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The Right Won’t Accomplish Anything by Radicalizing Marriage

(Photo: Szefei/Dreamstime)

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece for NRO called “No One Can Have It All,” in which I argued that both third-wave feminism and some right-wing traditionalist critiques of it miss the mark when it comes to balancing marriage, family, and meaningful work.

The piece was prompted by a recent Dennis Prager column in which he quoted a caller to his radio show, who advised young women not to postpone finding a spouse in order to advance their career.

Fair enough. There’s a lot to be said for recognizing the value in marriage and avoiding the loneliness and regret that can result from unnecessarily delaying family formation. But too many commentators on the right take this argument too far.

Consider this article by Joy Pullmann, published earlier this week in The Federalist, which asserts in its introduction that “feminism is antithetical to human flourishing.” Given that there are as many definitions of feminism as there are people who think about feminism, it’s particularly disappointing that Pullmann neglects to define her terms.

If by feminism she means radically progressive third-wave feminists who tell women they need government-funded contraceptives and abortion on demand in order to be free and happy, Pullmann and I agree completely. But if by feminism she means the intellectual framework and accompanying political movement that accorded women the right to vote and today maintains that women shouldn’t be disadvantaged in the workplace, for example, she has a tougher case to make.

And she doesn’t manage to make that case with much force; in large part, she seems to be fighting an ill-defined bogeyman. As evidence for her antipathy toward the “feminist life script,” she offers the story of a 35-year-old woman who now regrets living as a “creative” and replacing stability with a series of moves and short-term relationships. Pullmann also cites the caller that Prager built his original column around, a single woman in her fifties who regrets failing to seek a spouse.

These examples are an obvious cautionary tale, and they are borne out by data showing that many women do in fact regret placing career above long-term relationships and child-bearing. But they’re only examples. Anecdotes and data are not evidence that there’s no value in establishing a meaningful career before settling down. And they certainly are not evidence that women need to “find someone in [their] 20s” when, as Prager’s caller put it, “you’re still very cute.” That many women prioritize high-powered careers to the exclusion of meaningful relationships, and that some come to regret that choice, obviously does not imply that every woman will necessarily find fulfillment in early marriage — or that we should despair if we fail to achieve it.

Many women marry later than their early 20s for reasons that have nothing to do with burying themselves in work, and such women are completely elided by these clumsy, one-size-fits-all arguments. It is immensely counterproductive for conservatives who value marriage and family to treat singleness as a disease or denigrate those who marry late.

The best response to “Lean In” feminism — which demands that the world provide women a way to “have it all” — is encouraging both men and women to properly balance competing goods. It is not compelling to present, as Pullmann does, OKCupid data showing that men find women less attractive with age. What follows from this reference? Since most of Pullmann’s essay is an exercise in insinuating that particular examples prove a universal point, readers are left wondering what this data is meant to illustrate. Are we to believe that there’s inherent value in marrying as young as possible, even if we must find the man in question on OKCupid, as he browses for 19-year-old women? Presumably there are women who would prefer to be valued for much more than their youthful appearance and who are willing to wait to find a man who will do so, even if that means marrying later in life.

We as conservatives need to be able to tell women and men that family life is valuable without simultaneously telling them that there’s no way to balance a meaningful career and a happy marriage.

The answer to third-wave feminism’s insistence on abandoning family for the sake of a career is not to insist just as vociferously that women must abandon fulfilling work for the sake of marriage. No one can “have it all,” but that doesn’t mean balance is impossible.

Pro-family conservatives should stop telling women otherwise.

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