Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Her Mother, the Feminist

Feminism has always fought for reproductive rights. Perhaps the struggle to provide effective birth control and easy access to abortion masked what has become a far more important issue for many women: fertility.

In the feminist Weltanschauung conception was a curse, the ultimate impediment to women’s career progress.

By extension, feminists could not have considered fertility to be a problem. Feminism assumed that when women decide that the time is right to conceive, a fine husband will appear and the process will occur naturally.

Biology was not part of the feminist equation. Neither was the possibility that high stress jobs might affect fertility.

This was the feminist promise to women. It has been a boon for reproductive endocrinologists, but it hasn’t always worked out well for women.

This month in the Atlantic Kate Bolick tells of her own missed marriage opportunities. She spices it up with a run through some of the many new scholarly studies about the division of marital labor.

One comes away thinking that after feminism talked a large women out of marriage and family scholars set out to show that it was not so bad or so strange after all. 

Having reached age 39 Bolick sees that marriage and family are becoming more remote by the day. So she presents an interesting argument for the value and the virtue of singlehood.

In her long and interesting article I was drawn to an implicit comparison between two mothers. The first was Bolick’s own mother; the second was blogger Susan Walsh.

Bolick herself was born in the early 1970s, just as a new wave of feminism was crashing on America’s shores. Soon after her birth, her mother seems to have had some kind of conversion experience whereby she became a radical feminist zealot.

No longer seeing herself as a mother raising a daughter, Bolick’s mother chose to use the power and authority of her position to indoctrinate her daughter in feminist ideology.

She was a handler working over a new recruit to the cause. She wanted her daughter to grow up to fight the battle against patriarchal oppression. 

Not to mince words here, I see her actions as an abuse of parental authority. When a parent does not allow her child to develop her own ideas and to make her own life choices, she is brainwashing her child.

Here is Bolick describing her mother:  “I was her first and only recruit, marching off to third grade in tiny green or blue T-shirts declaring: A WOMAN WITHOUT A MAN IS LIKE A FISH WITHOUT A BICYCLE, or: A WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE HOUSE—AND THE SENATE, and bellowing along to Gloria Steinem & Co.’s feminist-minded children’s album, Free to Be … You and Me (released the same year Title IX was passed, also the year of my birth). Marlo Thomas and Alan Alda’s retelling of ‘Atalanta,’ the ancient Greek myth about a fleet-footed princess who longs to travel the world before finding her prince, became the theme song of my life. Once, in high school, driving home from a family vacation, my mother turned to my boyfriend and me cuddling in the backseat and said, “Isn’t it time you two started seeing other people?” She adored Brian—he was invited on family vacations! But my future was to be one of limitless possibilities, where getting married was something I’d do when I was ready, to a man who was in every way my equal, and she didn’t want me to get tied down just yet.”

Fast forward to age 28. Bolick has a boyfriend who is clearly marriage material. One day she breaks it off because she feels that something is missing and because she senses that she isn't ready to settle down.

Was it a bad decision or a good decision? Did she throw away her best chance at marital bliss or did she intuit that something was wrong? Did she sacrifice home and family to the feminist cause or did she do the right thing for a feminist?

Here’s her description of her reaction to a breakup that she herself had initiated: “The period that followed was awful. I barely ate for sobbing all the time. (A friend who suffered my company a lot that summer sent me a birthday text this past July: ‘A decade ago you and I were reuniting, and you were crying a lot.’) I missed Allan desperately—his calm, sure voice; the sweetly fastidious way he folded his shirts. On good days, I felt secure that I’d done the right thing. Learning to be alone would make me a better person, and eventually a better partner. On bad days, I feared I would be alone forever. Had I made the biggest mistake of my life?”

Of course, it’s impossible to know, but her emotional disarray seems to be telling her that she made a mistake. It feels more like she lost something exceptional rather than that she had been freed from an oppressive burden.

Bolick does understand that her decision had been dictated by the therapy culture and her feminist mother: “The decision to end a stable relationship for abstract rather than concrete reasons (‘something was missing’), I see now, is in keeping with a post-Boomer ideology that values emotional fulfillment above all else. And the elevation of independence over coupling (‘I wasn’t ready to settle down’) is a second-wave feminist idea I’d acquired from my mother, who had embraced it, in part, I suspect, to correct for her own choices.”

In all fairness, Bolick is to two minds about the influence of feminism. She sees what she has gained in terms of life experience and she understands what she has lost.

Consonant with her feminist ideology she does not seem to feel excessively bad about ignoring biological realities.

In her words: “By blithely deeming biology a nonissue, I’m conveniently removing myself from arguably the most significant decision a woman has to make. But that’s only if you regard motherhood as the defining feature of womanhood—and I happen not to.”

Whether or not motherhood is a defining feature of womanhood, its importance does not depend on whether or not you believe that it is.

It may be no big deal, but feminism seems to have cost Bolick her biological children. And it may also have cost her a chance at the kind of relationship she wants. Credit or debit where credit or debit is due.

And then one day Bolick discovered Susan Walsh, proprietress of a website called HookingUpSmart.

I have occasionally commented about Walsh’s posts. I have consistently found them enlightening and informative. 

Bolick describes her experience: “I became aware of Walsh this past summer when I happened upon her blog,, and lost an evening to one of those late-night Internet binges, each link leading to the next, drawn into a boy-girl conversation to end all boy-girl conversations. A frumpy beige Web-site palette and pragmatic voice belie a refreshingly frank, at times even raunchy, dialogue; postings in the comments section can swell into the high hundreds—interestingly, the majority of them from men. I felt as if I’d stumbled into the online equivalent of a (progressive) school nurse’s office.

“A Wharton M.B.A. and stay-at-home mother of two, Walsh began her career as a relationship adviser turned blogger six years ago, when her daughter, then a student at an all-girls high school, started dating. She began seeking counsel from Walsh, and liked what she heard, as did her friends when she told them; in time, the girls were regularly gathering around Walsh’s kitchen table to pick her brain. Soon enough, a childhood friend’s daughter, a sophomore at Boston University, started coming over with her friends. Walsh started thinking of these ’70s-style rap sessions as her own informal “focus groups,” the members of one still in high school, those of the other in college, but all of them having similar experiences. In 2008, after the younger group had left home, Walsh started the blog so they could all continue the conversation.”

I have quoted it at length because of the start contrast between Bolick’s mother and Susan Walsh. I hope I am not the only one who is struck by the implied comparison between two mothers. Which one sounds to you like the better mother? Which one is showing more care and compassion? Which one is offering the benefit of her adult experience?

If high school girls naturally gravitated to Walsh’s kitchen table for relationship advice, what does that tell you?

Susan Walsh tries to tell it like it is. She tries to tell girls about boys and boys about girls. She analyzes the marketplace of relationships. And she listens to girls’ concerns, offering an environment where they can say whatever they like.

Walsh is not trying to indoctrinate anyone over dinner. Unfortunately, she seems to be providing something that is in short supply for adolescent females in our culture.

For those of us who recall the early days of what is called second wave feminism, it was a time when women congregated to discuss their feelings and their issues. The groups were called consciousness-raising groups.

Ostensibly, they were designed to allow women to express themselves and to bond with other women. In reality they tended to be feminist indoctrination sessions, where the price of admission involved accepting that one was oppressed by men and that one needed to be liberated from the patriarchy. Apparently, too many of them have gotten their wish.


The Ghost said...

this is just hyper darwinism ... better for the species in the long run anyway ...

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Good thought... I agree with you.

ck said...

I'm with the ghost, think of all the miserable harridans that didn't pass their miserableness on.

Dennis said...

As I stated one time "feminism" is Mother Nature's way of weeding out those who have little to offer for the progress of the species. It is self limiting and self destroying.
And I am supposed to feel sorry for these poor little babies who have called men every name in the book, blamed us for their failures and literally tried to demonize anything that is male?

MajorSensible said...

I just wonder where Bolick's father was during all this indoctrination? Was he cut out of the family picture at an early age; or was he a brainwashed, emasculated fellow traveler?

Dennis said...

Much of what we do not do or say really defines us. Take for example disease.
We see women, men, media personalities, movie stars, et al out doing all they can to raise awareness of breast cancer. One cannot go to a male sporting even without seeing the ubiquitous pink ribbon on male professional athletes uniforms. There are walks, telethons and all manner of time spent on breast cancer. Men really care about women's health.
Can anyone name the color of the ribbon that represents prostate cancer? When was the last time one saw a woman personality in any field of endeavor take the time to talk about prostrate cancer and its devastating affects on men? Where are the walks, telethons, etc demonstrating women's care for the men in their lives? Can one even name one woman who actually even talks about prostate cancer?
Feminism is sexism and it demonstrates itself in how we as a society treat the members of that society. If an alien from another world came here would he/she not find it strange the differences in how women expect to be treated as opposed to how they treat men just as another member of the human race?
It always interested me that feminists kept saying how important it was for us to remember that they were their, sisters, daughters, mothers, wives, et al, but when it came time for them to remember that men were their, brothers, sons, husbands, et al they could not find one good thing about men. Just having testosterone made us all evil. Did anyone ever wonder how we ever allowed such blatant misandry and sexism to exist and establish itself as a field of endeavor called "Women's Studies? One cannot be a feminist without being a sexist by definition.
Strange isn't it that so much is what is not done as opposed to what is said and done. Just a note here, I used to do a lot of problem solving and many times the solution was in what it was not and not in what it was.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

If I recall, Bolick's father was dismissed or divorced during the great feminist wave. He was excluded from his daughter's life.

JP said...

Sorry. Darwinism doesn't apply to mind and culture the way natural selection works in biology.

Any limited idealism usually fails in the same fashion that this inane philosophy of gender relations fails. It's momomania that's completely at odds with the underlying reality.

The social problem lies with the single parent households, where there *is* plenty of fertility. It's the same problem, but it's reproducing at a rapid clip.

Robert Pearson said...

I finally took the time to read the whole rather reminded me of one of those films where the woman keeps saying to herself, "Everything is all right, everything is ALL RIGHT..." and of course everything is not all right because the demons are at the door. The bit at the end, tying it all together through a visit to the older Queen of Singledom was poignant.