Saturday, July 15, 2006

The 7UP girls as feminist success stories?

Why is feminism such a damaging theory? As evidence consider an article penned by Jane Caro, a 48-year-old Sydneysider. Writing about the British 7UP documentary series, in which a group of 14 Britons has been interviewed every seven years beginning in 1963, she asks why there are only 4 women in the group. Her answer is:

Because in 1963, it was assumed that anything interesting would happen to men, girls would simply grow up to be wives and mothers … Yet 1963 was literally on the threshold of possibly the greatest social revolution in the history of the modern world: the remarkable and rapid change in the status and destiny of women.

Straight away we get to the basic problem: the idea that being a wife and mother is an inferior and uninteresting status and destiny for women. We are supposed to believe that a woman working in an office for a boss has a higher status and a more rewarding life than a woman who marries and raises a family.

Most women, even careerist women, don’t really see it this way. Most nominate their motherhood role as being the most important thing in their lives. So why does Jane Caro assert the opposite?

Here we get to the liberalism on which feminism is built. The liberal idea is that we are more human when we choose who we are – when we shape our own destiny. But this puts women in a difficult position, as the motherhood role has a lot to do with unchosen biology and longstanding convention. It is difficult to justify the motherhood role in terms of liberalism.

And so Jane Caro contrasts the ‘constancy’ of the motherhood role with new lifestyle choices available to women after 1963. She writes of the motherhood role:

this had been the constant way of things for at least 2,000 years. It was so unremarkable as to be assumed to be immutable, unchangeable, something that could be utterly relied on.

This is in contrast to the situation after 1963 in which,

For the first time in recorded history, women began to have choices about the kind of life they would live.

So, motherhood gets a bad rap as it’s so conventional that it was once considered immutable or unchangeable. Better to have “choices” asserts Jane Caro. But what are these choices? If I begin again with the last quote, we get a clear answer:

For the first time in recorded history, women began to have choices about the kind of life they would live. Indeed, Apted’s four girls, particularly those from working class backgrounds have demonstrated precisely that. One has had a high-powered career and in the last film had chosen to become a single mother; another is a single parent due to divorce and the third, who runs a mobile community library for children, has not had children at all. The upper class girl, after a startling adolescence, has lived a more conventional life, revolving around marriage and full-time motherhood.

Without doubt, the increase in the choices women have about the shape their lives will take has been exhilarating, exciting and not before time.

Jane Caro thinks it is “exhilarating” and “exciting” that the three working-class women have failed to marry and have children. For her, being divorced or childless or opting for single-motherhood represents something positive, because it provides “choice” through which women can shape their lives.

Again, this is an artificially ideological view. Most of us grow up wanting to marry successfully and have children. It is not the choice to be a single parent or a divorcee we hanker after. Jane Caro herself is no exception to this. She writes elsewhere the following about her own youthful dreams:

As for my personal life, as well as wanting a career, I also wanted a family. I knew that a career on its own would be a lonely life. To only have a family would be better than to only have a career, but I wanted it all – a whole career and a whole family. I married when I was twenty-seven and at twenty-nine, right on schedule (so-called), the biological clock ticked … I took five years off to raise my children. I never considered I would go back to advertising.

What Jane Caro wanted most of all was a husband and children - "a whole family" - and she got them. But when writing articles, she doesn’t draw on her own personal experiences, but on the logic of her political views (strange considering the feminist motto that “the personal is the political”). Instead of wanting to create the conditions in which people can marry and raise children successfully, she celebrates instead the decline of traditional family life as opening up “choice” for women – the choice to be unconventional by being divorced, or childless or a single mother.

Then we get another souring consequence of feminist politics. In describing the progress made by women after 1963 in gaining choice, she writes approvingly that:

They began to dress, drive, work, earn, talk, smoke, drink and behave like men.

That this change in behaviour occurred is true to a degree. But is it a positive thing? In terms of liberal theory, and feminist theory, it might seem to be a good thing. After all, we don’t get to choose which sex we are, so for a woman to behave in a feminine way might seem to be overly conventional, or a merely “biological destiny”. In terms of theory, therefore, acting like a man might appear to make a woman have more choice or more control over her destiny.

But in real life acting against gender doesn’t work so well. It turns us against our own instincts and our own identity, and it disappoints our heterosexual interest in the opposite sex.

In fact, it’s interesting that feminists like Jane Caro usually pragmatically ditch such ideas in their own personal lives. This is what she writes (in a separate article) about her own efforts to appear attractively female:

As I approach 50, I am occasionally asked if I would ever consider getting “work” done: “work” being the current euphemism for plastic surgery (and, yes, I do feel vaguely insulted). But even if we wouldn’t resort to such extremes, most of us still spend a small fortune on expensive face creams we know don’t work and spend hours and hundreds of dollars at the hairdressers and the beauticians. We’re all going to pilates or yoga or spin classes. We say for our health, but we really mean our shape.

Most of the women I know regard buying a swimming costume as one of the most painful experiences in life. Exquisitely beautiful young women of my acquaintance complain about their (invisible) flaws. And I am, and always have been, one of the worst ... In the West, an entire gender, while claiming to be newly liberated, has never been more neurotic about the way they look.

Jane Caro, therefore, is not at all willing to sacrifice her own desirability as a woman by dressing or behaving like a man. She leaves this to the less pragmatic or more gullible of the feminist cohort.

Finally, by making “choice” (shaping one’s own destiny) the key aspect in our humanity, feminists set men and women against each other. We get a kind of permanent gender war. Why?

If getting to enact my will is what matters, then the key thing is that I have the power to do so. In particular, I need to have power over other people, so that it is my will which triumphs and not theirs. This means that in relationships, in families and in the wider society, it has to be either men who get this power as a group or women.

That’s why there is such a triumphalist tone in Jane Caro’s article. She asserts that it is women now who have power at the expense of men rather than vice-versa, and that men will just have to learn to live with their now inferior status. As a sampler of this, consider her claims that,

Society remains fundamentally uncomfortable with the public and private power their ability to make choices has given women ... Perhaps it is the nature of choice that when one group gains more of it, another group loses some ...

It is also understandable that many men feel as if they have lost choice and power. That they are the new “women” if you like, who have no choice but to trail along in the turbulent wake of their womenfolk ...

Is this really what relationships are about? I expect that if we really believed this, most of us would stay single. Who wants to compete for power as the central aspect of a personal relationship?

But the Jane Caro view is another ideological distortion. What makes us human is not our capacity to enforce our will on others, thereby gaining choices to construct our life path. If we drop this ideological view, then a more attractive vision of personal relationships emerges.

What if part of our humanity is our instinct toward romantic love, and marital love, and maternal and paternal love? If true, men and women would not be competitors, but would fulfil each others’ most important needs. It would no longer be “power” over the opposite sex we would be seeking, but rather qualities inspiring love and trust.

In summary, the idea that what matters is “choice” leads to some unwelcome conclusions, namely that motherhood is inferior to careers; that a stable family life is inferior to divorce, single motherhood or childlessness; that it is progressive for women to dress like men and behave like men; and that the struggle for power is central to relationships between men and women.

The smarter, more pragmatic feminists don’t really act according to such theory, even if they seek to persuade others to do so.

It would be smart for us to drop the theory altogether. This doesn’t mean, of course, that choice itself is inherently bad, but rather that it is not what defines our humanity. It shouldn’t be made the arch organising principle of life, thereby undermining important things we receive as a longstanding tradition or as an aspect of our unchosen nature.

Isn’t it more intelligent of us to maximise choice in contexts where this is of most benefit to us, rather than to apply it everywhere like an ideological axe, not caring what we cut away in the process?


  1. "In feminist terms; men & women (apart from their biological plumbing) are identical, and their differences are only socially constructed"

    Gender is absolutley a social construction, and it starts from the moment a baby is born. That isn't to say that there are not differences between the sexes (which "feminists" acknowledge), but that the catagories of 'Man' and 'Woman' are not inherent genetic absolutes, but social creations.

    bobby n, you probably don't remember, but as soon as you came into this world, the process of making you a "man" started. You got a name, clothing, and colours assigned to you which marked your gender. People talked to you in a certain way, you were given toys for your gender and careers to aspire to. Yes, some things are instinctive ("I like the yellow bear, not the red ball), but do you really believe that the way you where taught to act or not to (Girls are allowed to cry, but big boys don't cry), that led to you being a "man" is not part of the social conditioning which every society sees as natural. 'It's just the way things are', because we make them that way, not by divine providence.

  2. Anonymous, the differences between men and women are at least partially hardwired. We know now that men get an "androgen bath" whilst still in the womb and we know, too, that there are a range of differences in the physical structure of the brains of men and women.

    Yes, social conditioning exists also, but this is to help direct a pre-existing masculinity and femininity, not to create such categories.

    Anyway, you are only proving Bobby N's point. What kind of heterosexual wants to "disprove" the existence of gender difference? Why would a woman try to encourage men to be less admirably masculine? Why would a man try to encourage women to be less attractively feminine?

    I'm not sure that those arguing for a gender-neutral society have thought through the consequences of what they are promoting.

  3. anonymous,

    Sorry for sounding vulgar, but is a c**t a social construct?

  4. I wrote a reply to Jane Caro's article at the original site. It doesn't cover all angles but it makes a few important points, so I've posted it below:

    Jane, you are providing a whole lot of excuses for people to behave badly. “I am making my own life”, says the man who trades in his loyal wife for a youthful secretary. “This is my journey to discover myself,” says the woman who leaves her husband, depriving a girl of her father and another woman of her grandchildren. “My choices should not be limited”, say the increasing number of Western men supporting the idea of polygamy.

    It’s not good enough to have a random exercise of choice. There has to be some encouragement for us to choose what is right, both in a moral sense and in terms of upholding the framework of a functioning civilisation.

    Your idea, that men have always had a freedom of choice denied to women, is a dangerous one. It makes you unaware of what might happen if the average man really began to believe in the “choice theory” you are promoting.

    It takes a great deal to produce a man who will discipline himself to be monogamous and to work steadily for his family for 30 or more years. These are not choices most men will make randomly. If we do it, it’s because we think it’s the right thing to do, and the best way to contribute to a civilisation we identify with.

    If men really believed that they should instead allow themselves the maximum freedom to choose – and that this is what made them responsible adults – then I doubt if society would last a single generation.

    Why wouldn’t a man then give up an arduous career in order to pursue a hobby? Why wouldn’t he indulge his instinct for sexual variety by taking a mistress? Why would he risk his safety to defend his country in time of war? Why wouldn’t he drift in and out of the life of his children according to his own preferences?

    We are fortunate that a sufficient number of men continue to reject an individualistic emphasis on choice, but act stubbornly instead according to a notion of right behaviour.