Ideas have consequences, especially when they become words to live by... that is, when they become personal policy.
Take a new idea, frame it in witty aphorisms and clever slogans, present it as a better guide to planning your life, and people will follow it.
Everyone wants to belong. Some want to belong more than others. If you can convince people that your ideas are sophisticated and advanced people will take them as rules to live by.
We do not know exactly how ideas become guidelines, but sometimes the correlation between ideology and reality is too close to ignore.
Take feminism. Surely, it is one of the dominant ideologies in contemporary America.
Out of mercy I will spare you a close reading of the texts of feminist theorists. Instead I want to examine a few of feminism’s best known slogans and policy prescriptions, the kinds that cause people to make certain life choices.
What do feminists believe? What principles and values have they been peddling?
Take Gloria Steinem’s amazingly vapid aphorism, to the effect that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.
The concept sustains a call for female independence and autonomy. It tells women that the only way to make free decisions is to defy the advice, counsel, or guidance of men.
Free women will not have to answer to any man. They will bask in the glow of their liberation.
Naturally, feminists have never been great fans of marriage. Sometimes they have declared marriage to be an impediment to a woman’s ultimate fulfillment in her career. Sometimes they have pronounced it an instrument of oppression.
Always they have considered the marriage contract to be just another piece of paper. You know, like your pay check.
Feminists have also been at war with what they call gender stereotypes. They have portrayed the difference between the sexes as a patriarchal plot to oppress women.
And they have happily railed against the traditional role of the male breadwinner, the pater familias who does not do the dishes or change the diapers but who goes out into the world to earn a living and support his family.
An independent woman does not need a man to take care of her, any more than a fish needs a bicycle.
Finally, feminists have made something of a fetish out of sexual freedom, especially the kind that they assume men enjoy.
They want women to be free of the risk of pregnancy, a curse that ties them to home and husband. Feminists are not against having children. They want women to have children when they want and as they wish.
In their world men must be equally responsible for all parenting, childcare, and homemaking.
In brief, feminists favor marriage when a woman can marry herself.
Now, let’s try to envision a world that fulfills most of these wishes, where independent, autonomous women are freed from the oppressive patriarchy, do not have to answer to men, and can do exactly as they please.
It isn’t necessary for the women who live these feministically correct lives to be card-carrying feminists. You do not have to be a true believer to have been assailed with these ideas. You might have gone to an American high school. Or you might read women's magazines. You might assume that they are cultural norms.
Do those women who live out the feminist dream inhabit a new gynocratic utopia or do they reside in a modern dystopia?
The evidence suggests that when feminism took root in America in the late 1960s and early 1970s it led to an explosion of out-of-wedlock births. Examine the graph accompanying this story in the New York Times.
Of course, illegitimacy is not new. When it was limited to minority communities polite society looked away. Now it has become the norm in the white working class, so people are noticing. The Times reports:
It used to be called illegitimacy. Now it is the new normal. After steadily rising for five decades, the share of children born to unmarried women has crossed a threshold: more than half of births to American women under 30 occur outside marriage.
Once largely limited to poor women and minorities, motherhood without marriage has settled deeply into middle America. The fastest growth in the last two decades has occurred among white women in their 20s who have some college education but no four-year degree, according to Child Trends, a Washington research group that analyzed government data.
Among mothers of all ages, a majority — 59 percent in 2009 — are married when they have children. But the surge of births outside marriage among younger women — nearly two-thirds of children in the United States are born to mothers under 30 — is both a symbol of the transforming family and a hint of coming generational change.
While many of these pregnancies are accidental— failed birth control—the children are wanted. After all, women are free to choose to abort. Apparently, they do not choose to do so.
Gloria Steinem notwithstanding many of these single mothers are seriously overburdened with their jobs and childrearing duties. It turns out that children do much better when there’s a father on the scene. Somehow or other great feminist minds missed this detail.
According to the Times:
Researchers have consistently found that children born outside marriage face elevated risks of falling into poverty, failing in school or suffering emotional and behavioral problems.
Unfortunately, the men with whom these women produce children are rarely marriage material. For whatever the reason they seem to be incapable of providing for a family, taking the responsibility that comes with marriage. Having been told that they are not necessary, they seem to have gotten the demoralizing message.
So, unmarried women caring for children working at a job or two without a husband… it’s feminist theory realized.
When Amber Strader, a former nursing student turned bartender, mother of two children from two different men, is asked why she is not married she responds with a piece of feminist theory.
The Times reports:
Ms. Strader likes the idea of marriage; she keeps her parents’ wedding photo on her kitchen wall and says her boyfriend is a good father. But for now marriage is beyond her reach.
“I’d like to do it, but I just don’t see it happening right now,” she said. “Most of my friends say it’s just a piece of paper, and it doesn’t work out anyway.”
Unsurprisingly, many of these out-of-wedlock births occur in cohabiting couples. Unfortunately, cohabitation is far less stable than marriage, at least among young Americans.
According to the Times:
Almost all of the rise in nonmarital births has occurred among couples living together. While in some countries such relationships endure at rates that resemble marriages, in the United States they are more than twice as likely to dissolve than marriages. In a summary of research, Pamela Smock and Fiona Rose Greenland, both of the University of Michigan, reported that two-thirds of couples living together split up by the time their child turned 10.
At least, these women have escaped from the oppressive institution of marriage.
The Times quotes one woman who has thoroughly absorbed the lessons of feminism:
“Women used to rely on men, but we don’t need to anymore,” said Teresa Fragoso, 25, a single mother in Lorain. “We support ourselves. We support our kids.”
In this brave new culture social stigmas no longer exist. In the past pregnant women married in order to avoid the stigma of being a single mother. Today, feminism and the therapy culture have stamped out shame.
I have already quoted the opening paragraph of the Times article, the one that says that what used to be called illegitimacy is the new normal.
At another point The Times writes:
Today, neither of Ms. Strader’s pregnancies left her thinking she should marry to avoid stigma. Like other women interviewed here, she described her children as largely unplanned, a byproduct of uncommitted relationships.
When you get pregnant through a hookup, you do not naturally think of marrying the man.
Certainly, it hasn’t helped that young people see marriage as a therapeutic voyage of self-fulfillment rather than involving duties and responsibilities.
According to the Times:
Even as many Americans withdraw from marriage, researchers say, they expect more from it: emotional fulfillment as opposed merely to practical support. “Family life is no longer about playing the social role of father or husband or wife, it’s more about individual satisfaction and self-development,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.
Strangely, the Times notes, following the analysis offered by Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart, the trend has not yet touched college graduates. Nearly all college graduates marry before having children. Some stay married; some do not. Nearly all recognize the importance of a child’s having a mother and a father.
Naturally, feminists explain it away by saying that college educated men are more likely to do more housework and change more diapers.
Then again, perhaps it’s not such a mystery after all. Even in today's economy men who have graduated from college are far more likely to be gainfully employed. Having a job and a career makes them more responsible and more reliable, thus more marriageable. We do not know how well the young generation does in the employment game, but if college educated men lose out to women, we might be seeing the "new normal" extend to the cognitive elite.
Still, it feels strange that men and women who were exposed to advanced feminist thought seem to be less likely to be living their lives according to feminism’s ideological precepts.
The answer might not be complicated at all. It’s one thing to receive these thoughts through the media where they are nicely packaged as self-evident truths, the kinds of beliefs that are held by the cognitive elite. It’s quite something else to spend four years on a campus where you can hear these same thoughts coming from the people who have thought them up.
If I had to venture a guess, I would say that the more you listen to serious feminist thinkers presenting serious feminist thinking the less likely you are to take any of it seriously.