Thursday, October 13, 2005

Female autonomy or new "separate spheres"?

Ann Althouse links to a New York Times article on a surge in single women deliberately choosing to become mothers, often with the help of the Internet. The title of her post is, "Female Autonomy: Does It Frighten You?", and it opens thusly:
Women without men who want children: Must they find a man first? Must they behave so indirectly in the pursuit of what they want?
The post has generated intense controversy with over 120 posts since this morning, and with charges flying back and forth of female selfishness, male-bashing, and "dinosaur" attitudes toward women.

As a single, 42-year-old woman, I sympathize with women who are nearing the end of their fertile years and haven't found the right man. I'm not anti-child and I have some regrets about the fact that I have almost certainly forgone motherhood, but I don't feel an intense longing for a child, either, and I cannot say with any certainty what route I would have taken if I did. I'd like to think, however, that before I even considered a sperm bank, I would have made more of an effort to find "the right man," and made different choices in some of my past relationships.

What troubles me is the selling of single motherhood by choice as "female autonomy." First of all, as some of the commenters on Althouse's blog pointed out, parenthood by definition limits one's autonomy. Second, single parenthood by choice almost inherently perpetuates gender inequality: because of biology, it's a choice far less available to men. (I don't know the statistics, but I would assume that gay male couples are far less likely to raise children biologically related to one of the parents than are lesbian couples.)

Thus, we are seeing a paradoxical phenomenon: on the one hand, we expect married fathers to be far more involved parents than they were in the traditional nuclear family model; on the other hand, we are far more accepting of a family model that shuts out fathers completely. One might see this trend as a modernized version of Victorian "separate spheres": child-rearing and family are a female domain. Only, in the modern version, women get to participate more or less equally in the traditionally male domains of work and public life, while men are even less connected to the female domain than they were in the Victorian era. Something tells me this is not a good thing for male-female relations, children, men, or women for that matter. Among other things, let's not forget that according to numerous studies, everything else being equal, children do fare better when both parents are present.

Some of Althouse's posters (almost invariably men) suggest that the inability of these women to form a lasting romantic relationship suggests that they are ill-suited for the committment of child-rearing, too. This claim may be too simplistic, and the charge of selfishness may be quite unfair in some cases — as is, of course, the "man-hater" charge that one poster levels against Althouse. Yet I do think that the attitude toward men displayed by Althouse and some of her female posters is rather troubling. They seem to assume that if a woman cannot meet a man she considers a suitable partner, the problem has to be with men. Could it be that some of the women have an inability to commit, or an unwillingness to share control over child-rearning? Could it be that asking them to lower their standards is not always unreasonable? If, as Althouse and some commenters on her site have noted, professional success tends to narrow a woman's marital options, this is partly because many successful women do not regard a less successful, lower-earning man as a suitable mate.

Listen to one of the women in the excerpt quoted by Althouse:

"You're paying for it, so you kind of want the best of the best," said Anna Aiello, 38, of Moriches, N.Y., on Long Island, the mother of 1-year-old twins, who saw her ability to select a 6-foot-2 blond, blue-eyed, genetic-disease-free donor as some consolation for not getting to fall in love with someone who would most likely have been more flawed.
Female autonomy does not frighten me; but this mentality does. What are the odds that Ms. Aiello has unreasonable expectations toward men? What are the odds that she will impose unreasonable demands of perfection on her "flawless" twins?

I don't want to issue a blanket condemnation of single mothers by choice. While biology favors women when it comes to the ability to choose solo parenthood, it also imposes on women a "now or never" choice that men don't have to face. But it's one thing to be understanding; it's quite another to celebrate this choice as an expression of female freedom and autonomy.

Althouse writes:

I can see that people will find it disturbing that the normal desire for a child doesn't stay part of the pressure on women to make matches with men. This is hard on men, but maybe it will put a good pressure on them to become better husband material.

Personally, I think it is far more likely to promote more rancor and division between the sexes, and a growing estrangement of men from family life. And that's nothing to celebrate.


vbspurs said...

Excellent read, Cathy.

It summarises the points raised at Althouse, and whilst you're not uncomfortable giving your viewpoints, and even personalising the topic, one never feels antagonised by your attitude.

BTW, I think I've read your memoirs...but I'm not certain.

When I was growing up, I went through a general Russian history mania, which culminated with my reading everything on Russia I could get my 14-year-old paws on.

Hedrick Smith was a god, etc. :)

So I will rummage in my library to confirm that.


LTEC said...

Why do these powerful, successful women find it so hard to find the right man?

Here is one possible reason.
Sexual harassment policies, and sexual policies in business in general, are intended to punish sexual relationships between people. The very men these women find the most desirable are afraid to get involved with them, and settle instead for someone outside their powerful world.

Anonymous said...

I don't think any of the posters called Althouse a man hater. One poster merely observed that based upon reading her blog over a period of time, he got the impression she didn't like men very much. It was Althouse, in her reply, who then turned this into an allegation of man hating.

Anonymous said...

I would also like to add that boys are allowed, if not encouraged, to exhibit horribly sexist behavior these days. Reprehensible behavior towards females is all too accepted. I think it's up to men to demontrate to younger men and boys that any display of machismo that denigrates the female is unacceptable....period. The rapper posturing, the style of clothing, the sloppiness, the open disrespect, the name calling......all must be discouraged by MEN.

Anonymous said...


I suppose that the sexual harrassment could be a reason. I am more inclined to believe, however, that they have trouble finding 'suitable' men, because of the following:

a) Some of those women are snobs. (I know women like this.) If a guy isn't as successful or more, as educated or more, interested in 'higher' culture, reasonably good looking, etc, then he isn't suitable.

b) Eligible men who meet the criteria above and are in an 'acceptable' age range are dating younger women.

c) Some of those women do have serious issues with committment and relationships.

d) Some of those women don't have problems with committment or relationships, but they spent their most fertile years with a partner who did. They then find themselves in middle age, divorced and childless (because he wasn't ready).


Personally, I have never wanted to be a mother, so I do not at all understand the desperation some people have to procreate. I also believe there are plenty of people on the planet, as it is, so it isn't NECESSARY for them to procreate.

That being said, if a woman or man can afford to do this, and really, really wanted to, I would never tell them it wasn't an option, nor assume that they were a bad person with questionable motives for pursuing it.

Does this reflect some effort to get men out of childrearing? I think that is a stretch. People who have a 'war between the sexes' mentality might interpret it that way, but I think it is more a reflection of the fact that some people will do just about anything to have kids, regardless of their circumstances, biology, or the havoc it will wreak on their lives.


Anonymous said...

You've sure got a lot of patience, Cathy, this post and the comments just pissed me off.

Althouse complains about young men:

A lot of them are in prison, for one thing. Others do not look for women to be faithfully devoted to. They seek selfish pleasures, not more responsibilities. Many have substance abuse problems. They are not pursuing higher education at the same rate as women. There is a disparity that leaves a lot of women without partners. I'm sure some of the women are too picky or too conceited or whatever your stereotype is, but a lot of them are good women who haven't got reasonable marriage prospects.

but she can't seem to grasp why these things might be the case.