"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The figleaf of gender equality

The death a few weeks ago of Betty Friedan, one of the pioneers of contemporary feminism, reminded me of something I've been wanting to say for a long time. I'll assert the thesis right up front: in the sense in which the bulk of contemporary feminists mean the term, virtually nobody believes in "gender equality"—including most feminists themselves.

There is of course a very important sense in which gender equality is real and must be recognized: women and men are of equal worth and dignity in the sight of God, which means they are of equal worth and dignity just in virtue of what they are. But outside the Dar-al-Islam, nobody disputes that. The kind of gender equality that 60s- and 70s-style feminists wanted, and that some feminists still claim to want, not only doesn't exist; it couldn't exist and nobody in their right mind acts as though it could or even should exist. There's an important lesson here, which I want to highlight. But let's get the facts straight first.

The old-style feminists I'm talking about—such as Friedan, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem, and others—were quite keen on what I'll call "spiritual androgyny." They wanted society to be restructured so that the only significant difference in the social roles of the sexes had to do with their reproductive plumbing, and even the differences arising from that were to be minimized as much as possible by technology and social policy. Women and men were thus to operate under the same set of expectations and responsibilities both outside and inside the home. The idea was that everything possible should be done to ensure that child care and family life are no greater a burden on women than on men and no less a burden on men than on women. That would make it possible for women to assume, in full freedom and autonomy, their rightful place in the larger society. Widespread contraception, legal abortion, and no-fault divorce were absolutely critical planks in that platform. Those came to pass swiftly, as has much else since. Such is the sense of gender equality that the bulk of contemporary feminists claim to want. It gives a great figleaf of legitimacy to current laws about affirmative action, domestic violence, military roles, and other things pertaining to the differences between the sexes.

But in fact, people really don't want the sexes treated the same, and they aren't being treated the same. That's why the old, proposed Equal Rights Amendment never passed. Consider:

  • Men still do most of the really dangerous jobs; not surprisingly, then, the rate of on-the-job injury for men is much higher than for women. It is testimony to their rationality that women are not agitating for greater representation in highly dangerous occupations.
  • That men do most of the dangerous jobs also helps to explain why their average earnings continue to be somewhat higher than women's: those jobs pay more on average than safe ones. The other reason is that, when babies are born to couples, the mother is more likely to sacrifice career prospects for the children's sake than is the father. This has nothing to do with education: the majority of college students are now women. The real reason is ultimately biological: babies generally bond with their mothers first, and mothers bond more closely with their progeny at first than fathers do. Duh. That is why househusbands will never be as common as housewives. And despite an inevitable minority, most women don't want to indefinitely support husbands who would rather stay at home full-time. At any rate, I've yet to meet one in my 51 years, many of which have been spent in socially sophisticated locales.
  • While women now have limited combat roles in the military, with a commensurate casualty rate in Iraq, men still do most of the actual close combat with the enemy. The only women in the military who want to kill and die on the same terms as men are those whose career advancement depends on it. Most of them, thank God, don't have children.
  • While domestic-violence laws are written in a gender-neutral way, the fact is that men are not taken seriously as victims by the domestic-violence industry. As if there were no violent or abusive women. Whatever the explanation for such discrimination, there is no gender equality here and nobody beyond a few widely scorned men's-rights groups wants there to be. And the widespread use of domestic-violence restraining orders, even when no physical violence has been alleged, is one of the biggest factors explaining why it's so much easier for women than men to get sole custody of children in divorce cases, even when the mothers' fitness can be and is questioned.
  • Public lavatories are segregated by gender for women's sake, not men's. Nobody needs to be told why. It's a given.
  • When I was a student at Columbia three decades ago, I once had a room in a big apartment off campus with several other students, male and female. Our bathroom window faced out into an alleyway and had no shades or blinds. One day we got a visit from the police, who informed us that a woman living in the building across the alleyway had complained to them that she could see the male students in the nude as they stepped out of the shower and proceeded to the basin to shave and brush their teeth. With a straight face, they warned us guys that we would be charged with exhibitionism if we continued to be visible to this woman in that fashion. The girls faced no such threat, of course; indeed they agreed with us that, if a man had called to complain about the girls doing it, he would have been treated as a schizy peeping Tom, not as an upstanding citizen with a legitimate concern. So we guys just sighed and pitched in to put blinds on the window. Again, nobody needs to have this sort of disparity explained to them.
  • Despite the fact that single women earn at least as much, on average, as single men, the latter are still generally expected to foot most of the bill for dates most of the time. Men who refuse to do so rarely get a second date.
  • Most people, men as well as women, don't respect the rare man who brings a sexual-harassment grievance against a female boss. Most men actually consider such a man crazy. And as for a man bringing such a grievance against a female peer or subordinate—well, I've yet to hear of it. Most men would actually welcome a bit more of what is defined as "sexual harassment" when it goes the other way.
  • When a woman or girl wants an abortion, there is no legal requirement that she inform, let alone consult, the father even if he wants the child. But if she chooses to have the child, he is legally obligated to support that child even if he doesn't want it and hasn't been informed or consulted.

I could go on, but you get the picture. My concern is not to argue that things shouldn't be this way; a few of them should be different, perhaps, but more shouldn't be different. But regardless of what should and shouldn't be different, such is how things are and such is how people want them to be. There is no gender equality of the sort that old-style feminists claimed to want. And I don't think self-described feminists today want it either, if they ever did. What's called gender equality is a myth that acts as a figleaf over a reality that few really want to change.

What today's feminists really want, it seems to me, is greater rights and privileges for women. We live in a society in which men's life expectancy and general health is substantially lower than women's; in which female educational attainment is now outstripping male; in which, when families break up, men are presumed guilty until proven innocent and women are presumed innocent until proven guilty; in which women are encouraged to aspire to whatever men do, while the reverse is not nearly so encouraged; and so forth. Again, whether you think these things are good, bad, or indifferent is irrelevant. The point is that woman are no longer, generally speaking, worse off than men in most respects; in some respects, they are better off. There are only two ways in which women are worse off: they invest and risk much more by childbearing than men, because they do the childbearing; and for related reasons, they are more vulnerable to certain forms of violence and sexual exploitation than men. I agree that law and custom should protect women more than men from the latter. But what about the former?

That is the issue, it seems to me, on which all else hinges. Is motherhood to be seen primarily as a sacred trust, of greater dignity than any merely utilitarian occupation? Or is it to be seen primarily as a burden most women carry, one that of course is to be lightened by every possible means? I don't think most Americans, women as well as men, have thought this one through. But we're not going to have the kind of gender equality that matters until the answer to the first question is "yes" and the second "no." In the meantime, we have gender inequality that is taken for granted even by those who call themselves feminists.

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