The Wages of Feminism
Affluent hypocrisy has split America in two
My wife and I sometimes drive through rural Idaho—Trump country. An old minivan with a “No More Bullshit” Trump 2020 bumper sticker pulls up. Out pops a tatted-up mom, smoking and cussing at her three little charges. No father around.
“These are our people,” my wife says. Indeed, we vote with this woman and feel the much same way about the country. But we live very differently from “our people.” Our kids know few people from broken homes, while “our people” may know few from intact families.
Here is a truth whispered to all who align with today’s populism: Healthy nations cannot proceed from “our people” as they currently live. Populism is not enough.
Marriage reflects America’s class divide. In 1960, 95 percent of children lived with their biological parents among both the affluent and working classes. By 2005, a significant gap emerged between the two groups of 85 percent and 30 percent, respectively. Brad Wilcox and Wendy Wang’s 2017 report finds a yawning gap on a slew of familial measures, while a 2020 Brookings report finds that 38 percent of those in the lowest income quintile in 2018 were married, compared with 80 percent in the highest quintile. Meanwhie, 94 percent of children in the highest quintile are living with two married parents, against 35 percent of children in the lowest quintile.
Education is often a stand-in for social class. Fewer among the less credentialed are married and those marriages are half as likely to last. About 65 percent of less-educated women were married in 1990, but only 50 percent in 2017. Numbers are significantly lower among women under forty who did not graduate from college. (College educated women went from 69 percent to 65 percent during the same time.) Nearly 80 percent of man-woman marriages involving college-educated women are expected to last until death, while only 40 percent of those involving those without college would.
For a generation or longer, social scientists like Charles Murray and others have charted these differences. These two Americas both live under feminist ideology, but feminism is different in these classes. We have an affluent feminism, and a working class living downstream from feminism.
Affluent feminism exists among the neo-traditional upper middle class. This feminist graduates from college. She settles into a career, after some affirming mentors and internships. She may attend a church that caters to her needs and vision of herself. She is in good shape. She has had more sexual partners than her mother did, but she finally settles down, marries, and stays married. She may have a kid or two. She practices achievement-oriented child-rearing. She and her husband are equal partners and best friends. The ideal of female accomplishment organizes life and institutions where she exerts influence.
At the same time, affluent feminists embrace “post-materialist” values such as tolerance for cohabitation, sex outside of marriage, having children outside of marriage, divorce, and homosexuality. They tend not to think that family life and children are important to happiness. They oppose traditional sex roles. Their ideological commitment to marriage is weak. And, as generations proceed, fewer marry and fewer have children.
There is a great paradox here: the ideology of marriage and family life is weak among the uppers, but the “neo-traditional” practice of it, such as it is, is strong.
Rural and working classes live downstream from the feminist culture of achievement, but do not adopt its white-collar careerism. They too think of themselves as independent, but differently. They don’t celebrate the breaking of glass ceilings. Upper class women rely on feminist networks to get ahead, while lower-class women among “our people” reject traditional femininity and hope to achieve through their own hard work and talents—old American values. Generally, those who are not college graduates are more suspicious of divorce, gay parenting, and illegitimacy, though not by huge numbers.
But lower-class women live the feminist ideal out more than their upper-class sisters. Lower-class women are more freed from marriage, just as feminists had hoped all women to be. Lower-class women reject the habits and practice of domesticity more than their upper-class sisters—such families eat fewer meals together, for instance.
Another paradox: the lower class has, at least, no worse attitudes toward family breakdown than the uppers, but marriage and family life are also weaker among the lower classes.
If ideas really mattered, one would expect that the more progressive uppers would have a worse marriage culture than they do and the lower classes to have a better one. But it is the opposite.
The concerns of upper-class feminists dominate the women’s movement (e.g., pay equity in employment). Lower-class “feminism” is a logical consequence of de-stabilizing and dishonoring marriage and the importance of motherhood in a civilization. It is a package deal. As feminist advocate Stephanie Coontz writes in Marriage, A History (2005), marriage among the upper classes is “more joyful, more loving and more satisfying” than any previous marriages. The neo-traditionalists think they have invented happiness! At the same time, marriage has also become “optional and more brittle” among the lower classes. These “two strands,” Coontz concludes, cannot “be disentangled.” The lower classes need the traditions and sex roles that the upper classes have destroyed. Bummer.
But then the uppers re-imposed some of the standards for themselves alone. The stigma of illegitimacy and divorce, for instance, has waned the most among the uppers, but the uppers have fewer illegitimate children and divorce less frequently than the lowers.
The uppers live in a bubble where “weak” family practice is, indeed, stigmatized, but in a non-traditional way. Weak family practice compromises careers and successful child-raising. Having a child out of wedlock? It complicates one’s career. It compromises one’s pursuit of higher education. It is risky. And everyone knows it. Imagine a young female attorney walking into a room of young unmarried female attorneys at the age of twenty-five. Her indiscretion has led to an unwanted pregnancy. No one feels bad for the child. The first thought is: it might be a career-killer! What could be more shameful than that? Honor and shame among the careerists tell against illegitimacy (and fertility too).
Much the same is true of the careerist bubble on divorce. When people marry and have children, those children must also be high-achievers so they can enter into America’s ruling class. Articles about the ways in which our upper-class elites reproduce themselves are legion. Competition to get into the best nursery schools starts very early. Getting into the Ivies is a prerequisite for a good life. A child’s achievement is, after all, a reflection on the parents. Divorce would seriously compromise successful social reproduction. Again, shame and honor in the careerist bubble tell against divorce. They also tell against what causes divorce, so there is much respect for fidelity in marriage and even more church attendance than one might expect given the elite’s secularism. Church is good for the kids. The well-off practice traditional morality with a very “neo” justification for it.
Uppers have internalized the idea that family breakdown is bad, not out of respect for marriage and family life, but out of respect for careerism and its props. It is self-interest rightly understood duly adapted to a feminist world. Perhaps unconsciously, their approach to marriage undermines the lives of the lower classes and increasing their class advantages.
The lower classes, however, do not have the discipline that the career ideal imposes. They just work jobs, when they work. This is sensible, in a way, since the uppers suffer from the career mystique—a gross elevation of the importance of careers in the human life. To organize one’s life around a career is preparation for unhappiness and disappointment. This rejection of elite opinion is part of what makes the lower classes “our people.” So does their attitudinal commitment to marriage and family life, which is higher than the attitudinal commitment among the uppers.
But that rejection of the career mystique is not enough. The lower classes divorce. They cohabitate. They have illegitimate children. They worship less often, increasingly. They are, in a sense, infantilized through their unwillingness to think for the long term.
Life among “our people” downstream from feminism is not pretty, as a result. In Deaths of Despair, two economists document the striking, unprecedented increases in suicide, drug overdoses, and alcohol related deaths among Americans without college degrees. In 1990, women who were not college graduates died in numbers similar to men and women who were (about 20 deaths of despair per 100,000). The number has increased to nearly 100 deaths for women without a college degree in 2015. (The number for men without college went from about 50 per 100,000 in 1990 to 175 in 2015).
Deaths of despair are a canary in the coalmine for a broader sinking of morale among those without college degrees. Use of opioids among women without college has skyrocketed. Many more women without college are obese (44 percent in 2011-2014 according to a CDC study, compared to about 27 percent of college graduates) and they are much more likely to have obese children. Meta-analysis of international data shows that as education level decreases among women, obesity increases in high-income countries like America and modern Europe. This finding seems consistent over the past generation, as a 2007 meta-analysis shows.
Perhaps, as our economists suggest, morale sinks because jobs that gave meaning to life have disappeared for those without a college education. As Wilcox and Wang show, however, the decline of marriage among the lower classes preceded the decline of good jobs among them. Cultural shifts, they say, including “the counterculture, sexual revolution and the rise of expressive individualism” undercut the “norms, values, and virtues and sustain strong and stable marriages and families.” The decline of marriage, something which gives meaning to jobs, is at the root of despair among the lower classes. Wilcox and Wang refrain from mentioning feminism, but they should include it as the main factor in our “cultural shift.”
It is not enough to restore American manufacturing and return to the American traditions of family life among the poor and working class. Restoration of dignified work does not mean that men will have the habits to complete the work or see the work as serving a family. Nor will public aid to families suffice to build the family among the lower classes if family life is not itself honored. The marital culture and the sex roles within marriage are too damaged to rely on.
Tradition must be reconstructed in our new circumstances. Such a reconstruction will proceed from a new elite, one willing to put forward a public philosophy consistent with the actual behavior of our credentialed elite today. It is especially incumbent upon such a new elite wishing to reinvigorate America to “minister” to ”our people” about these central issues. Ignore the clamor and gender confusion and speak the truth about human happiness and thriving and its relation to a great country. Create the economic conditions to make it more likely that men and women will rely on one another for community and economy.
Time for what Charles Haywood calls “sex role realism.” Men need responsibility—and family life is one of the chief, most accessible sources of responsible happiness; women find meaning as hubs of a tight-knit family. Work serves these goods; people can still live decent family lives if they are responsible and think in the long-term. No populist speech should be given without asking people in the audience: What will your life be like, on its current trajectory, when you are 45 years or 60 years old? If you think life without marriage is going to work for you, think again.
A slew of policies might support the reconstruction of a decent marital regime among the lower classes. But no policy can proceed without calling people to responsible love and long-term thinking, instead of the fatalism and victimhood that populism can feed.
Those in the upper class who self-identify as feminists have their own distinctive set of first-world problems and struggles. Downstream comes a different set—less civilized and rawer. These are a package deal, so any new American elite cannot be feminist. Only a world beyond feminism where an alternative set of gender expectations are roles govern will revitalize “our people.”
Originally published in The American Mind on June 18, 2021.