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What Do Women Want?

Hays also makes the point that all conceptions of maternity are constructs that vary widely from era to era and culture to culture. Negative American attitudes, for example toward the concept of day care, in her view, are simply that—attitudes, not necessarily founded in observed fact—and ignore reports of the experience in countries such as France or Scandinavia, whose governments have committed themselves to large-scale child-care arrangements, as if present-day America were the universal model with nothing to learn.3

Like millions of American as well as British mothers, Fox-Genovese believes in Penelope Leach, the British child psychologist, who holds that “in the lives of babies and young children, mothers and fathers are neither the same nor equal,” with mothers being the “natural” parent. Hays and Barnett/ Rivers all attack this as unproven, and they contradict Leach’s insistence that day care for young children interferes with the bonding process between parents and child. Barnett and Rivers cite various studies of school performance or other measures that find the opposite to be true.4

The fact that such research as the Framingham Heart Study, cited by Barnett and Rivers, or the Canadian census statistics, presented by Hays, which suggest that there are fewer cases of depression among career women than among non-working women,5 are not widely known reinforces reports, such as Susan Faludi’s Backlash, of media failure to publicize findings that contradict or undermine “traditional” paradigms or confirm signs of anxiety-provoking change. For example, Barnett and Rivers also cite an extensive review by the National Academy of Sciences of various published psychological and sociological studies on the children of working mothers, showing that “there simply were no significant differences between the children of employed and nonemployed mothers on most child development measures,” and that daughters seemed actually to benefit, which at least was unknown to me.

A little healthy skepticism is always in order, of course, when it comes to social science, but where there is suggestive evidence that contradicts received opinion, for instance, of lower rates of heart attack or clinical depression among working women, it should be made available in order to help women and men to break out of the present impasse of guilt and reproach, and even to help in shaping public policy with less superstition and sentimentality than are currently the case.

Dr. Daniel J. Levinson’s project atYale consisted of talks with groups of “regular” women, by which he means forty-five subjects winnowed down from a larger sample of homemakers chosen at random from the phone book, career women, and academics around New Haven. His impressions tend to agree with those of Barnett and Rivers, that working women are better off than their sisters at home; the “career” women who talked to these researchers seemed happier and less disappointed in their lives than the ones in “traditional marriages,” despite the difficulties they faced in balancing career, home, and motherhood. Levinson was seeking to document his idea, first presented eighteen years ago in The Seasons of a Man’s Life (in which he came up with the phrase “mid-life crisis”), that people’s lives have different concerns at different phases, despite sex, social class, or culture. Having studied men, he was surprised, he says, to discover that “women go through the same sequence of eras as men, and at the same ages” (italics his). He does not explain why this should be surprising.

Levinson also concludes that although his interviews suggest that the lives of men and women are different because of “gender splitting,” his term for the habit of all human societies to assign male and female tasks such as child care or providing a living, they lead him to conclude that

Humanity is now in the early phases of a transformation in the meanings of gender and the place of women and men in every society. The general direction of change is clear:the lives and personalities of women and men are becoming more similar.

His belief is that this is an irreversible historical trend which will take another century to achieve, and that the reason for all the dismay and reaction today is that “ideas of gender equality”—Friedan would have said the humanity of women—“…evoke great anxiety and run counter to our traditional ways of thinking.” This explanation for the gender wars may also explain reactions in, say, Algeria, where frantic men slit the throats of schoolgirls who refuse the veil. But events like these hardly encourage one’s faith in his optimism.

Ideas of gender equality” are exactly what men’s movement guru Robert Bly in his new book, The Sibling Society, criticizes, though more benignly. “Sibling society” is a useful metaphor for what many people feel has gone wrong in America today, a society in which there are no parents, no rules, no “natural” gender differences, and no responsibility taken for younger children. However one may feel about Bly’s attempts to rehabilitate “masculinity,” which he distinguishes from the discredited patriarchy (while deploring feminism’s tendency to conflate patriarchal attitudes with those of ordinary men), many share his sense that society is going to hell in a handbag. Like Fox-Genovese he speaks in the accents of blame and threat, in his case the archetypal male threats:”A group of young men in Kenya…attacked a dormitory and raped a number of young women…. All the advances made for women can be undone in several strokes by unsocialized young men.”

It would seem logical that women in their own interest should take note of men’s problems. In some of the essays in ‘Bad Girls’, there is a presumption that men lead lives of piggish satisfaction, exulting in their rage, whereas the symptoms their authors cite suggest men are more unhappy, prey to substance abuse, insecurity, loneliness, and suicide than women are. But Robert Bly says, “It is not women’s job to socialize young males. That is the job of the older men…. It’s the job of the entire culture.” The word “socialize” is the operative word; Bly is not talking about perpetuating macho error, but about helping men reassume what he views as their natural responsibility. One would think that, without of course accepting responsibility for having made men the way they are, which would be to infantilize them still further, women should support efforts to restore the “community of men,” which, Iassume, is the male bonding that Bly brought to our attention and that sent many husbands out for amusing weekends in the woods with drums.

Very little attention is paid in these women’s books to Bly’s point that something has gone wrong with the socialization of men in America, that they have become alienated from their families, are losing jobs and authority to women, and are unable to come to terms with the change. In fact there is not much mention of men at all, except vaguely to characterize them as the enemy or the problem, especially when it comes to violence against women.

Fox-Genovese points out that both feminists and conservatives are apt to view male violence against women and children as normal, the former because they see men as inherently violent (although the writers in ‘Bad Girls’ are divided about this). All the writers seem to agree that violence requires police action, but few apart from Bly seem to consider that the violence may be cultural and not biological. Inspired by Bly, the various men’s movements are apparently trying to address the lost lives of men, and if some of them misunderstand domination as the male role, others appear to see that peaceful collaboration in the human enterprise is pretty much what everybody has to strive for, although large numbers of female separatists do not agree.

What both Fox-Genovese and Robert Bly fail to account for, and what the Bad Girls testify to, is the mistrust many women feel about the way women have been treated in the past, individually or collectively. Regardless of her own particular experience, every woman has access to an understanding of a collective store of grievances, part of female lore instantly comprehensible when invoked by such expressions as “that’s how men are.” But their sense that they deserve redress may stand as an obstacle to the kind of collaboration a functional society requires.

Innately violent men, instinctively maternal women? The argument about innate gender differences goes back to antiquity, which assumed with Aristotle that women were lesser or incomplete men. Not until the eighteenth century was this idea reexamined, and by the nineteenth women were being told they were not necessarily inferior, but different and, as a sop, in some ways superior. While men were more reasonable, physically stronger, and leaderly, women were more sensitive, humane, instinctively moral, and less corruptible. This implied that women should be sheltered—a nice Victorian woman might not read the newspaper—in a place controlled by her virtuous influence, which men were assigned to protect by shouldering the burdens of the outside world. The fact that men regularly ignored female moral influence outside the home—indeed were obliged and expected to in order to make their way—was a paradox not commented on. Probably the Victorians just thought that without women’s example men would be even worse.

Some feminists today make these same arguments about the superior moral qualities of women, but the hypocrisy would be quickly remarked if, after saying, “black people are not merely equal, they are actually superior—more artistic, stronger, and with a greater emotional range,” we went on to say, “What the more limited white man can do to protect these qualities in black people is to shoulder the burdens of the boardroom, the tedium of the classroom, and the boring duties of the courtroom”—like Victorian men.


What is the nature of male and female is a question that has always been asked and never answered, like questions about original sin or the existence of God. One could suggest that we finally abandon them as unanswerable. The essential nature of children has also been differently perceived at different epochs, as savage, or as innocent, as adult at three, or at seven, or never, as in the current fashion, and as Bly points out. But children have always been an important underlying reason that the interests of women and men are opposed. Someone must care for them, and someone must pay for them. Few subjects give rise to more anxiety, hypocrisy, and legal dispute than the proper upbringing of children, especially the question of who should be charged with it and for it.

Hays, Rivers and Barnett, and Dr. Levinson all show that the difficult work of child care, despite its vaunted joys, is something that people down through history have tended to shirk or at least to devise ways of sharing. Are women especially suited to it?Men would like them to think so. Many women do think so. But all we know for sure is that work that no one much wants to do has always been foisted off on some disadvantaged class in the name of “nature,” and that, moreover, work done by a disadvantaged class is not respected. Fox-Genovese is surely right in observing that “society cannot expect women to become mothers if it does not value and support what mothers do. So long as we treat the work of mothering as if it were servants’ work—and smugly demean servants’ work—we virtually guarantee that the more talented a woman is the less likely she will choose to become a mother.”

This seems to be what the strife is really about:who is going to control the means of reproduction, and who is going to watch the kids. It cannot be coincidental that it is male-run institutions like the Catholic Church, the Japanese government, and Islam that outlaw or control contraception. Yet it would appear that in many parts of the world, women are, for the first time, able to control conception. What will induce them now to collaborate or even cooperate with male-run institutions?

If a definition of progress involves women being free from categorical limitations, and having more sex-blind social policies and career opportunities, perhaps one can be cautiously optimistic, though not for most of the world’s women, who are out of reach, if not actually murdered, aborted, or starved: Amartya Sen, writing in these pages in 1991, demonstrated that 100 million women were missing—and this was largely before the widespread use of ultrasound in China and India to detect female fetuses and abort them.6 Yet change has to start somewhere. Now there are women astronauts; and the Teamsters have announced that they are going to try to be more “nurturing” toward women. It said in the paper a little while ago that a “single father” won the Pillsbury Bake- Off. Feminists should not ignore this.

Perhaps American feminism could resolve some of its internal dissensions and influence policy if it looked at the people it wants to help, and insisted that society look at them, not as categorically similar but more as Betty Friedan began the discussion—as citizens with concerns that differ with age and over time. “Citizen” might be a word more difficult to repudiate than “woman,” a word which, like “feminism,” comes loaded with preconceptions about female nature, human psychology, and what is “natural,” questions no one seems close to answering. Feminism might urge instead that everyone regardless of sex should have some minimal “rights”: personal safety, autonomy in sexual and health matters, equal pay for equal work—conditions of basic fairness. (Even these advances would still not bring Americans up to the standards of the European Union.)

This was more or less what the Equal Rights Amendment was about—and was so pointedly refused by a society still unwilling to recognize either women or children as fully qualified citizens. That debacle might suggest a starting point for activism, and remind younger women, whether or not they accept the dread label “feminist,” at least to watch their backs. Garrison Keillor has a funny skit from Lake Wobegon in which the dad announces that next year he’s going to make the Thanksgiving dinner. When he does, he discovers what women have known all along, that it is much more amusing, on that long and boring day, to be bustling in the kitchen than to be cooling your heels in the living room.

  1. 3

    See Linda Hantrais and Marie-Thérèse Letablier, Families and Family Policies in Europe (Longman, 1996), for an enlightening description of the variations of cultural and legal conceptions of family and the range of family policies in the EEC states.

  2. 4

    They cite, among others, John Bowlby, Maternal Care and Mental Health (Schocken, 1951).

  3. 5

    Hays, “Depression,” Chapter 8.

  4. 6

    Amartya Sen, “More Than 100 Million Women are Missing,” The New York Review, December 20, 1990, p. 61.

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