The Issue of Women
If the age of women is upon us, how does a man define himself?
illustration by Dreamstime
Esquire is one of the finest magazines in the world. My father was a 30-year subscriber, and I’ve been a monthly reader since he died eight years ago. When it comes to profiles of public officials or celebrities, Esquire sets the standard. And if you’re wondering what it’s like to, say, have Osama bin Laden in your crosshairs (literally), this is the publication for you. But I’ve come to find some humor in the Esquire editors’ regular and earnest attempts to define — precisely — what makes a man today. If you’re measuring manhood by the suit you wear or your cocktail of choice, sorry, but you need to reconsider your metrics.
As I explore the daily life-lesson that is middle age, I’ve come to measure a man, somewhat ironically, by the way he adapts to what is becoming, more each day, a woman’s world. (Esquire readers might smirk at the notion, picturing “A Woman We Love,” the magazine’s periodic stab at highbrow titillation.) This isn’t to suggest that a man is any less so by conceding the rise of the “fairer sex,” or that there isn’t still room for the Clint Eastwood archetype in a world now more than a century removed from any “wild” connection to the west. But just as Dirty Harry managed to partner with a female cop (The Enforcer hit screens almost two generations ago!), so must the modern man come to grips with a woman atop Fortune 500 companies — Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer — and penning recent history’s most popular fiction (Harry Potter’s creator J.K. Rowling, who adopted her initials in part for entrée to an industry she felt was dominated by the male persuasion).
Personally, women and, since I became a father, girls have shaped me in ways I wouldn’t have forecast, and couldn’t have imagined as I grew up on baseball diamonds and basketball courts. Immersed in the boy’s club of athletics, one where girls and women occupied merely a place of curiosity, the idea of answering to a female boss, like Ms. Mayer, would have been as patently ridiculous as the thought of the Boston Red Sox winning a World Series. Those clouded views make good punch lines today.
My only sibling is a sister, one five years my junior . . . but only as measured by age. Junior year in high school, our soccer team — the Northfield Marauders — fought our way to the finals of the Vermont state tournament, where we were soundly beaten. Four years later, Liz’s team won the title. I was elected president of our high school’s branch of the National Honor Society as a senior. Five years later, Liz was valedictorian (following our mom’s track). I attended college at Tufts, only to watch Liz storm the gates at Stanford. What do you call one-upmanship when it’s a young woman leaping rungs up the ladder? Today Liz is a communications pro in Seattle, a mother of two, a triathlete, and active in fighting hunger in the Emerald City. Her impact is measured not in ripples but waves.
Upon the arrival of my first daughter 14 years ago, I was actually asked by some who knew me (and my roots) if I was disappointed not to have a son, someone I could play catch with and take to ballgames. Sofia has since won two softball city championships for her middle school and scored a goal in a city soccer championship game, all the while learning to play the piano in a manner that her aunt Liz, an accomplished pianist, can appreciate fully while I merely listen in awe.
And along came my second daughter. Beauty, sure. Grace in a girl is all but given. But strength (in body and will) and independence, packaged with Elena’s kindness? My wife and I have won a life lottery of sorts. Twice. And we go to lots of ballgames.
Boys are capable of greatness, I remain convinced, once they’ve finished breaking things. (They reach a point where they enjoy putting them back together.) American business may still be male-centric, but perhaps this variable is worth considering as we endure the longest economic drag since the Great Depression. Whether it’s Marissa Mayer, Hillary Clinton, or a woman we’ve yet to meet publicly, the time seems ripe for a woman’s influence to be such that her womanhood is but incidental to the difference she makes. (Consider this a vote for Janet Yellen as Fed chair.)
I own a few suits. And I have a favorite brand of whiskey. These are, let it be said, barely incidental to my identity or image. Much more telling is the impact my sister, wife, and daughters are making on the world, one act of strength and kindness at a time.
Frank Murtaugh is the managing editor of Memphis magazine.