Must women "civilize" men?

At the root of the conservative war on contraception is a deep-seated anxiety about the traditional family

Published April 3, 2012 2:30PM (EDT)

Liberals have documented the existence of a bitter Republican campaign against women's health and freedom, but I don't think we've identified its cause or its full intent. It may be hurting Republicans almost as much as it's hurting women: New Gallup poll data released Monday found that Obama leads Romney 51 percent to 42 percent among registered voters in 12 swing states. Last month he trailed the Republican by 2 points. The change is due to a sharp shift among women: Obama now leads Romney among women under the age of 50 by 30 points; that lead was 5 points in February.

Some panicked Republicans insist crafty Democrats are the ones playing the culture wars, but we've debunked that: Democrats didn't make the GOP presidential field back "personhood" laws that would criminalize some forms of birth control. They didn't force the newly elected House GOP to make defunding Planned Parenthood their first legislative goal. And they didn't propose the Blunt Amendment that would have allowed employers to withhold health insurance coverage not only for contraception, but for any treatment they disapproved of — or make every Republican senator vote for it, except the outgoing Olympia Snowe.

But why is this happening now, and not in, say, 2000 or 2008? I got my first hint of what conservatives are up to listening to Rick Santorum early in the presidential campaign. "When the family breaks down, the economy breaks down," he says over and over, and he insists growing "dependency" on government plays a key role in the family's decline. Mitt Romney goes a little lighter on the culture-war stuff, but Saturday in Wisconsin he too sounded the anti-government-dependency theme. "President Obama believes in a government-centered society," Romney said. Not coincidentally, he also railed against Planned Parenthood, and once again promised to defund it.

Paul Ryan likewise attacks "dependency," telling the American Enterprise Institute last week that America is at an “insidious moral tipping point, and I think the president is accelerating this.” Government support, Ryan insists, “lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency, which drains them of their very will and incentive to make the most of their lives. It’s demeaning.”

We're having this debate over issues once considered settled because the right is trying to blame virtually all of the nation's economic and social problems on one cause: the supposedly broken American family. It's their only solution. It's also increasingly clear that shoring up the family, in their view, involves restoring a traditional vision of the family, in which the man is head of the household, and women accept their civilizing role.

The contraception "controversy" jumped out of the 1960s and became a major issue in the 2012 presidential campaign shortly after Charles Murray published his new bestseller, "Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010." Murray didn't put contraception on the agenda, at all, but his book reflected and illuminated the social forces and anxieties behind the new crusade against it. Murray pretends to accept and even applaud the progress we've made toward equality for women. But it's clear that he blames the changes wrought by feminism for some of the problems he identifies in the growing “white lower class.” Murray believes science will soon find:

There are genetic reasons, rooted in the mechanisms of human evolution, why little boys who grow up in neighborhoods without married fathers tend to reach adolescence not socialized to the norms of behavior that they will need to stay out of prison and hold jobs … [Liberals] will have to acknowledge that the traditional family plays a special, indispensable role in human flourishing and that social policy must be based on that truth.

At least one liberal immediately did. The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof found fault with "Coming Apart," but he endorsed Murray's insights about the family:

Liberals sometimes feel that it is narrow-minded to favor traditional marriage. Over time, my reporting on poverty has led me to disagree: Solid marriages have a huge beneficial impact on the lives of the poor (more so than in the lives of the middle class, who have more cushion when things go wrong).

One study of low-income delinquent young men in Boston found that one of the factors that had the greatest impact in turning them away from crime was marrying women they cared about. As Steven Pinker notes in his recent book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”: “The idea that young men are civilized by women and marriage may seem as corny as Kansas in August, but it has become a commonplace of modern criminology.”

I don't care whether it's as corny as Kansas in August; that's a remarkable statement, and I think it deserves more attention. "The idea that young men are civilized by women and marriage" gained currency in the Reagan era, when George Gilder published his screed against feminism, "Sexual Suicide." Gilder argued that men are barbarians unless civilized by marriage, and by demanding sexual and economic freedom, feminists were denying women's crucial civilizing function – and destroying the world as we know it.

Of course the sober Kristof didn't mention the crazy Gilder in his column, but Murray did in his book, approvingly. "Gilder saw disaster looming as women stopped performing this function, a position derided as the worst kind of patriarchal sexism," Murray noted. "But put in less vivid language, the argument is neither implausible nor inflammatory: The responsibilities of marriage induce young men to settle down, focus and get to work … George Gilder was mostly right."

Actually, George Gilder was mostly nuts.

I'm not against marriage, nor are most feminists or liberals. I was happily married for a time, and then I was not.  I have a (mostly) grown daughter, but I never considered myself a single mother, because her father and I raised her together. He somehow stayed "civilized" even after our divorce. It's possible that other women were responsible for that, but I don't think so. I'm pretty sure he did it on his own. I'm open to getting married again, but I haven't gotten around to it.

I put those facts out there to situate myself in what often pretends to be a dispassionate, data-driven debate about "the family." In fact, it's about what we do with our hearts. And bodies. There's a backward view of women, but an even more grim and condescending view of men, at the heart of this latest round in the culture war. I think we need to try to better understand it.

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My moment of real insight into the meaning of the "dependency" argument, and its relationship to the contraception-coverage debate, came in early March, as I debated the issue with former RNC chairman Michael Steele on "Hardball" last month. I tried to explain to Steele that contraception coverage, along with other preventive care for women required by the Affordable Care Act, simply eliminates the steep insurance penalties women have always paid for living in the bodies that perpetuate the human species. Or as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi frequently puts it, Obamacare means that "being a woman is no longer a preexisting condition."

Host Chris Matthews tried to humanize the issue and suggest a way beyond what sometimes seems like a futile boys-against-the-girls divide. That drive to make abstract issues vivid is one of the things I like about Matthews, even when conversations get awkward, as this one quickly did. (I would not express myself in exactly the same terms I did below, given a second chance, but I share my slightly flummoxed answer because it led to Steele's interesting reply. I hope you'll sympathize.)

MATTHEWS: I sometimes think people like to start a battle of the genders, like that women care about birth control, men care about Viagra. They're both in it together. We do like to make love. It's sort of what we do. It's a coming together. It's a nice thing ... So the idea that somehow women are the only ones that care about birth control, how did that start? I mean, that seems so weird.

WALSH: That's what's at the heart of the battle over health care reform ... Basically what President Obama said is, hey, gals, you have been shouldering this all by yourselves for time immemorial. You're the only ones in our society who can have babies. And God bless you. We're going to help you with all the costs that go along with it, because you're keeping our whole species alive and we love you for it.


WALSH: And we're going to equalize this thing right here, right now. And he did that, and these guys went crazy. They went crazy. I don't entirely get what that was about …

STEELE: The problem is that you have effectively absolved the male of any responsibility in the relationship with this woman, whether it's a sexual nature or beyond that. It's not just about giving women access to contraception. It's about the responsible behavior that goes with that access. It's nice for Barack Obama to tell women, I got your back. Here, have a pill.

WALSH: That's not what he's saying.

STEELE: That's what you just described … Men have a responsibility here … when you come together in that fashion, there's a responsibility that kicks in that you just don't want to be absolved because the woman has a pill … It's this other piece that doesn't get talked about in terms of the responsibility of fathers, or potential fathers, in this relationship.

There it was: the notion that when government supports women, it is substituting itself in the role of husband and father. I tried to tell Steele that nothing about a woman having no co-pay for contraception prevents her male partner from being "responsible" once they "come together." I never even got to make the point that women have a lot of the same health issues even if they're not with a male partner. Some of us use the pill for health reasons, some of us use it to plan when to have children, and some of us use it to have sex we enjoy in relationships where there's no thought of creating a family. The way men always have, by the way.

But the fact that I had to skirt the border of explaining how our lady parts work, and what special health needs we have from puberty to post-menopause, seems part of the problem: I don't want to have to do that on national television -- on a political news show. Why are we even having this conversation in 2012?

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Still, I'm grateful to Steele for his honesty in explaining what he thinks this issue is about. The new GOP code word this year is "dependency," and they're afraid of it for a few different reasons. Sen. Jim DeMint says Obama is out to make more Americans dependent in order to insure that they vote Democratic. Steele thinks that if women can depend on Obama to give them a pill (?) they won't rely on men, as fathers and "potential fathers." Santorum has been the most direct in tying government dependency to the decline of the family. In Obama's America, "the family is not there,” Santorum said. “The government is there to provide. It is not the road to success.”

But the civilizing, stabilizing benefits of marriage, as described by Murray and embraced by Santorum, seem to derive not from the partnership or companionship or economic stability marriage can offer. In fact, they only appear to spring from a particular form of marriage – which Murray is pretty honest about identifying as headed by a man. It is the loss of the role of provider that's sapping the work ethic of white lower-class men, Murray argues openly.

A man who is holding down a menial job and thereby supporting a wife and children is doing something authentically important with his life. He should take deep satisfaction from that, and be praised by his community for doing so. If that same man lives under a system that says the children of the woman he sleeps with will be taken care of whether or not he contributes, that status will go away.

Santorum has attacked feminists for their "misogynistic crusade to make working outside the home the only marker of social value and self-respect."

In the view of Murray, Santorum and, to some degree Steele, government dependency frees a woman from being dependent on a man – and that's not good for men. It's as though liberated from the burden of providing for a woman (even just providing contraception!), a man can't be trusted to be responsible, for his children, or even himself.

All of this concern about the independence of women – supposedly facilitated by the possibility of their dependence on government – goes against the grain of global trends. In the developing world, we know that educating women is key to improving the living standards of their communities and their countries. When girls are educated, they postpone motherhood, and when they do have children, their kids are healthier, better educated and their families are more stable. (Nicholas Kristof has written about this; I wonder how he balances the imperative of educating and empowering women with the requirement that they "civilize" men.) The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has found that countries where women have more power are more economically successful.

Interestingly, in this country there seems to be one almost foolproof way to prevent single parenthood (besides contraception): college. Only 6 percent of college-educated single women had children from 2006-2008, according to the National Marriage Project, a pro-marriage think tank housed at the University of Virginia, versus 54 percent of women who didn't graduate from high school and 44 percent of those with high school diplomas. Murray also finds that college-educated women are far less likely to become single moms; college-educated couples are also less likely to get divorced or to have kids who spend time in single-parent homes. If they don't like contraception (the easiest way to help single women avoid having kids), they should at least push college as the solution to too many kids being raised by single moms.

Of course, they don't. In fact, they're doing the opposite: Santorum famously derided Obama as a "snob" for wanting to make college more available, and all the GOP candidates' proposed federal budgets cut funding for Pell Grants and other college support.  So two key ways to cut down on single-parent homes – contraception and college – are off the table for discussion.

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It's hard not to wonder if the entire Republican crusade against contraception (along with its other more familiar objections to women's rights) stems from anxiety about the status of men. Such concern isn't restricted to the right, nor should it be. Hanna Rosin's controversial July 2010 Atlantic article "The End of Men" pointed to women's rising success in universities and the workplace and asked whether "the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men?" The fact is, American women aren't increasingly dependent on government; they're increasingly independent, and supporting themselves. It's men who seem to be falling behind.

Like Murray, Rosin pronounced working-class men the worst off, economically and psychologically, in today's economy; unlike Murray, she traced their troubles not to government liberating women from dependency on men, but to the decline of manufacturing jobs and other decent opportunities for those who didn't go to college. Rosin uncovered the way our gender stereotypes hurt men, too: Of the 15 fastest-growing job categories, 13 disproportionately employ women, and not enough men seem to be clamoring to break down gender barriers and get some of those jobs for themselves.

Rosin was too quick to accept men's reluctance to do "women's work" as bred in the bone and impossible to overcome. Of course, Republicans aren't looking for ways to help men acclimate to the new economy. Instead they propose reversing 50 years of progress, stigmatizing and curbing access to contraception, and convincing Americans that the problems of the struggling working class are due to Democrats who encouraged dependency on government instead of on men – rather than an economy and a political system that's been rearranged in those 50 years to make the rich ever richer.

Do I think the so-called war on women is a conscious effort among Republicans to drive women back into the home, barefoot and pregnant, to shore up men? Mostly I don't think it's that overt or conscious (except for Rick Santorum, and maybe Pat Buchanan, whose "Suicide of a Superpower" warned that abortion and contraception among white women are large factors in the decline of white America). I think it's more a reflection of the fact that they have no answer to the metastasizing problems of the working and middle classes, and they're committed to protecting the prerogatives of the top 1 percent. So even guys like Mitt Romney have joined the ultra-right crusade to blame Democrats for encouraging "dependency" on government rather than on the individual and the family, preferably headed by a man.

Lost in this debate is the extent to which Democrats and reformers helped create the family as we've known it, the one Republicans glorify. There was little concept of childhood before progressives fought to carve it out with child labor laws and universal education. Surging union membership encouraged by pro-labor legislation helped many working-class families rise. The post-World War II social compact contributed to a prosperity that let many middle-class women stay home, if they wanted to; it's the erosion of that social compact, at least as much as feminism, that forced mothers to find jobs, whether they wanted to or not.

Today, there are other ways to shore up the family. If economically successful, college-educated people are more likely to marry and stay married, as Murray and his conservative colleagues agree they are, shouldn't we look for ways to make sure more Americans are economically successful and college-educated? It seems like a win-win, whether our goal is to support marriage or to prevent the continued immiseration of the American working and middle classes, right?

Chris Matthews closed my contraception debate with Michael Steele by saying, "We're all in this together." We are, and we should all admit that social change that manifests in such deeply personal ways is hard. We should be talking honestly about it, but one party is invested in stifling conversation and turning back the clock. Their crusade isn't popular: It's pretty clear Republicans will pay at the polls in November. But we're all paying in the meantime.

By Joan Walsh

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