Sunday, September 7, 2014

Notes on Feminism

Throughout most of my adult life, it has been politically incorrect to say anything negative about feminism. Feminism is a broad topic that covers a long time period and a large geographical area, but I think of it mainly in terms of its second wave in the U.S. during the 1970's. When I was in college in the Midwest during the late 1960's and early 1970's, attitudes were still patriarchal, and even though political activism and sexual liberation were in vogue, men still behaved in what would now be considered a sexist manner, and most women went along with it. For that reason, it was difficult to argue convincingly against the basic concepts of feminism, which had been around at least since Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792.

In my current thinking, equality is one of the few organizing principles that continue to be valid for humans. I think it has a basis in evolutionary biology, and belief in equality can be considered a basic human trait that stems from our predisposition to belong to cooperative groups. If E.O. Wilson is correct, natural selection for humans is based on groups, not individuals or selfish genes. The theory of group selection has its detractors, but I agree with Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, who support Wilson when they say that "in the human species, a pro-social psychology arose by cultural group selection and gene-culture coevolution." This can be construed to make a strong case for equality, while other popular ideas such as democracy or capitalism seem comparatively arbitrary, transient and weak. Democracy is primarily a political system that attempts to enforce equality among conflicting groups. Capitalism is an economic system that is perceived as natural to many people only because it tends to break down society into different groups, allowing one group to feel justified in exploiting another. Earlier, slaveholders exploited slaves, and now corporations exploit workers. In a realized state of equality among all people, neither democracy nor capitalism would be necessary. It could be argued that the remaining world conflicts are related to the difficulty of convincing all people that they belong to the same group.

Although I support feminism to the extent that it advocates equality, it is difficult for me to overlook some of the destructive effects that it has had on my life. I think it helped generate interpersonal chaos in my generation. Previous generations were pressured to marry and remain married, and they usually did. Greater equality for women has allowed more women to enter the workforce and attain economic and social independence without male support and approval. In my experience, many women in the transitional group of the 1970's unconsciously absorbed both the old and new ways while they were growing up. On one hand, they saw their fathers as solid breadwinners who took care of their mothers in an unequal system that bestowed greater authority to males. On the other hand, they thought that they could live independently and make free choices without male interference. The upper-middle-class women with whom I became familiar sometimes developed unrealistic expectations as a result of exposure to both systems. They thought that they could have the security and social prestige accorded to their mothers with the support of their uxorious fathers, while simultaneously disdaining dependence on men.

In the case of my ex-wife, she deeply resented parental pressure to follow their guidelines. She was forced to study nursing under the unstated presumption that she would meet and marry a successful professional and not work. That was the model of her parents' generation. She rebelled and married an unconventional philosophy major, but when it became apparent that this would not lead to socioeconomic status comparable to what her mother had, she got a divorce. Later, when her idealized picture of life as a single mother with two children didn't materialize and her relationship with her daughter deteriorated, she defaulted to a strategy that centered on self-preservation. In her later life she is still single, with no partner and strained relations with her siblings and her daughter.

While feminism corresponded with necessary social changes, on a personal level it was disruptive to my life. I find that many educated American women in my age group retain elements of both pre- and post-feminism ideology, though the two are not compatible. In my opinion, this impedes their ability to have good relationships with men, a problem that was less common among their mothers, who in hindsight often seem happier and far more realistic.


  1. I was at a wedding in Vancouver last weekend. Bride is 6 years younger than I and groom my age, 53. The master of ceremonies was younger I'll say early 40's so it surprised and then dismayed me that his 'go to' patter was that women are always right or men you better let the women think they are always right. I am single, independent and head up a division of 330 staff. In my world I thought this patronizing drivel was sort of over but not so. And to make 1 comment on your article where you surmise women do not seem to have a good relationship with men I am guessing that it is the women in question. I think I have fairly good relationships with men and try to treat them as I am would like to be treated and give the benefit of the doubt of value and interest until proven otherwise. I think other women do this as well.

  2. Probably husbands acting obsequious towards their wives will never go away entirely. I have a couple of friends who are about 63 who still act like that. I don't know many younger people, but my son, who is 31, has a bossy wife. In fact she is very bossy and he automatically does whatever she says. She is from Colombia, where a lot of the educated women have been leaving the country because they think all of the men there are sexist jerks. My daughter, who is 34, has a healthier relationship with her husband, who is from Nepal. How women and men behave in a relationship is affected by how their parents behaved when they were growing up. Some bad patterns may last for several generations even when social norms have changed. But for the most part I don't think most younger couples behave like that now.