Discover more from Other Feminisms
On Men and Marriageability
Responding to Richard Reeves and Melissa Kearney
I think of Richard Reeves ofas engaged in a parallel project to Other Feminisms. I’m interested in how women are shortchanged when we try to stick to a generic, “neutral” human type, which tends to skew male.
Reeves, especially in his book Of Boys and Men, is asking the same question but from the other side—where do we shortchange men by having a narrow, falsely neutral, generic idea of what it means to be human.
I find myself most strongly in agreement with Reeves that schools, in particular, are female-normed. In expectations of stillness, in the timing of when school starts, in the increasingly risk-adverse culture for children, it is easier for girls (on average) to fit into the generic model of “student.” (see below).
But at Fairer Disputations, I’m sparring with Reeves a little on where I think he’s selling men short. Given how many children are born out of wedlock, Reeves would like to see a more robust model of fatherhood outside of marriage. I raised some of my objections first at Other Feminisms (“Fatherhood Requires Fidelity”) and I expanded on them for Fairer Disputations here.
Men need to know what they can uniquely contribute to their family. The abiding presence of a father isn’t replaceable by their paycheck, their banked sperm, or their weekend visits. Men and women both are impeded in knowing themselves and the full potential of their relationship when fathers are treated as trivial.
[W]e must be very careful not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. Two out of five children are now born outside of marriage, and there’s little sign of that number dropping. Whether we like it or not, we have to find a way to reboot fatherhood for the world as it is, rather than the world as it was. This will take time, for sure. The social and economic changes of recent decades have been so dizzyingly fast that it is no wonder we are all struggling to make sense of them. But I’m hopeful it can be done. After all, fatherhood has been around for about 750,000 years, and the first recorded marriage was only about 4,000 years ago. None of this is to knock marriage. Marriage is a beautiful, sacred, precious institution. It is simply to say that fatherhood is all of those things too, even outside of the married state.
The crux of our disagreement is that Reeves is looking retrospectively (how can we help men do their best given the choices they’ve already made) and I’m looking prospectively (what expectations should be clear for men, starting as boys, so they know who they’re trying to grow into).
“Rebooting fatherhood” sounds like further eroding our sense of what makes men necessary, by shrinking their role and their responsibilities until they’re manageable… and substitutable.
It’s a theme I’ve seen come up in discussions of Melissa Kearney’s strong, thorough book The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind.
Few of her critics have denied that children raised by married parents have some advantages, but many have indicated that they believe
(a) many of the men who father children would worsen their children’s and (hypothetical) wife’s lives with their presence.
(b) many of the functions of a husband can be unbundled and taken up by a community of friends or, with enough supplemental monetary aid, purchased in the marketplace.
I think (a) has the same issue as Reeves’s retrospective focus. Not everyone should (or can) marry the people they’ve already conceived children with. But if you take Kearney’s findings seriously, that should limit who you enter relationships with as you begin to dating and discerning.
The (b) objection is the one I think can’t possibly stand. Kearney defuses it well here:
I thought about a conversation I recently had with a different economist in a different setting who reacted negatively when I mentioned the importance of family structure to children's outcomes. He bristled, suggesting to me that I sounded "socially conservative," in a way that implied "not academically serious." I countered, "You are always talking about the things you are doing for your kids and how much time their activities take up in your life. Why would you be offended by the suggestion that maybe other kids would also benefit from having the involvement of two parents, and in particular a father, in their lives?"
I think part of what is shaping the pushback to Kearney’s book (and, in a much kinder register, Reeves’s pushback to me) is the idea that it is wrong to point out that some living situations (and sometimes parental choices) are not so good for their kids if you can’t fix the problem.
But this presumes that, first of all, the parents are unaware that their circumstances are less than optimal/actively difficult. And, that it’s impossible to say both, “You’re doing the best you can, based on where you are now” and “but that still can result in harm/bad outcomes.”