Saturday, September 29, 2007

Mr. Man defends the patriarchy

In hell's faculty lounge

The recent accounts of the misogynistic exploits of Professor Superior and Professor Troll remind me that hell's faculty lounge has other occupants. I heard the story of this particular gentleman from one of his retired colleagues. The retired colleague was a regular at a lunch group I often attended. When he reminisced about the good old days as an econ prof in the years after World War II, he enjoyed telling tales out of school. Sometimes he'd tell us about Mr. Man.

Mr. Man was a dedicated woman-hater. A life-long bachelor and a professor of the old school, Mr. Man always wore a three-piece suit, the knot in his tie neat and tight. He taught economics and business law. Most of the students enrolled in his classes were men, which met with Mr. Man's approval. Econ and law are serious subjects, suitable for masculine endeavor. By the same token, it was outrageous that a few women would attempt to master them. Mr. Man grudgingly accepted that his institution was coeducational and that women were allowed to enroll in his classes, but he didn't have to like it.

It was the contention of the purse-lipped Mr. Man that the girls on campus were pursuing men, not an education. He considered it his duty to drive as many of them out of his classes as possible, thereby opening spaces for the boys who were more deserving of them. Mr. Man's favorite ploy involved the prelude to his orientation lecture on the first day of the semester. Standing primly at the lectern at the front of the room, the professor would greet his students with a cautionary admonition:

“This, gentlemen ... and ladies, is a college course in business law. Business law is a serious endeavor requiring diligence and your full attention in class.” Mr. Mann paused for effect as he scanned the class through his rimless spectacles. “You will be expected to observe the highest standards of comportment and scholarship. To this end, I offer a particular admonitory note to the young ladies in class.” Mr. Man's demeanor became more brittle as he steeled himself to confront the dreaded female presence, but he was equal to the task:

“Would all the ladies in class please sit properly and bring your knees together?” Not having been forewarned, or not having believed those who attempted to warn them, the women in class were usually shocked by Mr. Man's rhetorical question. A brief rustle would disturb the silence of the room as the women uncomfortably shifted in their seats and wondered if they were expected to actually press their knees together for the duration of the period. Mr. Man would view their discomfiture with wry satisfaction, a very thin smile on his face. As the rustle of fidgeting women died out, he would deliver his gracious peroration:

“Thank you, ladies. Well, gentlemen, now that the gates of hell have been closed, let us see if we can give our attention to business law, shall we?”

My friend liked to trot out the story of Mr. Man whenever a stranger was a guest at the lunch group. He enjoyed seeing the reaction to his delivery of Mr. Man's punchline, which usually involved bulging eyes and dropping jaws. The old professor said that no action was ever taken against Mr. Man for his bizarre behavior or comments. He actually thought that no one had even dared file a complaint in those days back in the Eisenhower administration. The postwar generation was not inclined to rock the boat or call attention to itself, so Mr. Man's students just put up with their professor's eccentricities. Mr. Man defended the ramparts of higher education as long as he could against the onslaught of women who wanted to learn economics or business law, but even he could see that the tide was against him. By the time he retired, he must have felt defeated. His defeat, however, is not yet complete.

The story of Mr. Man strikes most people as a good example of how far we have come from the bad old days. Let's not be too complacent about it. Professor Superior, for example, was still behaving in a similar way forty years later at my own school; he merely had to be more careful in his choice of words than Mr. Man. As FemaleScienceProfessor made clear in her own account, Professor Troll feels entitled in the present day to denigrate the skills and scholarship of his female colleagues. The social environment has become very inhospitable to such misogynistic males, but natural selection has yet to make them extinct. It's still, unfortunately, too early to drop our guard against this particular endangered species.

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