even prosecuted. Everything has changed since I was a girl, when my choice of career was either mother or nun.

And some things never change. The advocacy organization Girls Incorporated releases a survey of schoolgirls this week with the following results: 63 percent said "girls are under a lot of pressure to please everyone," 65 percent said "girls are expected to spend a lot of time on housework and taking care of younger brothers and sisters" and more than half said that "girls are expected to speak softly and not cause trouble." And why not? Last week three young men were convicted of manslaughter after slipping the date-rape drug GHB into the drink of a girl who died. One said this was to make the party "lively." Translated: the best woman is an unconscious woman.

So much for Sally Ride.

The truth is that we got stuck on a plateau here, somewhere between change, which is good, and transformation, which is excellent. There has been some transformation, thanks to the women's movement, which is now, like God, everywhere, from Little League to the Supreme Court. Why do patients feel more confident in asking questions of their physicians and seeking alternative care? Why has community policing, in which cops try to know those they serve, become the order of the day in many cities? Why do newspaper and magazine stories more often include human beings along with statistics? Is it coincidence that all this has happened since women began to enter those professions as both active participants and informed consumers in ever greater numbers?

I don't think so.

But transformation has come slowly, and too often American society has remained like those men's schools that admitted women, and overnight became--men's schools with women. A new book, "A Law of Her Own," an utterly persuasive argument for replacing the reasonable-person standard (which is really just a reasonable-man standard in mufti) with a reasonable-woman standard for certain crimes, sums up the plateau perfectly: "to be treated the same means to be treated the same as men." The two lawyers who wrote the book, Caroline Forell and Donna Matthews, argue that applying the test of how a reasonable woman would behave and react in adjudicating crimes like rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment is only sensible because men frequently see those offenses quite differently than the women who are their habitual victims.

The advantage of this is not only that it is better for women, but that it is better for everyone. "Applying the reasonable woman standard when a woman sexually harasses a man treats his injury more seriously and respectfully than under a reasonable person/man standard," the authors write. Legal standards that suggest men can't help being boorish and predatory may deny women justice, but they also deny men dignity. That more female professors than their male counterparts are attracted to the profession because of teaching rather than research is better for students--of both genders. That female doctors have taken the lead in supporting the health-care consumer movement is good for patients--of both genders. Yet in many tenure decisions teaching is not sufficiently rewarded. In many hospitals patient contact is not sufficiently encouraged. A reasonable-woman standard may be better for everyone in countless areas of daily life. But it's devalued by custom.

In the recent past, the result of combining that custom with feminist change was sometimes women living imitation guys' lives. (And even wearing imitation guys' clothes. Remember those heinous bow ties?) Of course, many of us couldn't manage the masquerade because the most important transformation, the one in which everyone would share domestic duties, never came off, leaving many women with two jobs, one at the office, the other at home. Martha Stewart's grapevine wreaths notwithstanding, housework is mainly scut work, and there is no argument beyond the simple demands of fairness that can suggest men will be enriched by loading the dishwasher. But when women do most of the child rearing--and they do--men miss the most important emotional experience of their own lives. That's tragic--and bad for everyone.

Where the standards of reasonable women are honored, the culture has improved. Where they are not, not. In 1970, when she was trying without success to sell the Equal Rights Amendment, a member of Congress named Edith Green said pithily, "It has been said that if this amendment is passed it will create profound social changes. May I say to you, it is high time some profound social changes were made in our society." Once we were grateful for those Molly Pitcher coloring books. We were grateful to have the access and stature once granted only to men. Forget gratitude. Given the complexity and richness of the lives many women have now cobbled out of past imperatives and present opportunities, real transformation will come when men live more like us.