Thursday, July 20, 2006

Still a man's world

If women were in charge, the world would be a better place.

Now that I’ve got your attention, what do you think? True or false?

Would bombs be raining down on Lebanon right now, would the death toll in Iraq keep climbing, would the world seem poised to destroy itself this way, would children be starving to death, would everything be all about MONEY, MONEY, MONEY all the time … if women were calling the shots?

While the number of women in high places in government and commerce has steadily, albeit slowly, increased over the last 30 years, it is still a man’s world, being run by men playing by men’s rules, defined by male paradigms. Look at our testosterone-laden foreign policy, for example. Or the testosterone-laden foreign policy of any other nation. Or the testosterone-laden philosophy of jihad, for that matter. The guy who’s bigger, stronger, tougher, and able to beat up the other guy, or the guy who’s sneakier and more determined, or the guy who thinks he’s got God (most definitely a male god) on his side — wins.

Even with the occasional woman, like Condoleezza Rice, involved, it’s still a man’s world. To get along in it, certainly to get ahead in it, women like Condi have to play by men’s rules in order to succeed — some would say, become “like men.” Ironically, if they’re really good at it, they get called all sorts of names, many of which can’t be printed in this newspaper, as a result.

Do women make a difference? Can they make a difference?

That was the topic for a panel discussion hosted last Thursday night at Patti B’s in Mattituck (a woman-owned business) by a group called Progressive Women in Southold Politics.

Vivian Viloria-Fisher, deputy presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature, the Rev. Lynda Clements, pastor (soon to be former pastor — she’s heading upstate to answer a call to a new ministry later this month) at Cutchogue Presbyterian Church, and yours truly fielded questions about our experiences as “women making a difference” in our communities. It was the first in a series of three such discussions being sponsored by PWSP, so women could “hear the stories of women who take on the issues that matter to all of us,” according to a flier put out by the group.

Personally, I was honored but astounded to be included on the panel. And I honestly felt like I was way out of my league. But I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and found myself inspired — and empowered — by the stories Ms. Viloria-Fisher and Ms. Clements had to tell. That’s the idea behind these sessions, according to PWSP organizer Leslie Weisman. Give women the opportunity to hear the stories of other women, women who are making a difference, to inspire and empower them to go out and do the same. Maybe we can change the world, one woman at a time.

Ms. Viloria-Fisher is a fantastic example of a woman successfully navigating the hazardous waters of a man’s world (county politics) who’s not following the male paradigm, playing by men’s rules, succeeding by being “just like one of the boys.” A retired schoolteacher and mother of five (yes, five) she views her role in government as a “ministry,” she told the women gathered at Patti B’s. She got involved in electoral politics as a way to better accomplish long-held goals of making a positive difference in people’s lives, and that’s what she’s been trying to do.

Ms. Viloria-Fisher is the very antithesis of a politician: down-to-earth, real, no ego, no bluster, no baloney. She spoke from her heart. She spoke about her feelings, without fear or embarrassment.

With women like that in charge, would the world be on a fast-track to hell? Doubtful. But women like Ms. Viloria-Fisher aren’t in charge, not even close to it. And I’m not certain they ever will be. The institutional framework of our society, and the world at large, is thoroughly male, designed to profit a male-dominated corporate culture. As a result, things like hunger, poverty and health care are lower priorities than missile defense systems, stealth bombers and law enforcement — as if more guns, more bombs and more cops and soldiers are the answers to everything.

I realize I’m not sounding terribly inspired or empowered at the moment, two adjectives I used to describe how I felt after last Thursday’s panel discussion. In fact, I am depressed. Things in the Middle East seem to be spiraling out of control, and the world scares me to death. The images of war and the devastation wrought by it bring me to tears daily. My heart breaks for its victims, especially the women and children, victims of circumstance, people without choice, power, or control over their own destinies, particularly in fundamentalist Islamic culture. I fear for my own children’s future.

Then I think of women like Lynda Clements, working for social justice mostly behind the scenes, and Vivian Viloria-Fisher, working for the same causes on the public stage of county politics, and outspoken women like Dee Alexander of Southold (NOW’s first executive director and a founder of what became known as “the women’s movement”), who are not afraid to stand up and demand change, who never tire of it, even after 40-plus years of working for change with mixed results. And the thousands of women like them. Maybe one day we will reach “critical mass” and turn the world on its head. Then there will be a paradigm shift, and the strength of a nation will no longer be defined by the quantity and deadliness of its weapons, but rather by the compassion and humanity of its government and the quality of life of its citizens — all of its citizens, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, age or gender.

Ah, from my lips to God’s ears.

There’s an old saying that appeared on bumper stickers and T-shirts in the ’70s: “God is coming, and is she pissed!” Look out, fellas. You’re going to have a lot of explaining to do.