Critiquing “The Masculine Mystique”

This article in the current Atlantic is worth a read. Author Stephen Marche’s point is that progressive men who have embraced gender equity and who, like their professional wives, scramble in the gerbil run of “work-life” balance are strangely silent in public discourse about how to achieve such balance. It’s strange, Marche says, because these men are most definitely not silent in the private realm of family decision-making.

And this “mystique” is damaging because, “When men aren’t part of the discussion about balancing work and life, outdated assumptions about fatherhood are allowed to go unchallenged and, far more important, key realities about the relationship between work and family are elided. The central conflict of domestic life right now is not men versus women, mothers versus fathers. It is family versus money.”

There’s a lot of truth to this. And Marche is certainly right that “the solution is establishing social supports that allow families to function.”

I mean, it’s great to hear a man proclaim that day care “is the thing that enabled me to build a new career for myself. Day care is not theoretical liberation. It is the real deal, for women and men alike.” Right on. By raising his voice, Marche will encourage other men to do the same. And he is right to say that progressive men bear the responsibility for their own silence (in contrast to MRAs and antifeminists of other stripes, who are not silent).

So far so good. Marche seems to have a good handle on some of the economic issues that working families face.

But his misunderstanding – and it is a dangerous one – of the complex intertwinings of gender and class emerges from what appears to be a strange wish to subordinate gender issues to economics. The result is a fair bit of confusion about both.

I can agree when Marche decries Lean In as a “capitalist fantasy” because it clings to the myth of pluck, the ideal that “hard work and talent alone can take you to the top,” against all contrary evidence on the ground. But his critique of Sandberg and others (like Anne Marie Slaughter’s article on work-life balance) as being part of a “plutocratic wave of feminism” is much more problematic. Marche asks, “do we want women emulating the egomania of the corporate male?”

In an ideal world, the answer to this question is obviously no. But in the world we have, it’s yes.

To understand why, consider another question that has already been settled: Do we really want women risking death and psychological trauma by serving in the armed forces just so they can have the same opportunities as men? I think few would disagree that women in the military have done at least something to advance women’s equality.

See, if women have equal access to crazy corporate power, then yup, you’re gonna get plutocractic feminism too, just like we’ll end up with some unfortunate women given that women now experience the trauma of warfare. And so on. That’s what equal opportunity looks like.

Attacking “plutocratic feminism” is a poor way to go after patriarchal values. Far better to go straight for those values, not women’s desire for capitalist triumph with a cherry on top. No, we should not exempt powerful women as we question societal values, but it seems a tad bit insincere to go after those values by attacking the feminism supporting them.

Perhaps Marche has written courageous articles critiquing male CEOs?

Then we have statements like, “The average working-class guy has the strange experience of belonging to a gender that is railed against for having a lock on power, even as he has none of it.”

Really? Marche should chat with some working-class women. I’ll bet they could name more than a few ways their male counterparts hold power in their communities.

And it is dead wrong to declare that “whether or not the load is being shared 50-50 doesn’t matter if the load is still unbearable.” I’m thinking that people stuck with the greater share might disagree.

Perhaps most problematic is the notion that “gender attitudes do not affect economic reality, but rather the other way around. The rise of women is not the result of any ideology or political movement; it is a result of the widespread realization, sometime after the Second World War, that families in which women work are families that prosper.”

Well, economic realities certainly do influence gender attitudes. After the Second World War, many middle-class women were pushed out of their jobs because these families could prosper without women working outside the home, and the husbands wanted the jobs. And stagnating wages, which began in the 1980s and have continued since, might well have fueled the idea that women can and should have careers.

But gender attitudes have profoundly affected economic reality. Just ask Lily Ledbetter.

Marche should read books like Lynn Povich’s The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace. He would learn that it was precisely gender attitudes, not economics (the women were already working), that held women back in journalism. And in this case, women took the daunting step of challenging those attitudes in long and bitter legal struggles not because they necessarily needed more money but because they wanted to develop their full potential.

And here I cannot resist pointing out the lack of parity in journalism today, particularly regarding feature articles – including the very issue in which Marche’s article appears.

This discounting of political and social movements amounts to a stunning disregard for how progress and oppression actually happen. Because if we believe that gender attitudes depend only on economic reality, we imply that women have little power to improve gender attitudes as a matter not simply of economic but social justice.

And if gender attitudes simply depended on economics, progressive men might not suffer from a “masculine mystique” at all. It is fair to ask how “hollow” patriarchy can be if it still “keeps women from power and confounds male identity.”

Sadly, patriarchy is not doomed just because it’s expensive. Certain ideologies are very stupid. They keep on keeping on even though they’re expensive because they serve other interests. Destroying women’s right to reproductive freedom is perhaps the single most expensive patriarchal oppression ever. And yet, as the middle class shrinks at what seems like an exponential rate, reproductive rights have lost major ground in the past three decades. The last year alone has been alarming.

“The Masculine Mystique,” of course, alludes to Betty Friedan’s manifesto, which unfortunately ignored working-class women as Friedan advised their middle-class counterparts, among other things, to simply hire some help.

Marche does something of the opposite: Instead of ignoring economic reality, he simplifies it at the expense of the very real force of gender attitudes – attitudes that persist because they so often defy, not merely depend on, economics.

The Economy of Messy Lives

In my last two posts, I’ve argued for two chief benefits to Katie Roiphe’s essays on single motherhood: her account potentially contributes to much-needed diversity in research on single moms, and she writes about the stigma of single-mom families with rare subtlety and courage. Hers is the first account I’ve seen that dares to suggest the benefits of such families.

The essays appear in the context of praising “messy lives.” Roiphe defines “messy” by way of contrast, describing the typical middle-class professional family as culturally sanitized, scrubbed clean of drama ­and all traces of creative energy by an obsession with children’s wellbeing that actually smothers the kids and turns the parents into slaves whose peak life moments include nurse-ins and satisfying deals on baby gear.

The submerged premise of this attitude is a fantasy that parents can somehow create a perfect environment – and by extension – a perfect child. This fantasy does real harm, and not just for the obvious reason of burdening kids with the cruel impossibility of trying to obtain something unobtainable. In Roiphe’s memories, some of a child’s most important self-defining moments depend on the opportunity for a certain idleness, “in the long sticky hours of boredom, in the lonely unsupervised, unstructured time, something blooms; it was in those margins that we became ourselves.”

The other key point is that this parental fantasy leaves no room for “true difference, for the child raised by a grandparent, or a single mother, or divorced parents; its vision is definitely of two parents taking turns carrying the designer baby sling.” Hence the perceived psychological danger of single mothers I wrote about in my last post.

Roiphe implicitly exalts her own family of two children with two separate fathers in happy opposition to the parenting mania that defines much of the American middle class. And she argues that a bit more “mess” would make for a richer life and more independent, humane kids. The children will not be traumatized if they see mommy a little tipsy at the party. And so what if once in awhile they’ve had four pieces of cake?

Part of this makes great sense. Just as gays and lesbians reclaimed once-disparaging terms like “queer” in service of their liberation struggles, Roiphe is dislodging the stereotype of “mess” associated with single mothers – messy relationships, messy kids, messy houses, messy finances, a generally messed up life because you are a single mom – to reveal the value of a certain kind of disorder in modern family life.

The critics tore Roiphe to shreds over the class implications of her challenge. The relatively generous Molly Brown praised Roiphe’s writing style, but she too pointed out that many if not most single mothers don’t have the economic luxury to tout a bohemian life: “Roiphe and her demo are usually spared such monetary entanglements and their accompanying woes and disasters–the sort of messes that besiege most single mothers (and their children) in America.”

As I wrote in my first post in this series, the critics are partly right. But in pointing out this truth, they nonetheless unintentionally reinforce the link between “mess” and low-income mothers. In the eyes of many (I do not mean Brown specifically here), besieged by mess collapses all too easily with being a mess.

As someone who has yet to enter the American middle class, I don’t have the luxury to embrace messiness: Precisely because finances are sometimes precarious, I find myself making damn sure I am doing every single thing I can to give my daughter the best upbringing. No designer kids’ clothes at my house, but I can still schedule play dates, monitor screen time, and find decent classes at the Y. I know how it feels to be viewed as a mess, and I work hard to avoid it. Maybe I, too, inadvertently play into the trend of overparenting.

But here’s the key irony: In the rush to take down Roiphe and her privileged views, no one has really delved into the context of her celebration of well-heeled messiness: the colossal mess of the economy since 2008, the financial cyclone that so many of us are still trying to weather.

Given the astonishing chaos the banking crisis has created for so many Americans, a book telling responsible parents that their lives are too orderly takes on new meaning. So does the stereotype of messy single moms.

Financial mess now plagues even the most conventional types of families. But even for those who haven’t suffered money misfortunes, the fear of financial disaster actually reinforces the search for order. The quest for perfection may be partly a response to the fear of economic ruin.

It is fair to say that this fear is now operating on a grand cultural scale, humming like refrigerators in everyone’s house, taken for granted by now. And it is fueled by structural features, too. In addition to stagnant wages, we have the two-tier system, the insane practice of paying different people radically different wages for doing the same work. This system, which is illegal in many other industrialized countries, scorns merit and worships the bottom line of corporate profits. It’s a growing scourge that is increasingly making it impossible for someone with a decent education to build a career and economic stability.

It is this vanished opportunity, and the collective dawning of its reality, that makes our current mess so dire. One result is that as a stereotype, single mothers might represent more than the usual social and economic woes, more than poverty as it has been understood. Instead, we are primed to stand in for fear of a mess that now haunts virtually everyone, a mess that is utterly irrational, that could visit at any moment – no matter how smart or how well educated you are, no matter how secure you might feel in your land of reassuring sitcom jokes and good scotch.

Needless to say, this fear is intolerable. That is perhaps why the NY Times would prefer to publish an article about single mothers that blames misfortune on singleness rather than on the economic woes that plague most working people, married and single. And that is why, when Mitt Romney was questioned on gun violence, he chose to displace the collective terror of this violence onto single mothers. The deregulation of both the banking and gun industries – and the resulting damage – are rooted in a savage loyalty to corporate profits. That won’t fly in a presidential debate.

To be clear: This is no perverse audition for a starring role as scapegoat. Even if this cultural view of single mothers is operative, I am blessed to have friends who know and respect my family, and I don’t personally feel that my community on the whole views me in these negative terms.

The point here is what much of society believes. As I explored in my second post, to counter deep-rooted beliefs about single mothers will require awareness on many levels. When it comes to finances, let us begin by remembering forever that the colossal mess of this economic moment unfolded at the hands of those representing the pinnacle of American success.

Displacement indeed.

Reading the Stigma of Single Motherhood

In my last post I claimed that progress for low-income single mothers depends on including the experiences of all single mothers – even privileged ones who might seem to have little in common with low-income families.

I referred to Roiphe’s essay “The Alchemy of Quiet Malice,” whose title is borrowed from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter (“the alchemy of quiet malice, by which [we] can concoct a subtle poison from ordinary trifles”). Roiphe claims that traces of the stigma that plagued Hester Prynne still linger in society’s views of single moms today, so that an “alchemy of quiet malice” fuels inappropriate comments about such families. This attitude is part of an “irrational, residual, pervasive conservatism that we do not generally own up to.”

Not all single mothers perceive a stigma, but some do. As my last post suggests, I have seen evidence of it, even among apparently progressive folks. And the political and cultural rhetoric around the issue supports this view.

But why does this conservatism persist? Roiphe subtly unravels the way that many progressive-minded people view single mothers as psychologically dangerous (she doesn’t mention the perceived sexual danger – perhaps because it is so obvious). Because single moms are unable or unwilling to ensnare a man, there is deep suspicion that we are flawed in some way: antisocial, selfish, greedy – fill in the blank. The irony here is that women who decide to have a baby on their own often show extraordinary commitment.

The other part of the perceived danger is more subtle according to Roiphe:

Part of what seems threatening or unsettling about the single mother’s  household is precisely that sense that the mother may be glimpsed as more of a person, that these children are witnessing a struggle they should not be seeing, that their mother is very early on a regular, complicated person, rather than simply an adult who is part of the opaque, semi-separate adult culture of the house.

But rather than apologizing for this perception, Roiphe simply rejects the “wildly outdated but strangely pervasive idea that single motherhood is worse for children, somehow a compromise, a flawed venture, a grave psychological blow to be overcome, our enlightened modern version of shame.”

And she goes further, claiming that there just might be advantages to single-parent families, such as children who, precisely because they learn to view adults as human beings, become more empathic, “a bit more modest and humane” in an “age of imperious, entitled super-children” who are lost without constant schedules and organized stimulation.

But for Roiphe, there is another piece to this: part of the hostility some married folks feel about single moms might have to do with a bit of resentment that said moms are not making the same sacrifices, like having to “work on” a trying relationship, or worse, be stuck in a lackluster marriage.

This is courageous stuff in a cultural climate in which, just last week, an uncouth governor faced the bravery of Wendy Davis’s heroic filibuster by attacking (while pretending to praise!) her history as an unwed mother.

I have become good at deflecting the occasional awkward comments, which occur rarely in the town where I live and are more instructive than anything. Happily, enough of the people who matter in my daughter’s life do not stumble in this way, so she doesn’t experience blatant shaming.

What is much more pervasive is the “quiet malice” underlying both these occasional eruptions and (more often) the social exclusion that is clearly at work and makes a real difference in a small city.

Some married people really do believe their children are more “legitimate,” and because my girl has in fact been shut out of certain social circles simply because of her mommy’s undressed ring finger, I feel a bit of wicked delight when Roiphe dares to venture this in her essay on the term “love child”:

Stepping back, though, what is a tiny bit subversive and possibly appealing about the term is the faint suggestion that the love child has something more to do with love than the baby born in wedlock, who is in a certain sense just doing his job, fulfilling the natural and upstanding function of holy matrimony. On some level, the existence of the love child is testimony to some special energy on the planet, to someone doing something not necessarily sanctioned by the Bible, on his or her own time, out of some extra industry or aspiration.

This is, of course, mostly silly. Kids of married parents do not always dutifully roll off the marriage assembly line any more than children of unmarried mothers are little Venuses sprung from the sea.

Wall fresco of Venus, Pompeii

Wall fresco of Venus, Pompeii

But a good many people really do think of the “love” part of “love child” in terms of mockery. So amid the tired yet tireless scorn aimed at single mothers, Roiphe delivers a shot of cool defiance, a polite yet potent corrective. Especially to progressive hypocrites who really have no problem excluding certain children – as long as they’re subtle enough that no one can call them out.

This is more than catharsis. With these essays, Roiphe is moving the conversation forward on families headed by single mothers. The work isn’t perfect, but we don’t need perfection – just incisive thinking and courage.

In my third and final post on this topic (for now), I turn to the larger context of Roiphe’s commentary. What are the real implications of praising “messy lives” for those less financially fortunate than Roiphe and her set?