Monday, March 11, 2013

The splitting of young women in a liberal society

There's an article in The Atlantic (hat tip: Laura Wood) which supports an argument I've often made at this site.

It's by a psychotherapist and sociologist, Leslie Bell, who writes on the issue of young women and relationships. What she has found is that upper middle-class women in their 20s are conflicted about having relationships with men.

On the one hand, these young women have been brought up to believe that they should be "liberated" in the liberal sense to lead autonomous, independent, self-reliant lives. On the other hand, they feel a feminine desire to have a relationship with a man in which they show vulnerability and need.

The two aims conflict and therefore many upper middle-class women in their 20s feel guilty or anxious about their desire for a relationship. They feel split between what they feel they should want as liberated women and what they desire in their personal lives. They resolve this conundrum, according to Leslie Bell, by "splitting" the two aspects of their lives and by denigrating romantic relationships.

From the article:
Laura Hamilton and Elizabeth Armstrong, sociologists at University of California, Merced and the University of Michigan studied relationship patterns among upper-middle-class female college students, and they discovered that these women believed relational commitments were supposed to take a backseat to self-development...Hamilton and Armstrong found that young women often sought protection from relationships that could "derail their ambition."

Like Hamilton and Armstrong's respondents, many young and aspiring women with whom I spoke felt as though it were counterproductive to their development to prioritize a relationship with a man...

Confused about freedom and desire, young women often split their social and psychological options—independence, strength, safety, control, and career versus connection, vulnerability, need, desire, and relationships—into mutually exclusive possibilities in life. Romantic relationships then often become something to be avoided and denigrated rather than embraced.

It's no wonder that splitting is often young women's preferred method to make sense of the dizzying array of freedoms before them. A group of people trying to be autonomous and successful at work, and to have love and sex lives in which they express their vulnerability, need, and desire, is groundbreaking and historically unprecedented. Splitting may serve to ease their anxiety temporarily, but only until the desire for a relationship becomes impossible to ignore.
I don't see a way out of this for liberals. If autonomy really is the path to liberation, then women are likely to deprioritise relationships with men. And if relationships are downgraded, then women won't seek to develop the qualities that might make relationships successful (they might not even be aware that they need to develop such qualities).

The traditional path is for both men and women to seek to develop from young adulthood onwards the qualities that will help them to marry well and then to be successful and effective husbands and wives and fathers and mothers. Because these qualities are at the heart of who we are as men and women, this is more truly a means to self-development than a more narrow focus on developing career skills.


  1. I see this everyday in my life. Most of the women around me are aspiring professionals or are professionals - mid-20's to late 20's.

    They seem to be very conflicted, as this article states. They feel guilty if they do not pursue relationships with men, but they also seem guilty if they do not advance in their job.

    I see two glaring problems in their lives.

    First, are the men they pursue. Often times, I see women pursuing men who have no ability (married) or desire (eternal bachelor) to get married/have children. A sense I get is some women pursue these men as a convenient excuse to explain their singlehood to others. However, another sense I get is these women are seeking an identity to merge with/build with men. Instead of becoming a wife and a mother, it becomes forming a power couple. A US example is Bill Clinton, who clearly married Hilary for political reasons - to show off to feminists in the Democratic Party. I sense Hilary thought they would become a power couple - which they did - but one devoid of love and real companionship. A woman’s economic, social or political doesn’t matter all that much to men – but it certainly does for a man’s image, so women who do get married in the “power couple” strata often are often deeply disappointed.

    Second, is the advice they seek and get. It probably is beyond the scope of the readership of this blog, but a great observation about female dating advice comes from Tariq Nasheed, who noted that the reason many women are single, lonely or unsuccessful with men is because they listen to women who don’t know how to or can’t keep men interested in them . Women get presented all sorts of awful advice about men, dating and marriage from many angles.

    It can’t even count how many times I have heard absurd and patently false statements about dating relayed between women, and sometimes men to women. I won’t belabor the point – but it is unnerving and unsettling how much disinformation women are given.

    Final point – I took a feminist class in law school, and we discussed romantic relationships in one class. The one article that stands out in my memory involved who did and did not get married amongst the professional classes in US. It was plainly obvious that every woman in the class was geared up for this discussion and began explaining their own stories and their own apprehensions.

    Their apprehensions revolved around settling in the 30’s, because the stories relayed in the article all involved women involved with senior partners at their firm, corporation, or governmental entity. It was clear that autonomy was the value they strove for, and every other good/value was suborned to that. It seemed more like they wanted to prove that to one another, because they seemed very lonely and unsure of the future - but needed to prove they were independent.

    To me, it was sad. They shouldn't have to justify their desire for marriage and children to each other, but it was revealing that it was the only session the whole semester that engaged every woman – and to a significant degree.

    By the way – I love the blog and have been reading for a couple years – I am unsure if I have commented before.

  2. FL, thanks.

    I was particularly interested in your observation that:

    another sense I get is these women are seeking an identity to merge with/build with men. Instead of becoming a wife and a mother, it becomes forming a power couple.

    I hadn't considered that motivation before, but it makes sense for a woman to look to this if she is no longer primarily focused on family.

  3. This was what it was like for me in college and law school 20-25 years ago, so it isn't particularly new. There were some couples formed that ended in marriages, but overwhelmingly people avoided "serious" relationships because they did not want to be "tied down" and "limited" in terms of where/how they started their career path. Lots of relationships ended in the last three months of my senior year in college for this reason. Law school was the same, but actually worse -- again a few pairings happened but overwhelmingly it was people not wanting to be limited geographically/career-wise at the start of the career so avoiding relationships.

    That attitude continues for some into the the 30s. For most of the women who were my peers, they started to "look" for a marriage partner in the late 20s, but not before then. The time before then was dedicated to resume building, and relationships were seen as a potential problem for that. It's not that the women didn't have relationships -- they did. But they avoided "getting too serious", and kept things very "light, casual and fun" because they were worried that if they did not it would negatively impact the resume building period.

    I'm not sure how we can change that given that almost all parents of middle class and upper middle class girls want their daughters to do precisely that. Parents as well are telling their daughters not to get involved in a serious relationship until the late 20s pretty much across the board.

  4. Brendan writes: "I'm not sure how we can change that given that almost all parents of middle class and upper middle class girls want their daughters to do precisely that. Parents as well are telling their daughters not to get involved in a serious relationship until the late 20s pretty much across the board."

    Perhaps the parents in question should try spouting this idiotic philosophy in the presence of young male Muslims ...

    In countries like Australia, cursed as they are with a large and expanding Islamic contingent (much more so than, say, the USA), real conservatives should be stressing again and again to young women the fact that if the latter will not accept having children by Christian husbands, they had better accept having children by Muslim rapists instead. And see how they like that. Peter Costello, for all his career's follies, did get one thing right: he realised that "demography is destiny".