His and Hers

March 14, 1995|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- I think this is where I came in. Only when I was a kid we didn't need books to tell us that men were from Mars and women were from Venus. We could see that they inhabited different worlds. Women were at home; men in the office. Women wore the skirts; men wore the pants in the family. She raised the kids; he ran the world.

Now, after 30 years of emphasizing what we have in common, we're back to focusing on the differences between the sexes. The more similar our real lives, the more we seem to focus on the separateness of our emotional workings and biological wirings.

The pop talk now is all about the different languages we speak, the different ways our brains work, the difference in our feelings. We scan the latest research looking for evidence of gender gaps rather than common ground.

Deborah Tannen's work, ''You Just Don't Understand,'' has become proof that men and women can't communicate, even though her point was that we can. The complex new brain research has been reduced to a similar shorthand pronouncement that men and women ''think differently.''

We've become hooked again on notions of natural differences. But we should be more concerned with ways we are again nurturing differences.

The Yale researcher, Dr. Sally Shaywitz, who watched men and women sounding out words under a Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine, was struck by the alternate paths the male and female brain took to get to the same place. But today we're directing men and women to separate places.

You don't need an MRI to see that in the world I work in. Newspapers once put men and women into single-sex spheres. The male world was public affairs -- by and for men. The female world was private matters -- by and for women. It took time to break down the print barriers, to have women reporting the news and to have ''women's subjects'' -- from breast cancer to child care -- leading the news.

Many of us who believe the old women's-movement slogan -- the personal is political -- still struggle to connect private life and public policy. But in enclaves of new media, we are facing a resegregation of men and women. It's not just ESPN for the boys and Lifetime for the girls. Not just the Internet, though it has chat groups that most resemble fraternities. The most glaring examples are the talk shows.

Talk radio has become largely a guy thing. It's not only moved to the right, but to the testosterone. The powerful hosts are mostly male, so are the callers and so are the listeners. It's become the turf of the angry white man.

Talk television, on the other hand, is largely a gal thing. The hosts may be more equally divided by gender -- Ricki Lake and Montel Williams, Rolanda and Geraldo, Sally Jessy Raphael and Maury Povich -- but the viewers are mostly female.

The sexes are split and so are the subjects. Male talk radio is about political life. Female talk television is about personal life. The hot topics of the radio week are the balanced budget, food stamps, Congress. The hot topics of the television week are ''man-stealers,'' ''meddling mothers-in-law,'' ''obese women.''

I don't think that men naturally ''evolved'' from hunting mammoths to attacking Congress. Nor did the fittest of the female species survive gathering berries to be obsessed with man-stealing. But the right-wing talk-radio folk deliberately point their followers to the world, the arena of public policy, while the no-wing talk television hosts direct their audience to the home, the drama of private life. One sex gets marching orders, the other gets hankies.

In the end, keeping either men or women in single-sex slots may be equally destructive. But in the current rush of policy-making and unmaking, it's most troubling that the public voice is overwhelmingly male.

These men are arguing, faxing and forming what we call ''public'' opinion while the women are talking personally in the traditional living room of relationships. Men are told to worry about laws and women about their in-laws.

In the cacophony of loud broadcast voices, women are uncomfortable in a shouting match. They're drowned out when speaking in their own voice. Indeed the year of the angry white man, typified by the sound of the talk radio, may not signify a male backlash as much as it does a female retreat.

But public policy is not a boy-thing. Whether you believe in nature or nurture, governing is not done in one part of the brain or for one half of the population. Don't tell me that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. The last time I looked we were living here, together.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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