SAO PAULO — We all have our doubts about marriage. But Charles Darwin faced the dilemma with a typical 19th-century rationalism. In 1838, as he wondered whether to marry his cousin Emma Wedgwood, the eminent scientist drew up a list of pros and cons to help make up his mind about tying the knot.
I had heard that story before, but I confess I'd never read it with attention until it was published by British newspaper The Daily Telegraph for Darwin's birthday (Feb. 12) and ahead of Valentine's Day. We're presented with two columns — To Marry, Not To Marry — the latter containing significantly more arguments.
Among the first reasons not to get hitched, Darwin mentions the "freedom to go where one liked," the need to "visit relatives and bend to every trifle," less money to buy books and less time to read them, and the potential quarrels that are a waste of time (true that, Charles).
Charles Darwin and wife Emma Wedgewood
He was much more more concise about the reasons to marry, writing that it's good to have "companionship" (especially in old age), to have someone to take care of the house, and all things considered, that a woman is "better than a dog anyhow." Though his pro-list had fewer arguments, Darwin still ended up marrying Emma. In the end, no list can defeat the love a man feels for a woman.
That was almost 200 years ago. Perhaps the love Charles Darwin felt for Emma — visible in his most personal writings — isn't suited to our modern times. Demonstrations of male affection nowadays can in fact be considered subtle forms of female degradation. Odd, you say?
It's not just being nice?
Far from it. A recent article published in the British magazine Prospect, written by Jessica Abrahams, attacks Valentine's Day, arguing that it's "a classic example" of men's "benevolent sexism" towards women. Just another way of overpowering the feminine gender, assigning women an outdated and frankly inferior role.
Offering flowers, chocolates or simply courting women is merely to reduce them to a passive and — who knows — sexually available subject. The exact same dynamic is at play when a gentleman opens a door for a lady or pays for dinner.
Abrahams is brave and spot on. For years, I was actually lost in conservative clichés myself. I also used to open doors for women and to wave my credit card at the end of fancy dinners, even at the risk of maxing out. But one day in Lisbon, a woman growled at me and my "benevolent sexism."
I woke up from my bestial slumber and was born again in my liberated masculinity. To begin with, dinner expenses were thoroughly divided — drink by drink, olive by olive — and paid separately. The money I thus saved was used in books, travels and other solitary endeavors.
Of course, as far as relations between the two sexes are concerned, I've kept from time to time some archaic notions of chivalry. Flowers, chocolates, private messages. But thanks to Jessica Abrahams, I've finally understood how I had been reducing women to a submissive and shameful role. A thousand pardons to all of them.
And a warning to all men: Don't be savages! For to treat a woman as a woman is, according to Abrahams, to act according to "assumptions about gender roles." It's best not to act at all, not to make any assumptions. And if that means a permanent separation between women and men, well, the extinction of the species would be better than "benevolent sexism."
And for those who are thinking about tying the knot, there's nothing better than to take Charles Darwin's list and cross out all arguments in favor of getting married. Turns out Darwin was wrong. Is a woman "better than a dog anyhow"? This is benevolent sexism. There's women, and women. And there's dogs, and dogs.