Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Locking the gates of the future

Laura Grace Robins has created a little online library focusing on first wave feminism. The most interesting article I've read so far from this collection was penned way back in 1914. The author, Mrs John Martin, did a pretty good job, I think, of explaining why feminism was likely to harm the family.

Why did Mrs Martin think there was an antagonism between feminism and the family? She wrote:

The family is a closely organized, coherent, interdependent group. The basic principle upon which it rests is the mutual dependence of its members. It is founded on the needs of its members for one another. Were it not for these mutual needs the family would not have been formed.

Mrs Martin looks back to the long period of human prehistory in which women nursing their infants relied on men to hunt and to provide food. The woman for her part sought to make the man comfortable on his return, i.e. to create a home.

Interdependency does not restrict or limit us. Instead it is a source of our interest and care toward others:

It is the plant which we tend and water that interests us; it is the canary bird we feed ourselves; it is the baby we nurse and fondle and care for; it is the husband whom we watch over, appreciate, sympathize with, are grateful to, enliven, comfort and cheer; it is the wife whom we toil for, protect, guide, defend, serve and cherish - these are the persons whom we love.

... Love feeds upon the need which others have of us. For the independent and self-sufficient who have no use for us, our affections are not drawn out.

We cannot assume that the family will always stand as a part of nature:

The family is not, as we are prone to think of it, a part of the order of nature. It is purely a human invention, brought forth by the pressure of need and the efforts of men and women to satisfy those needs by mutual services. Nor is it at all unthinkable that the institution of the family might one day be abandoned, for all that would be necessary in order to abolish the family would be to remove the needs which have called it into being.

This is a little overstated. There is a push and pull between different drives and instincts in people which either make for or undermine family formation. Where Mrs Martin is correct is that we cannot assume that the forces for traditional family formation will always prove strongest. If the needs which have connected men and women in the family are removed, then family formation can give way:

It is apparent that the unity of the family arises out of its common needs and mutual services. But when woman has no need of man as breadwinner and he has no need for her as home-maker, and the child has no further need for either of them as nurse, teacher, guide, friend, but finds most of its needs supplied elsewhere by paid experts ... - then the cohesive force of the family dissolves.

If you read family correspondence prior to WWI, what is striking is how close the relationship between brothers and sisters often is. I've often wondered if this is because brothers and sisters were more reliant on each other in those times.

Mrs Martin then notes the existence of social forces in her own time undermining the interdependence of family life. She blames commerce for drawing women into economic competition with men who are supposed to be their providers. Once commerce achieved this, she argues, it was human nature for people to rationalise it as liberation for women.

I think this is the weakest part of Mrs Martin's argument. Commercial interests may well have been interested in women's labour as an economic resource. But the ideal of autonomy didn't merely follow on from modern commerce. It existed in its own right as a core aspect of liberal political philosophy.

Anyway, Mrs Martin does get to the crux of things when she writes,

... the nature of the antagonism between feminism and the family becomes apparent. The keynote of the family is dependence; its very existence depends upon the mutual dependence of its members; the greater their degree of dependence the closer is its integrity.

The keynote of feminism, on the contrary, is independence. The ideal family has no place in it for feminism and feminism finds the family continually an obstacle in its way.

And she goes on to develop this idea in an interesting way. What would happen if women were made independent of men? Mrs Martin sketches out a vision of a more matriarchal type of social arrangement. She notes that even in her own time some of the more radical feminists were demanding the right for women to freely select different fathers for their children:

... extreme or advanced feminism attacks the family's sex unity: demanding for woman "freedom from sex domination" and the right to choose the father (or it may be the fathers) of her children.

Alexandra Kollontai was one such feminist of the period. In one essay Kollontai,

approvingly describes the possibility of maternity now becoming "an aim in itself," distinct from the mother's relations to the child's father. (In this essay and elsewhere, Kollontai only addresses fatherhood in passing as an option interested men could engage in for educational purposes.)

Society hasn't yet reached the point at which this has gone mainstream. But there's been a shift toward it. In the black American family or on English housing estates it's not uncommon for women to have children by different fathers. And the change in attitudes isn't just amongst the poor. When English celebrity Ulrike Jonsson defended her 4x4 family (four children to four different fathers) the comments in the Daily Mail were overwhelmingly in her favour.

Mrs Martin then goes on to describe the marginalisation of men within the family that was likely to occur if men were rendered unnecessary to family life:

Feminism is a process of putting Father out of business; of deposing him from his position of distinction and responsibility in some woman's little world ... Feminism aims to render him superfluous and unnecessary. It is showing woman how she can quite well get along without him and still have everything that she wants - independence, prosperity, the vote, self-support, self-direction, even independent motherhood if she desires it and can afford it.

It is the promise of autonomy (independence, self-support, self-direction), including sexual autonomy (independent motherhood). But the role of men would become limited:

Relieved of all responsibility and distinction  ... man will wander through life ... his final position as time goes on, becoming like that of the drone in the beehive. The work of the hive will have gradually passed into the hands of industrious, self-supporting, spinster workers.

In the completed feminist state the male [will] drag out a subordinate and somewhat surreptitious existence, sneaking in and out of the back door, when sent for like a guilty plumber. He ... now reduced ... to the domestic status of a tomcat.

Mrs Martin doesn't use the term matriarchy, but what she describes is similar to those cultures which have sometimes been called matriarchal (or matrifocal). For instance, the Mosuo culture in China has an upper class which is patriarchal, but a lower class which is matrifocal. In the lower class, there is no marriage as we understand it, but a system in which a man stays the night at a woman's house:

Traditionally, a Mosuo woman or male will initiate interest in a potential partner. If the companion expresses interest, the woman gives the man permission to visit her. Such pairings are generally conducted secretly, so the man walks to her house after dark, spends the night with her, and returns home early the next morning. Mosuo women and men can engage in sexual relations with as many partners they desire.

Even though a pairing may be long term, the man never lives with the woman's family ... Mosuo women continue to live with and be responsible to their own families. There is no sharing of property. Most significantly, when children are born, the father may have little responsibility for his offspring ... the child will be raised in the mother's family, and take on her family name.

This type of marriage practice ... can be initiated at will and ended in the same manner ... Walking marriages ... allow more independence.

The lower class Mosuo men, if chosen, get to sneak in for a night-time tryst. But they don't get to have a distinct role as fathers. As Mrs Martin wrote, they have a "subordinate and somewhat surreptitious existence, sneaking in and out of the back door".

As a result, such men have little interest in accumulating private property to pass on to their progeny - they can't even be sure who their progeny is. So it's not surprising that those cultures most often identified as "matrifocal" (there don't seem to be any truly "matriarchal" cultures) are subsistence economies. Men don't have the high level investment in these cultures to create higher order economies and civilisations.

Mrs Martin was concerned enough in 1914 to believe that the future was at stake:

The future existence of our race depends upon keeping the desire for maternity alive in women. But the final outcome of feminism is inevitably the deadening of this desire by reason of its antagonism to the family ... Woman to-day, for the first time in history, holds in her hands the key to the situation. At her pleasure she may lock or unlock the gates of the future.


  1. The Iroquois had a good system that allowed women to end an unhappy marriage and keep the children she gave life to. Sounds perfect. We should start doing this. Marriage wouldn't be out of business, but bad marriages could be ended!

  2. We're doing it already anonymous. That's the modern marriage laws in a nutshell. It leads to high rates of divorce, a more marginal role for men in society, a higher level of social problems amongst children of single mothers and a higher welfare and tax bill.

    Sounds perfect?

  3. Thanks, Mark, for expanding upon this. I liked what you had to say. This also is my favorite article.

  4. Mr Richardson writes: "If you read family correspondence prior to WWI, what is striking is how close the relationship between brothers and sisters often is. I've often wondered if this is because brothers and sisters were more reliant on each other in those times."

    This is true. Lord Macaulay's letters to his sisters (one of whom died very young) evinced a good deal of emotional closeness. So of course some dirtbag "scholar" at (where else?) that sickest of sick modern academic jokes, Notre Dame "University", has just published a book purporting to demonstrate that Macaulay was incestuous. Yeah, right.

    As for the typical contemporary black American household ... Nothing, in this area, seems to work. The Great Society didn't work. Clinton's cutting-back of welfare payments didn't work.

  5. "The family is not, as we are prone to think of it, a part of the order of nature. It is purely a human invention, brought forth by the pressure of need and the efforts of men and women to satisfy those needs by mutual services. Nor is it at all unthinkable that the institution of the family might one day be abandoned, for all that would be necessary in order to abolish the family would be to remove the needs which have called it into being."

    The family is not a human intervention.It is found in the animal world and the need to form social units based upon interdependence is an integral part of human life.

    Family life has to be based upon a higher moral and spiritual foundation than simply "needs" as this writer states. Like many such writers she equates humans with purely animal drives.

    Needs change throught life. If a man simply needs a home maker, then he can replace his wife at will and likewise if a woman simply needs a financial backer, she can trade up to richer ones as she finds them.

  6. This is an interesting post.

    On Anonymous' comment it seems to me absurd that we should be seriously considering the embracing of the marriage practices of the Iroquois in today's world.

    Our society has "emancipated" itself from tradition and community in the name of individual freedom, which in turn has led us to a "why not" culture where every social norm is up for grabs and the breaking of old prohibitions (such as the prohibition against having children by multiple partners referred to in the post) is not merely possible but socially acceptable or encouraged.

    In such a society we’re left not just with flux and societal indeterminacy but total confusion. A confusion which leaves us to grasp for answers as to how we should live from almost anywhere. Should we get married like the Iroquois? Sure why not lets do it.

  7. Anonymous 12:38 says,

    "The family is not a human intervention. It is found in the animal world and the need to form social units based upon interdependence is an integral part of human life",

    and then criticises the left for "equating humans with purely animal drives".

    Can we not ourselves leave the allusions of us to animals alone? To make them opens the door for the left to make the argument that you criticise. We are not animals and our behaviors and social practices are not the same. The study of the parenting behavior of animals does not lead us to an accurate understanding of our humanity and our institutions.

  8. Interesting read, Mark.

    Of course there were some of the more radical feminists in the 60s/70s who openly advocated women reasserting absolute control over human family life by simply refusing to name the father -- I remember reading one feminist who suggested that every woman should ideally be sleeping with at least two men at once so that she could plausibly claim ignorance as to the biological fatherhood of either of them (this was in an era before the advent of DNA testing, obviously). So the intent to completely obliterate the role of men in family life was there among some of the more radical feminists during the height of the second wave as well.

    We shouldn't be surprised by this at all, really, because it lies at the heart of feminist ideology, whether most feminists suggested things like that or not. Second wave and later feminism is all about liberation from the "patriarchy". And the core institution of "patriarchy" is, of course, fatherhood -- an empowered fatherhood based on the knowledge by the father of his own biological progeny. As long as fatherhood remained a strong institution, supported by both law and social custom, "patriarchy" ensued, because it is through fatherhood that men commit to family life, and invest in themselves, their children and their spouses. As you point out well, in matrifocal societies, the men are generally low-investing types with low ambition and so on. Women have absolute control over children and family life, and as a result, men have no motivation at all, and cultural and economic life stagnate around the level of more or less basic needs and no more.

    We have, in many ways, erected this situation under the current legal regime, albeit through the back door. We haven't abolished marriage per se, as the main institution of the patriarchal order, both because this would have been too radical to be achieved directly, as well as for the fact that it is actually better for women, from the perspective of independence and financial situations and so on, to have the kind of marriage regime we have today rather than no marriage regime at all.

  9. In other words, while the radical feminists understood that fatherhood, which itself is primarily a creature of marriage, needed to be weakened in order to empower women, they realized that this weakening could be done in a more effective way, and in a way that is better for women, by keeping marriage alive de jure but changing the substance of marriage in a way as to make it extremely favorable to women.

    How did this work? The entire regime of no-fault divorce, coupled together with generous child support and the overwhelming presumption of mother custody. By enacting this kind of regime, the productive labor of men is harnessed for the benefit of women and their children without men really being empowered as fathers -- men, in effect, "serve" women as "fathers" at the whim of the mother. If the mother no longer wishes the father to be in the family, she can easily and summarily expel him for no reason, establish sole control over the children, and yet maintain the same access (or rather better access) to the productive labor of the man for years and years. From the female perspective, this is a far superior solution to adopting the practices of Mosuo, for example, because it gives women tremendous power over the lives and economic productivity of men that women in Mosuo culture simply do not have. In other words, the current marital regime in the West is an attempt to "reform" marriage in a way to take it away from being an institution of patriarchy (by, in effect, making the husband/father an employee terminable at the will of his wife, without cause -- the definition of a disempowered state), but yet to avoid the devolution into a Mosuo-type scenario where women lost the real tangible benefits of having male financial resource generation for their benefit, regardless of whether they wish the men in their lives any longer in any way other than the financial. In effect, the relaxation of the marriage rules has led to a best of both worlds for women: absolute control over marriage and children that they did not have under the "patriarchal marriage" regime while maintaining the male obligations of financial support that the patriarchal regime insisted upon -- in other words, retaining the patriarchal regime and its obligations for men, but eradicating any of the restrictions and obligations of that regime on women. The re-crafted marriage regime, therefore, is a hybrid and a win/win for women -- the "best" of the patriarchal regime in terms of holding men to ongoing (sometimes lifetime) obligation coupled together with the "best" of the post-patriarchal female empowerment regime by reducing husbands and fathers to at-will employees, terminable at any time without cause.

    We should make no mistake that this entire marital regime was very, very cleverly crafted. It creates a mother-centric marital model that turns men into subordinates to their wives, legally, due to the way that the marriage laws, neutral though they may be on their face, are routinely applied by the family court system. And it's for precisely this reason that modification of this extremely female-friendly regime is vociferously opposed by the main women's groups. Why would they *not* oppose the reform of a system that is very imbalanced in the favor of women?

  10. The losers under this regime are men and children. The impact on the latter of having women hyper-empowered in this way has been documented in a mountain of studies, yet the women's groups continue to obfuscate and deny and duck and dodge about this, precisely because children are used by women and their political advocates as a moral "shield", as in: "no, we're not acting in the interests of women, but in the interests of children, whereas the men who are saying the system should be changed are just acting in their own selfish self-interest". Because our society tends to link women and children more closely than it does men and children, this argument still generally wins the day, even when the underlying debate about something like shared parenting -- because we as a culture are deeply uncomfortable with "crossing" women when it comes to what they themselves are articulating as being best for children. So, despite the studies that show that this regime harms children, it proceeds apace because many women and certainly most of women's political advocates, want it to continue.

    Perhaps, at the end of the day, the impact that will eventually get attention is the substantial hit society will take from the growing disengagement of men that is being caused, in no small part, by this marital regime. People are starting to discuss the "decline" of men, and the under-performance of boys and so on, yet almost no-one ties that together with the simultaneous decline of fatherhood and the traditional family structure which supported fatherhood as an institution. Instead, we blame men for not adapting, for being lazy, for playing too many video games and so on, instead of realizing that in a culture where fathers are increasingly marginalized and clearly disempowered, the motivation for men to strive is dramatically lowered. No, instead of realizing that, we cheer the fact that more families are becoming dependent on female breadwinners and admire the
    "courage" of single moms by choice and so on ... leading, bit by bit, to a kind of Mosuo-ization of our culture from the bottom up. In the US, this transformation isn't happening in the upper, chattering classes, which is another reason why it is going largely unaddressed. But in the middle and lower classes, marriage is dying quickly, and the men in these classes are falling slowly into oblivion. Right now, a lot of people are celebrating that. But once the social cost of that becomes more palpable and widespread, they won't be. But I also think it will take a long time before society has the courage to admit what the real problem is, and that we will instead go through an even more intense period of male-bashing where we will denigrate our rank and file men for being losers, slackers, lazy underperformers and so on, despite the lack of effect of this approach to the problem.

  11. This ties back exactly to the point I was trying to make on that "compliments for women" thread a while back.

    The form of Marxism known as Feminism has succeeded in raising women as a group to an exalted status in society, through a combination of official victim status and by playing on the emotions of those men who still believe women belong on pedestals.

    It cannot be pointed out too often that historically, societies run as matriarchies don't resist patriarchies very well. They also don't produce much in the way of innovation, or much art for that matter.

    I seriously doubt the Iroquois culture has much to teach anyone in this century about family organization. They didn't last all that long against the British...

  12. "So of course some dirtbag "scholar" at (where else?) that sickest of sick modern academic jokes, Notre Dame "University", has just published a book purporting to demonstrate that Macaulay was incestuous. Yeah, right."

    Trust me, this is nothing compared to what Ivy League schools get up to.

  13. Mr Wolfe, I don't doubt that Ivy League "universities" get up to vile things indeed, but there are two big differences between them and Notre Dame. First, they haven't (so far) given honorary degrees to the Mulatto Messiah Abortionist-in-Chief. Secondly, they don't pretend to be Catholic, which Notre Dame does.

    Of course ND is really about as "Catholic" as Christopher Hitchens is, but it trades on its ostensibly religious status in order to exercise its protection racket (basically saying "Give us more money") over church laity. Since the average lay post-Vatican-II Catholic is as dumb as a box of rocks, he thinks ND's claims to religious stature are legit, and so he sends his own kids to get intellectually pack-raped by ND's resident nihilists.

  14. Re: close relationship between brothers and sisters

    I wonder how much of this has to do with the sex-segregated society of the time? I'm no expert, but I suspect female relatives may have been the closest women in a man's life until he began courting.

    I've heard it said that prior ages once segregated by sex, but we segregate by age. Note how a man looking down on "women's work" is now taboo. Yet looking down on "older generations" is okay, almost expected, even for people with graying hair.