Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Does Feminism Immiserate Women and Enrich Men?

I agree with Maureen Dowd that it's a paradox, but it is also ironic that after nearly four decades of feminism women are unhappier while men are happier. Link here.

Dowd's column references the work of pollster and statistician Marcus Buckingham. In a recent book and column Buckingham reports that women today are generally unhappier than they were in 1972, and that men are happier. Link here.

While Buckingham studied women around the world, I prefer to follow Dowd and limit myself to a more manageable cohort, women in the United States.

Surely, these results come as a surprise. Betty Friedan and the first generation of contemporary feminists stated clearly that women who were yoked to traditional female roles in the 50s and 60s were miserable for not having the opportunity to actualize their full potential through meaningful work.

(For those who watch "Mad Men," the portrayal of the unhappy Betty Draper reflects Friedan's view.)

And yet, now that women, thanks to Friedan and many others, have far more life choices, we are faced with the fact that they are less happy for as much.

Dowd found the most elegant explanation, saying that women are happy to have so many choices, even if those choices (and the trade-offs involved) do not make them happier.

If we look at feminist theory, especially its initial critique of marriage, gender roles, and patriarchal oppression, it seems possible that feminism did contribute to this unhappiness.

Contemporary feminism began as a critique of gender roles in marriage. Feminist theorists declared that marriage was bad for women, that it made them an oppressed class, and that it was preventing them from finding fulfillment in careers.

Other feminists declared marriage to be a form of chattel slavery. Or else, they saw the suburban kitchen to be roughly equivalent to a concentration camp.

Some feminists declared "wife" to be a four-letter word while others repugned the word "woman" because it suggested that she belonged to him.

Thus, the neutral term, personhood, replaced womanhood and masculine possessive generic pronouns were banished from texts.

Some feminists protested that women had been treated as sexual objects, while others decided that equal meant same, and that women should live their sexuality exactly as men did.

Since men seemed to indulge in a disproportionate number of random, anonymous sexual encounters, the culture led women to believe that they would be sexually liberated if they did the same.

It also told them that men should not be paying for their dinner because then they would be disreputable.

Very few men protested this new regime. The hook-up culture, as practiced by liberated women, was a good thing for men. They could delight in free love, unencumbered by responsibility, obligation, risk, or emotion.

Contemporary feminism scored its first great culture success by reading marriage into an oppression narrative. Putting aside the fact that it is generally a bad idea to live your life as though it were a story, the narrative still found a receptive and eager audience.

Surely, there was some unhappiness afoot in the land, and the feminist narrative made it make sense.

Thus, radical politics entered the realm of personal relationships between the sexes. Women were granted many new ways to live their political convictions. Or better, to live in a way that demonstrated their commitment to the cause of feminism.

This produced a major shift in the way women defined themselves and the way they lived their lives.

Young women began to delay marriage in the interest of developing a career. Married women whose consciousness was raised discovered that their autonomy was being repressed by their husbands, and they started seeing divorce as the lesser of two evils.

The first wave of feminism saw a spike in the divorce rate. It also initiated an important influx of young women into the workplace. Independence suited these women well and they were more apt to defer marriage.

Young women who had deferred marriage had certainly not deferred sexual needs. Thus, premarital sex became the norm, rather than the exception. But while many young women were happy with their "Sex in the City" lifestyle, others bemoaned the fact that when their mothers were the same age they were married and were having more sex.

Evidently, if divorce was better than an oppressive marriage, then the stigma on divorce had to be removed. Without that stigma women would be freer to leave their marriages and find love.

No one seemed to think that the same applied to men, and that men had greater means and opportunity to profit from a divorce than women did.

Be that as it may, when women pursued careers and delayed marriage, they came to their marriages as materially self-sufficient, autonomous, and independent. They neither wanted nor needed support from their husbands.

As the story went, women would be liberated to love and be loved for the persons they really were. Love would be freer and more satisfying.

Many women seemed to find this message liberating. Men often found it confusing. They were told that they should no longer protect and provide for women. These roles were an insult to a woman's autonomy. In more enlightened precincts men were upbraided for offering to pay for dinner.

So, women were on their own. But, then again, so were men. By now you know who got the better of the bargain.

Yet, the oppression narrative was none too kind to men. Feminists declared men to be perfidious, untrustworthy, and worse. Women were told that they needed to have careers because they could not and should not count on men to support them.

Feminism thus created a new set of expectations for male behavior. No longer were men supposed to be strong, silent types rescuing damsels in distress. No longer were they supposed to be paterfamilias or breadwinners. Men were, to say the least, confused.

They solved the confusion by living up to these new expectations. It may not be self-evident but most people will go to considerable lengths to fulfill other people's expectations, no matter what they are.

The process is simple enough. It has often been demonstrated. When a teacher expects that her students are bright they will be more likely to do better in their studies. And vice versa.

If the culture declares that men are irresponsible, unreliable, and immature... then they will eventually learn to act that way.

Thus is surely very sad. Feminism liberated men in ways that it had neither intended nor predicted. Apparently men have enjoyed this new breath of freedom more than women have.

Moreover, feminism made more demands on women than it did on men. Women were supposed to be able to do everything for themselves, almost as though they were supposed to be autonomous, self-sufficient, independent human units. They should not rely on men for anything.

And yet, an autonomous, independent human unit, a being who did not rely on others for anything, will soon find herself suffering from anomie.

The ideal of autonomy is unnatural to social beings. Couple that with the breakdown of the social rituals of dating and mating, and you have people who do not know who they are, what they are supposed to do, or what any of it means.

We could spend a great deal of time trying to decide what should and should not count as proper feminism. Whatever we decide, it is clear that feminism is a cause. Since it requires adherence to a certain set of beliefs, it is also an ideology.

Beyond that, and perhaps most importantly, a woman who declares herself to be a feminist is taking on a new identity.

This new identity, supplementing the identities of daughter, sister, wife, mother, professional, citizen, and so on... entails certain ethical obligations.

It is one thing to ask how a wife or mother should conduct herself to be a good wife or a good mother. But it is quite another thing to ask what she should do if she wants to be a good feminist.

A woman may decide that she needs to spend more time with her children if she wants to be a good mother. Does that make her a bad feminist? Or she may decide that when she is out with her husband at a business function, she has to conduct herself a certain way to be a good wife. Does that make her a bad feminist?

Through feminism many women have conflicting sets of moral responsibilities... and that is not a formula for happiness.

Finally, there is no male equivalent to feminist. Traditional male gender roles were certainly shaken up by feminism, but men have not been called upon to pledge allegiance to an ideology. Nor have they been called upon to judge their own or their friends' behavior as a function of whether it demonstrated true belief to a cause.

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