Women on the verge

February 24, 2005

Morality describes the good life, and the acceptable means to attain it.  It simplifies, without nullifying, the choices that must be made by every individual.  If I had to invent my own good and evil, my own ten commandments, my own description of human nature and my own Bill of Rights, I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning.  Life would be too hard.

Yet that is just the situation American women face today.  The good life is a mystery; moral certitudes are lost in a fog of possibilities.  Two generations ago, women were supposed to be good wives, good mothers, and good home-makers.  In my generation, women were supposed to be men.  Both ideals still appeal, but neither seems to work any longer as a model of behavior.  Women are caught in a moment of moral transition and confusion, with the path ahead, after childhood, obscured and uncertain.  Often the consequences are pain, frustration, and an uneasy mind.

Feminists seem most confused of all.  I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but when I was a young man, the feminists I knew wanted to muscle us men out of the way, which they thought they could do if given the slightest opportunity.  I remember thinking that it was a refreshing attitude.

Today feminists are all over the landscape.  Sometimes they favor equality, sometimes special dispensation for women.  Sometimes they advocate choice, sometimes outcomes.  Whatever usefulness feminism had in terms of moral guidance to American women has been dissipated in triviality and contradiction.

The accusations hurled by Susan Estrich at Michael Kinsley of the Los Angeles Times are a case in point.  Not much need be said about this melodrama, in which Estrich, a political hack, has accused Kinsley of discrimination against women in the selection of editorial writers for the LAT.  Whether discrimination has actually taken place, it is impossible to say.  No evidence of it has been presented, other than adding up the numbers of male-written editorials.  Proving moral or legal guilt doesn’t seem to be the purpose of this exercise.  The point, rather, is to alternate between false rage and false victimhood, in the curious assumption that these poses confer a sort of moral superiority.

Heather MacDonald has a hilarious send-up of the entire situation.  I recommend reading it all, twice, but the following goes to the heart of the matter:

The assumption that being female obviates the need for any further examination into one’s qualifications allows Estrich to sidestep the most fundamental question raised by her crusade: Why should anyone care what the proportion of female writers is on an op-ed page? If an analysis is strong, it should make no difference what its author’s sex is. But for Estrich, it is an article of faith that female representation matters: “What could be more important – or easier for that matter – than ensuring that women’s voices are heard in public discourse in our community?” Her embedded question – “or easier for that matter?” – is quickly answered. She is right: Nothing is easier than ensuring that “women’s voices” are heard; simply set up a quota and publish whatever comes across your desk. But as for why it is of paramount importance to get the “women’s” perspective on farm subsidies or OPEC price manipulations, Estrich does not say.

To watch this fuss, together with the Larry Summers slow roast at Harvard, is to wonder what planet such people live in.  Is the moral dislocation facing young women today really connected to a scarcity of female editors or improper opinions about sexual cognitive differences?

Women expect equality and opportunity.  But as Anne Applebaum writes in the Washington Post, the discrepancy in earnings between men and women is being shown to be a factor of the difficult life choices the latter confront:  choices that pit a normal human ambition to succeed against the equally normal desire for a family.

Family is the strange omission in all the shouting.  How should a young girl, about to reach adulthood, arrange her life and adjust her choices, so she can test her mettle in the worldly race yet allow the time for family –  for children?  Are the two goals even compatible?  Here is Applebaum’s take:

Too often the missing component of the debate about the dearth of tenured female scientists, or female chief executive officers, or women in Congress, is the word “family.” But Summers did call the work-vs.-family choice the most important problem for women who want tenure: In academia, as in other professions, high-powered employers “expect a large number of hours in the office, they expect a flexibility of schedules to respond to contingency, they expect a continuity of effort through the life cycle, they expect . . . a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make than of married women.” It isn’t ability or discrimination that hold women up most, in other words, but the impossibility of making a full-time commitment to work in a culture that demands 80-hour weeks, as well as to family in a society unusually obsessed with its children.

I don’t believe our “culture” demands 80-hour weeks.  I don’t believe we are unusually obsessed with children – far from it.  I do believe that the choices are inherently difficult, and that we shy away from honest discussion because we are afraid to be shouted down by the Susan Estriches of the world.