Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Having it all - Making Sense of the Feminist Conundrum

The American, Anne-Marie Slaughter appeared on Woman’s Hour the other day. Having achieved what many feminists would trumpet as the Holy Grail of feminism - she was the Policy advisor to Hillary Clinton as well as the mother of two teenage boys - she voluntarily stepped down from her prestigious post to look after her boys, thus relinquishing “having it all” very publicly; this in spite of having a very obliging working husband who did most of the parenting. What was worse she broadcast the fact in an article she wrote in 2012, saying, in particular “I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home.” and was duly attacked by certain bands of the feminist spectrum for betraying the cause (it made a nice change from the ammunition being routinely poured in the direction of the male establishment). This all seems unfortunate and indicates, perhaps, a need to clarify and find a way through this most vexed area of debate in human affairs. Perhaps it would help if there was a narrative, making sense of what is going on, on which most (it will never be all) agree. I’m very well aware that, because I don’t possess a vagina, there will be many who will say that I have no right to give any opinion on the matter, to think about it or even open my mouth. In answer to that I’d aver that, although it was once suggested that men and women come from different planets they do, in fact, both come from Earth and are both members of the same species of homo sapiens. What qualifies me to speak is my membership of that species. I share an X chromosome with women.

So here goes. Something, I don’t know what it was or when it happened, decided that, unlike the seahorse, the bee, liverwort, hammerhead sharks and boa constrictors human kind would never reproduce itself other than by sexual reproduction. That something might have been the Almighty, if you are so inclined, it might have been Fate, Darwinian Evolution or even Richard Dawkins’ Replicators; I don’t know. All I know is that I, personally, nor any other human being alive now or dead, did not have a say in the matter. This fact of human sexual reproduction, once plumped for by whoever, required two sexes. By definition one of those two had to be equipped to be able to bear the children. There were no two ways about it. As a result, through that nifty bit of maths and probability involving a Y chromosome, roughly half of the human race is male with the other half being female. Neither were consulted on the matter, so it’s no good getting angry about it. In fact, you could be pleased about it and say, with the French nation “Vive la différence!” since “la différence” is what gives a great deal of spice and interest to life and, in many ways, makes it worth living. I, for one, am delighted that there is a sex opposite to mine. It’s such fun and allows so much beauty and happiness! Think where the music and art world would be without it.

To facilitate the birth of children and the consequent survival of the species an enormous amount of kit (sorry about that very masculine term) is required. We need a means of giving sexual signals, the means of bearing the child which ensues, the means of delivering it into the world and the means of nurturing, nursing and sustaining it. This is especially the case given that it has been found expedient by our incredibly successful species to have offspring whose large brains result in weak bodies requiring an extremely long period of dependence on the adult. Not surprisingly, a large proportion of this kit is built into the sex which does the childbearing. An impressive piece of design/evolution has made the wide child-bearing hips and prominent mammary glands so important in childbirth and nursing dual purpose in that they also act as powerful sexual attractors for the male. In addition to this the female is endowed with the “curse” of menstruation, hormones, which can seem to demand reproduction and a fierce maternal instinct which creates a long-lasting bond between children and their mothers as soon as they issue from their bodies. Of course a small proportion of the male body is devoted to the reproductive process but it pales into insignificance compared with the amount of machinery a woman has to cope with. I hope all of this is incontestable and that I am not saying anything particularly controversial. You could say that I'm taking an inventory of the obvious.

At this point I’d like to take a detour which, I hope, will prove to be important later. The fact of human sexual reproduction means that there are no two ways about it – we come from sex. Without sex we are not. Sex pre-dates us. Our existence is predicated on it. All of our thinking therefore I am, our awareness and our opinions about everything (including sex) depend on it. This is a fact that we can do nothing about. We are here because of a fierce biological imperative that drives most of what we do. What is more, it appears that what we mean by love cohabits with sex. It shares a currency and a conduit with sex. Although they are two separate things you can’t get a cigarette paper between them for they are also the same thing. Human love begins between a man and a woman in sex and continues with the product of that sex, in their children who they love as fiercely as they love each other, on the whole. Without sex, in the sphere of human affairs, love does not seem to come into existence. There doesn’t seem to be any arguing about it. This is what family is and it is from this that society springs. You can style it as our being subject to a blind genetic imperative or you can see it as us finding fulfillment in having children. Of course, there is nothing to say that both things cannot be true at the same time because the universe can entertain that kind of complexity it seems.

You might opine at this point that this is all a bit hetero in the 21st century. I’d have to say, though, that the homosexuals and the bisexuals are only here to quibble the point with me because of hetero sex. I could add that I am bisexual myself if that helped to calm you.

Having made that detour, I’d now like to attempt to put Anne-Marie Slaughter’s predicament in a longer-term perspective in a long-term perspective. In doing this I am well aware that I will be under intense scrutiny from the harder-core feminists who will be watching out for my putting a foot wrong in this mine-field. In spite of this I’m going to try, again, to say things that may not seem that controversial. If you scroll back in human history to look at more primitive societies in times when human life was short and a hand to mouth affair (perhaps you can still just about see such equivalent societies in the Amazon jungle or New Guinea today)it would seem that the division of labour between men and women evolved naturally. Given that female biology was so given over to the reproductive and child-rearing process and that the body of the male was stronger and far less devoted to the process it would have seemed perverse for the women to go out, a child latched to their breast and bring home the bacon. I would guess that the fact that men did this was not the result of some kind of male-only committee sitting down together to work out ways to diss the sisters and keep them down. It just would have seemed foolish, in the rather testing circumstances to do otherwise.

Human history is a story of increasing technological sophistication and, perhaps as a result of it, of political sophistication. To begin with the physically strong, louder-voiced male with his hands largely free from the exhausting business of child-rearing, took the lead politically and in terms of authority. In those days authority was imposed by brute force (we like to think we are above that sort of thing now but often it still is) as the luxury of any other method did not exist and this seemed the only game in town. However, gradually, greater political sophistication evolved. The Greeks invented democracy for example and democracy evolved. In England feudalism evolved into parliamentary democracy around the time of the Civil War. In France the Revolution and, in Britain, the ensuing Reform Acts led to the gradual enfranchisement of more and more people (still men only) in the political process. As society became more and more sophisticated in the 19th Century and we became more and more civilized in terms of the political process women began to question whether what had originally been a pragmatic exclusion from the political process was acceptable any more. Starting with women like Mary Wollstencroft at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution they developed a new consciousness. They began to insist that they were persons in the same way as men were persons. In the political arena, the qualification to have political entity, by the end of the 19th century was simply the fact of being an adult person. Hence the battle for female suffrage was gloriously won to the good and enrichment of modern society. In a sense Western society had come of age after a long adolescence. It was at this point, rather than in earlier times when it would hardly have occurred to men to do things differently, that the nasty colluding “patriarchy” so reviled by feminists emerged. It consisted of those males, with a great deal invested in the status quo, who simply attempted to refuse political entity to women on the grounds that ‘nothing good could ever come of it’. Such selfish people and attitudes still exist.

Move forward a little more and you catch up with modern times and the conundrum of Anne-Marie Slaughter. At least in theory women can now “have it all" although society may still seem to conspire to prevent it. I would aver that, although “the patriarchy” mentioned above may be an element in such placing of obstacles, the facts of the human condition contribute much more to the problem. And what is the problem? To some extent it is deciding how we expect society to arrange itself around the facts of human biology and the human condition. There is a kind of spectrum with the USA at one end prioritizing the working, money-generating world and making hardly any concessions to women and then, at the other end, the Scandinavians who rearrange their whole society and economy around child-rearing and nurturing. I would suggest that, a negotiation made by each couple somewhere in the middle of this spectrum is, perhaps the sensible way to go. I suggest this because the question is not as simple as it seems as the case of Anne-Marie Slaughter might demonstrate (I appreciate that she is only one case but her case is a nice one to hang an argument on as it illustrates the problems well). She overcame the patriarchy and gained what some feminists might claim every woman wants. Good luck to her for this and long may the way be open to women who want this. Having won the battle she consulted herself and found that this wasn’t what she wanted in order to be happy and fulfilled. In her article of 2012 she went on to refer to a garlanded female colleague who made similar choices:

“Yet I also want a world in which, in Lisa Jackson’s words, ‘to be a strong woman, you don’t have to give up on the things that define you as a woman.’ That means respecting, enabling, and indeed celebrating the full range of women’s choices. ‘Empowering yourself,’ Jackson said in her speech at Princeton, ‘doesn’t have to mean rejecting motherhood, or eliminating the nurturing or feminine aspects of who you are.’

This seems to suggest that, although a women, like a man, is a person, her personhood, just like a man’s, is mediated through her gender. In other words one's gender can never be put aside like a garment. Happiness and fulfillment are achieved by enjoying being a woman or a man rather than trying to eliminate or erase such qualities in the name of a sexless equality. Some feminists would say “Don’t be a victim of your biology”. One might say that your biology is part of who you are (it is interesting to see how much, outside of this argument, women love being female and rejoice in it) and that happiness for women is to be found - as it is for men in masculinity - in embracing femininity and all that goes with it.

I would note that, now that her sons are grown up Anne-Marie Slaughter continues to operate at the highest levels, professionally. I encountered her on the television news and the radio only this week and she is interviewed in this week's Spectator magazine. Perhaps what she demonstrates is that the social blame game should be put aside in this debate. It isn’t just a case of men preventing women behaving like they do (although this does happen) because the situation is more nuanced than that. Even for men the assumption that being a big gun is the main route to happiness is a questionable one. Earlier I mentioned that sexual relations between men and women are where love begins and that that love flows into the outcome of sex; their offspring, and into the formation of the family. Men do not find fulfillment and happiness exclusively in being big guns in the boardroom so maybe this golden calf, so sought after by women now, is not all its cracked up to be when it is enjoyed on its own. Anne-Marie Slaughter's experience seems to demonstrate this. Most men need love in a family too. In this respect they are not that different from women –perhaps because they belong to the same species.

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