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.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    It would be illegal, but I’d love to set up three competing businesses in software development- one hiring only women, one hiring only men, one hiring a mixture of the two.

    Software development really is a place where gender should not play a role- but I believe it does. I believe my productivity is higher when working with other men than with women. I’m wondering if that is general and subconscious.

  • Manny

    Interesting as always. But I think there is a profound difference between boys pinning girls physically to the ground and competing intellectually. And I don’t know if it’s Christianity that prohibits such male/female physical competition but chivalric honor. One just doesn’t (or shouldn’t) do that.

  • Dillon T. McCameron

    It might have to do with communication, or rather, how the sexes communicate between themselves.

  • Melody

    We raised two sons, both of whom seem to have a pretty healthy attitude toward women. We didn’t make a point of either chivalry or competition; just tried to teach them to be kind in all their dealings. Told them if they see someone struggling to carry a load, open the door for them. Give up their seat to an elderly or disabled person. Doesn’t matter if they’re male or female, just help them if you can; the Golden Rule, rather than dog-eat-dog.

  • M.S.

    Hmm very interesting article. Great points. I often struggle with the very thing you addressed – the contradiction of being a woman. Yes, I am very ambitious, driven, and independent… I have a high-powered job and am the bread-winner of the family.
    Although I want my male colleagues to see me as just that – a colleague – I want my husband to see me as a woman, and with that see my ambition, drive, and independence but also see my feminine attributes as his wife and the mother of his children.
    Its a difficult balance, but both factors to being a woman – the part in which we “are” women and the part in which we “aren’t” women, need to be acknowledged and respected. I hope to raise both my sons and daughters to see gender this way.
    I think you raised some good points. You have to compartmentalize when a woman is a woman.

  • Levedi

    I disagree and I say that as one who has participated in a chivalric sport (fencing) and studied chivalry (I have a degree in medieval literature.) The chivalric thing is to honor your your opponent as a worthy adversary. In traditional chivalric terms, refusing to engage an opponent indicates that you think they are beneath you and not worthy of your time. That’s why in the chivalric literature female knights like Bradamante must be fought, but peasants must not. A chivalric ideal leads to good sportsmanship – gracious winners who are honored to have been up against such worthy opponents.

    I’ve fenced men in practice (tournaments are gender segregated) and gained, not lost honor by doing it whether I won the bout or not. And I was never unsafe around those guys. Some are still my friends because the men on my team had the sense to treat the female players as fellow players – they respected us more off the field, because we proved ourselves on it. They weren’t blind to our gender, but they weren’t blinded by it either. The men I fenced with would never have hit a woman in anger, but they didn’t play to lose when they were up against a woman. Nor would I have wanted them to. Respect means engaging your opponent fully.

  • Levedi

    Possibly you are distracted by women? Or you have subconscious biases that make it difficult for you to work productively with women? But that only tells us about you, not about what women are capable of.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    That’s what I want to find out. I’m interested in seeing if the same-sex teams outperform the mixed sex team.

    I strongly suspect that this is the case.

  • sg

    There is no ‘end of men’ in the workplace until you see women aspiring to pour concrete, collect trash, work on oil rigs in coal mines and laying sod.

  • sg

    Probably just find that men beat women. I am thinking Fields medal. The more difficult the task, the bigger the performance gap.

  • cajaquarius

    Alternately, simply detaching certain attributes from the anchor of “gender” might yield even better results. Those who say men are naturally more aggressive or men are naturally more ambitious than women have never read about the small tribes of people who never got this memo; the Betek of the Malaysian Peninsular are one of my favorites in this regard. Google and read of this tribe and you see men who don’t resort to violence under almost any circumstance, where no man in the village wants to lord over the others, and so on. They come off as better Christians than actual Christians, in almost all respects.

    It is the kind of culture the west should emulate, I think. There is nothing inherently manly about being ambitious and, generationally, I think as we grow to see that fact people will accept women who have ambition as women and not treat them as “one of the guys” in a relationship. Much if this is born of the childishness of the male gender role anyways and I see a lot of men starting to break through on that, generation by generation. Women got a head start is all.

  • cajaquarius

    If it works at all like military units have in the past what you will get is the all female and all male will work well on their projects, becoming nearly indistinguishable in productivity (assuming they are equally talented and well trained/conditioned) but a bi-gender software company will have issues with productivity. From what I have read about concerning the military units (like Israels Karakal co-ed unit that defends the Egyp[t border from insurgency, for example) the big problem with co-ed isn’t the women but the men. The male gender role drives men to see their personal value only in regard to what they can accomplish through ambition, chivalry, or personal power.

    In my experience, for men life is, literally, a game where to reach the top of Maslow’s Pyramid men are driven to be the best and never quite growing out of being children competitive. And why would we? We don’t have to carry any of the consequences for sex; we don’t carry children. They say women mature faster than men but I would posit they mature instead of men, once you really break it down. And when men feel they are being outdone by women they focus more on beating said woman rather than the task at hand, thus productivity vanishes/degrades.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Yep, that’s what I would expect too.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    There is no physical component to software engineering.

  • Arkanabar

    Guest is probably referring to the tendency of women to be more intellectually average than men; a man is more likely than a woman to be stupid OR brilliant. The Fields medal is awarded to a person under 40 for outstanding contributions to mathematics; no woman has ever been awarded it. The same can be said of the Abel Prize for Mathematics.