For many years, I was interested—in both senses of the term—in women’s problems. It seemed to me that somewhere in the course of the twentieth century the lives of middle-class American women had been radically altered and we understood neither what had happened nor how to respond properly to it.
The serious Freudians, with their talk of penis envy and father-fixation, certainly seemed far off the point; in any case, the women of my own acquaintance who had undergone classical psychoanalysis were more obtuse about the sources of their own conduct and feelings than any other women I knew. The “parlor” Freudians, those who chalked up every aspect of the human condition to the fulfillment, or lack of same, of all sexual encounters, were merely silly—although to be sure in some cases consequentially so.
Then came the feminists—more properly designated by their original name, the libbers—who were militant, angry, and in the grip of a curious but lethal combination of galloping self-pity and driving ambition. Almost overnight they succeeded in persuading an army of already fretful constituents that everything that troubled their lives was in essence political. Women, said the movement, were an oppressed class, oppressed (in a range of formulations from the so-called “moderate” to the honestly radical) by men, by society, or by the species itself. “The personal is political” was the movement’s most formative declaration, to which each of its analyses, demands, and postures, with regard to issues from childbirth to literary scholarship, could by implication be traced.
This was, if anything, even farther from the truth about the special problem of the modern middle-class American woman than the Freudian-type psychologizing, and even less helpful in offering her an understanding of it. A quiet look around would have told her and anybody else who actually cared about her that her life had undergone a revolutionary change. For one thing, she was being positively beset by new freedoms. Before marriage, she was now free to pursue an education of her choosing or not, to take a job or pursue a career, to engage in a kind of sample mating, and to marry or not when and as she saw fit. And though there of course remained social pressure on her to marry, if she did not, she was no longer consigned to playing the maiden aunt.
Once married, she was now free to continue her career or give it up, remain married or change her mind about her choice of husband, have a child or not, and at a time and place of her choosing. She could also now look forward to being vigorous and attractive well past what was once middle age, thanks to both birth control and the mechanization of housework—indeed, there was by now an ever higher statistical probability that she would end up a still-healthy widow. She had, in short, become the most transformingly advantaged beneficiary of modern technology, above all, modern medical technology.
That was the good news. The bad news was that no one had ever lived with so many choices before—choices, after all, mean alternatives, and alternatives mean responsibility for outcomes—and there was neither benefit from the experience of the past nor any adequate current thinking to assist in the making of them. The primary appeal of the women’s movement, then, lay in the message that everything that troubled her was somebody else’s fault. How could any thinking or spiritual discipline designed to help her carry the burden of freedom stand against the siren song of her victimization?
The result of that question is history. There is no need to expand upon what everybody, most of all she herself, knows: a quarter of a century of agitation on her behalf has left her emotionally and intellectually worse off. Especially intellectually. All the demands for unneeded preference in admissions and hiring, all the absurd litigation, all the efforts at speech control and thought control, and most important, all the programs to manage and “improve” the behavior of the men in her life, whether husband, boss, roommate, or date, have left her more disaffected and more mentally self-indulgent than before.
Moreover, just as feminists gained a following by promising that women were non-responsible for their lives and everything in them, so movement spokesmen have extended the principle to cover the content of their own ideological development. Angry with men? say the feminists when it is pointed out to them that relations between the sexes, always delicate, are now almost paralyzed with mutual distrust, we were never angry with men. Hostile to motherhood? Never. Denigrate homemaking? We never for a moment even dreamed of doing that. We have only been saying, give women the option. And so on. It is as if the Marxists, faced with the grinding poverty of Cuba and Nicaragua, were to say. Capitalism? We’ve never been opposed to capitalism.
The other day I had—or let’s say was caught in—a conversation on the subject of career and motherhood. It may have been the thousandth on this particular topic. My interlocutor was a highly regarded and successful intellectual journalist, regular contributor to a most important magazine devoted to refining the minds and tastes of the suburban middle class. She is not in any sense a feminist activist, this woman, only a “right-thinking person.” She was suggesting that a working mother with a part-time job should actually be making more money than a full-time worker because her need was the greater.
I suddenly caught a glimpse of myself about to be engaged in this argument, and said to myself: After twenty years of joining arguments on this level, it is simply too demeaning to go on with. This woman demands that the world respect her and yet refuses to be either serious or honest, and has clearly grown accustomed to going extremely easy on herself. Why not? The world has gone easy on her—her editors, her publishers, the courts, the press, and her husband, if she has one. Why should I spend my life being more concerned about what is truly bothering her than she is? True, she and the sisterhood for whom she stands in have had much power to damage the social ethos—and have used it to the hilt. But perhaps any social ethos that rewards perfectly intelligent, well-off, healthy, educated people for being what under normal circumstances would be considered downright stupid, deserves to be damaged.
I will gladly admit that dealing with the kind of freedom now enjoyed by these women can be very frightening. This is an old idea, and a true one. But for how long can one sustain one’s sympathy for such a difficulty—in a world where people are required to be unbelievably brave just to have maybe only one choice, where figures like Vladimir Bukovsky and Natan Sharansky escape oppression in solitary confinement by keeping their minds and spirits free? In such a world no serious person ought to be asked to consider such issues as whether using the masculine pronoun for the general case might not be psychically injurious to females—or be induced, indeed, to stoop to arguing the opposite.
This brief article will be my last on the subject—at least unless or until one word of gratitude for an unprecedented share of life’s blessings, along with a promise to hold themselves to a standard worthy of respect, issues from the community of America’s middle-class women.
Midge Decter is Distinguished Fellow at the Institute on Religion and Public Life and a member of the Editorial Board of First Things.