A study in gender contrast and forgiveness

I’ve never felt much reason to comment on controversies at other sites.  I usually follow my own path and aim for original analysis on other subjects.  However, the Hugo Schwyzer controversy over on Feministe has captured my attention.  For those unaware, Hugo Schwyzer is a prominent male feminist whose personal life and prior conduct has been considered reprehensible to many outside observers.  Because he and I both identify as feminist and as men, his behavior reflects upon my own.  I myself am highly critical of him, though I have tried to see the matter as objectively as I can.  In an effort to perhaps flip the framing or put things in a new context, I’ll share a story.

My mind turns to someone with whom I used to Worship.  Her reputation was not exactly stellar.  She was an out-and-out pariah to several people in the greater community.  If they kept their distance, they could hardly be blamed.  They shunned her because she’d undergone the shame of being the first woman in the state to be forced to pay child support.  Her condition and behavior must have been unprecedented and inexcusably reckless.  Primary custody was also granted to the father.  Though in recovery by the time I met her, she had once been a severe alcoholic.  Her substance abuse issues and lengthy history of marital infidelity was used successfully against her in court.  Still, she mostly harmed only herself.

By the time I met her, her problems seemed to be more or less controlled.  I was not aware of her past when she introduced herself to me the first time.  She just seemed to me to be a sweet woman in her sixties who had accepted her ultimate fate in the cosmos.  She emoted a zen-like quality, one common to those who have suffered mightily.  Those who may have otherwise felt vindictive as a result of her behavior in another time now mostly felt sorry for her.

She had cancer.  It never killed her, only left her in constant, terrible pain.  Death would have been too easy an escape.  Instead, the cancer returned time and time again.  She underwent chemotherapy, went into remission, and then after a few months of improvement the disease inevitably returned.  The process repeated itself for over a decade.  Some who were still harboring bitter feelings believed that she got everything that was coming to her, I’m sure.  How could someone that out of control not pay the price for what she’d done to her husband and her child?

Her daughter was similar to her mother in all the wrong ways.  Her own periods of substance abuse had resulted in stints in rehab.  The same was true for an eating disorder.  She stole routinely, often for no discernible reason, this from friends who trusted her.  Eventually, several thousand dollars would come up missing.  Embarrassed, friends cut their ties but did not report the crime.  With time, the daughter chose to steal more than just money and was caught red handed by someone quite willing to prosecute.  That decision produced a felony conviction.  Like her mother, she burned many bridges in her life and had to live with the consequences.

I originally thought about framing my conclusion in religious terms, but I instead changed my mind.  I’m not trying to vindicate Hugo Schwyzer, who identifies as a person of faith.  Instead, I’d rather ask instead whether we’re harsher on women who transgress than we are on men.   For example, do we tolerate people who are bad fathers more easily than those who are bad mothers?  How much of our sympathies do we devote to someone with the profile of the mother of this story?  I’m curious to know how much compassion directed towards this one troubled life falls along gender lines.

I have my own answer, certainly, but in this situation, being labeled a bad mother probably explains peoples’ animosity towards this woman I have cited.  Their immediate reaction is how dare you.  Are women allowed to redeem themselves for past serious lapses in judgment and neglectful behavior, this regarding parenting?

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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