The Breakfast Table

Feminist Father-Bashing

Dear Neal,

I somehow managed to miss all that construction in Boston, which I do think is a lovely city (I also love the surrounding towns–like Lexington, where I was visiting friends).

I really don’t think of Russia as my “homeland” anymore, despite having been born and raised there; when I traveled to Moscow several times in the early 1990s, I had no sense of being “home” (especially since so much had changed!). Still, it’s sad to see a country with so much potential slide deeper and deeper into despondency, self-pity and bitterness, after the optimism of the early years of perestroika, when it seemed everything would be all right if only the Communist dictatorship fell. I don’t know if the Russian people have a great talent for suffering, or just lots of opportunity to practice.

One has to wonder whether those images of Yeltsin the heroic freedom fighter atop a tank have led well-intentioned people, in the West and in Russia, to turn a blind eye to real questions about his leadership–from the war in Chechnya to manipulated elections (with the opposition virtually denied access to the media) to the increasingly erratic behavior of the man at the helm of a nuclear superpower. Do you have a feeling that one of these days Yeltsin just might fire the new prime minister and appoint his chauffeur to the job?

As for Serbia/Kosovo, I doubt that you’ll find many people who have anything nice to say about Milosevic. But at this point, I think the jury is still out on whether our intervention will ultimately minimize or escalate the loss of life. Also, are you troubled by the appearance of a double standard given the West’s failure to intervene when far more horrific butchery was taking place in Rwanda?

If you haven’t read the discussion on “the decline of males” in Harper’s, I strongly recommend it. Lionel Tiger makes some interesting points about a growing number of men who, as a result of widespread divorce and single motherhood, are alienated from family structures. However, he seems to believe that men can have no meaningful place in the family outside of the traditional breadwinner role, and that as a result the economic ascendancy of women inevitably results in the marginalization of fathers. His opponent, feminist writer Barbara Ehrenreich, defends a vision of the future in which men share in the nurturing of children just as women share in achievement in the workplace. That’s a vision far more congenial to me, but I think Ehrenreich evades a basic paradox in feminist thinking about fatherhood. On the one hand, feminists ostensibly support male involvement in child-rearing; on the other hand, they engage in a good deal of father-bashing. And I’m not talking about crazed radicals but mainstream groups like the National Organization for Women, which has been very hostile to proposals for joint custody and other laws that would make it easier for divorced fathers to remain involved in their children’s lives. I think many feminists are very reluctant to do anything that could be seen as infringing on women’s rights–even in areas where the deck is currently stacked in favor of women.

I eagerly anticipate your thoughts on the subject.