A young surfer recently stopped by my shop to buy an out-of-print book about her passion. During the exchange she used a familiar word to praise a sister wave-rider.
“She really has the ‘cojones’ to surf the big ones,” said the woman.
Most of us have heard some version of this cross-cultural cliché. Language spreads the virulent notion that human courage and strength are rooted in male sex glands. We claim it takes testicles (“cojones” in Spanish) to excel at sports, business, and politics.
Being the sole male in a four-person household, I know this notion is nuts. Our family is fortified by a partnership that transcends gender. Often our daughters ride life’s waves better than Jennifer and I do.
So as husband and dad I’m compelled to speak out for the inherent strength of women. Call it uterine affirmation, in honor of one of the most powerful muscles in the human body. I was compelled to testify on this point with the young surfer in my shop, who patiently nodded at the middle-aged bookseller before dashing off to hit the water.
The next day I learned that 56-year-old Congressman David Wu was accused of sexually molesting the 18-year-old daughter of one of his friends. He has since become the fourth person in Congress to resign this year because of sex scandals. Two Democrats, two Republicans, and four mighty pairs of cajones.
Last spring I defended Wu in the press when Oregon newspapers called for his resignation. At the time the call seemed rash to me, given what had been reported. Several weeks after my column ran, his staff invited me to meet with him during a visit to Seaside. I took my daughters along, thinking it would be a civics lesson.
Having never spoken directly with Wu, I began the meeting by thanking him for his stand on American trade policy with China. From the onset of his service in Washington, Wu advocated that our nation’s commerce with the communist regime should advance human rights and uphold our democratic values.
Wu’s stand earned him flak from some free traders in his district. Yet he held firm, saying: “If the voters of Oregon decide to send me home for [my position on trade with China], I’ll have to live with that. But I’d rather turn my back on the office than turn my back on my principles.”
I read that quote to my daughters, in Wu’s presence, because I wanted them to know they were meeting a leader with strong convictions. If the recent allegations prompting his resignation are true, we’ve also learned such leadership can be sacrificed to those male gonads (“gaowan” in Chinese) that people pretend are the font of valor.
The betrayal of trust reminds me of another family story.
During Jennifer’s first year in college, her sister Jeanne (then 16-years-old) flew down to visit her in California. The adventure began when Jeanne got bumped up to first class, where she enjoyed the company of a charismatic man who accompanied her off the plane to meet Jennifer.
Thankfully, the two young women had the sense to decline when their new 40-something friend, Neil Goldschmidt, suggested that they all go out for drinks. They could tell something was amiss, so they passed up the chance to party with Oregon’s big-balled surfer of political power (now tragically renowned as the perpetrator in a long term sexual abuse case).
That’s “groyse beytsim” in Yiddish, by the way.
From what I’ve seen, the cross-cultural truth about cajones is that they often cause serious wipe outs. Yet for some reason people talk as if they’re essential to success, even for women. When a union leader endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in 2008, he famously described her as being the right person for the job because of her “testicular fortitude.”
Was that what equipped her husband Bill for success in the Oval Office? Did it fortify the public leadership of John Edwards and Arnold Schwarzenegger?
There’s been plenty of debate over where society should draw the line between private life and civic duty. Yet the best comment I’ve heard regarding the testicular exploits of leaders came from my mom, who asked “where do they find the time?”
Presumably such distractions aren’t a problem for most men. Yet for all too many, those “family jewels” are tools of destruction.
Changing caveman notions about success will help counter this failure. Few women in positions of power become embroiled in sex scandals. We need more leaders with uterine fortitude surfing the big waves of society.