Saturday, June 13, 2009

A feminist fantasy: a world without fathers

Sara Ruddick is an American feminist philosopher. Back in 1990, she published an essay Thinking about Fathers.

She began by presenting a dismal picture of the role of fathers in family life:

In the official story fathers are necessary ingredients both of childhood and of good-enough mothering ... But the official story cannot conceal the fact that, as Gertrude Stein remarked, "fathers are depressing". Barely known, scarcely knowable, the "absence" of fathers permeates feminist stories ...

If an absent father is depressingly disappointing, a present father can be dangerous to mothers and children ... the father with no time for the double shift may well have time enough to serve as a controlling judge of his children's lives.

So what is to be done? Sara Ruddick presents two feminist responses. The first is to make fathers unnecessary by having children supported instead by the state. This would then make women wholly autonomous:

If putative fathers are absent or perpetually disappearing and actual present fathers are controlling or abusive, who needs a father? ... Most mothers do not choose and cannot afford to raise children alone. But in a state that provided for its children's basic needs, women could raise children together as lesbian co-parents or as part of larger friendship circles or intergenerational households.

Exceptional men who proved particularly responsible and responsive might be invited to contribute to maternal projects - that is to donate, as other mothers do, their cash, labor, and love. [Note that there is no longer a paternal role for men. Men are only to be permitted to contribute to a maternal project.]

... Secure in near-exclusively female enclaves that are governed by ideals of gender justice, women could undertake a politico-spiritual journey in which they (almost all) relinquished heterosexuality though not (necessarily) mothering, overcame their dependence on fathers and fears of fatherlessness, and claimed for themselves personal autonomy.

Sara Ruddick then presents a second option, one in which the average man still plays a role in family life, but as a mother rather than as a father:

Rather than attempting to free mothers from men, they (we) work to transform the institutions of fatherhood. Their (our) reasons are naive and familiar: many men ... prove themselves fully capable of responsible, responsive mothering ... Feminists cannot afford to distance themselves from the many heterosexually active women for whom heterosexual and birthing fantasies are intertwined and who want to share mothering with a sexual partner ... For all these familiar reasons, many feminists, and I among them, envision a world where many more men are more capable of participating fully in the responsibilities and pleasures of mothering.

So Sara Ruddick prefers the second option. She does, though, fantasise about the first:

I only have to open a newspaper, read the testimony of women, listen to students, or (more frequently) remember the father-dominated homes of friends and colleagues to find myself fantasising about a world without fathers.

Well, Sara Ruddick's fantasy didn't really come true. There are no separatist lesbian co-parenting communes.

But in other respects we have moved increasingly toward the ideas set out by Sara Ruddick back in 1990. The state has continued to make it more possible for women to raise children independently of men (via welfare payments, child support, paid maternity leave, subsidised childcare and so on). And the idea has taken hold that a good father is one who does work traditionally done by women. In other words, we have moved toward an assumption that being a good parent means being a good mother.

Just today comes the news that the Labour Party in Britain has appointed as its new chief spokeswoman on families Dr Katherine Rake. She is a feminist who has declared it her aim to "transform the most intimate and private relations between women and men" because "It is only when men are ready to share caring and work responsibilities with women that we will be able to fulfil our true potential to form equal partnerships in which we have respect, autonomy and dignity."

Where do these ideas come from? Why are they influential (apart from the giving up heterosexuality bit)? Well, they fit in with liberal autonomy theory - the idea that the ultimate aim of existence is to be as self-determining and independent as possible.

If you wish to be self-determining, then you won't want distinct gender roles within the family, as these are tied to an unchosen biology. But you will also be particularly hostile to the paternal role, as this is connected to a form of authority within the family that is unchosen and uncontracted. So it makes sense for an autonomist to opt for a single unisex parental role based on the traditional maternal role.

The end result, though, is to deny the importance of a distinct role for men within the family. This is the end point of Sara Ruddick's feminist philosophy - "fantasising about a world without fathers".

Better, I think, to encourage men to carry out their distinct role effectively, wisely and conscientiously - rather than to follow Sarah Ruddick along the paths of modernist philosophy.


  1. This gynocratic utopia cannot be achieved without 'state' subsidization. Communal fantasies are classic socialist propaganda.

    Conservatives can only redress this by dissolving the socialist, absolutist, totalitarian, monolithic government as we know it.

    Common institutions taken for granted today are manifestations of socialist liberal policy. Child car, primary schools, high schools, standing armies, universities, welfare, pensions, family courts, public health care etc. are all socialized subsidized institutions. How many are willing to give them up?

  2. There have been plenty of extremists in the past, and there continue to be extremists in the present, who 'fantasize' about the absence (read: annihilation) of The Other: Nazis (Jews), Islamists (Infidels) and feminists (fathers).

  3. Niko said,

    "Conservatives can only redress this by dissolving the socialist, absolutist, totalitarian, monolithic government as we know it."

    I agree in part, but what is your great plan after Conservatives have done this? If communal fantasies are as you say, “socialist propaganda”, what then is your utopia? How should your ideal society work? Moral Hazard & Nepotism will always be institutions adversary. Balance is easier said than done!

  4. Niko seems like an American paleolibertarian (abolish standing armies etc lol). References to 'communal fantasies' betray a prejudice against any form of collective identity and life; he should be informed that Traditionalists embrace the idea of community. I knew a libertarian once who wanted to abolish the Criminal Law because it was 'socialist.' These people really can get a bit lunar at times...

  5. Traditionalism/conservatism is a vague pie in the sky concept that has no means of explaining itself in that it is an effect not a cause.

    Conservatives latch on to some ambiguous Burkean traditionalism that is based on a superseded order of authority (post feudalism) without addressing the underlying conditions.

    Authority exists in qualitative orders of magnitudes and in an inverse relationship of power to the subject of that authority.

    A superseded order of power cannot compete against the qualitative superseding power (the stone age cannot compete against the bronze age, nor the feudal against the parliamentarian).

    History is the ever progression of the increasing magnitude of qualitative orders of power. Each order of change consumes, diminishes and warps the fabric of lower structures.

    True communality is bottom up not top down. As the state (eventually one world government)assumes more power the very fabric of being human will change.

  6. I read Nikos first two paragraphs and then stoped. This is just another example of how traditionalism is redefined by a detractor to fit the critique. There are so many assumptions there that one hardly knows where to begin.

  7. Kilroy

    I am a traditionalist in every sense of the term, that's why I love this blog. I agree absolutely 110% with Mark Richardson and Lawrence Auster.

    Its just that conservatives don't realize liberalism is the fruit of centralized political and economic control. You cannot eat from that tree and hope to find the fruits of conservatism.

    It doesn't matter how much you destroy the fruit if the tree continues unabated.

  8. Autonomy theory seems to encompass a believe that a subset of people (women, minorities, etc) by white Christian men monopolizing all the autonomy out there. So Ruddick proposes to strip men of their autonomy, by forcing them to conform to her ideal of how they should be. Isn't this just taking turns at being the "oppressor"?

    What really messes up their Utopia is wen women autonomously choose to be submissive to the husbands or put raising children ahead of other concerns.

  9. One question is why so many adopt such transparently self-destructive positions, while proclaiming them to be a triumph of Progress.

  10. Niko,

    It appears that you believe there is either a collection of atomised individuals or a socialist Leviathan. If you were a traditionalist, you would realise that this is a false dichotomy. Traditionalists have no problem with the community; we are communal beings who draw from each other for self esteem and identity. It's also in this space that culture forms. One does not have to support a centralised interventionist State to acknowledge this.

  11. Jaz said,

    "One question is why so many adopt such transparently self-destructive positions, while proclaiming them to be a triumph of Progress."

    Because the grass is always greener on the other side, or you don't know what you have until it's taken.

    I find that many people, even I, tend to see our actual self as our ought self. This distorted self analysis influences self-destructive positions. David Hume was very much aware of this problem before I was a twinkle in my mother's eye.

    Self Experiment: Try not to get angry or upset and avoid phrases like unfair for a 3 months.

  12. Kilroy

    When the state increases in power, it interposes itself between the individual and the community. 'It' becomes the community.

    Why is that in a world with the greatest population density in history there is so little community of yesteryear.

    For example, put in state subsidized child care and education (quasi state motherhood), you loose motherhood and change the nature of traditional families.

  13. Niko,

    I don't disagree with your last comment. My initial reply and subsequent comments concerned your initial entry which was couched in terms that gave a strong impression that you believe in an extreme form of libertarianism.

    The reason why I say 'extreme' is because, judging only from what you've written here, you seem to think that a zero-state community is the conservative utopia. I believe that this is misguided.

    If I have misunderstood you, then please clarify by telling us what legitimate role do you see for government, from your point of view. Please also explain what you think community means.

  14. If Niko wouldn’t have ignored my post then Kilroy wouldn’t have to ask the same question in a different way and you two wouldn’t have gone back and forth like you have.

    My original post to Niko after Kilroy first post:

    I agree in part, but what is your great plan after Conservatives have done this? If communal fantasies are as you say, “socialist propaganda”, what then is your utopia? How should your ideal society work? Moral Hazard & Nepotism will always be institutions adversary. Balance is easier said than done!

  15. No utopia, but as a lesser of evils distributism seems to have its merits.

  16. Niko,

    That's funny, I remember using the phrase “lesser of evils” a few posts ago and I was rebuked by someone saying that there is no such thing as something being inherently evil. But I know what you mean. However, like I said, Moral Hazard & Nepotism will always be institutions adversary. Balance is easier said than done! But of course that doesnt mean we should stop trying. I guess I get a little annoyed when someone sounds like they have a fix all plan or speaks in absolutes.

  17. I prefer subsidiarity to distributism.