I imagine most people these days support the idea of equality between men and women. And there is continuous pressure to increase opportunities for women with quotas for political advancement and compulsory female representation on corporate boards.
But a Dutch-born academic, Professor Martin van Creveld, has developed a bit of an international cult following with his stringent attack on what he calls 'The Privileged Sex'. The 'privileged sex', he says, is female.
His book of that title is peppered with a vast number of sources and annotations, gathered from numerous academic publications. But his message is simple: far from being the oppressed sex, women throughout history have been sheltered and protected from the harshest elements of social and civic life, and they continue to have an easier life than men, worldwide.
Women, he says, want equality in the world of work – yet women also want lighter tasks and "easy, clean" work. Women never want to do all the dirty, heavy stuff: the pulling and hauling, the road-digging, garbage-collecting, truck-driving, firefighting. Women may demand equal access to the military and to policing, but seldom are women soldiers or female police officers able to perform the same tasks as their male colleagues – they're just not robust enough, says the prof.
No matter what way you measure it, women at the top of their physical form still only have 80% of the strength of men. If you took 100 of the strongest individuals out of a random group, 93 would be male and only seven female. Where women are soldiers or police – or even postal workers – they are more protected, and they often choose the easiest roles. From the beginning of history, he contends, men have borne the greatest burdens of work and of protecting others, including women and families.
From the building of the Pyramids, when 100,000 men were forced, by whipping, to construct these wonders, through the Great Wall of China, where men died in their thousands in its construction, down the ages where soldiering, building work, roadmaking, deep-sea fishing and heavy agricultural labour was invariably male work.
During the First World War, ploughing the fields in Germany was turned over to women, and production immediately dropped because women couldn't match male labour (maybe Van Creveld should observe the annual Irish Ploughing Queens – they seem to be very effective).
Even Stalin, he maintains, couldn't coerce women in any meaningful numbers into the heavy engineering fields where men dominated. In an effort to make men and women equal, the Soviet Union simply produced more poverty for both sexes, and women had so many abortions that by the time the USSR fell, the population was declining by a million a year. Today, globally, men spend twice as much of their total lives working as women do. Over a lifetime, career women work 40% less than men.
In Sweden, the society which has done most to equalise the gender roles, women still choose easier jobs, and although women have more social benefits, Swedish men pay more taxes – 61% of taxes are paid by men as against only 38% paid by women.
His claims read like a misogynistic polemic against women, however well supported by academic citations, and often his claims just don't reflect real life – he comes near to claiming that women are lazy, and that they are "unwilling to roll up their sleeves".
He states that in most matrimonial adverts in the United States women are looking for money (while men are probably looking for sex). When divorce impoverishes women, he asserts, the best remedy is for a woman to marry another man, and get him to provide for her.
Yet I can think of plenty of individual cases where women work their socks off – and men are the lazy ones, feet up on the sofa while the harassed female performs her double shift of an outside job, and then housework in the home as well. I've seen women slaving in the fields, in Africa and the Balkans, while the menfolk sit under the fruit tree discussing the meaning of life.
Feminism arose, in Ireland, in my generation because so many daughters felt that their mothers had had such a raw deal.
However, the crusty Van Creveld – who is primarily a military historian – has come up with some interesting statistics, and some of what he is saying could be seen as a refreshing corrective to the current cliches that women are always the victims, men always the exploiters.
By 1900, for example, three-quarters of school teachers in the US were female (as in old Western movies which feature the schoolmarm – Vera Miles is the classic example in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).
By the 1880s, girls were already outperforming boys in schools – especially in the arts and the humanities. But girls have never outperformed boys at physics and maths on any general scale.
What his data really shows is not that women are over-sheltered and work-shy little creatures whingeing away about their lot, but that, quite simply, the innate differences between the sexes nearly always reaffirm themselves.
He notes that 84% of crimes are committed by males – 92% of violent crimes are by young males. Some would claim the reason is simply biological.
Van Creveld says it is partly because society treats males more harshly from the moment they're born. I don't buy that – the Irish mammy mollycoddles boys from birth. Yet 'The Privileged Sex' is a point of view I am willing to consider – because women are usually tolerant and open to differences of opinion.
'I've seen women slaving in the field in Africa while men sit under the fruit tree discussing the meaning of life'