There was some chatter across Twitter this week among some of the authors I follow, who were angry about what they perceived as gender discrimination in literary awards, where men seemed to be outpacing women. They weren’t dissatisfied with the relative rate of publication between male and female authors, nor about the proportion of women holding key positions in the publishing industry.
It wasn’t about equality, one said, it was about status.
Fair enough. I’ve heard similar complaints from male writers, particularly in Christian fiction. They’re prone to label the genre a “ladies’ club.”
Gender Wars rhetoric that purports a vast male or female conspiracy keeping the other half down leaves me cold, and has for a very long time. I won’t bore you with the litany of my upbringing and experience that argue against holding such a combative view of the relationship between men and women, but I would like to share a singular event that crystallized the issue in my mind.
It’s a story about a horse.
When I was 14 years old, in July of 1975, I watched a horse race on television. It wasn’t the Kentucky Derby or any of the other Triple Crown races. It was much, much bigger than that.
Two champions facing off at New York’s Belmont Park, winner take all. The Kentucky Derby victor, Foolish Pleasure, versus an undefeated challenger. They called it “The Great Match.”
The challenger’s name was Ruffian, and this was a Big Deal because Ruffian was female. She was a huge, gleaming black filly with a star on her forehead, a chip on her shoulder, and something to prove to the boys. That was the media’s story—the Battle of the Sexes, played out on an oval dirt track, with horses.
The hoopla surrounding the race caught my teenaged imagination, so I tuned in. CBS Sports broadcast it with the ridiculously irrelevant pre-race commentary you might expect, and I’ll never forget the lame blurb they inserted into every commercial break: Two cartoon horses going back and forth at each other with a song from the Broadway musical, Annie Get Your Gun:
Anything you can do, I can do better…I can do anything better than you.
No, you can’t.
Yes, I can.
No, you can’t!
Yes, I can!
No, you can’t!
Yes, I can, yes I can!
It doesn’t take much to make a 14-year-old’s eyes roll. This cleared the bar by several yards. I ignored it as best I could and focused on the race.
I was rooting for Ruffian, whom I considered the underdog despite her clocking significantly faster times than her opponent at this distance, and despite her defining trait—a compulsive drive to prevent any other horse from running ahead of her. In ten races, she had always led the field at every marker. That’s beyond remarkable. I don’t remember CBS reporting that little detail, but it became very important later.
The race began. Ruffian staggered a bit in her leap from the gate, but she settled into her silky-smooth stride and quickly took the lead, a head’s length in front of Foolish Pleasure, where she knew she must be. Both horses were giving their all. It was a great race. My eyes were glued to the screen.
Her lead extended to half a length, then Ruffian jolted, and stumbled, and fell behind. She’d broken two bones in her leg, but she kept running full-tilt, even as her jockey strained to rein her in, until the leg crumpled beneath her. It was horrific.
The cameras cut away after that, but I was stunned, and I was angry. All the Battle of the Sexes hype suddenly felt hollow and criminal. This was its fruit—a magnificent creature crippled in a fake contest for stakes she didn’t care about and couldn’t understand, proxy for a conflict emblematic of human vanity and ignorance across the ages.
Anything you can do…
Whenever I hear the song, I relive that moment. I hate it.
The surgeons did their best, but the reports say Ruffian thrashed about in confusion as she emerged from anesthesia, limbs churning, thinking she was still on the track, still in the race, fighting for the lead she’d lost and must regain at all costs. She had to be first. That was who she was.
The thrashing undid the surgery and broke another leg. There was no alternative but to put her down. They buried Ruffian at Belmont with honors, in the racetrack infield, her head toward the finish line. There has never again been a match race in America between Thoroughbred champions, of any gender.
To the credit of the racing community, the incident spurred them to develop better methods of treating similar injuries and safer means of easing a horse from anesthesia. I don’t know how many have since been spared Ruffian’s fate. Very many, I hope.
So, if I seem less than sympathetic when someone blames their lack of success on their gender—male, female, or however they define it—that’s probably because I remember a tall black horse with a star on her forehead who knew only one way to run, to the front, and shamed us all, one afternoon in July.