Dog Fight by George Merrill

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I’ve been thinking about women, recently.

Since I am married to a strong woman, it’s prudent that I should, and that those thoughts be about her. But, it wasn’t my marriage that brought the subject of women to mind . . . this time. It was a Victorian essay I stumbled on in reading a collection of English writers. It was, of all things, about dog fights. What do women and dog fights have to do with each other? More than I first imagined.

The essay was written by John Brown, a cultured Scotsman, born in 1806. Biographical data portrays him as a likeable man, well connected socially and with many friends. He was a physician, a writer and noted as an enthusiastic a dog lover.

Brown writes that he and his friend, Bob “. . . got to the top of the street, and turned north when we espied a crowd at the Tron Church. ‘A dog fight!’ shouted Bob and was off: and so was I, both of us praying that it might not be over before we got up! And is this not boy-nature? And human nature, too and don’t we all wish a house on fire not to be out before we see it?”

Brown continues:

“The crowd round a couple of dogs fighting is a crowd masculine mainly, with an occasional active, compassionate woman, fluttering wildly round the outside, and using her tongue and her hands freely upon the men, as so many brutes.”

An appetite for violence, I believe, is very much a guy thing, not only today, but from our origins. For eons, both physical and social power has been in the hands of men. And, to protect the power, violence was the means of securing it. Brown makes just this point. He sees women as attempting a moderating influence on men’s violent inclinations. However, he turns their concerns into a caricature by describing it this way: “…fluttering wildly round the outside, and using her tongue and her hands freely upon the men as so many brutes.”

From Brown’s essay and my own experience, I think despite the rebukes of ‘compassionate’ women, it’s hard to keep boys from being boys. I remember my mother breaking up a neighborhood rock fight. We were playing war – although undeclared. Our weapons of choice were iron ore rocks thrown across a half-dug foundation, like lobbing grenades on our foes. To this day, I bear a scar on my forehead from some kid’s direct hit sustained during the combat. My mother was livid and actually much more effective in bringing this skirmish to an end than the women Brown describes in his essay. If this fascination with fighting ended with boyhood it might make an amusing story. I am persuaded that, with males, the propensity for violence lasts our lifetime. Those least aware of this design flaw are often the most afflicted with it and typically the most lethal.

If I step back and take a long look at this phenomenon, and how resistant men are, not only to the counsel of women, but to treating them as equal partners, I find it extraordinarily sobering.

Florence Nightingale’s (a contemporary of Brown’s) experience with the British Army perhaps lays out this phenomenon in all its self-destructive machinations and madness. During the Crimean War, the British were losing soldiers at an alarming rate, not directly from being shot or maimed but during recovery, from gangrene, sepsis and other infections that finally killed the wounded. Nightingale identified poor sanitation as the cause of the deaths. She fought tooth and nail to legitimize herself with the Army’s male hierarchy who were suspect of having women involved in a “man’s business”’ in this case how the brass was being unwittingly complicit in the death of their own soldiers. They made her task twice as difficult with their suspicions, which to use an old Army term, left the Army command for some time shooting themselves in the foot.

Suffering enormous indignities at the hands of a male dominated institution, she nevertheless persisted and helped the boys clean up their act, quite literally. She was responsible for saving hundreds of men’s lives.

Another historical whopper was how Allied Chemical’s male officials went on television on a smear campaign when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring. A fortune five hundred looking company executive (graying at the temples) on TV told us how her findings were not credible since women were well known to be hysterical, that she was unmarried, and because of their frailty, women’s scientific acumen had always been in question.

In both these instances and others that were to follow, the issue came up again and again for women: knowing that their voices were not being heard, much less heeded. Like black voices in the American story, even today many women feel they are not being heard. The #MeToo movement has caught the ear of many men.

I suspect the message is clear: even now, as the sexual abuse scandals unfold, the old boys are having a real struggle growing up and I think a goodly number are still living their lives out in a protracted adolescence. An historical overview of recent history reveals that women only succeeded in the right to vote in 1920. The pill exploded on the gender scene in 1960, affording women the choice over their own bodies. Men previously held the power over reproduction. The pill flipped the equation. The pill, more than anything, may have let Pandora out of the box – in a manner of speaking – by enabling women greater freedom of choice. Viagra, as we know, is covered by most medical plans. Birth control pills are not. The ERA, assuring no discrimination on the basis of gender is still not ratified by all the states. On equal pay for men and women, the jury is still debating.

On gender issues, my wife and I see differently on one issue: women in combat. She makes a case for the importance of choice and having the opportunity to serve in the Armed Forces if women should wish to and are qualified. Her issue, as I understand it, is primarily the freedom to choose and not be automatically excluded on the basis of gender.

I struggle with that, not about the desire for choice, but about choosing combat. As I feel about the matter, it’s troubling enough for me that the guys are energized by the fray, but it offends my sensibilities that women might be also. Somehow, as I imagine it, the woman brings to our evolutionary tasks another dimension, a more holistic one, one that cultivates the skills of healing and reconciliation, rather than the art of dominating by force. This may be a vestige of my own atavistic male chauvinism, but there you have it.

I’d welcome a conversation about the complementarity of men and women in the long haul of our human journey. I’m not confident that I see it clearly.

I am confident of this: I haven’t seen a dog fight since I was a grade school kid. I remember it was neat, but I kept wondering what I would do if one turned on me.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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