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A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle
Boomer feminism's big fails, the glamorization of divorce, the doomed fantasy of single living - and the utterly inhumane choice between work and kids
Some time ago, in an attempt to think through the pitfalls of the anything-goes hippie milieu I was raised in, I picked up a copy of Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster. The book, modelled on Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, is a take-down of the progressive boomer ethos. Its scathing tone, while often warranted (and frequently hilarious), is not particularly surprising, given that its author Helen Andrews is a senior editor at The American Conservative, and that her agent told her it would be an ideal project for her because “like Strachey, you’re an essayist and you’re mean.” I was somewhat surprised to discover, however, that while there’s lots I disagree with in this book, there was lots I found myself nodding my head to.
In the book’s introduction, Andrews gets straight to it and lands some powerful punches, as she puts the boomer generation’s “self-flattering narrative through a fact check.” I’ve been ruminating on this particular paragraph for months:
For all their claims to be women’s greatest liberators, it would be hard to convince an impartial observer that boomer feminism has left women better off when one in five white women are on antidepressants. Feminism, for the boomers, mostly meant channelling women into paid employment on an unprecedented scale. Women have always worked, but never in American history did women outnumber men in the labor force until January 2020. Boomers promised that employment was the only way for women to be fulfilled and independent, when any socialist could have told them that there is no one more dependent than a wage worker.
As it it turns out, this does indeed remind me of one of my favourite socialist thinkers, Lean Out podcast guest Catherine Liu, who points out in Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional Managerial Class that women’s equality has been reduced to the ability to compete in a ruthless labour market.
But let’s stick with Helen Andrews, for now, and turn our attention to her very next paragraph, which takes aim at boomer feminist icons in particular:
You didn’t have to be a socialist to guess that 1970s feminism wasn’t going to work out well, just a decent observer of the psychology of the leading feminists … Gloria Steinem had good personal reasons for considering the nuclear family a trap. Her father was a ne’er-do-well hustler, practically a con man, and her fragile mother spent long stretches of her life institutionalized both before and after their divorce. This gave young Gloria such an abhorrence of domesticity that in her first two decades as a political organizer she never spent longer than eight days at home before setting off on the road again.
This is not how most women want to live.
I have to say, this sucker-punch took the wind out of me for some time. I grew up greatly admiring Steinem. I read the very memoir that Andrews seems to be drawing on above, and came to different conclusions. Initially. But a lifestyle that once sounded adventurous and interesting, with age and experience now just sounds rootless and alienating. And, not for nothing: unaffordable.
So this analysis from Andrews strikes a chord.
It makes me wonder. Did we, as women, blindly follow a roadmap laid out by elite feminists who’d been mistreated by men, and therefore held deeply pessimistic views of marriage, motherhood, and family? Have we bought into a distorted way of thinking that alienates women from men in ways that are difficult to come back from?Did we allow boomer feminists’ trauma — and their wild flights of fancy, backed by the cold hard cash they had in the bank — to send us on a collective wild goose chase, pursuing a single-living careerist fantasy that does not, and cannot, deliver?
I get that, to some, these are awful questions to ask. We should ask them anyway.
Back to Andrews, though: She points out, next, that as feminism drove women into the workforce, the New Left abandoned unions in favour of cultural theory and, ultimately, neoliberalism, making it harder for most people to make a living:
As the boutique interests that made up the New Left eclipsed old priorities, the working class began to remember why they had organized politically in the first place: in a straightforward fight with the wealthy, the connected, and the articulate, they were at a decided disadvantage.
If all of that wasn’t enough, there’s another powerful force at work here, too: “From the moment the Pill became widely available, the effect of the sexual revolution has mainly been to make women more sexually available to men,” which, Andrews writes, has led to “the soaring out-of-wedlock birthrate.”
So: If my generation of women, and those that follow, are single parents, struggling to run households on stagnant wages and precarious work, grappling with skyrocketing housing costs and inflation, with neither support nor companionship — and looking for both in a hostile online dating culture skewed to casual sex rather than commitment — is it any wonder that so many are depressed?
Catherine Liu is worth returning to here, quoting from Virtue Hoarders:
In the 1970s, as budding PMC boomers dabbled in ‘Eastern’ religions, privileged self-exploration over tradition, and pursued emotional and sexual experimentation, they looked at the working-class as out-of-touch authoritarians who married for life and lived in traditional two-parent families. Today, after decades of austerity, working-class families and kinship networks are at a breaking point.
All of this may be why I’m skeptical, too, of the glamorization of divorce, a topic that Freya India tackled this week in The Spectator. India points to the example of Adele, who left her partner of 10 years to pursue her own happiness, which, in this case, apparently meant making a divorce album and selling divorce-themed merchandise.
Here is Freya India on that trend:
These days, divorce is seen as just another form of self empowerment. ‘This Valentine’s day, let’s hear it for divorce,’ wrote Vogue in February, while The Guardian recently discussed ‘the joy of divorce parties’, from smashing wedding rings to pummelling heart-shaped piñatas. Elsewhere we hear about the lavish and liberating lifestyles of divorcées: ‘Botox? No, it’s my post-divorce glow,’ declares one headline, followed by ‘far from tragic, we divorcées are going to festivals, travelling with friends and taking on toy boys.’
Divorce must not be seen as a tragedy, it seems; instead it’s a cause for celebration, a much deserved do-over. It’s a harmless and healthy decision that, according to one New York Times essay, is a 'radical act of self love' that can leave ‘the whole family better off’. Its effects on children are downplayed, if discussed at all. ‘I didn’t divorce my husband because I didn’t love him, I divorced my husband because I loved myself more,' asserts the mother of two who penned the New York Times piece.
At this point in my life, I know scores of men and women who’ve been through divorces, which are, let’s be real, soul-crushing ordeals that leave financial and psychological scars — and are unlikely, in any sane human, to inspire piñata parties.
I’d also add that The New York Times essay that India refers to was penned by one Lara Bazelon, a professor at the University of San Francisco law school, and the author of a new book that I do not intend to read, Ambitious Like a Mother: Why Prioritizing Your Career is Good For Your Kids.
While Bazelon gets subjects like the decline of the ACLU right, on family matters she tends to grate. Case in point: She published another piece in The New York Times, “I’ve Picked My Job Over My Kids,” which rationalizes missing her children’s birthdays, vacations, Halloweens, camping trips, and school events in order to work because, at times, her job is simply more important.
To me, this line of thinking does the ideological heavy-lifting not for women like Bazelon, who can presumably afford childcare, but for the neoliberal technocrats who send working-class women to work in droves — who have, in fact, engineered a society in which they can’t not work.
Most women who have kids have no choice but to work full-time, and are in agony, regularly, over having to miss some of these same things that Bazelon mentions. The point here is that the equation women have ended up with in the 21st Century is unsustainable and it isn’t making women, or men, or kids, or families happy. It’s time to rethink it.
At the very least, let’s not slap lipstick on this pig and call it liberation.
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