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Men Protecting Women

[NPR, "All Things Considered," October 9, 1996]

When my daughter got a job delivering pizzas, I was a little concerned. Is the neighborhood safe? Do they deliver after dark? I imagined her standing in a shadowy hallway all alone, vulnerable to any sort of mayhem, and armed only with a pizza.

She came home from the first day at work with reassuring news. "They don’t take any chances," she said. "If they have any questions about the call, they won’t send me. They’ll send one of the guys."

I felt ambivalent. I was glad that my daughter would be reasonably safe. But now I was imagining some boy in a greasy pizza-delivery smock standing in that same shadowy hallway, with skin no more bulletproof than my daughter’s. He would go in her place, if there was any chance of danger. I didn’t even know his name.

We hear plenty of persistent, and sometimes justified, complaining that women get a raw deal in life, that men get all the breaks. But we forget one thing guys do for us, without thinking, over and over again. It’s something we expect from them; we may even take it for granted. We expect them to risk their lives.

It’s part of the guy job description. Whenever there’s danger, any man is expected to protect any woman at any cost. This is true no matter who she is; it’s not an honor awarded only to his wife or daughter. I remember reading about two reporters who were mugged on a city street; the man leapt in front of the woman to take a fatal bullet. It struck me as a noble gesture, but one which followed the natural order of things. It wasn’t until I tried to imagine her leaping in front of him that I realized the size of the sacrifice. It’s just what we expect men to do.

Does this mean that we value women’s lives more than men’s? We certainly seem more comfortable risking men’s lives, whether in war or firefighting or pizza delivery. When you stop and think about it, it’s a pretty impressive gift for one gender to give another.

I think about all the men who have reflexively protected me all my life, hard-wired by genes and training to do so. Guys darting ahead of me up the stairs of a parking garage, or getting imperceptibly larger as we walk down a dark street, as if they were being inflated with an air hose. Sometimes their worry seemed silly to me, and I accepted it with a sigh, as my children react to my worrying over them.

Men’s urge to protect women must feel something like women’s urge to protect our children. My urge to protect my daughter—and my son. I wonder what sorts of jobs he’ll have when he’s a little older. One thing’s for sure. I don’t want him delivering pizza.

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