The Hidden Blessings of a Feminist Mother

Rod Dreher thinks Lynn Messina’s a bad mother, and he thinks that’s a hoot. In the New York Times’ Motherlode: Adventures in Parenting blog, Messina, a YA novelist, complains that her 4-year-old’s preschool teacher lets the girls cut ahead of the boys on the line to the bathroom every day before naptime. “A gentleman lets girls go first,” the boy explains. The mother calls it “his first lesson in sexism.” Zooming in on the part he finds “hilarious” — a feminist mother in a tizzy over priority going to her junior sisters — Dreher concludes: “No matter what you do, feminists of [Messina's] sort are going to be miserable.”

Dreher’s so hungry for irony, he misses the bigger points. For one thing, Messina’s not really the sort of feminist he supposes her to be; to her, equality means no “selective privilege” for anyone, even little girls. Second, jargon aside, she acting from the womanliest of womanly motives: maternal concern. Having a son has given her a sober appreciation for the challenges facing boys today, and she’s determined to address those challenges pragmatically. Whether or not we agree with her conclusions, we ought to commend the clarity of her vision.

By now, everyone will have heard the news that women are outnumbering men in higher education and, according to many studies, outperforming them in managerial positions. In her famous book title, Hanna Rosin sums up these developments as The End of Men, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any conservative social critic who sees them in any other light. Lacking any edge in status or earning potential, the consensus seems to hold, men barely count as men.

Be that as it may. At least from this perch, it seems that Catholics have responded mainly by saying, “I told you so,” meaning, the diminuition of men’s status is a natural consequence of women’s emancipation through artificial birth control, legalized abortion, etc. For those who take a long enough view to make a project of counter-revolution, “I told you so” is a fine rallying cry. But it offers few realistic solutions for people who have to raise sons in the here and now.

A couple of years ago, Anthony Esolen wrote sympathetically of Jamie Northrup, a high school boy who chose to forfeit a wrestling match rather than face a girl. Esolen justified Northrup’s forfeiture on the grounds that the match offered him no hope of an honorable outcome. If he lost, he’d have become the patsy in the girl’s triumph story. If he’d won, all he’d have succeeded in doing is fulfilling the crowd’s expectations. Indeed, since Northrup had decided that Christianity prohibits men from competing against women in a sport that involves their being, as he put it, “groped” or “slammed,” even stepping onto the mat would have meant a kind of moral defeat.

Esolen sees a healthy boyhood as one where boys develop into “the sort of man who would take for granted that his duty is to protect women, not to pin them to the ground.” That’s a fatal oversimplification. Today’s boys are faced with having to do both. In order to be judged worthy protectors by those women who are in the market, they must prove themselves precisely by pinning other women to the ground. Granted, in most cases, they won’t have to throw women in literal rear naked choke holds, but they will have to compete against them and excel them, and toward that end, engage in many species of head-gaming and shit-talking undreamed of by Ashley Wilkes. In a word, they will have to learn to see women as, among other things, worthy adversaries.

This sounds about as confusing as it is. Esolen’s solution is to segregate the sexes for as long as possible, giving boys time to “win masculine stripes from their fellows” and grow “intellectually from the challenges they impose on one another.” Well, sooner or later, these Tom Browns and Flashmans are going to have to emerge from their cocoon. They’ll have to face women like those written up in this week’s Atlantic, who join boozing clubs like Princeton’s Tiger Inn precisely because, in the words of one, “there’s no pressure to be a girl.” And they’ll have to decide what to make of life, themselves, and their (presumably pricey) secondary education when some of these tough-talking, hard-drinking, highly-sexed and highly able dames attain positions where they can give them orders.

Born in 1936, my dad was a member of the so-called Silent Generation. By the time Germaine Greer and Kate Millet started publishing, he was well into adulthood. Though able, in the abstract, to anticipate how birth control and women’s entry into the workforce were bound to change the ways in which women and men related, he never really adjusted his expectations to fit those changes. He certainly had no idea what to say to a son who complained that the girls he knew were taller, stronger, more self-assured and ambitious than himself. He probably figured it was a problem that would be outgrown naturally. Sooner or later, in time-honored fashion, the son would get his full growth, and the girls, having become desperate for ring and stroller, would lose their proud airs.

The growth part happened; the rest, not so much. And the son, now 41, and far from alpha material according to any era’s definition, often wonders how much more smoothly his life might have unfolded given a more realistic prognosis and set of instructions.

I like the cut of this Lynn Messina’s jib because she’s fair-minded. If she’s helped create a world where men and women must compete, at least she’s determined, like a good mom, to teach her son Emmett to to survive in it. In writing off all gracious gestures as “empty courtesies,” she may be swinging way wide; but at least she understands that it’s confusing to “exalt women out of sight” when one of them may steal your place on Harvard’s waiting list. She likes gentlemanly behavior just fine, as long as girls are also compelled to engage in it. In a roundabout way, this could end up teaching Emmett that some girls are, in fact, worth protecting and pampering.

If, at some point in the future, Emmett Messina refuses to wrestle a girl, will his mother scream, like Robert Duvall in The Great Santini, “PUT HER ON THE DECK, HOG! PUT HER ON THE DECK, OR YOU DON’T COME HOME!”? Not likely. But she might tell him, “Honey, delicacy is a wonderful trait, but if you don’t learn to compartmentalize it, you’re going to have a rough life.” At those words, I like to think, Emmett will square off against little Brunhilde, win on points, earn a scholarship to Nebraska, and live happily ever after — living proof that men can learn to work the angles in this new world of ours.

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