An Indictment of Choice
Enemies of Eros, by Maggie Gallagher, Chicago: Bonus Books, 283 pages, $18.85
Maggie Gallagher has written a post-feminist polemic that illuminates the shortcomings of the sexual revolution, the problem of motherhood's low social status, and the repressiveness of the new cultural androgyny.
Gallagher claims that the women's movement has oppressed women more than liberated them. The sexual revolution, she says, is killing the family, marriage, and sex. The choices made possible by feminism have given men more opportunity to take advantage of women. Women have traded a vital security for an empty freedom.
Although Gallagher's critique includes important insights, she overstates her case, ignoring the real benefits of the women's movement. Moreover, she blames women's current problems on the evils of choice itself, rather than the failure to choose wisely. The danger of too much freedom is a persistent theme of her book.
Here's how Gallagher sees the progress women have made during the last 20 years: "Women are more likely to be abandoned by their husbands, to have to raise their children alone, to slip into poverty and to experience all the consequent degradations.…Domestic violence is on the rise. So is sexual abuse of children while the sexual abuse of women has become the social norm.…Women today work longer and harder than their mothers did and, under stress, are more likely to collapse in nervous breakdowns. Fewer women can find suitable marriage partners and many who do marry will never have the children for which they long."
Gallagher believes that women were better off before the developments of the past few decades, that they have had to sacrifice a lot to get some choices, and it was not a worthwhile trade. But do we really want to give up the gains that women have won?
Before the women's movement, women basically had no choice but to stay home and raise their children. Now they have professional options, which are important to almost every woman. Women are having fewer children and living longer, so they have more years, even after they have raised their children, to take advantage of the new opportunities. Tragically, as Gallagher notes, the expansion of career options has been accompanied by a devaluation of women's contributions to their homes and the sacrifices some make for their families.
Essentially, Gallagher figures, choice is the malefactor; women are the victims; men are the beneficiaries. "Choice sanctifies every pain," she writes early on. "Choice explains all suffering. Choice is the wand which magically produces justice in personal relationships. And choice, or the exaltation of choice as the highest human good, is the excuse society has given for institutionalizing the degradation of women."
Statements like these are enough to make any self-respecting libertarian's skin crawl. But Gallagher is no statist, and what's most disturbing is that some of what she says is true. No doubt, Gallagher has a huge chip on her shoulder, and understandably so. As the reader discovers, she had a child at 22, and the father seems to have had little interest in her or the child. She says she lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her 6-year-old son, and the reader concludes that she hasn't received much financial aid from the father. It seems she considers herself a victim of choice.
Gallagher challenges her readers to look at how things have changed for both men and women during the past 40 years. These days men have more sexual opportunities than men decades ago could have imagined. With no-fault divorce, they can easily exit from marriage. They are no longer the sole supporters of their families. Yet they are not expected to do housework or take time off when their children are born. They don't assume equal responsibility for the children. For men, the women's movement has provided all kinds of benefits and imposed no obligations.
Even women who believe that they have happy marriages are not secure, since every married woman is dependent on one man's willingness to shoulder his moral obligations. And if one day he should decide to run off with the secretary in the accounting department, there it all goes. He can bail out any time, no questions asked.
"Today," Gallagher writes, "every woman with children is only a divorce away from welfare, and divorce can happen at any time for any reason or no reason at all." For women and children, the consequences are dramatic. Single mothers are six times more likely than married mothers to fall below the poverty line, and 54 percent of all single mothers live in poverty.
But while Gallagher's description of the situation is accurate, her analysis is faulty. Choice is not the problem; it is, however, an important part of the solution. True freedom for women includes the right to enter into contracts that impose enforceable legal obligations on men. Women should take advantage of that option, rather than leave the requirements of the marriage arrangement to be decided by the courts.
In the absence of an explicit contract, no-fault divorce laws dictate that marriages will end with no assignment of blame. This legal assumption has paved the way for more divorces. Before no-fault, there was a social sanction against divorce. With no-fault, divorce became easier and therefore more common and acceptable; marriage was no longer binding.
Moreover, the repeal of community property laws in most states has resulted in divorce settlements less favorable to women. This trend has been reinforced by the judicial assumption that women are now as capable of earning a living as men. Socially, we need more obstacles to deter partners from getting out when the going gets tough, especially when the couple has children. Legally, we need marriage contracts that offer women insurance against divorce.
Child support also requires a stronger contract to ensure that men will fulfill their obligations as fathers. As it is now, deadbeats can neglect their financial responsibilities without fear of social stigma and, in some cases, without legal repercussions. When a man becomes a father, he has a lifelong responsibility to that child. Even if he feels unattached, he should be bound legally to support his offspring. Every father has an implied contract to support his child, and it should be enforced with the same diligence as, say, traffic laws. Or perhaps states should follow Wisconsin's lead and simply deduct child-support payments from the father's paycheck.
But Gallagher's critique extends beyond the legal realm. "The plain fact," she writes about what she calls the new man shortage, "is that, as a group, men today are much less involved with their children than their fathers. There is a New Man, but he doesn't act like Dustin Hoffman. He lives with women and off women's salary. He refuses to marry and settle down. If he does marry and have children, he won't see any more of them than his father did. If he is single or divorced, he will probably abandon his children."
Clearly, Gallagher's writing and her perspective are colored by her bitterness. While some men may be less involved, there is evidence that many are trying to be better fathers. While it's difficult to generalize, some who watch these trends say they have noticed improvements in men's attitudes toward their families. For example, Ellen Galinsky, a co-founder of Families and Work Institute, says that men and women now have the same complaint—that they simply don't have enough time with their kids. She says that when she first started surveying men on this subject some years ago, the ones who talked about their long hours usually complained about their wives' complaints.
But Gallagher is really pressing a larger issue: What has the women's movement brought women? The irony of the movement is that the value of what women do must now be confirmed in the male world. Consequently, those women who simply want a career have found the advances of the women's movement exhilarating. But the movement has been devastating to the family-centered woman. Motherhood has been devalued, and the status and well-being of children have declined accordingly.
"Children have been demoted from a public good to a private pleasure," Gallagher writes. "In the process, women's work has been transformed into a play activity, a hobby, like collecting model trains.…Kids are supposed to be weird objects of gratification to parents, a bothersome nuisance to everyone else. You prefer to spend your money on your (noisy, smelly) kids. Me? I prefer a Ferrari."
Gallagher points out that there's a lot the women's movement didn't teach us. She takes a hard-eyed look at sexuality, illustrating how feminism has tried to remake men more than women. And, of course, men never wanted to be remade. Meanwhile, women refuse to see men for what they really are.
Gallagher tells the story of 90 male power players, including two reporters for the Washington Post, who gathered for a stag party. There, a naked girl jumped out of a cake, and the men slathered her with whipped cream and then cleaned her off with their tongues. Hearing about the incident afterward, women reporters at the Washington Post were shocked, Gallagher says, because "men were behaving like men when they had promised to behave like people. And they did that in public."
She continues: "If sex in the sense of gender is merely a product of stereotyped ideas about men and women, then a commitment to sexual equality ought to change our sexual natures, to remake men into something better, higher, less frightening: into people. The really shocking thing about the whip cream incident is that it hints that sexual nature may not be merely a matter of ideology and as such amenable to social control."
Anyone who has been the mother of sons is convinced that sexual nature is certainly not a matter of ideology. Some women, including Gallagher, seem to think of themselves as somehow more civilized than men and therefore superior to them. Women are certainly different, but not necessarily better. And while some might like their men to be more sensitive and nurturing, eradicating the basic differences would also diminish the attraction between the sexes.
Gallagher has written a provocative and intriguing book that deserves as much attention as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. She has shown the superficiality of the women's movement and addressed those issues which feminism tries to ignore—the true nature of men, the importance of children to a woman's sense of well-being, the value of motherhood.
But her attack on choice is misguided and dangerous. Choice is her gimmick, her all-purpose villain, which she plugs in at every opportunity. She has found a convenient formula to cure societal ills: Get rid of choices. It's a solution that's neither feasible nor desirable. Rather than surrender our choices, we must create a social and legal structure that upholds them.
Fern Schumer Chapman is a freelance writer in Evanston, Illinois.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "An Indictment of Choice".