The new men

(In)equality at home

As a teenager, I was acutely aware that women were treated differently from men in many aspects, and it seemed only natural to rebel against it. At home, even if my grandfather was a staunch supporter of working women and always insisted that I should study so that I might one day have a career and be independent, I found it extremely unfair that I was supposed to help Granny in the kitchen and my brother was not. And whenever I managed to enrol him to perform some simple task – such as helping me wash the dishes – Granddad would invariably come into the kitchen and declare: “While we have women in this house men are not supposed to work in the kitchen!”, and of course my brother Chico, who loathed washing the dishes as much as I did, would immediately grab the opportunity and leave, leaving me angry at life’s injustice. After all, I did exactly what my brother did – in fact I was always the better student – and why was he free from helping in the kitchen – only because he was a boy? I saw no rationale in this – in fact there was none, only Granddad’s chauvinism. After all my brother had a pair of hands exactly as I had!

The outside world

Fortunately in the outside world – Lisbon in the late seventies and early eighties –  I found no reason to complain: first at school and later at University girls and boys were treated exactly in the same way. In our love life things were not exactly equalitarian – we would never declare ourselves to a boy as by then it would have been considered too forward; we would never invite a boy to dance at a party; this limited us to some extent, of course, but then we had our own means of showing boys what we felt, and it added some spice to life, in fact; then there was the chivalrous side of boys – they would not let us go out at night by ourselves, they would always pick us up at home and take us back there, and this was nice! And we thought they did this because they were gentlemen and nothing else, so to be truthful I didn’t really have much to complain about regarding my own life. But of course I read many books, and magazines, and I was aware that around the world, and even in my own country, women suffered due to their condition, so I became a feminist and often produced angry tirades, either with my family or among my friends, about women’s rights and how we should be treated as totally equal to men – both in the law and in daily life.

As for the boys – their opinions differed. My generation, unlike my mother’s, was one in which – at least in Portuguese society – it would have been rare for a girl not to study  or at least to consider work as part of her life. Gone were the days of our grandmothers and some mothers – not mine, who was a career woman with an University degree – who stayed at home raising their children and devoting themselves to an often dull domestic life…still, many of the boys who were our fellow students thought it natural that women should work and have a career, but also thought childcare and domestic chores should also be women’s duties. There was still talk about great men who “helped” their wives at home; their participation in household chores was considered to be a favour they did to their wives, not their obligation, as well as feeding their children or changing diapers…only a few would think it natural to share everything with their wives, be it cooking,washing the dishes or getting up at night when the children were sick or crying…

The man I married

I was lucky – or perhaps wise, considering the circumstances – to find myself a man who belonged to this latter group. Having been raised by a hard working, divorced mother, my ex husband was a man who believed in equal rights and duties for men and women. In fact this was not an issue for him, to such an extent that, even if we quarrelled about many things, we never did about this! In fact he used to cook while I washed the dishes – a perfect team –and when our boys were born the only difference was that – due to mother nature – he could not breastfeed them. As for the rest, he was as involved in their rearing as I was, so I had no reason to complain whatsoever. As in my work I was also lucky – and hardworking, I suppose – enough to never have any reasons to complain, gone were the angry feminist tirades of my youth, as there was absolutely no reason for them. I now lived in an equalitarian world – at least mine was. Even if outside many injustices remained, and still do, unfortunately, and we must not  forget that.

My boys – mission accomplished

And then, our children grew up. And slowly, I have realised how things have changed. I didn’t have a daughter so that I might raise her in my feminist ideals, but by now I feel I have made some contribution towards an equalitarian society, as I have raised two boys for whom the equality of men and women is definitely not an issue. This is something they consider to be completely natural. It would not cross their minds to even think they are superior to a girl in any aspect of life. After all, they were born in a country where the Constitution – followed by the Civil Code – banished any difference based in gender forty years ago. They have grandmothers who were both hard working women, not to mention their mother. They always saw their mother and father working hard and facing their careers in the same way; they always saw their parents sharing the chores at home and without any pre-determined rigid rules: one day their father would take them to school, the other day it would Mom’s turn; at lunch Dad would feed them and in the evening it would be my turn; they always knew Mom had her own money and Dad’s his own as well, and they would never find it strange that their mother was free to spend her own money as Dad was; and certainly they found it very odd for a woman not to drive a car, as Afonso once commented when he was about five: “Mom, it’s so strange – you know that my friend Sérgio’s mother does not drive? How come?”

When they became teenagers I soon found out they were used to seeing the girls in their class having better marks than they had – in fact the top students of most classes were girls. No worries for them; they see it as very natural thing. When Afonso entered University – in an Engineering course traditionally with a much higher percentage of boys – and I asked him” How many girls do you have in your class?”, he smiled and replied “Mom, rather ask me how many boys are there in my class!” adding the boys were a minority, and in fact afterwards showing me the Head is a lady and so are the rest of the directors. And while I was happy to see how things have changed, for him it’s the most natural thing in the world – no fuss at all.

And their friends are much like them. This is a whole new generation of men who think differently and who see women as absolute equal. And this was never clearer than one day, when I was telling them they should always let a girl pass ahead of them at a door, when they faced me and asked “Why that?”with such a surprised look on their faces that I felt I had said some terrible heresy! And when I stammered something about being chivalrous and gentlemanly and the fact that girls enjoyed that, they laughed at me and said “Mom, they absolutely don’t care about that!”. On that day I decided one can never had it all, and if I have to choose I’ll stick with equality and forget about chivalrous behaviour…as for picking up the girls at their places at night, that’s something of the past, and I thought it better not to make any comments. Girls go everywhere by themselves and with their girlfriends, any time of day and night, and I find it fantastic.

I am proud to have raised two men who see women as their equal; of course I know it’s not only my merit – and their Dad’s – but that of a society that has evolved immensely in this aspect, but still I must have contributed in some way. Certainly a society where men and women have the same dignity as human beings is a society where they will work together in the pursuit of their goals and not compete or fight against each other just because their sex is different. All discrimination is bad, but for me the worst discriminations are those based on involuntary circumstances such as gender. So, at least, in a complicated world where so many women are still treated not even as animals, but as objects, living in what is nothing more than abject slavery, I hope my two boys, and their friends, and the boys of this new generation in our country, will contribute to a better, more equalitarian society, where their children – my grandchildren – will not even have a reminiscence of a world where boys were chased out of the kitchen because they were doing less “manly” tasks. And, certainly, if I ever decide to tell them that story, they will laugh at me and think Granny is telling them an absurd joke.

And I will smile and tell them yes, my darlings, wasn’t it absurd.