Two journals (mostly available on line) have fall issues with interesting discussions. City Journal includes Kay Hymowitz’s discussion of women’s roles and a feminist view of 9/11, both discussed briefly below. Melanie Phillips’ “Britain’s Anti-Semitic Turn” is just plain depressing. She suggests reasons America been a fertile ground for neo-cons – Jewish and not – while England seems to be sending them over here. The November New Criterion hosts a series of discussions on the twentieth anniversary of Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind by James Piereson, Roger Kimball, Mark Steyn, and Heather MacDonald.
Kay Hymowitz (in City Journal) describes the modern woman in two perceptive essays. She says little new about the demographics we often discuss, but in “The New Girl Order” she elaborates the international Carrie Bradshaw (apparently heroine of “Sex and the City” – we don’t get HBO). A podcast interview also available. That these cultural changes have dramatically affected birthrates as well as how children are raised is not news, but her international context leads her to ask why, if America is the “Rome” of this new order, is it less affected, with Americans retaining an interest in marriage and, though fertility rates have dropped, it remains an outlier next to most other advanced countries. Many argue that is because of America’s deeper religiosity and greater diversity in ethnicity. This is, I suspect a major factor – one apparent around me at the edge of the Bible belt and in a state with a large immigrant population. And we may not remain an outlier – fewer women in their twenties are marrying she argues. My personal experience is limited; I do see girls with more focus and ambition in the classroom than their male counterparts. Nonetheless, my daughters and their friends often marry before 25; most are professionals who talk quite a bit about babies. While women dominate education both at the undergraduate and graduate level in areas they did not forty years ago, their generation seems much more interested in the homemaking arts, in having children, in taking marriage seriously than we did forty years ago.
What is especially interesting, in terms of such discussions as Lee Harris’s about the importance of the family (discussed here), is that Hymowitz believes Americans have adjusted better to this new world order because we have traditionally seen the American family as an
essential ballast to the individualism, diversity, mobility, and sheer giddiness of American life. It helps that the U.S., like northwestern Europe, has a long tradition of “companionate marriage”—that is, marriage based not on strict roles but on common interests and mutual affection. Companionate marriage always rested on the assumption of female equality. Yet countries like Japan are joining the new order with no history of companionate relations, and when it comes to adapting to the new order, the cultural cupboard is bare.
And, of course, the way this plays out in the future will be interesting – but we can hope in a positive way. As she observes, “a historically unprecedented trend like this is bound to have a further impact on relations between the sexes and on marriage and childbearing rates.” And, in the back of our mind, we remember the disproportionate number of baby boys being born in sections of India and China – what effect will that, too, have on society in another generation?
Somebody whom I’m pretty sure doesn’t have many of the answers is Susan Faludi; her 1991 Backlash: The The Undeclared War Against American Women was a remarkably popular, remarkably detailed, and remarkably irritating book. (It won 1991 National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction.) In Psychoanalyzing the Victim, Hymowitz reviews Faludi’s newest work, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America. Despite the rich and varied demographic evidence from which Hymowitz takes a fraction in her other essay, Faludi remains convinced that feminists are a weak and beleagured if valiant minority. (Do these women ever look at simple things – like who lives longer?) The review argues that
Faludi’s diagnosis runs like this: September 11 so traumatized Americans that they released their John Wayne id out of its cage in the collective unconscious. Tormented by an unfamiliar sense of vulnerability, they sought comfort in “rescue fantasies” starring stereotypically fearless masculine heroes such as a cowboy president, New York City firemen, and ordinary male civilians who, with their “Let’s roll” war whoop, fought the hijackers of Flight 93.
This fevered kind of feminism drew me into the swirling details of Backlash, but I soon realized that she was essentially blind to biology – a flaw of the ideological. The people she condemned (the anti-abortionists who couldn’t have a child, the pop world of Thirty-something or Bewitched on television, the arguments that it wasn’t fair to women not to get paid better by doing more dangerous on-line work shown to damage a fetus) were all concerned with children. She ignores the gnawing desire to reproduce, the rewarding and demanding responsibilities of raising children, even the more abstract one of ensuring employees did not bear deformed and sick babies. What she was recording in the eighties was the liberated women of the late sixties and early seventies having to make the choices of motherhood or career, hearing their biological clocks wind down, wondering how to balance duties. They were beginning to see that the world was a lot more complicated and demanding than they’d thought. With the arrogance of youth, they’d thought their mothers had merely “stayed home” – either because the patriarchy kept them down or they didn’t know better. A generation later, with a mortgage that depended upon a two-person income and labor-saving devices only a bit more efficient than those of their mothers, they began to realize there were only 24 hours in the day. And that children needed much in terms of time and attention. These men had embraced the sexual revolution which seemed to them, well, great. They were no more aware than the women. But the truth was life happened – to them, around them, in them. And the backlash was as much that some were getting tired as anything else. Some found happiness in balancing these various roles, but few found it easy. However, to a writer like Faludi, retaining the rigid ideology of her youth and ignoring the reality she must have encountered in every interview she did and every cultural artifact she examined, these problems remained the result of the patriarchal order suppressing the feminist spirit.
That some still accept Faludi’s fevered ideology may be behind some of the Sex & the City thinking. Then again what we may be seeing is just a stretched out process girls have gone through for milennia. I sure don’t know. Still, Hymowitz offers a sense of our strengths and therefore of a way through. Her belief that Americans see family and marriage with a flexibility and yet sturdiness is heartening; perhaps we can define a healthier future. I suspect the companionate marriage comes, as does so much else, from the rigors of those first settlements and that broad frontier. We’ve learned to depend (“ligaments of love”) and to be independent (“God helps them that helps themselves”). And if Winthrop and Franklin offered sage advice early, that is probably because the mixture of liberty and freedom David Hackett Fischer sees interwoven in our culture has permeated and strengthened our marriages as well. At least, now, we realize that high divorce rates and high illegitimacy rates are not signs of liberation but of potential entrapment, with few opportunities of escape. The universal acceptance of these tragic outcomes is at least a step back from the seventies.