Prime Minister Gillard addressing a press conference this week. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
We may be headed into the season of peace and joy, but when it comes to gender relations, the rhetoric – at least on the right – is of combat and conflict. Last week, opposition leader Tony Abbot accused Julia Gillard of attempting to “invoke a gender war” with her recent speeches about the pervasiveness of misogyny. Not to be outdone, America’s Fox News (owned by Rupert Murdoch) on Sunday lets the Australian PM partly off the hook by suggesting that what they call The War on Men dates back more than 40 years. “Women aren’t women anymore,” conservative activist Suzanne Venker laments in the piece, claiming that feminist harridans have driven a generation of browbeaten and bewildered lads into an embittered and extended adolescence.
The traditionalist pushback against women’s rights has been happening across the globe for decades. What’s new isn’t just the overheated vocabulary of armed conflict. The latest weapon (as it were) in the anti-feminist arsenal is the suggestion that empowerment works against women’s best interests by alienating the constituency most essential to female happiness: men. Equality hasn’t alienated men so much as it’s “pissed them off,” claims Venker, and men have responded by refusing to commit to marriage or children, choosing instead a life of easy sex (conveniently provided by contraception-wielding feminists) and “no responsibilities whatsoever.”
It would be funny -- if only so many people didn’t believe it.
It’s true that marriage rates have fallen across the Western world. Rather than see that decline as evidence that more people than ever have found equally (or surpassingly) satisfying alternatives to wedlock, social conservatives see the decline in weddings as a disaster. Recognising that jeremiads about premarital sex carry less weight than ever, these anti-feminists have slickly repackaged misogyny as concern for women’s happiness. You thought an education and a career would make you blissful, dearie, but all you’ve done is make yourself so intimidating that no man will want you.
What Venker -- and, more obliquely, Tony Abbot – are peddling is the tired lie that male responsibility is contingent upon female vulnerability. In other words, if you ladies want we men to “step up,” to make commitments, to evince ambition, you lot need to drop this unseemly display of post-modern autonomy and make like damsels in distress. Men, we’re told, interpret women’s self-sufficiency as proof of their own superfluity. If we don’t have a dragon to slay (or at least a larger pay packet than yours to bring home), we’re left discombobulated and sulky. So the traditionalists would have you believe.
Most defenders of antiquated gender roles appeal to immutable natural laws, claiming that men are hardwired to be either protective or predatory, and that it’s up to women to determine which of those two instincts will win out. This sells men massively short. It assumes that men’s decency is simply a mating strategy, offered in return for women’s willingness to be servile and dependent. Men — and I speak as a member of that species — do not require feigned (or genuine) helplessness in order to treat women as people deserving of respect, nor do we need women to hide their professional, intellectual, and sexual ambitions in order to feel a sense of purpose in our lives.
When we empower women economically and educationally, we liberate them to make romantic decisions based on desire rather than necessity. The progress of the last 40 years, as incomplete as it remains, has allowed women to see marriage as a source of happiness rather than mere survival. Much of the male rhetoric of the so-called ”gender wars” is rooted in rage-filled indignation at women’s newfound capacity for sexual selectiveness. Dimly aware of an “earlier time” when “women knew their place” (the bygone days of the vulnerability-for-responsibility exchange), these men (and their female surrogates, like Suzanne Venker) direct their anger not only at the women who reject them but at the feminism that empowered women to be more “choosy” about those with whom they mated. Women today can afford to say, as many of my students do, “If I meet the right person, then I might consider getting married – and if I don’t, then I’ll still be fine.” Contrary to what the Abbots and Venkers might claim, that “if/then thinking” represents tremendous opportunity for both sexes. It means women can avoid being trapped in desperately unhappy marriages; it means that men can trust they’re being chosen for their emotional and sexual desirability rather than their bank balance or their staid reliability.
To put it simply, the more freedom women have to say “no,” the more men can trust the authenticity of their “yes.”
If there is a “war on men,” it’s not being waged by feminists. It’s being waged by an unholy alliance of social conservatives and evolutionary psychologists who relentlessly repeat the message that men can only feel powerful when women make themselves powerless. In the modern gender battles, it’s worth asking which side believes in men’s capacity to be fully human. Reading the propaganda, it’s clear it’s not the side of the sexual traditionalists.