The Breakfast Table

Feminist Doublethink

Dear Neal,

I couldn’t agree more–flexible opportunities and options for individuals, regardless of gender, benefit both men and women. But wouldn’t you agree that, your own example notwithstanding, societal expectations in general remain less flexible for men than for women? There are still many men (middle-class, working-class, and poor) who aren’t sure what they can bring to the family if they are not the traditional breadwinners. When feminists point out that men’s roles have changed less than women’s, they tend to blame this solely on men’s reluctance to change. But the truth is that in some areas women’s expectations of men haven’t changed, either.

Last Friday, there was a fascinating post to Carolyn Hax’s always entertaining online advice column on the Washington Post Web site. A young woman complained that she and her female friends were incredibly successful, smart, gorgeous, etc., but all the men they met were arrogant, self-centered jerks. She realized that it would be easier to meet a decent guy if she were willing to expand her options to less successful men, but, as she put it, “I work very hard and like to enjoy the fruits of my success–renting a beach house, nice dinners, traveling, etc. Although I have no problem with paying my own way, I am not interested in providing subsidies to the men I date.” (Had I been the advice columnist, I would have replied, “Gee, what makes you think you’re any better than those arrogant, self-centered jerks?”)

I’m afraid that many successful women (unlike your wife) still have this attitude–partly because, in the back of their minds, they want the freedom to give up or scale down their careers, and thus seek a man whose income would allow them to do that; partly because they feel, consciously or not, that a man with less money and status is not manly enough to be a suitable romantic partner. So to some extent, they are still pressuring men to perform the traditional masculine role–even though they would be outraged if a man expected them to perform the traditional feminine role (e.g., sacrifice their ambitions to his). I think Ehrenreich could have made a stronger case if she acknowledged this.

I do believe Tiger made some valid points: for instance, about the widespread negative portrayal of men and masculinity in popular culture today (I don’t buy the “turnabout is fair play” argument–that mentality leads to a Yugoslavia-like vicious circle where everyone is forever avenging past wrongs), and about the marginalization of many men from the family unit. That’s another issue to which I think Ehrenreich gave short shrift. Of course, many single mothers have done a wonderful job against great odds; but it seems to me that one cannot, in the same breath, call for men to become involved and nurturing fathers and defend the fatherless family as just another normal family structure. That brings me back to the point I made yesterday about feminist doublethink about fathers, particularly on issues related to divorce and child custody. Any thoughts?