You don't have to be an elderly Aunt Agatha to remember when feminism was about equal rights and equal pay. In those heady days of righteousness unbound, not all women cheered the revolution, but most did. Our mothers and grandmothers who enjoyed the freedom of being full-time moms, home for the kids after school, nevertheless believed that pay scales deprived women of what was rightly theirs.
But soon women of the generation of stay-at-home moms felt the sting of condescension, targets of the pioneering women they first cheered. They had become the enemy in a new war, women vs. women. The mommies lost that war, and their daughters went on to full-time careers. Today, women are the majority sex in college and graduate school, including the schools of law and medicine.
The sexual revolution brought freedom — and privilege — to women that an earlier generation never dreamed of. Alas, like most revolutions, the feminist revolution, for all of its earnest and idealistic beginnings, has been blighted by unintended consequences. A new class of victim, the single mom, has been abandoned by men to raise children alone. Not so long ago, a man who fathered a child with a woman he wouldn't (or couldn't) marry suffered stigma and reproach, perhaps from men more than women. That was before "illegitimacy" became the "new normal." Now, more than half of babies born to mothers under 30 are born outside marriage. The trend accelerates.
These single moms are not the college-educated career women who have climbed the ladder of rank and prosperity. "Marriage has become a luxury good," sociologist Frank Furstenberg of the University of Pennsylvania tells The New York Times. Fully 90 percent of college-educated women who become mothers are married. They discovered something besides book learning behind the ivy-covered walls. The big losers are women without the advantages of prosperity. The racial breakdown of unwed mothers is stark and dramatic: 73 percent of black children, 53 percent of Latino children and 29 percent of white children are born to single mothers.
These are more than statistics. Any of us can recite the litany of disadvantages inherited by children raised without fathers. They are more likely to experience poverty, to do poorly in school, to wind up on the wrong side of the law and to repeat the grim cycle in their own generation.
Few in Washington discuss this because it's first a cultural problem, and Washington only wants to talk about problems that can be reduced to politics. Culture doesn't fit comfortably into political solutions. When Bill Clinton was president and reluctantly supported welfare reform, welfare was widely thought to encourage illegitimacy. The government played Big Daddy and picked up the check. Many women who had lived on welfare learned that getting off the dole and finding work felt good. They found work but not daddies for their babies. The revolution freed women to take charge of their lives, and men were happy to get out of their way.
What's being ignored in the controversy over government-mandated contraceptive coverage is the way men have abandoned their responsibility to share responsibility for birth control. There's no one in the debate to say this. Neither Mitt Romney nor Newt Gingrich is eager to join the debate, and Rick Santorum only dreams of the day when contraception will be forbidden. The celibate bishops in their gowns have more to say about sexual responsibility than the men who have rendered themselves irrelevant.
It's a little cheeky of feminists to mount high horses to object to the rudeness of being called "sluts," it seems to me, since they've organized "Slut Walks" to assert their right to dress like hookers without suffering the leers of men. The idea was to deprive the word of its sting, in the way that gays have tried to deprive the word "queer" of its power to wound. It hasn't quite worked. The dissembling of Sandra Fluke, who brought Rush Limbaugh low, is easy to see through, too; she knows very well that college-educated women do not depend on government mandates to pay for their birth control. Women are no longer the second sex.
The birth control controversy has been cast as political — Republican vs. Democrat, conservative vs. liberal — when it's clearly about whether the religious folk can be required by the government to pay for something offensive to their faith.
It's also about the fundamental change in the male-female relationship. As women gained equality with men, men lost their identity as provider and protector. If marriage was once required as a sexual-economic compromise that domesticated men for family life, it is no longer. Men have fled fatherhood as well as the responsibility for preventing unwanted fatherhood. Man has been unmanned.
Write to Suzanne Fields at: [email protected] To find out more about Suzanne Fields and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.