In recent months both San Francisco and New York have been the scene of triumphs for the homosexual rights movement’s efforts to legitimate single-sex liaisons. . . . Newsweek‘s Eleanor Clift, appearing on The McLaughlin Group, summed up the cases as evidence that in the 1980’s the American people were redefining the family. The American people? I wonder.
There is no doubt that the family is being redefined by Newsweek, Time, and the network of social service agencies, judges, and media managers who tell us who’s who and what’s what, but I am not at all sure that either as a nation or as individuals, the American people have spoken. In small town and suburban America, alternate lifestyle means a passion for lacrosse instead of hockey, and when two men get together without women it is usually to catch fish or get drunk—preferably both—in peace and quiet.
But while I think it is too early to take alarm over the altered definition of family—people, after all, are going to do what they’re going to do, with or without spousal privileges—it’s a bad sign that we can feel free even to talk about these matters in public. Worse, if we talk about them freely in an old-fashioned spirit of contempt for perversity, we may find ourselves at the wrong end of a local minority rights ordinance. Even Rockford, Illinois (where Chronicles is published), is considering a walk on the wild side with nearby Madison—a city where only minority rights are protected.
My old senator, Sam Ervin of North Carolina, lost his good reputation for bad deeds by warning against this sort of thing. In campaigning against the ERA Sam used to say that equal rights for men and women would mean treating them the same, which would mean that if a woman could marry a man, so could a man. On the other side of the opposition, Phyllis Schlafly was saying that ERA wasn’t necessary, because the states already gave equal rights to men and women. Both sides turned out to be right. We didn’t pass the ERA, and the rights of erotic minorities—transvestites, coprophagites, bestialites, and homosexuals—are to an increasing extent protected by law. How long before we recognize the rights of child molesters along with those of sexually active children? Laugh, if you want to, but 15 years ago they were laughing at Sam Ervin.
Nothing is so futile as lamentations against the decadence of the times. Those who cultivate the root should not complain if the flower stinks. It has been some time since any responsible person publicly rejected such sacred notions as equal pay for equal work or the legal and political emancipation of women. But the underlying assumption of all the feminist legislation of this century—women’s suffrage; liberalized divorce laws; equal, comparable, and affirmative worth; etc.—has been the essential interchangeability of the sexes. We do not, after all, insist on treating dogs and cats the same or on using a screwdriver in place of a hammer. Why should woman equal man or man woman?
What a terrible analogy, you will say. Men and, women are members of the same species. But so are babies and teenagers and your eighty-five-year-old grandfather, and you don’t expect them to do the work of a forty-year-old father of three. Nothing in the experience of our human race would indicate that males and females were equipped by nature to perform the same tasks—so differently distributed are our strengths and weaknesses. History and physiology teach the same cynical lesson: men are built to inflict pain, women to endure it.
Feminists are fond of repeating the cliche that women have always worked and always will. If work is defined as productive labor, then, of course, women have always worked by cooking, cleaning, gardening, weaving, sewing—all the tasks required for running a home and rearing children. In some societies, women even earned income by working either at home or outside, but such work was not supposed to interfere with the primary responsibilities of a wife and mother. Working-class New England girls of the last century took jobs in factories, while farm girls on the prairie often took a turn as schoolmarm, Such activities helped their families make ends meet; they also contributed toward something like a dowry. After marriage, however, it was rare for women to continue to work outside the home.
A glance at the range of activities in which women have engaged reveals that they have not typically gone in for big game hunting or heavy physical labor. They have also not been in direct competition with men for high status positions—political, military, religious, economic, or artistic—within the community. Even in the most egalitarian societies (e.g. Pygmies, Eskimos, the Bushmen of the Kalahari), which no one in his right mind would wish to emulate, there are clearly defined spheres of man’s work and woman’s work, and there is no known society—including the United States of 1989—in which men do not hold a monopoly on power and prestige.
There are examples of simple societies in which mothers club together with older women and younger sisters who collectively share some of the childrearing responsibilities. These arrangements allow the women, including mothers, to engage in more sustained periods of work outside the home. But even in these cases, the mothers are never very far away from their children, who are—in any event—in the care of family and friends. Blood will tell.
The central facts of human life are biological. The need to reproduce enjoins peculiarities upon every species, and man shares with his primate relatives the need for prolonged child care. Human babies are born even less mature than chimpanzees and take even longer to go through all the stages of development. The hardest part of growing up is not physical, but emotional, intellectual, and social. A fully mature man or woman is the noblest work of art produced on earth, and women—who take a large part of the credit—must also bear a disproportionate part of the burden. Paradoxically, it is because human animals are bound to the facts of life less than any other creature that the females of the species have had to specialize their social functions as wives and mothers.
I do not propose to enter into the day-care dispute. All the evidence, and I mean all the evidence, points to a need for maternal care both in the early years and the teen years. But it should not take a team of sociologists and physicians to tell American women what they already know: neglect your children or pay somebody to neglect them and you put your sons and daughters at risk. Some will turn out all right; some won’t, but if they go bad, you will not be able to fall back on the excuse you did your best. Day-care is not even second best. We all know that, but it is inconvenient.
There is no point to getting hysterical; many children have grown up in orphanages or on the streets and turned out splendidly. It’s only a question of the odds. It’s probably safe to drink the water and eat fruit sold on the street in Costa Rica. Still, you never know. What we do know is that we have so heavily invested into the concept of the working woman that it is highly unlikely that we shall see a retreat to Victorian sex roles in the foreseeable future. It will take some sort of economic and political crash, and the rise of some terrifying Savonarola who will make a bonfire of Volvos, CD players, and self-help books. Fortunately for us, our Savonarola won’t have to burn any works of art and literature, because, for the most part, we don’t produce any, and those of us who do are already outsiders in this civilization.
Friends tell me I am too fond of these apocalyptic visions. It’s one thing, they say, to like Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, but quite another to see Blade Runner and Mad Max more than once. (Why else did I get a VCR?) My almost ten-year-old daughter, who has been subjected to some of the milder after-the-end-of-the-world films, sometimes asks if the future will really be that terrible. I resist the impulse of saying, “I don’t know, but I sure hope so,” because no matter how rotten a civilization becomes—and ours is a great deal more rotten than the civilization that sputtered out in the sixth century—it probably beats most of the alternatives.
Still, there are signs of rapid dissolution, for those who have closed their ears to the siren songs of progress and technology and who do not see divorce, suicide, dmg abuse, and sexual violence through the rose-colored glasses of Ben Wattenberg. The worst conditions of social dissolution can be seen on some Indian reservations or in urban housing projects or in displaced tribal societies on the verge of extinction—such as the Ik of Central Africa, described by Colin Turnbull in a famous book. Displaced from their traditional way of life and reduced to a condition of near-starvation, Ik parents can watch impassively as their hungry children roam in predatory bands of scavengers and laugh when one of them meets with serious injury. Even more alarming are the tales of drunkenness, violence, and incest on some Indian reservations, where traditions have collapsed only to be replaced with a funhouse-mirror version of modern consumerism and hedonism. The world of Mad Max seems preferable, and I can appreciate the sentiments of the not-entirely-crazy survivalists who are stockpiling canned foods—and ammunition—in their cellars.
I used to grow a large vegetable patch—corn and tomatoes, beans (Roman flat beans and limas), squash, okra, and lots of greens—but the crop I always figured on living off, when the time came, was turnips. In the North they eat the root and throw away the tops; in the South, they eat the greens and throw away the root (except for flavoring or soup). At home in both places, I eat both parts and could survive on turnips and water for months. My nearest neighbor used to joke that when “civilization as we knew it”—and where we lived, believe me, there wasn’t much of that—collapsed, he would simply send his children over to steal my turnips. “Not if me and my shotgun can prevent them,” I used to warn him.
Well, his sons are mostly grown, but I have two daughters, and what do I hope for them? Short of a general return to sanity—which would mean a religious revival on a mass scale—I will hope that they grow up to be decent women who can lead productive lives in the here and now and find what good there is in a dying civilization. There are still great books to read (some of them may be written in their lifetime), music to hear, food to eat, pictures to look at. There will be still, even among the children of yuppies, good men and women to number among their friends, and if they are fortunate they will find honest men who will bring them “to a house/where all’s accustomed, ceremonious.”
But less and less, I fear, are honest husbands something you can bank on. Younger American males of the middle and upper classes are, in very large numbers, spineless mama’s boys, self-indulgent, lazy, uneducable (because they know there’s nothing worth the effort it takes to learn it), unreliable, and dishonest. After a man has turned 40, he inevitably begins to despise the younger generation, but I feel the same way about my own generation as compared with my father’s and about my father’s compared with my grandfather’s.
To trace the descent, read Walker Percy’s description of the Barrett men in The Last Gentleman, or consider the declension of the film image of American males from such varied stars of the 30’s and 40’s as John Wayne, William Powell, James Stewart, and Humphrey Bogart to the stars of the 50’s and 60’s—a mixed bag that included Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon along with William Holden and Steve McQueen. (It seems almost all the good movies of the period starred older men.) As bad as the 50’s and 60’s were, look at the men of the 80’s: the “Brat Pack” of Young Guns or the archetypal man of the 80’s, the sneery Bruce Willis. Better yet, consider the descent from Sean Connery to Roger Moore to Timothy Dalton, or compare the virility of Robert Mitchum, in his first starring role in Out of the Past, with Jeff Bridges in the remake Against All Odds. (Richard Hobby made the same point last year in Chronicles, but it is worth repeating.)
So for my daughters I shall provide essentially the same opportunities as I am providing my sons. I shall push them, as hard as I can, into some useful profession in which they will be able to combine innocent amusement with honorable service. Preferably, their careers should require real skills, where success can be measured. This excludes most psychology, literary criticism, and secondary school teaching. High on my list is music, archeology, medicine, museum work, archival research, and the sciences. As one leading entomologist explained to me, his career combined the fun of collecting baseball cards with the chance to visit the tropical rain forests of the world.
Such professional careers have several advantages. They are all worth doing for themselves and could provide an outside interest even for a stay-at-home mother. (What would you rather do, work on a Brahms sonata at home or work a shift at Hardees?) They can also be kept up on a part-time basis as their children—and I have explained that having children is not an option but an obligation, or rather the obligation—grow older and can even be resumed, full time, when money is needed to put their kids through college.
That, at any rate, is the very modest hope I have for my daughters: a profession in which they can take a lifelong interest, and a loyal and loving husband from whom they have a right to expect courtesy and financial support. How many women actually receive such support, these days and in the days to come, is another matter. And herein lies the most important reason for the sexist father to educate his daughters. What if she does not marry a husband who takes his responsibilities seriously? What if she ends up with a rich, good-looking lawyer, who dumps her after the third child?
These are terrible things for a father to have to think about, but I suspect they are on the minds of many old-fashioned parents and help to explain the increasing acceptance of working women. As much as I might long for the days when women were women and men were men, the auguries for their return are not favorable. And until the times get so bad that they’re good, old-fashioned fathers will have to learn to live with a certain level of hypocrisy.