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And this “mystique” is damaging because, “When men aren’t part of the discussion about balancing work and life, outdated assumptions about fatherhood are allowed to go unchallenged and, far more important, key realities about the relationship between work and family are elided.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 Difference Single Mothers Make

Last fall American cultural critic Katie Roiphe published her latest collection of essays, In Praise of Messy Lives, which both does and does not suffer from the chief weakness that has long undermined her credibility: a tendency to generalize her experience to larger, less privileged cultures.

Does and does not? How can this be so?

First, Roiphe has a longstanding rep for this flaw, sometimes called solipsism, other times plain old cluelessness. It certainly raged in her stunning denial back in the day that date rape was a real problem (yup – I’m old enough to remember that one). And it is true in this book when Roiphe decries the stereotypes faced by single mothers. Though she offers the caveat that she is writing about “myself and the handful of other single mothers I know,” she also breezily raises her encounters to the level of a “cultural climate.”

So, the unsurprising critique of Roiphe’s account of single motherhood has been that her life as a well-known author and journalism professor bears little resemblance to the struggles of the vast majority of single moms. Ergo, her opinions on this topic are not relevant. That might be true in certain ways.

But it’s also true that aspects of her account, revealed in two subtle essays, are strangely valuable precisely because they pertain to her privileged experience.

Reactions of Roiphe’s circle to her single motherhood were not glowing. In “The Alchemy of Quiet Malice,” she reveals how one friend urges her to wait and have a “regular” baby. Another gestures toward her newborn in a stroller and jokingly asks, right in front of Roiphe’s 6-year-old daughter, “how did that happen”? The author’s friend, also a single mom, encounters offensively personal questions from near-strangers, like whether the child’s father pays child support.

Roiphe’s conclusion: “when you are a single mother, strangers feel like they can come up to you and ask you anything. It is as if you have somehow given people who barely know you permission to say something intimate or invasive simply by having a baby without a man in the house.”

These stories ring true for me too, a single mother lucky enough to have had an education but barely scraping by much of the time.

Mostly entertaining now is what happened at a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner a couple of years ago: A man I had just met that evening had the gall to ask me at the dinner table “how it happened,” meaning how I became pregnant with my daughter. In other words, what was the exact nature of my sexual and relationship status at the time of conception? Talk about an icemaker.

Alas, we are not even Facebook friends.

Some people simply make no effort to hide their disapproval: In my daughter’s third year, I offered to care for a couple’s newborn so they could have some time to themselves. I put their baby in a carrier and walked to a nearby playground. There, I ran into a professor I know, barely an acquaintance. Like me, she is a mother and a feminist. Yet when she saw me wearing this baby, an expression of utter horror overtook her face. And she made no attempt to hide it as she exclaimed in great distress, “did you have another baby?”

On the opposite spectrum, people who think they know better than Mr. Nosy Thanksgiving Dude err on the side of silence: When I was pregnant, a well-meaning older colleague promised not to “tell anyone.” He assumed that even in the year 2007, an unwed woman must surely be mortified to be pregnant.

Another mother, in front of my 3-year-old daughter, quickly shushed her child after he asked where my girl’s father was. It never occurred to this person that in trying to look polite, she was in fact teaching the children that families like mine are shameful.

Roiphe’s similar experiences lead her to conclude that we are not as far from The Scarlet Letter as we might think, that “The single mother traipsing up the subway steps in heels with her Maclaren is not as many worlds away as you would think from Hester Prynne.”

Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t. The point here is emphatically not that this is “the way it is” for all single moms just because Roiphe’s experiences happen to resonate with me. In fact, what struck me about Roiphe’s stories is that these things happen to her even though she is privileged and a notable public figure.

Why does that matter? And could recognizing it help improve things for lower-income single moms and their children?

I think the answer is yes.

Many people know that public discourse has long been full of wild ignorance and venom when it comes to single mothers, and not just on the right. The stereotypes are nasty and often racist, from Ronald Reagan’s invention of “welfare queens” to Mitt Romney’s bizarre debate gaffe linking gun violence to single moms. But even in reasonable publications like the New York Times, one finds sloppiness that does more harm than good, like this article from last summer that ignores class inequities and instead showcases marriage as a boon for single-mother families. Besides (once again) insulting mothers like me by ignoring the class issues that really drive our family struggles (but see this for Katha Pollitt’s great response) – not to mention the potential dangers of marriage – the article implicitly disses married fathers by valuing them as little more than a paycheck.

So how do we cut through the nonsense?

One way is to start paying real and close attention to single mothers from all walks of life. If we do, we might actually learn some valuable stuff. Example: imagine a study on 500 single-mom families; let’s say 450 are low income, and 50 are middle to upper-middle income. If the study finds that after controlling for other factors, most of the children of the 50 middle-to-upper-middle-income families have better outcomes (some studies have in fact already shown that income is the most important factor), that will begin to reveal some very important data about what kids really need to thrive. And it could help to inform policy affecting kids in low-income families.

On the other hand, if the study finds that social attitudes toward single moms do not necessarily depend on income (as Roiphe’s account implies), then we might also learn something very important – perhaps about the ideological nature of certain cultural opinions of women who raise children without men.

The point is that we can only learn these things by dropping the knee-jerk reactions and listening to the stories of all different types of single moms – by recognizing all class, racial, and other key differences as relevant to meet the challenge of helping everyone, especially those who are less fortunate. It will be much harder to learn these things by dismissing any groups as irrelevant.

And yes, we need to hear more stories from the less fortunate. That’s also why I’m writing this post.

Now, having said all this, I do find a problem with other assumptions in Roiphe’s book. To be sure, these essays are both enlightening and maddening, but for reasons perhaps different from the usual objections.

What are the deeper roots of the single mom stigma according to Roiphe, and what are the implications of her praise of “messy lives?” I explore these questions in my next post.