Stoning the Mistress

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Born and raised in the Creek Nation, which has the misfortune to be situated in the buckle of the Bible belt, I did not come to the strange land of intellectuals equipped to accept feminism easily. In these times, when there are plenty of people who are living avatars of feminist values but shun the term, things might be different, but back in the day I didn't know even any de facto feminists, let alone people capable of navigating the analysis that goes with it.

There are a number of women who took part in my feminist education back in the late sixties who will be reading these words and chuckling. There will be a few men who even now will claim I'm "pussy whipped" and don't know it.

I don't blame the former for being amused and I can only refer the latter to my years of changing my mind about this and that in light of new information. I don't think relationships among the sexes or the genders stand outside that process. If you think so little of my intellect I suppose you only follow me for the occasional entertainment value. (My use of "among" rather than "between" was not a mistake.)

Even after I had long defined myself as a feminist, in the eighties, I was still challenged by the question whether this or that happening involved sexism or something else. My wife at the time would have been a high-ranking second wave feminist if feminists believed in that sort of thing. She knew my heart was in the right place and she offered me a sorting method that served me well.

Take the facts of the situation and skew them to make the distinction one of race rather than of sex or gender. If you would see racism, you probably ought to be seeing sexism, so you need to think hard about it.

The first issue that male chauvinists who really mean no harm fold on is equal pay for equal work, and it's the first one I folded on...although some of my women friends had to beat me up with facts I could not deny. It amazes me that goal has been so hard to achieve in the real world, because organized opposition skulked away a long time ago.

Yes, I have heard men claim with a straight face that paying women equally is bad policy because it's "anti-family." They are outliers.

The Republicans standing up against equal pay now rely on a general hostility to federal laws about anything. That is, they do not defend paying women less on the merits.

They make pay equity a federalism issue, like they would make marriage equality, air and water pollution, education---just about anything. The only valid federal programs are the Post Office and the Census and the Army and Navy, because they are in the Constitution. Some sticklers have doubts about the Air Force. And even though the Post Office is legitimate, it should be forced into an unequal competition with private mail services that do not have to serve every wide spot in the road coast to coast.

I also caved pretty quickly on "Mrs." It had to be pointed out to me that the language defined women in terms of men. If I had not long ago come to Jesus on that one, I would have in law school after reading so many 19th century and earlier litigants described as "fem sole."

All of this is prelude to admitting that The New York Times--which signaled a victory a long time ago when "Ms." went into the Times style manual—has taught me another one I had not seen.

There is a widely used term that is, in the U.S. if not in all other countries, somewhat derogatory and can only be spoken in the feminine. There is no masculine analog to the word "mistress."

Oh, if you mean an expert or the boss of something, then we have "master," but I'm talking about married people having affairs, something that happens all the time but becomes a public issue when it involves public people. The context of the revelation was the David Petraeus/Paula Broadwell affair. Petraeus and Broadwell were both married with children.

Both saved their marriages, but Petraeus also salvaged his public persona to some degree. Broadwell did not. It's interesting to read the Times report about their contrasting treatment.

Petraeus fell farther because he had farther to fall and he was convicted of a crime for sharing classified information with Broadwell. She was never charged with a crime because the First Amendment protected accepting the material unless she intended to use it to harm the U.S., which she manifestly did not.

He has had a robust comeback in academia and in politics. Depending on how the current craziness of having the two most unpopular politicians in the country representing the two major parties goes, he may yet get an opportunity to run. I personally would not consider him disqualified; there are not many posts in academia or politics for which I would consider her disqualified, either.

I note that in addition to the shunning visited upon her but not him, she has had her academic union card delayed indefinitely. The computer that contained her dissertation research was taken by the government and not returned. While it was not reported in so many words, I would suspect that is because her storage devices contained classified information and it was too much trouble to sort it.

She, to this day, wears the descriptive "mistress" vis-à-vis Petraeus. He cannot, because the language does not permit it. There is a word that has fallen so far out of colloquial English that it sounds archaic—paramour. While I wait for that word to regain currency, I wonder if it’s public pronouncements about other people’s relationships that are archaic?

In the so-called Islamic State, which we all understand to be run by fundamentalist crazies, they would flog Petraeus and stone Broadwell to death. That’s barbaric, but like much barbarism it has an almost admirable directness.

From our civilized armchairs, we’ve watched social consensus flog his career and kill hers.

I'm chagrined that had to be pointed out to me. Words are supposed to be my business. So do not take this as a sermon, but rather an admission that even at my age I don't always know sexism when I see it.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.