When my daughter was a toddler, we had a brief and unsuccessful flirtation with the local playhouse, where mothers minded each other’s children. She spent most of her time there cowering in a corner of the sandpit, terrified of the rambunctious boys who outnumbered the girls three to one. The boys dominated the play space, careering wildly around on trikes and turning the most innocent toys into fearsome weapons. Territoriality ruled, OK?
In the end, we gave up and waited for kinder, where her own sex had a critical mass and were able to fend off the worst excesses.
That’s the problem with “letting boys be boys”. It means that there’s no room for girls. There are times when that’s OK – girls need times with just their own sex too. But there are times when it’s destructive. Ask Federal politician Cheryl Kernot.
Kernot’s recent stint in the stocks disproves Naomi Wolf’s thesis that the “no-vagina rule” (which decrees that anyone with a vagina will be forbidden success in the workforce or in public life) has been replaced by a “no-uterus rule” (you’re allowed to be female and successful as long as you don’t dare try to also fit motherhood into your life – in other words, as long as you play the game the way blokes do, with long hours, etc).
Times have not changed as much as Wolf would like to think. Kernot has been described by Liberal MP Don Randall as having “the morals of an alley cat on heat”.
The basis for this? A serious relationship 21 years ago with a younger (but adult) man who happened to have been a former student of hers. Randall also made unsubstantiated suggestions of an intimate relationship between Kernot and Senator Gareth Evans.
The fact that such abuse can be heaped upon a female public figure in a formal forum suggests that, in some quarters at least, the double standard is alive and well. Any bright young woman who wants to enter the public sphere had better be sure that she marries as a virgin and remains monogamous thereafter. Anything that could be construed as at all untoward will be noted, broadcast and punished.
Contrast this with the treatment meted out to the leader of the Western World in recent weeks. If you believe half the women who have come out of the woodwork in the past few months, the United States President moonlights as an out-of-control garden hose.
This would be neither here nor there were it not for the way he has allegedly used the Oval Office as the door into a bulk warehouse of firm young flesh..
But no one has had the bad manners to stand up in Congress and call him an alley cat. His popularity rating with ordinary Americans has actually increased. Sexual encounters outside of marriage have always been more tolerated in men who hold public office than women.
But Clinton has escaped lightly (to date), partly for the same reason that the attacks on Kernot have served to bring her sympathy: no one much cares.
Randall is living in a time warp. Even the matronly Women’s Weekly finds the notion of the scarlet woman a bit of a giggle, sending it up with a cover picture of Kernot in a slinky red dress. Randall is talking to an electorate in which up to 30 per cent of wives have had extra-marital affairs and one-in-three women have had abortions. Boys will be boys, and girls will be tarts? That’s an awful lot of french pastry.
But boys are still boys in that they resent having to make room for girls, especially smart, capable girls who rival them for voters’ pet. Any girl who’s had to share the boys’ sandpit recognises when a tom cat is spraying his territory.
First published in The Age.