By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 30, 2017
In terms of native intelligence and intellectual brilliance, Keith Rowley is among the top three people who have held the prime ministerial office since independence. The same cannot be said of how he applies these talents to his present office. These attributes were on display when he was the leader of the opposition; now they have faded. Each office brings different challenges. A person may be successful in one and a dismal failure in the other.
No one knows everything. Each office presents itself as a learning experience. Charles Darwin intimated in The Origin of Species that we either adapt to our natural (and by extension, our social) environment or we die. Since we each bring our past cultural and social baggage to any office we hold, it is appropriate to cultivate the intelligences so that we do and say what’s right.
In spite of his intellectual gifts, the PM is deficient in his understanding of gender relations in the contemporary era. The World Health Organization defines gender relations as “socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.” In my mind, the PM continues to view women as many men saw them fifty years ago. At that time, we called the PNM Women’s League “the fat ass brigade.”
The PM’s gender blindness stems from the shortcomings of his formal and informal education. Both of us were brought up in a patriarchal culture that objectified and diminished women. It is not that we didn’t see women as strong beings; we failed to see them as equals.
The PM’s latest faux pas occurred when he said: “A golf course is like a woman, so you have to groom her every day otherwise it turns into a pasture.” Even his syntactical construction reveals how his mind works. He compares a woman to an object, likens her attributes to those of a golf course, and concludes that she, now an it, has to be groomed to be complete. Otherwise, he says, she is turned into a pasture or perhaps she can then be “put out to pasture.” Any way one puts it, the result is the same: a woman is of no value after she has been used and abused by men.
If this were the PM’s only faux pas with regard to his depiction of women, one could have accused him of having a gendered foot and mouth disease and move on. Unfortunately, since becoming prime minister he has displayed a continuing tendency to reduce women to objects that have no agency. Indira Rampersad has documented the frequency with which the PM said demeaning things about women and why he might have done so (Express, October 21).
The prime minister and I are about the same age. We grew up in a world that held negative stereotypes about women even though we admired the strength of our mothers and foremothers. It is noteworthy that our PM identified his grandfather as a tower of strength who instilled in him the manly values that make him who he is today.
The world that made the prime minister and me had some horrible misogynist tendencies. Some women even believed these negative notions about themselves. Many men reduced women to their private parts. Some women have even said, “If yo’ don’t beat ma, yo don’t love me.”
These psychologically contorted ways in which we engaged one another seared our psyche. It will take a lifetime of education and practice for men to respond to women as fully constituted human beings worthy of respect. Some of us try to do the right thing but we know we still have a long way to go. Becoming feminists is a difficult thing for men to do.
Teaching at a women’s college for the past 31 years has made me aware of men’s shortcomings and convinced me that we all need to work harder to eliminate the demeaning ways in which we see women.
Men of my generation—and younger men—must resist the tendency to objectify and disrespect women. The PM must recognize this lacuna in his educational armor before he can overcome his shortcoming. As difficult as it might be, apologizing to women for the hurt he has caused them is an important first step. He should not join the bandwagon of what Paul Krugman calls “Trumpal infallibility,” an age “ruled by men who never admit error, never apologize and, crucially, never learn from their mistakes.…Men who think admitting error makes you look weak just keep making bigger mistakes; delusions of infallibility eventually lead to disaster” (New York Times, October 23).
Anna J. Cooper, an enslaved woman, argued that a civilization should be measured by how it treats its women. She advised, “Only the Black Woman can say ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.‘”
All men, especially the PM, should dedicate themselves to respecting women. We must be skeptical of a network of enablers that reinforces our bad behavior. To do so, we must reeducate ourselves in gender relations.