On Making The Best Of Things…Including Yourself

     [It’s become clear that creating an insuperable condition of distrust and hostility between the sexes is a principal objective of gender-war feminism. At one time I thought the disease had reached its peak and would thereafter recede. Given recent events, I am no longer of that opinion. The following piece first appeared at Liberty’s Torch on September 22, 2013. — FWP]

     I’m as anti-authoritarian about relations between the sexes, and the positions of the sexes in society, as I am about everything else. I accept no “thou shalts” or “thou shalt nots” from any authority but God. I insist on reasoning everything out — but with a caveat: Practical Reason, as C. S. Lewis put it, must begin with the laws of Nature and make proper use of the available evidence. More, its conclusions must be put to the test and survive their practical applications.

     Much of the strife and malaise that afflicts American society derives from the willful dismissal of those provisos by feminist activists who want to resculpt relations between the sexes according to a wholly artificial vision that conflicts sharply and irremediably with metaphysical reality — that is, with what Nature has given us.

     Those activists have put incredible effort into persuading Americans in particular:

  • That traditional family structures somehow oppress women;
  • That men who subscribe to those structures are authoritarian brutes;
  • That women can take up men’s traditional roles to their advantage;
  • That men can and should be compelled to subordinate themselves to women’s preferences;
  • That a woman who prefers a traditional marriage and marital role is a “gender traitor.”

     If you’re unacquainted with that system of thought, and have never been subjected to a haranguing from that perspective, welcome to our planet! We hope for friendly and peaceful relations with your planet, too. But I digress. The nadir of this lunacy was provided by Simone de Beauvoir:

     “No woman should be authorized to stay at home and raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.” — Interview with Simone de Beauvoir, “Sex, Society, and the Female Dilemma,” Saturday Review, June 14, 1975, p.18

     Hm. So “oppressed women” are not to choose freely what life path to adopt, because too many would choose the “wrong one?” That doesn’t sound like liberation to me; it sounds like a change of oppressors — and not from a harsh master to a gentle one.

     De Beauvoir is not alone in her inanities. There are contemporary feminists who tout the same line of nonsense. Hearken to feminist evangelist Linda Hirshman:

     Half the wealthiest, most-privileged, best-educated females in the country stay home with their babies rather than work in the market economy. When in September The New York Times featured an article exploring a piece of this story, “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood,” the blogosphere went ballistic, countering with anecdotes and sarcasm. Slate’s Jack Shafer accused the Times of “weasel-words” and of publishing the same story — essentially, “The Opt-Out Revolution” — every few years, and, recently, every few weeks. (A month after the flap, the Times’ only female columnist, Maureen Dowd, invoked the elite-college article in her contribution to the Times’ running soap, “What’s a Modern Girl to Do?” about how women must forgo feminism even to get laid.) The colleges article provoked such fury that the Times had to post an explanation of the then–student journalist’s methodology on its Web site.

     There’s only one problem: There is important truth in the dropout story. Even though it appeared in The New York Times.

     The census numbers for all working mothers leveled off around 1990 and have fallen modestly since 1998. In interviews, women with enough money to quit work say they are “choosing” to opt out. Their words conceal a crucial reality: the belief that women are responsible for child-rearing and homemaking was largely untouched by decades of workplace feminism. Add to this the good evidence that the upper-class workplace has become more demanding and then mix in the successful conservative cultural campaign to reinforce traditional gender roles and you’ve got a perfect recipe for feminism’s stall….

     What better sample, I thought, than the brilliantly educated and accomplished brides of the “Sunday Styles,” circa 1996? At marriage, they included a vice president of client communication, a gastroenterologist, a lawyer, an editor, and a marketing executive. In 2003 and 2004, I tracked them down and called them. I interviewed about 80 percent of the 41 women who announced their weddings over three Sundays in 1996. Around 40 years old, college graduates with careers: Who was more likely than they to be reaping feminism’s promise of opportunity? Imagine my shock when I found almost all the brides from the first Sunday at home with their children. Statistical anomaly? Nope. Same result for the next Sunday. And the one after that.

     Ninety percent of the brides I found had had babies. Of the 30 with babies, five were still working full time. Twenty-five, or 85 percent, were not working full time. Of those not working full time, 10 were working part time but often a long way from their prior career paths. And half the married women with children were not working at all.

     And there is more. In 2000, Harvard Business School professor Myra Hart surveyed the women of the classes of 1981, 1986, and 1991 and found that only 38 percent of female Harvard MBAs were working full time. A 2004 survey by the Center for Work-Life Policy of 2,443 women with a graduate degree or very prestigious bachelor’s degree revealed that 43 percent of those women with children had taken a time out, primarily for family reasons. Richard Posner, federal appeals-court judge and occasional University of Chicago adjunct professor, reports that “the [Times] article confirms — what everyone associated with such institutions [elite law schools] has long known: that a vastly higher percentage of female than of male students will drop out of the workforce to take care of their children.”

     How many anecdotes to become data? The 2000 census showed a decline in the percentage of mothers of infants working full time, part time, or seeking employment. Starting at 31 percent in 1976, the percentage had gone up almost every year to 1992, hit a high of 58.7 percent in 1998, and then began to drop — to 55.2 percent in 2000, to 54.6 percent in 2002, to 53.7 percent in 2003. Statistics just released showed further decline to 52.9 percent in 2004. Even the percentage of working mothers with children who were not infants declined between 2000 and 2003, from 62.8 percent to 59.8 percent.

     No, you’re not imagining the tone of disapproval in the above. Miss Hirshman definitely takes the Simone de Beauvoir attitude toward free choice: women who choose to be homemakers and mothers are choosing wrongly. By their free choices — by opting for traditional women’s roles rather than some alternative in the market economy — they’re helping to derail feminism. And the advance of feminism, we must remember, is what really counts, not the happiness of women or the well-being of their children.

     Hirshman considers McElroy / Sommers feminism — choice feminism — to be a wrong turning:

     Conservatives contend that the dropouts prove that feminism “failed” because it was too radical, because women didn’t want what feminism had to offer. In fact, if half or more of feminism’s heirs (85 percent of the women in my Times sample), are not working seriously, it’s because feminism wasn’t radical enough: It changed the workplace but it didn’t change men, and, more importantly, it didn’t fundamentally change how women related to men.

     This is without foundation, but let’s proceed to Hirshman’s prescription for curing this terrible malady of women opting for homemaker-motherhood over careerism:

     Women who want to have sex and children with men as well as good work in interesting jobs where they may occasionally wield real social power need guidance, and they need it early. Step one is simply to begin talking about flourishing. In so doing, feminism will be returning to its early, judgmental roots. This may anger some, but it should sound the alarm before the next generation winds up in the same situation. Next, feminists will have to start offering young women not choices and not utopian dreams but solutions they can enact on their own. Prying women out of their traditional roles is not going to be easy. It will require rules — rules like those in the widely derided book The Rules, which was never about dating but about behavior modification.

     There are three rules: Prepare yourself to qualify for good work, treat work seriously, and don’t put yourself in a position of unequal resources when you marry.

     Clearly, Hirshman doesn’t think homemaking and motherhood qualify as “good work” that deserves to be taken seriously. By “unequal resources” she must mean unequal earning power, since young marrieds almost always go to the altar with equal resources-in-hand: approximately $0.00.

     Most of the remainder of Hirshman’s article is vapid and predictable, but her conclusion re-emphasizes her priorities:

     The privileged brides of the Times — and their husbands — seem happy. Why do we care what they do? After all, most people aren’t rich and white and heterosexual, and they couldn’t quit working if they wanted to.

     We care because what they do is bad for them, is certainly bad for society, and is widely imitated, even by people who never get their weddings in the Times. This last is called the “regime effect,” and it means that even if women don’t quit their jobs for their families, they think they should and feel guilty about not doing it. That regime effect created the mystique around The Feminine Mystique, too.

     As for society, elites supply the labor for the decision-making classes — the senators, the newspaper editors, the research scientists, the entrepreneurs, the policy-makers, and the policy wonks. If the ruling class is overwhelmingly male, the rulers will make mistakes that benefit males, whether from ignorance or from indifference. Media surveys reveal that if only one member of a television show’s creative staff is female, the percentage of women on-screen goes up from 36 percent to 42 percent. A world of 84-percent male lawyers and 84-percent female assistants is a different place than one with women in positions of social authority. Think of a big American city with an 86-percent white police force. If role models don’t matter, why care about Sandra Day O’Connor? Even if the falloff from peak numbers is small, the leveling off of women in power is a loss of hope for more change. Will there never again be more than one woman on the Supreme Court?

     Worse, the behavior tarnishes every female with the knowledge that she is almost never going to be a ruler. Princeton President Shirley Tilghman described the elite colleges’ self-image perfectly when she told her freshmen last year that they would be the nation’s leaders, and she clearly did not have trophy wives in mind. Why should society spend resources educating women with only a 50-percent return rate on their stated goals? The American Conservative Union carried a column in 2004 recommending that employers stay away from such women or risk going out of business. Good psychological data show that the more women are treated with respect, the more ambition they have. And vice versa. The opt-out revolution is really a downward spiral.

     So Hirshman demands that the top spot in every woman’s decision-making process should go to whether or not her choices will position her to become a “ruler” — i.e., one who wields authority over others. Her own happiness should stand no better than second in the lists; after all, the future of feminism is at stake!

     Finally, these choices are bad for women individually. A good life for humans includes the classical standard of using one’s capacities for speech and reason in a prudent way, the liberal requirement of having enough autonomy to direct one’s own life, and the utilitarian test of doing more good than harm in the world. Measured against these time-tested standards, the expensively educated upper-class moms will be leading lesser lives.

     Authoritarianism in the raw: “You have a duty to hew to this standard as I’ve expressed it, girlie, so no backtalk! Get out there and do your best to become a ruler!”

     I don’t need to tell you how I feel about such blather, do I, Gentle Reader?

     One of the classical false dichotomies is the choice restricted to two contrasting authorities and their dictates. He who only gets to choose between masters remains a slave. No virtue inheres in submission to anyone’s authority…unless the choice of going one’s own way is open as well.

     Over the years I’ve observed the human carnival, I’ve noticed all the following:

  • The overwhelming preponderance of happy American women are married and have adopted a traditional wife / mother / homemaker style of life.
  • The strongest and least stressed marriages are those in which “traditional” male and female roles obtain.
  • The unhappiest women are found among the careerists who have completely renounced marriage and motherhood in favor of work for wages.
  • Many unhappily married women, though perhaps not a majority thereof, are unhappy specifically about having to work for wages.
  • Far too many men of a “conservative” bent take the above prescriptively: that is, as a command that the only proper place for a woman is in a traditional married woman’s role.

     It doesn’t matter that the path to happiness for most women seems to be that of marriage and traditional wifely and motherly pursuits. Indeed, it wouldn’t matter if one could “prove” that that’s the only path to female happiness. No good can come from either the de Beauvoirean / Hirshmanesque command to women to “get out there and prepare to become a ruler” or the authoritarian-paternalistic command to “stick to your home, your kids, and your kitchen.” There must be free choice.

     Some women would best relate to life, men, and society by adopting a traditional “wifestyle;” others, upon whom God has bestowed other gifts and insights, would do best to follow another path. If our experiences since the inception of the “Women’s Lib” movement are at all indicative, there are more women of the first sort than of the second, perhaps far more. That doesn’t confer authority over such decisions upon anyone.

     If freedom means anything, it means the right to pursue happiness according to your own notions and priorities, whether you have two X chromosomes or only one.

     Some women will choose “rightly” for themselves, and will become enduringly happy.
     Some women will choose “wrongly” for themselves, and will become enduringly unhappy.
     Neither group acquires the authority to dictate to other women, nor to their daughters or nieces.
     Neither does any man.
     All anyone can do for others is to provide an example — hopefully, a good example of a life well lived.

     All else is folly.

     There’s only one more point to make: about bargains and the promises they imply.

     One cannot rightfully be saddled with a responsibility against one’s will. That’s especially true as it pertains to practical matters within a marriage. However, a responsibility once accepted cannot rightfully be abrogated without making provisions for its acceptance by others — willing others. He who accepts the role of family provider is, in the usual case, stuck with it; he cannot lay it down with a clean conscience. Similarly, she who accepts the responsibilities of homemaker and mother cannot morally walk away from them without first seeing to it that someone else willingly picks them up. This is especially significant when the subject is the care and nurturance of minor children.

     These things must be agreed to before responsibilities of either sort are accepted. Some decisions, such as the decision to produce children, are irreversible.

     It’s best for a man and a woman contemplating marriage to hash all of this out beforehand. What standard of living are the spouses-to-be anticipating? Do they expect the same one, or markedly different ones? In what sort of environment will they live? Who wants children? Who’s willing to accept the responsibility for their care and upbringing? Who’s willing to settle for an apartment? Whose heart is set upon a detached house with all the responsibilities that implies? Those are the biggest topics that, if not settled willingly and amicably before marriage, can become life-destroying bones of contention afterward.

     There’s no escape from life’s major decisions. No one can make them for anyone else…nor can anyone “delegate” them to some reliable authority in full confidence of the results.

     The title of this tirade — “On Making The Best Of Things…Including Yourself” — might be a little too subtle for some readers. There are two “parts” to the “thing” that is you:

  • What you are — i.e., your nature as a human being of one or the other sex;
  • Who you are — i.e., the individuality you’ve acquired from your path through life.

     Each of these provides opportunities and constraints. Neither is absolutely binding; neither can be utterly dismissed. Along all the paths one might take through life, the quintessential asset is accurate self-knowledge, of both your “what” and your “who.” Happiness is all but impossible to obtain without it.

     To young Miss Smith, who’s pondering what course to take: the “traditional” roles of wife, mother and homemaker, or the “modern” approach of careerism and ascent through the business world. Do you know yourself? Well enough to make promises to others and be confident that you’ll keep them?

     If not, you’d better get started on it PDQ. Life is short.