Tuesday, September 27, 2005

When the wheel turns

I left school in the mid-80s expecting to spend a few years of single independence at uni before embarking on a career and marrying.

Was I in for a shock. By the time I was ready to settle down (at about the age of 23) relationships between men and women had changed so radically that marriage seemed an unlikely prospect.

Young middle class women had been brought up to value independence above all else. I was aware of this and thought that I would have to make some compromises to accommodate this within a marriage.

What stunned me was how quickly any notion of compromise was lost. Many of the most attractive girls went "all the way" with their commitment to independence by simply deferring the very idea of marriage and children until some unspecified point in their mid to late 30s.

What is more, there was a kind of feminist triumphalism in the media. It was common to be told that women were now happily independent and self-sufficient and that traditional men were obsolete.

The situation was made more difficult by the personal behaviour of many young women. A lot of young women acted in a coarse, mannish way and chose to date "the wrong sort of guy".

Added to all this, the divorce rate was rising and divorce laws seemed to leave men with little legal protection in a marriage.

The question to be asked is how do men react when put in such a situation? When the normal process of settling down is made so difficult, how do men adapt psychologically?

I believe that many of the men caught in this situation did make a kind of psychological transformation. They found a balance in their relationships with individualistic women, by becoming more individualistic in their own outlook.

They found that now that they weren't expected to take care of women, that their lives were lighter and more "free-floating". They tried to live by the benefits of this, as this was what was now available to them.

They had been forced to become more self-sufficient, and to set their own personal goals, rather than to fulfil goals related to romantic love or family life.

For some men, this meant deferring their own commitment to family and career, for others it meant chasing their own materialistic, lifestyle goals to which their partners were expected to contribute, without making burdensome demands.

Lone women

How have things worked out for my generation now that we've reached our mid-thirties? Not so well, I think.

The first problem is that many women reached their thirties and found that they no longer wanted to do the careerist, single girl lifestyle anymore. They now wanted to marry and have a family.

Unfortunately, they were all too successful in attacking the traditional "family man" ethos when they were in their 20s. Men have gone through a major psychological adaptation away from their protector, provider instincts: it's not easy for men to change back.

And so you get the kind of lament made by Martha Kirkland, in an email to Henry Makow. Martha is a 30-something woman living in New York, who, despite being bright, thin, attractive and funny, finds herself without a partner.

Martha is understandably unimpressed by the fact that many men ask her on the first date how much she earns or whether she has a trust fund. She can't understand "how grace, charm and feminine essences no longer seemingly have a value".

She has observed that "The last thing my men friends want is any woman to be dependent upon them, especially emotionally and secondarily financially."

The conclusion Martha has drawn from this is that it is she and many of her women friends who are "at a relatively young age dinosaurs".

It's interesting for Martha Kirkland to put things this way because it mirrors what traditionally minded men felt in our twenties, rather than our thirties. That back then it was women who did not sufficiently value their "grace, charm and feminine essences"; that it was women who did not want to depend emotionally or financially on a man; and that it was traditional men who found themselves at a young age declared obsolete.

Meaning & identity

So the wheel has turned. It is now women, rather than men, who want to follow their instincts to marry, and who are disoriented by the individualistic values of the opposite sex.

Should men take comfort from this? I don't think so, because as Henry Makow rightly points out in response to Martha Kirkland's email, the situation is hardly ideal for men either.

He writes that:

Feminism lets men "off the hook". We no longer have to take responsibility for families. Instead, we can do as we please. In my case, that meant a search for meaning and identity.

Ironically, I learned that these are rooted in the masculine role feminism allowed me to forego.

In other words, a large part of meaning and identity for men is derived from our masculine role within a family, whether as husbands or fathers. So, even though a genderless, individualistic role might feel lighter and less burdensome, it is less likely to leave a man feeling fulfilled.

Martha Kirkland herself makes another good criticism of the newer, individualistic role for men. She explains that,

I attempt to persuade [these men] that the wildly successful feminist does not become the Dove Girl at home. That they are asking the impossible, a totally womanly creature that is utterly self-sustaining, emotionally, spiritually and financially. I attempt to illustrate how this creature in fact cannot co-exist. Or rather co-exist, in the same female body, mind, spirit.

What Martha is saying here is that a woman who is forced to become emotionally and financially independent is less likely to be attractively feminine at home.

I think this is generally true. A woman with a husband who intelligently protects her from some of the harshness of life, is much more likely to reveal her softer, more vulnerable feminine qualities.

It's not realistic to expect that most women will be ruggedly self-sufficient and softly feminine at the same time: this would be to expect a woman to be contradictory things.

So men ultimately have to choose one thing or the other; fully-natured, heterosexual men are more likely to want feminine women, even if this means taking on the "burden" of a protective role within the family.


I have seen a number of different responses to the situation women now find themselves in.

The relationships columnist for the Melbourne Herald Sun, Toby Green, has for some years now urged men to ignore the feminism of the 80s and 90s and to return to an authentic masculinity.

She has spoken of the treatment of men by feminist women that:

We huffed and puffed and blew your masculinity down. Maybe it was the headiness of the battle, but we got carried away. At some point, we needed to be saved from ourselves ...

Has it not occurred to you that you could not really be as terrible as we keep telling you you are ...

As a mate, I will tell some in-house secrets. Some of us know we are out on a limb and do not know how to tell you without losing face that, although we may not need to be protected (I did not say dominated) and taken care of, we like it. It feels good.

Robyn Riley, another Herald Sun columnist, has taken a different approach to the situation of contemporary women. In a recent column she angrily attacked those men who, in their late 30s, still "don't want to deal with the responsibility of family, housework and career".

She doesn't want to admit that the male attitude is a predictable reaction to an earlier feminist individualism. To the suggestion that the lack of commitment is because "in the 90s, men felt they were repressed" she responds that "If they were, it was only for a decade, for goodness sake."

And she then admits that "What bugs me is that the minute women look like winning some equality, these delinquents start stamping their feet and having tips in their hair and riding around on scooters." (Herald Sun 12/2/04)

And here we have the problem. For an orthodox liberal feminist like Robyn Riley "equality" means female independence. This is because liberals believe that we should be autonomous, in the sense of being created by our own individual reason or will.

It would be very hard for an orthodox liberal to admit that we need someone else to help us to fulfil our lives. And so Robyn Riley is committed to the idea that women should be independent, and that men should do whatever is required to uphold this kind of female individualism.

There's little room here for understanding real world psychology, including how men are likely to psychologically adapt to the presence of feminist women. It is just the imposition of ideology onto one area of life which is intensely personal and instinctive.

The angry, feminist, anti-male approach of Robyn Riley is unlikely to convince a new generation of men to recommit to family life. The more sophisticated approach of Toby Green, which is able to recognise gender difference, and which allows a natural interdependence of men and women, is much more likely to allow men and women to reestablish healthy relationships.

(First published at Conservative Central 14/02/2004)

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