A number of recent articles, spread out across several publications, have recently tried to stress the degree to which the message of contemporary feminism is having trouble breaking through to the level of popular consciousness. The theme continues to appear every few days as I sift through the news, but two articles in particular have stuck with me. The first was in Politco’s magazine, entitled “It’s Sexism Stupid. Why men are dominating the Democratic 2020 primary.” The article joins the chorus of those lamenting the failure of any woman to catch fire and dominate in the Democratic field the way Hillary Clinton dominated the much smaller 2016 field. The article suggests that, rather than overcrowding in the field or the flawed nature of the female candidates, the problem is “sexism and misogyny—albeit often unconscious, unwitting and the result of implicit bias.” As evidence, the article points to a 2008 study, which found that
gender is a powerful force in inducing voters to defect across party lines. Specifically, when men and women were pitted against each other in head-to-head match-ups for the presidency, a substantial proportion of Democratic voters (12.3 percent) defected to a male Republican, John McCain, rather than vote for a female candidate from their own party, Hillary Clinton.
Similarly, and arguably somewhat less surprisingly, a sizeable proportion of Republican voters (15.5 percent) defected to a male Democrat, John Edwards, rather than vote for a female candidate from their own party, Elizabeth Dole. (This tendency was true for both male and, notably, female voters, and was not balanced out by any comparable pattern of defection toward female presidential hopefuls.)
Another article, which appeared more recently in the Atlantic and struck a little closer to home (literally), was “Even Breadwinning Wives Don’t Get Equality at Home.” The principal complaint in this article is that, while gender equality gets lots of attention and makes most of its progress in the workplace or in politics, gender equality in the home is getting left behind.
Breadwinning wives also don’t get parity in how household chores are divvied up. As wives’ economic dependence on their husbands increases, women tend to take on more housework. But the more economically dependent men are on their wives, the less housework they do. Even women with unemployed husbands spend considerably more time on household chores than their spouses. In other words, women’s success in the workplace is penalized at home.
In the end, women take on more domestic responsibilities than men in a way that is mostly unrelated to their availability for those responsibilities. They take them on because they are women even when their husbands have no gainful employment to occupy their time.
The problem, as both articles see it, is that implicit biases about women’s nature and roles continues to override the public discourse about gender equality. The problem, as I see it, is that whatever people may believe or espouse in the public sphere, there is a fundamental disconnect between what contemporary feminism asserts and people’s actual experience. Contemporary feminism continues to base its argument for the equality of the sexes on the irrelevance (or perhaps obsolescence) of sex in a way that defies people’s everyday experience.
It is one thing to say that men and women should have equal access to employment and public positions, that compensation and advancement should be based entirely on competence without regard for sex. It is another thing entirely to say that we should not see sex, that sex is not a real or meaningful category through which we approach the world. It is more radical still to imagine that all the consequential beliefs that we attach to sex are in fact gender–sex’s ephemeral cousin, entirely culturally rooted, hopelessly fluid, and utterly untethered from biological sex. Even if all of that is true–and I’m pretty sure I had to sign an oath in blood on the back of my PhD saying it was–it flies in the face of how people operate in their day to day lives. With each step toward the root logic of contemporary feminism, we shift further into the realm of cognitive dissonance, where the (coherentist) theoretical soundness of feminist theory butts up against the realities of lived gender economies.
This, perhaps more than self-ghettoizing, explains women’s complicity in the structures of their oppression in both articles. The story on domestic balance noted that “one possible explanation for this is that by outearning their husbands, wives worry that they are breaking norms on gender expectations.” The argument goes further:
[I]t’s not just men who are keen on enforcing the notion that they should be the family’s earner in chief. Wives play a crucial role in framing husbands as breadwinners too. A lawyer who had been the breadwinner in her marriage told me that after she lost her job, she turned her focus to her husband’s business and how he could grow it, instead of worrying about how she could find another job to ensure that their family remains financially stable. Ironically, her educational credentials and prior work experience mean that she is actually positioned to bring in more money than her husband. Instead of focusing on how the unemployed woman could get her next job, the couples I talked with focused their attention on ensuring that the husband’s career was flourishing.
Just like women who cross party lines to vote in favor of a man, women will torch their own career prospects because they are invested in the idea of male vocation as central not only to male-identity but also to household-identity.
The solution, according to “Breadwinning Wives,” is better public policy that will pave the way for gender equity at home. The solution, according to “Sexism Stupid,” is tough talk with the unconverted public.
People who might be explicitly committed to egalitarianism still have gender biases in certain contexts, including presidential races. And they are unwitting experts at concocting post hoc rationalizations for foregone, irrational conclusions.
The idea that you aren’t voting for a woman not because you don’t want to, but because America just isn’t ready for a female candidate smacks to me of that kind of thinking. Perhaps America isn’t ready because you’re one of the many who prefers male to female candidates, and who unconsciously reaches for excuses to rationalize your preference. This country will never be ready for a woman president, to our detriment, if this continues.
My criticism of both of these solutions is that they assume that the problem is not with the feminist vision of equality-qua-irrelevance but with the mass of humans behaving in ways that seem natural to them and that resonate with their experience. Women face real and meaningful problems in our society, but the message doesn’t seem to be getting through in practice. That may because, unlike liberal Twitter, the bulk of Americans continue to see sex as a legitimate, meaningful, useful tool for ordering their personal, professional, and political relationships. As a consequence, they expect–whether with hope or fear–that a woman president would be different from a typical (i.e. male) president. They expect a woman’s loss of employment to affect her and her household differently than a man’s lack of employment. (And they don’t reduce those consequences to the raw economics of who makes more dollars and cents–because this isn’t a murky Marxist dystopia where all people have been unsexed, uncultured, and reduced to engines of revenue production.) In other words, people expect sex to matter.
And that doesn’t automatically preclude gender equality, nor even many of the concrete goals of contemporary feminism. It just requires a different rhetorical platform from which to make your argument. Rather than chastising us for our neanderthal stupidity and ostracizing those who bother to root some aspects of gendered behavior in evolutionary biology rather than culture, maybe it is time to work toward meaningful solutions to significant problems within the context of prevailing beliefs about sex.