June 14, 2002, 8:45 a.m.
The Marriage Trap
Why feminists won’t talk about dad.By Tom Sylvester
For a disturbing look at the cultural status of fatherhood this Father's Day, a recent cover illustration for New York magazine says it all. Under the headline "BABY PANIC," a sophisticated-looking, presumably childless woman muses, "Investment bankers are so last year what I need is a SPERM bank." Not a man, mind you, much less a husband (they're so last century, I suppose).
Though an extreme example, the New York cover is sadly representative of the media firestorm surrounding Sylvia Ann Hewlett's latest book, Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children. Warning of a "crisis of childlessness" among professional women who neglect their biological clock, Hewlett provided more than enough spark to re-ignite the "career vs. family" debate. On television and in print, everyone's been talking about the tough choices women face. Some feminists are criticizing Hewlett for supposedly trying to urge young women onto the Mommy Track; others with a more explicit anti-child streak are bitterly defensive. Conservatives are saying, "I told you so." And single women are freaking out.
But hardly anybody is talking about dad. Discussion about the role of fathers has been notably absent, as if having and raising kids is the sole province of women. This is a shame, for not only is greater father involvement needed to help overburdened working mothers, research clearly shows that father presence is important to the well being of children.
The New Republic's Michelle Cottle picked up on this disregard for dads and powerfully argued that feminists are letting men off easy. By engaging in a fruitless attack on biological fact, she writes, feminists ignore the reality that women won't have social equality until men do more at home.
Unfortunately, Cottle neglects to explore why many feminists aren't vocal about demanding more from dads. For though family-work conflict remains a "women's issue," the irony is that the Feminist Left wants to keep it that way. Other than occasional lip service, groups like the National Organization for Women and the Feminist Majority don't actively exhort fathers to get more involved. Nor do they ever expound upon the benefits of father involvement for moms and kids. This is not because feminists hate men, though. It's because they're afraid of falling into a trap in which they would be forced to admit the importance of marriage.
If daddy should be expected to bear his share of the dueling demands of career and kids, you're assuming that daddy is around. If you talk about mom and dad, you're talking about two parents. Which means you might be concerned that 33 percent of American children live in homes absent their father. You might be troubled by the fact that 33 percent of all births and 68 percent of births to black women occur out of wedlock. Or that three-quarters of children born to cohabiting parents will see their parents split up before they turn 16. And since all available evidence suggests that marriage is the most effective pathway to nurturing, involved fatherhood, perhaps you'd even have to acknowledge that the best setting for an equal parenting partnership (and, incidentally, for raising kids) is a married, two-parent family.
And that would be apostasy for the Feminist Left. Just look at their reaction to the growing fatherhood and marriage movements, which promote responsible fatherhood and stable, healthy marriages. For instance, "The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles," signed by a diverse group of over 100 prominent scholars and civic leaders, states, "The empirical evidence is quite clear: Marriage is our best hope of fostering involved, effective, nurturing fathers Support for marriage, we emphasize, does not require turning back the clock on desirable social change, promoting male tyranny, or tolerating domestic violence Nor do we seek to denigrate single mothers."
Pretty straightforward, innocuous stuff, no? Well, no. NOW sees something darker. "The marriage movement is giving women the message that a bad husband and father is better than none at all. Single moms are being demonized," warned NOW President Kim Gandy. "NOW is committed to exposing and organizing against this deliberate return to the days of unchallenged male control." To NOW, "The message is clear: the pro-marriage, anti-divorce, pro-fatherhood advocates see the progress women have made toward equality as a feminist-instigated culture of family destruction."
It is understandable that feminists would be wary of efforts to advocate the importance of fatherhood and marriage. After all, they're feminists. But that is no excuse for overheated, dishonest rhetoric the constant assertions that pro-marriage initiatives would coerce women into abusive relationships. Even worse, such hyperbole could undermine the credibility of the valuable work feminist groups accomplish combating violence against women.
(Speaking of domestic violence, it should be noted that marriage tends to be the safest place for women. The 1999 National Crime Victimization Survey reveals that never-married mothers are more than twice as likely to suffer domestic violence than mothers who are or have ever been married.)
Along with concerns about domestic violence, their support for same-sex parenting prevents feminists from enthusiastically holding dads accountable. If feminists were to talk at length about the importance of fathers being equal partners in child rearing, no doubt social conservatives would jump upon such statements and insist that, ergo, Heather should not have two mommies.
But feminists need not be so myopic. Regardless of what one thinks about gay and lesbian parenting, the reality is that the vast majority of the 19 million children living in single-parent homes grow up not without their parent's same-sex partner, but without their father. Ignoring the importance of fathers may or may not help the case for same-sex marriage, but it certainly isn't helpful for child well being overall. Claiming that "the presence of a man available for parenting is of dubious benefit," as University of Florida law professor Nancy Dowd does, is to run into a brick wall of social science and common sense.
Fortunately, not all feminists agree with Dowd. Janet Gornick recently made a feminist case for fathers to take a more active parenting role within marriage. "The rise of egalitarian marriage and the strengthening of fatherhood," she writes, "could produce healthier children who are enriched by the balance in their parents' lives and by more contact with their fathers." Getting dad more involved might also create more stable marriages. A nationally representative study found that men with traditional attitudes toward marriage and family life were more likely to divorce than men with egalitarian attitudes. Mom benefits from more equal relationships, the kids from more time with dad and having mom and dad stick together.
Even though feminists overestimate the degree to which gender differences can be deconstructed away in daily life, there is plenty of room for an engaging, productive debate. There are also encouraging signs. Fathers in two-parent families today are spending more time with their children than their counterparts did two decades ago. In a national survey by the Radcliffe Public Policy Center, a resounding 96 percent of Americans agreed that fathers and mothers should share equally in the caretaking of children. Yet this won't happen without marriage. In theory, feminists are happy to have fathers join mothers in asking, as a pair, "How can we balance work and family?" Too bad they don't insist upon it.