Apparently there is now a Boy Scout troop in Ohio made up only of girls. “Girls can do anything boys can do,” say the organizers. That is true in the main, but not absolutely true. You can have your own politics, but you cannot have your own physics.
Girls can play basketball—against other girls. The WNBA All-Stars would be crushed by any of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of high school boys’ teams across the country. Girls can cut down trees, but, outside of the exceptional case, not if the trees are big and the girls have axes and not chainsaws.
There is a reason boys cannot do all the jobs that men do. The boys aren’t strong enough yet. But a teenage boy, after puberty, will be stronger than his mother and his older sister—indeed, if he spends time outdoors doing things, much stronger. His hands will be bigger, to grip tools, to pull with greater ease, to wrest things into shape. His arms will be longer and his shoulders broader and his chest and back more firmly packed with muscle, and these levers, hammers, and drivers will be able to accomplish more and heavier work.
That I should have to argue for these plain facts suggests how comfortably insulated we have become from the hard physical necessities of life before our time.
But there is something else in play here. To show what it is, I will cite this sonnet, from one of my volumes of The Century Magazine (November, 1899):
A Spur to Genius
Is it my Plutarch that the boy holds there
Upon his knee, his soul absorbed in deeds
Of other races, lands, and times, and creeds,
The soft Aegean breeze within his hair,
And tales of heroes for his daily fare?
Ah, let him burn to face the haughty Medes,
And glory in the men that Athens breeds,
Or thrill at all the odds that Romans dare!
Even thus it was that Shakespeare learned to know
His Timon, and his Serpent of old Nile,
And thus Montaigne in wisdom learned to grow,
And thus the Corsican who left his isle
To rule the world got thews that world to throw:
My boy may get him something worth his while.
Every single thing about this poem is now foreign to us. A boy is reading Plutarch: that would almost sum up how foreign it is, except that we too are supposed to know who Plutarch was, whom he wrote about and why we should care about them; who Timon and the Serpent of old Nile were; what Shakespeare owed to Plutarch; who Montaigne was and why his name should be paired with that of Shakespeare; who the “ambitious Corsican” was. The author takes for granted that we will know these things. We don’t have to have them explained to us. He and we are in conversation. We too are looking at the boy with the book on his knee.
A boy is reading Plutarch.
The boy is to be inspired as he reads. It is in fact the only reason why he is reading at all. He is to burn, to glory, to thrill—to be built up in his growing manhood. Boys inspire in each other a dynamic rivalry, especially when they look to the same heroes as exemplars, for boys are hero-worshipers by nature.
Perform a thought experiment: change the sexes of all the players in a social situation of any complexity, and see how soon the imagination breaks down under the absurdity. The poem above is a case in point. A girl can read Plutarch. Certainly there are girls who have read Plutarch. There are women who teach Plutarch. But, except in some unusual case, that a girl would naturally go to her mother’s library and pick Plutarch from off the shelf, to be absorbed in the deeds of ancient Greek and Roman men, burning in her imagination to emulate them—that, I say, simply does not happen.
Nor does something analogous happen to the boy if we exchange Plutarch for a book about the suffragettes. A boy can read a book about Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. No doubt some boys have. And men teach about the movement for women’s suffrage. But that a boy would go to his father’s library and choose that book from the shelf to read, to be absorbed not in the conquest of Carthage by Scipio, but of the ballot box in New York by the suffragettes—that, I maintain, does not happen.
I have assumed, though, that people in our time would want the boy to be inspired, and that if Elizabeth Cady Stanton was not going to do the trick, then Plutarch had better do the job. But I do not think that is so. We do not want the boy to be reading Plutarch, just as we do not want him to be a part of an organization devoted to boys as boys and not just as young adults of either sex.
We treat dogs better than we treat boys, in this important respect: if you buy a dog of a certain breed, you will of course want to know about its habits, characteristics, and needs. You do not buy a border collie for a small apartment in the city. But we scorn the boy’s nature. We say that if he is not going to fall in love with literature by his encounter with Jane Austen, first-rate though she is, and an admirer of manhood, or Margaret Atwood, third-rate and a despiser of manhood, then so much the worse for the boy. We keep away from him what might inspire, because a boy who is given a healthy intellectual diet is going to grow up strong and confident; and that is also why we do our best to make sure that boys will not have their own groups to enjoy. We pen the collie up on the fourteenth floor.
One final point. There is a kind of natural anti-mimesis when it comes to what boys see girls doing. The boy must accomplish a task that the girl does not have to accomplish. He must dissociate himself from the person he loves best in the world, his mother. He must do so to establish his separate sexual identity; he is male, not female.
Boys sound (sort of) like women in their voices; that cannot remain so. The chins and cheeks of boys look (sort of) like those of girls and women; that cannot remain so. The physical changes betoken intellectual and relational changes.
The threat to the boy is that he will not succeed in the dissociation. Most boys simply lose interest in what girls do; the example of the girls does not inspire. But if, for some accidental reason, a thing is suddenly associated with girls and not boys (say, serving at the altar for Mass, or the name “Lynn”), then a desire to do something else sets in, something with a male valorization. But what have we left for him to do?
Here the feminist is in a bind. If she says, essentially, that the boy must adapt himself to the new state of affairs or die, she has eo ipso admitted her unwillingness or incapacity to lead him. She has loaded the gun with a silver bullet, pointed it at her own chest, and pulled the trigger.
But if she says that the good of that boy comes first, and that if the boy needs other boys to inspire him to greatness, then by all that is sane he must have them, she has rejected the thrust of feminism over the last 100 years. The choice must be made.