Thursday, March 27, 2008

Bad Girls Who Refuse To Wed. A Feminist Reading.

The Atlantic Monthly has gone to pot on anything about women. It started some years ago when Caitlyn (get-thee-to-the-kitchen) Flanagan was hired (by a newly hired conservative editor) to be the Soundhorn on all that is about women in the magazine. That Flanagan's hiring wasn't an isolated fluke became clear soon enough. Now the Atlantic Monthly mostly writes about the Woman Problem as the Problem With What Women Do.

That is how I interpreted the March article by Lori Gottlieb about the urgent need for women not to be so critical in their search for the ideal partner, to just "settle" and to marry the first chump who comes along and gets tangled in the romantic fishing net. I wanted to be generous, for some odd reason, and interpreted the whole article as just some silly filler, because of course we shouldn't wait for Prince Charming any more than heterosexual men should wait for some ideal human-sized version of the big-boobed Barbie doll.

But then I read a very similar article on Slate, written by their very own advice-giver, Emily Yoffe. She's the liberal version of Laura Schlessinger (Dr. Laura). Or perhaps she IS Dr. Laura, writing under a pseudonym? Not sure, but Ms. Yoffe certainly likes to boss women around. In an earlier piece of advice she told a woman who complained about her husband not chipping in with the housework that:

The reality is that you're always going to do the bulk of the inside work. As Dave Barry explains, men are essentially incapable of doing housework because they suffer from Male Genetic Dirt Blindness.

Keep that firmly in your mind while you interpret her new plea for single mothers to wed:

We still think of the archetypal unwed mother as a Jamie Lynn Spears—a dopey teenager who dropped her panties and got in over her head. A generation and more ago, that's who most unwed mothers were. But according to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, teenagers account for only 23 percent of current out-of-wedlock births. That means the vast majority of unwed mothers are old enough to know what they're doing: Unwed births are surging among women ages 25 to 29.

In the last 50 years, there has been an extraordinary decoupling of marriage and procreation. In 1960 about 5 percent of births were to unwed mothers; that figure is now a record high of nearly 40 percent. Out-of-wedlock births used to be such a source of shame that families tried to hide them: Singer Bobby Darin was born to a teen mother and raised to believe she was his sister. But now out-of-wedlock births are greeted with a shrug. Some say they're an understandable response to economic realities. Others say they're a liberating change from the shotgun-wedding ethic that shackled two unsuitable people together for life.

As Slate's advice columnist, Dear Prudence, I get constant reports from the people who are creating the statistics. When I extol the importance of marriage in the advice column, my inbox fills with e-mails from readers who don't see marriage as the passage from single life to a life of commitment. To them, the marriage certificate is the first document in a paper trail that will end with a divorce decree. This doesn't mean my correspondents conclude that men and women shouldn't form unions and even live together, just that it may be wiser not to make your love life official. "Legal ties are supposed to make it somehow legit? With the divorce rate as high as it is, a live-in girlfriend is just as good," wrote one.

Readers also like to rebuke me for my preference that two decent people who are committed to each other and find themselves procreating without intending to should provide the stability of marriage for their child. "Having a child will be stressful and life altering enough. Parents need to work on their relationship on their time schedule." "I feel that a baby is its own blessing. Have that blessing before you get married." "How dare you imply that an unexpected pregnancy should lead to marriage? You are simply out of touch with modern culture."

Yoffe then quotes research on the children of single mothers by Kay Hymowitz (a Manhattan Institute wingnut who shares with Yoffe the enjoyment of yelling at women to change their behavior) and fails to quote more nuanced studies, studies which are careful about the cause-and-effect chains they study. For instance, if most of the problems of single-parent families have to do with poverty, then it's poverty that we should address and not the number of parents, especially if poor single mothers have their children with poor men. Adding more poor parents to a family might help a little, but not if the added parents are in prison or unemployed or on drugs.

I sometimes wonder how many parents we should really add to families to make them function well. If two parents are better than one parent, how about ten parents per family?

Yes, that is flippant of me, and, yes, doing all the work and parenting alone is hard for anyone. But I dislike the surface solutions so many people suggest without giving any real analysis of the reasons why some women (and some men) choose to become parents on their own or end up in that position without initially having made the choice. Yoffe also appears to suggest that shaming and shunning single mothers would be a good thing. Perhaps we should reintroduce the use of the stocks as a shaming device?

To recap, Yoffe thinks that any married woman will get saddled with all the housework, even if both partners have jobs, but single mothers should marry anyway, for the sake of children.

Now finally for the feminist reading: If you read the two articles I have quoted in this post, one after the other, you notice something very odd: Both writers are talking to women, telling them to act differently, and both writers are urging women to marry more. More!

But the societal myths we still have assume that all women really want to do is to get married! That's why they deck themselves with false breasts and high-heeled shoes and go Girls Gone Wild. According to the prevailing myth it is the single women who are looking for a husband, all the time, and it is the single men who'd prefer to buy the milk (sex) without buying the cow (wife). Women don't have similar thought about sausages and pigs, ever.

Other articles suggest that men flee commitment and don't want to get married at all these days. That, too, is the fault of women because they are acting all too feministy.

So how are we to interpret Gottlieb's and Yoffe's exhortations for young women to marry more? Aren't they already trying their damnedest to do so? And why don't these ladies write similar sermons to men, yelling at them to marry early and to stay married, even if it means that you didn't find that women with the perfect labia?

Do you know what I think? I think that the invisible elephant, the one we don't see, even when it sits smack in the middle of the living-room couch, is the fact that it is in the interest of men to have women more marriage-minded. Gottlieb's little sermon would help not-so-desirable guys to find wives and Yoffe's preachings would let them keep those wives even if the men turn out to be horrible husbands. That men might want to get married, too, is something we are not really supposed to think about.