This is going to be a provocative post ūüôā <dons flameproof gloves>

I just read a couple of articles, posted by friends on Facebook, both describing how women’s liberation has hurt women. (Both were posted on The Atlantic website, which may be a very conservative/biased source, although Wikipedia calls it Liberal).

I had a strong reaction to these posts, because I consider myself to be liberal, pro-choice and modernist (and perhaps slightly leftist). And these articles claim that these principles, which I hold dear, are harming women, who make up half the world’s population and for whom I have immense respect. So I can’t help but take sides in this argument. But I think the articles are wrong and misleading, promoting straw-man arguments. Here’s why.

The first article says:

The Decline of Marriage and the Rise of Unwed Mothers: An Economic Mystery…¬†The real question here isn’t “Why so many babies?” It’s “Why so few marriages?” And we have an answer…

This is a complex economic mystery that we’ve¬†explored often¬†at¬†The Atlantic, but we can take a big bite out of it by focusing on three factors: (1) The changing meaning of marriage in America; (2) declining wages for low-skill men; and (3) the declining costs of being a single person.

[1] Once upon a time, the typical marriage …¬†involved special roles for the husband and wife. He would work. She would stay home. It was an efficient arrangement where opposites attracted. Men who wanted to be executives would marry women who wanted to be housewives …¬†Today women expect to work much, much more than they used to. They make up the majority of new college graduates… Since 1950, hours of work by married women have increased by roughly a factor of three…

Modern marriage has changed from an arrangement where men marry for a housewife to a “hedonic” model where both partners can be the breadwinner. As marriage has shifted from opposites-attract to like-attracts-like, researchers have found that sorting has increased all along the educational scale. College graduates are more likely than ever to marry college graduates, as Charles Murray has¬†written. High school dropouts are more likely to marry high school dropouts… We should expect marriages among low-income Americans to decline if women perceive declining gains from hitching themselves to the men around them.

[2]¬†Low-skill men have had a rough two generations. The evaporation of manufacturing work has gutted their main source of employment, while globalization has held down their wages. Marriage has declined the most among men whose wages have declined the most… In a dating pool where poor women are more likely to be surrounded by men with low and falling fortunes, more women have ditched a union for good economic reasons: It could be a financial drain. High rates of unemployment and incarceration meant that the local dating pool was populated by unmarriageable men–and the result was that women chose to live independently.

[3]¬†It is relatively easier to raise a child and keep up a home with modern household innovations… The development of time-saving technologies — cheap prepared foods, cheap clothes, machines to wash, dry, and vacuum … has made it relatively easier for single parents to raise a child…

[4] That women find themselves drifting “unintentionally” into parenthood with men they have no intent of marrying creates another generation of problems.

I’ll rebut this one point at a time, and try to keep it short:

[1] Everyone is only allowed to marry one person at a time. If some lose out, others gain. So some women (A) don’t get to marry a high-flying business executive (X) anymore. That business executive marries someone (B). X is happier with B than with A. B is happier with X than with anyone else. A might be unhappy being forced to marry someone less wealthy (L). But previously, what would B have done? Would she have met someone who appreciated her college degree? Or would men have found her intellect threatening? In the old system there was no room for her to get an education and a career and still get married; she had to choose one or the other.

Because liberation allows smart women to have careers and children and to marry smart men, it increases their chances of success and hapiness. Admittedly not everybody can make the most of those opportunities. But some can and will. B gets to marry someone rich and successful, have children, and give them the best chance in life. A might be unhappy that she has to marry a “low-skill man” or stay single. But I argue, without presenting evidence except communism as a counter-example, that having some extremely successful women as role models benefits all women more than “women marry up” traditionalism. X and B’s children get ¬†better genes and more financial investment from their parents than X and A’s children would have done.

The end result: X partners with someone smarter and more his equal (B) than he could have done before (A). B partners with¬†someone smarter and more her equal (X) than she could have done before. A loses out relatively, but has a better role models to aspire to (B). L has a partner, when previously, given point 2, he would be “unmarriageable”. Sum total human happiness: greater.

[2] This has nothing to do with womens’ liberation. The decline in production industries seems to be an inevitable consequence of globalisation and national development. If a woman chooses not to marry, that is because she has a choice, which she didn’t have before. And she thinks that marriage would not benefit her. If she acts rationally, then she’s made a better choice than she would or could have done under the old system, where she had no choice but to marry.

[3] Again, women have a choice that they did not have before. Previously, if they had chosen to have children, they would have been confined to a life of servitude in looking after them until adulthood. Now they can spend less time cooking and cleaning, and more time earning to pay someone willing to perform those tasks for them, and with money left over to invest in a better future for their children.

I don’t think you can argue that this situation is worse for women in any way, except that they feel more pressure to return to work and pay someone else to look after their children rather than do so themselves. Less parental attention might harm their children, but more opportunities in life might benefit them too. Given the choice which they never had before, and assuming that women act rationally, we have to conclude that they will make the choice that benefits their children most.

[4] I doubt very much that women in a progressive society are unaware of the consequences of intercourse, or are unable to choose whether or not to have children. If they choose to have children, that is their right and their choice, and they alone are responsible for the consequences. Before liberation, as is currently true in many parts of the world, married women are indentured slaves to their husbands, and unmarried women are dangerous pariahs. It’s hard to see how liberation has harmed women by offering them the choice, and freedom to plan and create their own futures as they wish.

The second article says:

The girls of the counterculture Left were wrong; not about civil rights or the Viet Nam War or imperial Amerika, but about sex and men. It is fair to say that the silence of the mothers hid a real, tough, unsentimental knowledge of men and intercourse, and that the noisy sexuality of the daughters hid romantic ignorance.That passage from Andrea Dworkin’s 1983 book¬†Right Wing Women: The Politics of Domesticated Females¬†could almost serve as an epigraph for Sally Potter’s new British Cold War coming-of-age film¬†Ginger & Rosa. The book, is Dworkin’s effort to understand the position and commitments of anti-feminist conservative women.¬†Her conclusion is that conservatives, correctly, view the sexual revolution for women as in many ways a scam, and that free love is not so much an escape from the inequities of domesticity as an intensification of them.

I haven’t read Dworkin’s book or seen Potter’s film. But the sentiment riles me.

I agree that “free love” ideas, as promulgated by many men in the 1960s, tried to take advantage of womens’ new-found control over their fertility, by encouraging them to sleep with as many men as possible. Of course, that was in the interests of men and not beneficial or helpful to women. People still have the same biological urges and imperatives despite changes in technology.

But the situation today is far removed from the 1960s. Anyone who says that women have not learned from 50 years of living in this scientific world, insults women massively. Of course Roland saying “I am free and autonomous!” as an excuse to break his marriage vows and sleep with whoever he wants is evidence that he’s a liar and a cheat. But to taint all men with the same brush is pure libel, and I won’t accept it.

The film seems to portray women failing to stand up to men in several ways, at least according to the article (I haven’t seen the film):

  • Roland is, as far as his family is concerned, a giant, selfish prick.
  • When confronted, he starts babbling about autonomy and how he can’t be held to the man’s rules, man, and how he suffered when he was in prison.
  • When his wife gets upset because he’s treating her like dirt, he tells her that her tears are “emotional blackmail,” designed to impinge on his freedom and drag him into stultifying normalcy.
  • His political commitments are both a justification and a form of bullying, and his radical rejection of domesticity doesn’t free his wife, but simply means that he can take her cooking and her service without any return of fidelity or affection.
  • Even his principled pacifism ends up as an emotional bludgeon.
  • In the confrontation at the end of the film, when Roland justifies himself through his usual “I am free and autonomous!” spiel, Bella doesn’t put forward any kind of feminist alternative to the boilerplate hippie leftism.
  • In fact, when she starts to argue, Roland tells her she has no right to judge him because she doesn’t know him.
  • Ginger’s politics are not just a way to separate herself from her mom, though. They’re also a way to separate herself from herself.

And a brilliant non-sequitur:

  • Feminism’s insistence that the private experiences of women are political and public…

The article is mainly a review of a film that fails to advance the feminist cause. It’s only mildly critical of that fact. Which is a shame, and a disappointment in my view, because so much needs to be done to achieve equal rights and opportunities for men and women. It seems that this film actually, subtly, undermines womens’ rights: by portraying an outdated stereotype of the way that men and women once behaved, with implied applicability to the present, it may encourage men and women to behave that way today. And that is not to be encouraged at all.