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Published: 2/23/2006

Generation gap found to be gaping at feminism

Trying to concentrate on overnight burglary reports was tough.

Two public officials, just a few feet from me in the police station, were debating loudly and in great detail whether a sauna was a good place to have sex.

This was 1979, in a small Michigan town where I was the new cops 'n' courts beat reporter for the daily newspaper. A recent college graduate with scant workplace experience, that morning I completely understood two real-world facts.

One, these smirking middle-age men with wedding bands were clearly carrying on this conversation to goad me. Two, I was going to have to endure it.

I was 24 years old that year.

This is the same age Elizabeth Krum is now.

An aide to the governor of Maryland, Ms. Krum was reluctantly in the news recently.

This happened after she served tea to her state's 84-year-old comptroller, William Donald Schaefer. The old man leered at her backside as she walked away, then tried to order an instant replay.

"Walk again," he said, motioning for her to come back, all of it captured by TV cameras.

Poof! Instant media frenzy.

"The episode provoked widespread criticism from women's organizations and other politicians," the Washington Post reported solemnly.

I spent a year in Michigan police stations, notebook in hand and sometimes very uncomfortable. But, even after four years on a college campus well-known for its strong feminist contingent, I could never quite put a name to the squirmy and unpleasant sensation that could wash over me while at work.

Hey, what was the big deal? Most everyone was so friendly. All that kidding around, the jokes, the banter. The guys were just being nice, right?

Today, I remain dumbfounded that it took a few more years for me to understand there is a version of "nice" that, in fact, isn't. This is precisely the sort of humorless situation in which the phrase "Can't you take a joke?" emerges.

The difference between a quarter century ago and now, of course, is that most of the people - OK, men - who still think this way know better than to say so in public.

Except, apparently, Mr. Schaefer. He later apologized to Ms. Krum, but chiefly for her embarrassment, not his behavior.

And when confronted by reporters who questioned his conduct, the Post reported that "the comptroller appeared visibly agitated and blamed the media for trying to make 'something very small into something big.'‚óŹ"

Well, personally, I've always been inclined to give men of the WW II generation a get-out-jail-free card.

They came of age in one culture, but grew old in one that was distinctly different. That demanded a great a leap in thinking which, as a defensive Mr. Schaefer demonstrated this last week, this generation sometimes failed to make. In referring to Ms. Krum, he said: "She's 23 or 24 years old. Had nobody ever looked at her before?"

To an old man whose mind-set is immutable, there is simply no explaining these things.

Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.



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