Regan’s Sex Are Heroes No More

<i> Mark Gerzon is a Los Angeles writer whose book, "A Choice of Heroes: The Changing Faces of American Manhood" has just been published by Houghton Mifflin. </i>

In the storm of protest following Donald T. Regan’s remarks about women’s interest in the Geneva summit, one fact is being overlooked. The people who are angry are not just feminists, but men and women of all political persuasions who have grown up in the nuclear age. We are angry not only because Regan’s remarks insulted women, but because they insult the intelligence of all of us.

It is true that most women are not experts on MIRV, MX, SDI, ICBM and all the other acronyms of annihilation. But neither are most men. Why, then, did the White House chief of staff single out women as caring more about “human-interest stuff” than about the intricacies of arms control?

I think his sexist comments grow out of his pre-Hiroshima boyhood. Back then, young men wearing uniforms, who were called “soldiers,” went off to a place called “the battlefield.” Young women, wearing dresses and raising children, stayed “home.” The brave young men were the “protectors,” their girlfriends and sisters, the “protected.” It was a wonderful world of clear-cut sex roles, a world of wars in which “Johnny comes marching home” to be embraced by his mother and his wife as a conquering hero. It was a John Wayne world of clear-cut enemies, whose leaders were considered to be somehow less than human.

What Regan’s foot-in-the-mouth has unwittingly accomplished is that it has drawn attention to how profoundly nuclear weapons have altered traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity. Just as the Japanese men in uniform could do nothing to protect the women and children of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so today young men growing up in America know that they can do nothing to protect their mothers and sisters from nuclear war. As one teen-age girl in a Dallas high school said to me when I visited her class: “I guess what’s different now is that we’re all in this together.”


News magazines with mushroom clouds on the cover, “The Day After” and other television shows graphically portraying the agony of nuclear war, scientific reports about “nuclear winter”-- all these have combined to make both men and women aware that the battlefield is now everywhere. Whether women enlist in the armed services or not, they will be involved if there is ever another major war. And they know it.

In such a world, comments like those of Donald Regan are not only sexist. They are shockingly out of date.

I have talked to audiences throughout America, including woman of all ages, and my overwhelming impression is that women today no longer feel protected. Just as rape has heightened their fears of personal physical assault, and divorce has intensified their fears of economic deprivation, so to an even greater degree have nuclear weapons magnified their fear of dependency on male leadership.

Not only do women know that men are not protecting them anymore; men know it, too. I have heard countless men, particularly of high school and college age, speak poignantly of their bewilderment about what it means today to “protect” or “defend.” I have seen men, bulging with muscles sculpted on Nautilus machines, speak of their helplessness about computerized war. Perhaps most touching of all was the young father, having witnessed the birth of his first child, who said to me: “I’d feel a lot safer if the men running the Pentagon had seen their children born.”

Rather than looking down at women, perhaps men like Regan should take a look at themselves. If the President’s men showed a little more “human interest,” we might not be in the miserable position of fearing our “protectors” as much as we fear our “enemy.”