About 20 years ago, there was an interesting left-handed pitcher for the Duluth-Superior Dukes, a very bad team in a league beneath the status of “minor”—minuscule, I might call it, though I am glad to know that there are still a few small-town baseball teams not in serfdom to the majors. The pitcher’s name was Borders.
In certain respects, Borders was physically unimpressive: 5′ 10″ (five inches shorter than the average pitcher in the major leagues) and 150 pounds (even slighter of frame than that spidery fellow Oil Can Boyd). Squeezing all the juice from the arm, Borders could sometimes pump the fastball up past 80 miles per hour. Normally it was in the 70’s, the fastball of a first-rate Little Leaguer, or of a middling pitcher in junior high. Batters would rocket that pitch all around the park, so Borders had to throw low in the strike zone, and rely on a slow curve and a screwball.
Though the Dukes had plenty of pitchers who were not much better, Borders’ stat line for the Dukes in 1998 was awful: Wins 1, Losses 4, Innings 43.2, Hits 65, Earned Runs 42, Home Runs 11, Walks 14, Strikeouts 14, ERA 8.66. I cannot locate any further information about the kinds of hits Borders gave up, or about how many outs came from double plays, sacrifices, or sacrifice flies. Assuming that every out counted as an at-bat, and that all of the hits that stayed in the park were singles, teams slugged a staggering .513 against Borders. But since doubles and triples were twice as common in the league as were home runs, and since three or four outs from 27 are going to come from sacrifices or sacrifice flies or double plays, it is inevitable that the slugging percentage was really well over .600. (The league average was .427.)
To put that in perspective: the current active player with the highest slugging percentage is Albert Pujols, who ranks ninth all-time (.581).
So Borders’ career was going nowhere. Yet a lot of media attention was focused on this one marginal pitcher, and the 29-56, cellar-dwelling Dukes. Mainly it was on account of the single win that Borders logged, on July 24, against the 36-49 Sioux Falls Canaries. Borders pitched pretty well that night. A scorecard from that game can be found in the Baseball Hall of Fame, at Cooperstown.
The reason for the attention was obvious. Borders’ first name is Ila. Ila Borders is a woman.
Every American likes an underdog, and sometimes that includes women who break into a field dominated by men and achieve great things. We remember and revere the courageous Marie Curie. We don’t so well remember her husband, the comparably great physicist Pierre Curie. It is right and just that we should esteem Marie for a courage and perseverance that Pierre did not need to demonstrate. Americans remember the perseverance of the early suffragettes, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, vastly outnumbered as they were. Their faults are overlooked, and the arguments of those who led the opposition, women themselves, are consigned to oblivion.
This business of the underdog may be, if not taken too seriously, a pleasant enough development from Jewish and Christian revelation. Salvation comes from the unexpected place and person. It is the shepherd Moses against the great Pharaoh, the boy David against the giant Goliath, the Christ Child against Herod, the Cross against the massed power and wisdom of the world.
Detached from revelation, though, it can swerve further and further from reality. It becomes first myth, then idol, then all-controlling ideology. Washington’s rag-tag army defeats the professional redcoats. We can indulge ourselves in a slight measure of exaggeration there. But was it the same sort of thing when Anthony Wayne crushed the Indians in the battle of Fallen Timbers? Or when Jackson sent the Cherokees packing on the Trail of Tears? Is America now the last best hope of the world, simply, without qualification? Or is America also a great rich lumbering purveyor of pornography and perversions?
Think again of Ila Borders. She was not Marie Curie. Madame Curie could well be the forerunner of many women working in the sciences. But Ila Borders was never going to be anything more than a slowball pitcher hanging on to a bad team in an inconsequential league. She has been the forerunner of nothing at all, if we are talking about the presence of women in professional baseball. The ceiling is a couple of inches over her head, and it is not going anywhere. It cannot. The reality of male and female forbids it.
And this is reality, not training or expectations. Plenty of women play basketball nowadays, but their teams must be shielded, artificially, from reality. Those teams must be “safe spaces,” where not even a teenage boy can be allowed to intrude. The boys are too big, too fast, too strong—their shoulders too broad, their fingers and hands and arms too long, and their blood too rich in oxygen. That’s not even to mention the bigger basketball they use. Nor that the WNBA has long been bankrolled by the men in the NBA, and could not long survive if they had to use their own arenas.
How much has the generous feeling for the underdog invaded sexual ideology? We can answer that question by asking others that snap us back to reality. Suppose a tyrant makes your city’s fortunes depend upon a football game. If you win, you pay no taxes. If you lose, get ready to open a vein. How quickly will you clear your head of make-believe! You will have the biggest, strongest, toughest, and fastest men on that field, and if a one-armed fellow were to press his services upon you, you would say to him, kindly, “We appreciate your enthusiasm, but you cannot help us here.” Now then, is not life itself more precious than a bank account? It would be wrong to let a foolish sentiment expose even one person to a greater chance of losing life or limb than need be.
No one, in his own person, wants to be the object of a sentimental experiment, or of what often amounts to the same thing, a hardened ideology. If I am lying on the floor unconscious in a burning building, I do not care whether the one-armed fireman makes for a good plot for a movie. I do not care that the firewoman is every bit as strong as an active 17-year-old boy—and here I am pressing against the ceiling of reality. I want someone who has twice the strength of that 17-year-old boy. I am not a white mouse in a sociological laboratory. I am a human being. I want to live.
If my life hinges upon whether my platoon can clear that ridge, each soldier carrying 150 pounds of weapons and supplies on his back, with bullets whistling over our heads and our feet sliding in the mud, I do not want to hear that the weakest member of the platoon is still sort of, kind of, within a margin for soldiering. I do not want to be—to use the ugly word in an uncommonly fitting sense—marginalized, as if ideologues who know all and see all can rightly balance my desire to live with the requirements of the regnant ideology. Winning the ridge is central, not marginal. Given victory in the battle, my life too is central, not marginal.
Perhaps it is easy to see in such cases where the ideology of sexual role-shattering is foolish and dangerous. But in no others? Grant that there should be plenty of Madames Curie in the halls of our sciences. Does that then mean that all of the expectations that people once had for men and women were mere prejudices, irrational, pointless at best, destructive at worst? Or were some of those expectations founded in reality and in a care for the common good? Aside from those areas where the strength, speed, and agility of men must dominate, are we still playing, here and there, the Ila Borders Game? All right, we’ll agree not to pretend that we can overrule the laws of physics. Are there no other laws our ideology will pretend to overrule?
Our schools, of course, are all-in for the overruling. If you are a boy who wishes to dance with the girls in the Nutcracker as one of the sugarplum fairies, the teachers will support you with hugs and treacle. If you are a girl who wants to wrestle boys in the lighter weight classes, it will be just the same. Schools in supposedly conservative Alberta have committed themselves to fighting against—here come the dreary old words—“gender stereotypes.” If you are a gang of boys and you build an electric car, you will meet with a shrug and a pat on the head, but if you are a gang of girls and you do the same, your names and your pictures will be on the walls of every school in the province.
My question here is not, in the first instance, whether this is fair. My question is whether it is sane. For it is based on a premise, that all of our perceptions of sexual differentiation, in matters that go beyond brute physicality, are illusions. If that premise were correct, we would still not be in the clear, because for other reasons it might contribute to the common good to expect separate kinds of things from men and women. After all, women bear children and men do not, and men are, as a brute physical fact, more aggressive than women, and therefore more dangerous unless their aggression be channeled into some socially productive activity. It may be true that Mary is just as good as John at pulling people’s teeth, and still, all other things being equal, we may be better off with John in the dentist’s office, or worse off with John idling at home. But what if the premise is not correct? What if, as every culture but ours has affirmed, the differences between men and women are many and profound? What if men and women embody two different and complementary ways of being human?
If that is true, then to insist otherwise as a matter of educational or political policy is to ignore reality. It is, in a subtler yet more pervasive and destructive way, to pretend that we can have leagues of Ila Borderses and Bruce Jenners, spreading across the countryside, bringing good things to all, and promoting a society of peace and plenty and wisdom and love. It is to pretend that we can rear boys to be more like girls and girls to be more like boys, and thus attain the Promised Land. But consider: If you have land on the dry side of a mountain range, you may try, after much expensive irrigation, to grow rice on it—but what would be the point? Better to go with the native strength of that land and use it for grazing livestock. If your son “sees” mathematical objects but stutters and shies away from self-expression, you can put him in an educational hothouse and try to force short stories from him, but what would be the point? Better to go with the native strength of his mind and give him conic sections to play with, as the boy Pascal did.
Manliness and womanliness are both virtues. To respect the beauty of being a man and the beauty of being a woman is to get the richest harvest from each, recognizing that the one is not the other. To promote manliness among boys and womanliness among women is to promote a sensible approach to their sexual reality. To fail to do so is to try to get fish from a desert.
Lest I be accused of bald assertion here, let us stand back for a moment and behold our social and political institutions. They all now accept as a matter of course that sex is irrelevant—or, if it is relevant, that women are morally superior to men, because women are sensitive (but never touchy), women care for small things (but never get lost in the petty), women place people above abstract systems of reasoning (but never hurt people by compromising principles), women understand unspoken cues (but never play upon them to get their way), and women feel for victims (but never smother them with self-serving sympathy). All right, let us judge. Have the institutions been opening themselves up to Marie Curie, or have they been playing the Ila Borders Game?
Perhaps some of both. I number among my colleagues women who are excellent teachers and scholars. My sister is a physician of considerable and deserved renown and responsibility. Margaret Thatcher was Great Britain’s last capable statesman. I think that Marilynne Robinson is our greatest living English novelist.
We could go on in this vein. Yet there are two questions at issue. First, is the massive exodus of women from the home and the neighborhood into business and politics a good thing or a bad thing, on the whole? Second, are there some institutions that have been created by men that have worked because of the peculiar social, psychological, and intellectual habits of men, and that do not work so well when these habits are overridden, or when they never develop in the first place—nonphysical baseball games, as it were? Your car can run on alcohol, but it will not run well. Does the United States Congress run well on sexual indifferentism? How about the leadership of your church?
Let me suggest one way to think of these things. Men are the immemorial creators of games, with rules that everyone observes. Even the cheat must believe in the rules. He violates them but knows that he has to appear to be observing them, and that if they didn’t exist, he would not have his opportunity to exploit them. Some of the rules spring from the nature of men. We like the fair fight. We can make friendships in the aftermath of a fight; we condemn the sore loser and the grudge holder. Think of Grant and Lee at Appomattox, then think of the unseemly contempt the unmanly now heap upon the losers of that war.
Boys are natural umpires. We despise a man who allows his sentiment to bend his judgment, or who invents new rules out of thin air to apply to people retroactively; the first is soft and corruptible; the second a tyrant. Men thrive by discipline, but mainly if it is enforced by other men who have gone through the same; the ascetic life can rouse their imaginations to visions of glory. The natural passion that a man feels when he worships is awe: He is quicker to sense the majesty of God than the mercy of God.
“I too am a man under authority,” said the centurion to Jesus, and it is hard to imagine anyone but a man with the soul of a soldier saying such a thing. Men both create and honor zones of authority. These zones are mutually recognized charters of liberty. Unless you are a fiend, no man is going to meddle in how you raise your children. No man calls the police to report you for letting your child play outside. Unless you are a fraud, no man is going to meddle in how you conduct your small business. Men are apt to grant one another a wide berth, because that is one of the rules. Men do not like to treat other men as if they were children. That is why men do not pave roads to and from the legislature and the living room. A man’s home is his castle, which means that a woman’s home is her castle, too.
If we have been playing the Ila Borders Game, we should see plenty of women who are to their fields what a stronger Ila Borders might have been to baseball, with this additional factor, that Ila Borders could not change the rules of her game, but they have changed the rules of theirs. Has that happened? In some ways the result would be more polite. Men would be less likely to break the crockery. Senators would be less likely to cane one another. But opposition that appeals to the manhood of another would be ruled out, and dynamic enmities for the common good would not form. Men would not “have it out” and be done with it, but all would turn inward, politics would become intensely personal, nor could there ever be defeat with honor or victory with reserve and grace. I leave it to my readers to judge whether it is so. What we should do about it, if so, is another matter.