Paying the Gender Tax For Safety

ELLEN GOODMAN

December 15, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- ''This is what I am getting my daughter for Christmas,'' says my friend, placing a newspaper ad on the table that we share for our annual holiday lunch.

The ad contains no teddy bears or Santas. Her daughter, like mine, is grown. Rather it shows a young woman next to a broken car in an isolated area. The model, with an anxious look on her face, is urgently saying into a car phone, ''Please hurry, it's getting dark!''

My friend's gift idea is, of course, the phone. She wants to give her twenty-something daughter the same child who once longed for a Cabbage Patch doll and then yearned for a pair of silver earrings a bauble of added security.

I understand this choice, although my friend's taste usually runs more to funky hats than to hardware. Car phones themselves, once sold as a basic for work, are now featured as a dress-for-security accessory. They are sold for protection.

But this afternoon as I pass the ad back, it occurs to me that her worries about safety are not seasonal. Nor are they restricted to the car and its occupants. Indeed I share them.

I tell my friend about a conversation I had with my own daughter. She, the wanderer, had just called to describe in detail her new apartment. I, the worrier, had asked for the most important detail: ''Is it safe?''

She had talked about cabinets in the kitchen and curtains on the windows. I had asked about alarms on the door and grates on the windows.

The two of us, mother and daughter, stopped and calculated the hidden ''safety tax'' on her last two apartments. Hadn't the difference between pretty safe and not-so-safe places been rTC about $100 a month? Wasn't this a sort of gender tax?

Now, my friend and I go on. We tabulate the everyday costs of being female and sometimes afraid. Do we count the extra lock on one friend's door? Self-defense lessons for another? Cajun pepper mace for a third? Do we include the times we took taxis instead of streetcars?

What is the price list for other women? How many jobs are passed up because they are in places or at hours considered unsafe? How many places do women not go to -- movies, dinners, friends -- on how many nights, out of how much anxiety? And how do we calculate this cost of safety?

The world is not always safe for men either. We know that males who are young and black are at the greatest risk of criminal harm. But we also know that feeling unsafe -- at home, at work, on the streets -- pervades women's lives more pervasively.

Last fall, when two groups, the Ms. Foundation and the Center for Policy Alternatives, surveyed women across race and class and age, they found that worries about personal security were second only to worries about economic security. Indeed the two worries were often connected.

In public, activists and policy-makers still tend to divide such concerns into their parts. Rape, sexual harassment, battering, crime. But add them together and give them one proper name, personal safety, and a quarter of all women will admit that this is their top concern. Some, poor Latina women in particular, worry more about safety than even about paying their rent.

This is one women's issue that can cut across all lines because it cuts across all lives. It can link together a woman with the cellular phone on her Christmas list and the woman who cannot leave her housing project apartment after dusk. They share the gender tax and, often, the fear.

My friend and I finish our pre-Christmas lunch in a not-so-festive mood. We are women who feel confident at work but tense in an empty city parking lot. We know others who have broken the glass ceiling, but feel afraid -- and sometimes ashamed of feeling afraid -- of footsteps in the dark. We have raised daughters to be strong and yet daughters who must beware.

Now we are learning that women cannot feel free unless they feel safe. Trying to communicate that message will take much more power than a cellular phone.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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