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February 18, 2006

Feminism, Evolutionary Biology & The Cellphone Shopper

Over at Booker Rising I read an interesting bit of speculation as to whether or not women select for patriarchy in contemporary American society. The answer is, only hot women do.

You know the saying. Good girls go to heaven and bad girls go anywhere they like. It's true in our society but only near the top and the bottom. That's because in the middle, life is so easy. Why indeed would a women choose a dominant male if all of her needs could be met by a sensitive new age guy with a 75,000 salary?

I've tried to critique feminism in the contexts of evolutionary biology, conservative philosophy and cultural traditions but I never seem to get a handle on the whole thing. It only comes through to me in short examples that make perfect sense. For example, most guys (and speaking for myself, definitely me) feel quite manly going to Home Depot to buy some lumber or power tools in order to build something for the house. You know it's a job for a man and you know that you're doing the provider thing. It feels like hunting and gathering. You get home, you sweat, curse and build the damn thing and when it's done the family marvels and hands you a beer. Manly. On the other hand there is nothing quite so un-manly as the poor schlub in the supermarket being told to get some radicchio by his wife over the cellphone.

Another element of suburban life that leaves me gobsmacked is seeing Mercedes sedans parked in the handicapped zone. If our lifestyle can be so comfortable as to give essentially crippled people 300 horsepower chariots, then we are really flipping evolutionary biology on its head - at least while the oil lasts.

And so while we have crafted out an economy of rewards where women can do most everything men can do, is it any wonder that both women and men are more highly sexualized than ever before? The great failure of feminism is that it doesn't really tell women what to do with all that 'freedom' and 'equality'. It hasn't really created a new woman, merely women who do what men used to do, which is make enough money and have enough mobility in society to take care of themselves. Feminism hasn't changed how women actually raise children when they do, it suggests that child-rearing is just an arbitrary selection among many. The revolution is in contraception, fertility and virility drugs, but feminism doesn't adequately modify our understanding to prescribe what to do with all that. What works? Still the same old basic drives. Women want to be hot, men want hot women. Women want to be wanted by men who can get hot women (as opposed to men who want hot women but don't stand a chance). This is as it ever was, except that it has accellerated in this country to levels of public obsession and obscenity.

Of course I have no problem with the idea that women should have money and mobility. The question is whether the amount of money and mobility should overturn patriarchy. Should a woman be the breadwinner in a married family? Should she wear the pants and let the dad raise the children? I think that in a society as wealthy as ours with a white collar middle-class so full of cellphone shoppers that the inverted model could be stable. But it certainly could not and should not upset the norm. I worry about a suburbia filled with single women and small dogs.

I have no real conclusion here. The territory to cover is vast. I'm merely observing that a certain amount of middleclass cushion is taking us into an area where our entire lives can be led by fashion, wrecked and even recovered by yet another fashion. This is not what we have evolved to be. It is more temporary than the warm spot in this Ice Age.

Posted by mbowen at February 18, 2006 08:09 AM

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It seems to me that patriarchy is more than just having a majority of families/power centers with men at the top. Patriarchy is a social order which presumes men ought to rule, and that women ought not. I do think that given a free choice, most men and women will make choices that result in men on top in a majority of families and hierarchies. But I don't think that justifies a social order that presumes that men will rule, or puts any obstacles in the way of women's achievement and power.

Posted by: Gruntled at February 18, 2006 09:43 PM


I guess it's good that you feel manly going to Home Depot and doing the power tool thing; there's many women doing the same thing---but we don't feel "manly" about it, we feel competant.

See, I think you've glossed over the fact that feminism is a reaction to the great changes wrought by industrialization. Feminists weren't so much radicals as the ones trying to bring back a workable balance---the apple cart had already been tipped. Both men and women want to feel important and useful. Industrialization and the availability of cheap, store-bought goods devalued the traditional work of women---which meant (necessarily) adapting our role(s).

In other words, why is "women doing what men used to do" thought of as somehow being more radical than having a literate populace? It wasn't so long ago that literacy was the province of an elite few. Humans are highly adaptable. We can and will adapt to whatever is necessary in order to survive. The skillsets that my great-grandmother needed in the mountains of Sicily in 1920 are different from what I need in the United States in 2006. She didn't need feminism (although some of the concepts wouldn't be foreign to her, Sicily retaining quite a bit of matriarchal bedrock over the veneer of patriarchy); I do.

Look, I earn my living doing "men's work"---I'm a journeyman electrician. I also look good in a skirt, and love to cook. I've been appreciated for the money I earn and for looking good---but never for my traditional feminine skill of cooking food so delicious it's almost better than sex. (I said almost). Men who've grown up on prepackaged crap don't have an appreciation for good cooking. If I could meet a man who knew what radicchio was, let alone was willing to go to the store for it---now, I'd find that incredibly sexy! Why? Because I would read that as a sign that I was truly appreciated---that I wasn't just filling in some blank that any-old-woman could fill. (He likes my cooking!!) It's pretty much the same feeling you describe with your home improvements. So, it's hilarious to me that you would see that as "unmanly". (Geez, Cobb, you sound like my father! Who incidentally---like you---is no stranger to the grocery store.) That's something I find interesting---that the boundaries for what is considered feminine are much broader than what is considered masculine. That, and that the boundaries for what is masculine are more narrowly drawn by men than by women---I have yet to meet a woman who thinks of a husband who runs errands as unmanly---more like, "does-he-have-a-brother?" :-)

Posted by: La Lubu at February 19, 2006 12:10 PM

I think you've hit on something that I agree with. Men and women need gender-specific roles that make them feel needed. It isn't about going to Home Depot that makes it manly so much as it is something that a man contributes uniquely to the household. Likewise it isn't about shopping for greens that makes it unmanly, it's that the guy obviously doesn't know what he's doing and his wife is bossing him around. In other words he's doing women's work - not because there is an absolute bond between femininity and groceries, but because he's out of his element in into hers.

So what I'm fussing about is the aspect of feminism that makes women compete with men simply because these are the things that men do - that they rob men of gender roles, and that sometimes they demand that men switch gender roles for the sake of 'equality'.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 19, 2006 12:41 PM

Maybe it's manly that the guy shopping for raddichio (what the hell is that?) has to call his wife and ask about it because it isn't the kind of thing he would know.

I think of feminism like what you've said about the question "What is it that black people want?" and your correct answer is "Everything worth having!". That's us women too.

As to gender roles, I'll mow the living daylights out of the lawn if my husband will pick up some of the tedious and boring "women's work" in the house. Which he mostly does. We work the same number of hours, I make more money, and I'm danged if I think it's my place to do housework when we get home while he watches TV.

Posted by: Laura(southernxyl) at February 19, 2006 01:02 PM

I like that analogy. It speaks highly of tokenism too, quite frankly. But the simple fact of the matter is wanting everything worth having and being ready to step into the role are two different things.

So if you look at 'gender gap' studies, I think you would find that glass cielings are cultural too. That the supply side of the equation is deficient whereas the demand side is high. I say this not to suggest that artificial barriers don't exist on sex or race, but that the isms that create demand are not often well-suited to provide supply.

I think a good example of this is the matter of securities traders. Much has been made of the fact that floor traders are aggressive, incredibly competitive, hard charging and often vulgar characters. In other words many of the characteristics we socialize men towards and women away from. If a woman were to integrate such a scene is it feminist to expect the men to change? Should the securities business undergo a cultural change in order to accomodate women?

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 19, 2006 01:57 PM

You think there aren't plenty of aggressive, incredibly competitive, hard charging, vulgar women?

And by the way, some scenes should change. The "mommy track" isn't a "daddy track" because "society" has never frowned upon men who work ridiculous hours and whose children grow up without knowing them. But it should have.

Posted by: Laura(southernxyl) at February 19, 2006 02:24 PM

Is that the target market of feminism. Was it conceived to cut some slack for the tomboys of the world. Either way, I think we've been giving too much attention to the career track and indeed not enough in pur discussion to the mommy track.

More specifically how feminist critiques of gender roles and its hand in sexual liberation has done damage to the effective traditions of marriage and motherhood.

Posted by: Anonymous at February 19, 2006 04:30 PM

Maybe feminist critiques of gender roles had the effect of letting women and men out of their effective traditional boxes.

If women had been happy in their boxes, feminism never would have gained any traction.

Posted by: Laura(southernxyl) at February 19, 2006 07:48 PM

Humans being humans are never happy in their boxes. But then you have to ask why feminism is different in different cultures. I don't see a great deal of agreement between black and white feminists. I don't see that feminism works the same way in Japan as in the US. I'm not certain American attitudes towards sex have been modified so much by feminism as by contraception. Granted there are a wide variety of feminist issues, but I'm not convinced that many of them are necessarily an evolution in thought.

I think that patriarchy evolved specifically because of the role of motherhood and that while there my be many matrilineal societies, the nature of war and child rearing make us what we are. This can be moderated during peacetime, and even perverted during times of opulence. But I believe the basic idea of patriarchy evolved as a survival strategy, and I believe that evolutionary biology will bear that out.

What I think feminist thought has done is discovered some very basic things about male-female relationships that our young society had not yet realized culturally, but to simply label them wrong was a mistake. So I think we've got some undoing of bad feminism to do along more scientific rather than political lines.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 19, 2006 08:22 PM

I think the biology v. culture arguments are very unsettled. It's true that little girls prefer dolls and little boys prefer trucks. I'm convinced that's not culture.

And I think sex is totally screwed up right now, and probably feminism is largely to blame for that. My 18-yr-old daughter's freshman English teacher, who sees everything through a feminist lens, tried to tell the class that pornography liberates women. My kid knew that was a crock, even at her tender age.

But then you have church-based daycares that shut their doors with little or no notice, because mothers need to be at home with their children, regardless of whether they can even provide that home if they can't work. That is carrying the gender role thing too far, IMO.

And I think it's liberating for men, for women to get out of their boxes. It used to be that if a woman had "things" (car, clothes, a roof over her head) her husband had to get them for her. If her ambition exceeded his, she either had to settle for less than she wanted, or make his life hell until he could get those things for her. Now she can get them for herself. A man can choose whether to feel de-masculinized for that, or to appreciate the fact that he is not solely responsible for providing for another able-bodied human being.

My husband lost his job a few years ago when the company he worked for shut down. To his surprise, it took several months for him to find another position. Unemployment doesn't pay that much, folks. Because I work, we never missed a house note or a meal, didn't run up any debt, or anything else, while he was out of work. I just can't see this as being a bad thing, or an unnatural thing.

Posted by: Laura(southernxyl) at February 20, 2006 07:11 AM

I'll never understand why black men are in this argument. Black men and women were both brought to this country as slaves. We both worked. The family dynamic has always been different. Post-slavery black women still worked. As much as black men complain about racism, it seems their clear goal is to be white men and rule over their women the way white men do over their women. This concept is something I've posted more than once on this topic:

One thing that I've never quite been able to grasp is that black men have NEVER really held a traditional role in black families. Black women were working since the first slave ship and, for the most part, always have. I get a little perplexed when black men/folks complain about "the man" holding them down and being out to get them yet them "being a man" often hinges on black women acting like white women so they can act like white men.

Posted by: Qusan at February 20, 2006 08:35 PM

I think that's a ridiculous argument. It's like saying that the Bible is white, and that all black ministers join the church in order to be like white ministers. Or that black men have sex with black women because white men have sex with white women.

Is there anything that suggests to you that West Africa was matriarchal and that this was reversed? I believe that 'legacy of slavery' arguments are only valid for those blacks who have lost all sense of self and dignity and whose only understanding of the world was entirely encapsulated by slavery - which basically means the poorest, weakest, feeblest individuals. And I would say that by definition, those people didn't survive. Call it social darwinism.

There is nothing to suggest that black women out of slavery worked any harder than any other women. It would be tough to convince any student of history that white homesteading women lived a life of ease.

Sorry. I'm not buying it.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 21, 2006 07:57 PM

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