Florence King

No man’s land

How did America end up with such touchy relations  between the sexes? I blame suburbia

No man's land
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Fredericksburg, Virginia

Walt Whitman once observed, ‘In America, the men hate the women and the women hate the men.’ That sounds like a commentary on feminism and probably was. Although Whitman was caught up in personal sexual conflicts more befitting a sensitive poet, he lived through most of the 19th century, when women were in vociferous pursuit of the vote, so he probably muttered his share of ‘If I hear “vote” one more time… .’

To judge from our current cris de coeur, his remark about the battle of the sexes rings truer for our own time than for his. The Republicans are accused of waging a ‘war on women’ ranging from the curtailing of abortion rights to equal pay for equal work; TV psychologists regularly hold forth on ‘battered wife syndrome’; and ‘domestic violence’ now rivals gunfire as our most frequent police call. Much of this is blamed on tensions arising from our failing economy, but that’s a big answer and big answers tend to be pat answers. Something really has happened between men and women, and I am just the right age to remember the ­difference.

Climb into my time capsule for a trip to the years just before the second world war. I am sitting on the back steps waiting to signal someone who is making his way down the alley. He carries a small wheel on his shoulder and every few steps he throws back his head and calls out ‘Sizzaman!’

My British father called him ‘the scissors grinder’, but such precise diction was rare in the still-southern Washington DC of my childhood. The rest of us, like the grinder, were generic Virginians or Marylanders with tongues influenced by black English, so we called him, as he called himself, ‘the sizzaman’.

He was in his sixties, with thick white hair and rosy cheeks, as Dickensian as all get out. He sharpened all the knives and scissors in the house for only 50 cents but it was understood that you were supposed to offer him food and drink. He ate his way through the neighbourhood — a sandwich here, a bowl of oyster stew there, pie and coffee somewhere else — making it possible for him to live cheaply in a single room with virtually no expenses except rent.

In return, he was the perfect guest who made the goodwives’ day. His working life was peopled exclusively by housebound women, and he felt comfortable with them and could talk the talk. He knew the drill perfectly; ailments, especially the kind that lend themselves to precisely timed interjections of ‘She’s wasting away’ and ‘It runs in the family.’ His innate gentlemanly delicacy allowed him to discuss the finer points of kidney stones without crossing the line into coarseness, yet he was clearly no male hen. He had an adventurous jack-of-all-trades past and big scarred hands, but he was nonetheless a ‘woman’s man’ while being in no sense a ‘ladies’ man’, and it came so naturally to him that neither he nor his hostess-customers ever really thought about it.

The sizzaman was one of many ‘man men’ of my childhood and now I find myself remembering them as I watch the battle of the sexes grow more vituperative. The milkman came too early and the iceman’s product prevented him from tarrying, but there was the insurance man with his big thick policy book with all the different coloured receipts who came once a month to collect for the life insurance and update Granny on his wife’s pregnancy. There was the breadman, whose mother had ‘a goitre as big as a grapefruit’. And there was the mailman, who needed a cold drink on a hot day or vice versa and appreciated being able to put down that heavy leather bag that cut into his shoulder. He was like the gruffly intuitive mailman in Come Back, Little Sheba who told the lonely Shirley Booth, ‘I’ll see that you get a letter if I have to write it myself.’

‘Man men’ were part of the fabric of city life. City women enjoyed a parade of garrulous males, all of whom were seasoned students of the female psyche, well able to minister to what are now called ‘needs’. It all changed with the post-war rise of suburbs and the new one-stop convenient shopping centres. Add husbands exhausted from long commutes and you get: ‘He never talks to me.’

The post-war suburban housewife sharpened her own knives on one of her many labour-saving appliances, and brooded. When the can-opener attachment fell off of the knife sharpener, as it invariably does, she burst into tears. This was the last straw but she didn’t know why. All she knew was that she was stuck in the house with no one to talk to except children, whose conversation lacked something — a point, syntax — or neighbour women who talked of nothing but children. The only man-man she saw was the Tidy Diaper driver but he was always in a hurry, and his job somehow put everyone off the idea of serving food. Besides, he tended to be young: a college student or a pimply lout.

Going to bed with a man, said Mrs Patrick Campbell, is the best way to get his undivided attention, so the untalked-to suburban housewife had affairs and then went to a psychiatrist, but she did all the talking. The shrink, like her husband, hardly ever said a word. Now she has a career and the men in her life are bosses, co-workers or cutthroat rivals for the next big promotion. The rivals are especially careful in her presence lest they inadvertently give something away, so they don’t talk to her either.

Add to this parlous state of affairs the path taken by American demographics in general and we can identify a new front in the battle of the sexes. We are almost completely split along city-suburb lines. City people are Democrats, liberals, intellectuals, globalists, free spirits. Suburban people are Republicans, conservatives, pragmatists, patriots, conformists. Today’s America contains millions of women who hate men in general because they have never met men in general.