Friday, March 03, 2006

Patriarchy: It's what women want

Hi, it's Charlie from Shades Of Grey again. The Nut has invited me to post here today to celebrate the one year anniversary of the first post at Welcome To The Nuthouse. So be sure to wish her a happy blogiversary! To celebrate, let's tear into John Tierney's latest. It will be fun!

Titled The Happiest Wives, it can be found here, although you'll have to have a New York Times Select account to read it. It only seems appropriate that I should excerpt liberally. And what better place to start than at the beginning?

Freud confessed that his "thirty years of research into the feminine soul" left him unable to answer one great question: "What does a woman want?" Modern feminists have been arguing for decades over a variation of it: What should a woman want?

This week two sociologists from the University of Virginia are publishing the answer to a more manageable variation. Drawing on one of the most thorough surveys ever done of married couples, they've crunched the numbers and asked: What makes a woman happy with her marriage?

One sentence in and already the entire article is tainted by the idea that women are generic creatures who all want the same thing. The second sentence is a sweeping reduction of decades of feminism. But it isn't until the second paragraph that the real issue of this essay is addressed. Tierney wants to show us how a woman can be happy in the patriarchy. But perhaps I'm being ungenerous. If anything, his reductio ad absurdum version of feminism strongly suggests that he's going to show us how a woman should be happy.

To get there, Tierney first takes on the ideal of an egalitarian marriage. Noting that by the 1990's two-thirds of Americans believed that an ideal marriage was a partnership that featured an equal division of labor, he goes on to point out that most Americans espousing this ideal never actually put it into practice.

As he describes such a marriage, Tierney also takes small jabs at it:

This new egalitarian marriage was hailed by academics and relationship gurus as a recipe for a happier union. As wives went off to work and husbands took on new jobs at home, couples would supposedly have more in common and more to talk about. Husbands would do more "emotion work," as sociologists call it, and wives would be more fulfilled.

Got that, everyone? Never mind that two-thirds of Americans agree, it's those damn liberal "academics and relationship gurus" who are pushing for equality in marriage. And the idea that common experiences will give a couple more to talk about? Yeah, "supposedly." Tierney's ultimate goal is to knock down a straw man and hope that feminism gets caught in the collateral damage, so he also includes the idea that the emotional aspect of a marriage is also a man's responsibility.

That was the theory tested by the Virginia sociologists, Bradford Wilcox and Steven Nock, who analyzed a survey of more than 5,000 couples. Sure enough, they found that husbands' "emotion work" was crucial to wives' happiness. Having an affectionate and understanding husband was by far the most important predictor of a woman's satisfaction with her marriage.

But it turns out that an equal division of labor didn't make husbands more affectionate or wives more fulfilled. The wives working outside the home reported less satisfaction with their husbands and their marriages than did the stay-at-home wives.

Here's where Tierney pulls the first bait-and-switch. Wilcox and Nock did not, in fact, test the theory that egalitarian marriage makes people happier. They couldn't possibly have. By Tierney's own admission, those marriages don't exist on any kind of wide scale. Instead, they looked at existing marriages and determine what made the people in them happy.

And surprise! Men generally don't like it when they have to do more work. And the women with jobs? It turns out splitting the workload doesn't make them happier so long as they have an unsympathetic husband. These results simply aren't surprising, and they aren't evidence against feminist theory. Men generally don't like it when their patriarchy is taken away from them. So what?

This is, of course, why misrepresenting feminism as being about what women should want is a bad idea. Feminism isn't just for women. An egalitarian society is by definition not egalitarian if men aren't as committed to equality as women. In other words, feminism isn't about what women should want. It's about what we all should want.

But this is a bait-and-switch in another way, too. Here, Tierney implies that when men and women are sharing the housework equally, it doesn't make everyone happier. But at the end of the article, he admits that isn't so:

The happiest wives in their study were the ones who said that housework was divided fairly between them and their husbands. But those same happy wives also did more of the work at home while their husbands did more work outside home.

Surprise again! Those women with careers? They still do most of the work at home. Not only is this not a criticism of feminist theory, this is exactly the result feminist theory predicts.

But Tierney isn't done yet:

These male providers-in-chief were regarded fondly by even the most feminist-minded women — the ones who said they believed in dividing duties equally. In theory these wives were egalitarians, but in their own lives they preferred more traditional arrangements.

Tierney demonstrates that it is possible for women — even feminists — to find a way to be happy in a patriarchy. But he is mistaken to interpret this as evidence that women prefer a patriarchy. Most of us have gone through or will go through the death of a parent. And after it happens, most of us manage to find a way to be happy again. But our happiness doesn't mean that we prefer our parent dead. It only shows that we human beings have an amazing ability to adapt to many situations.

Tierney continues by pointing out that on average, women still do twice as much housework men. That would be unfair, he says,

unless you look at how men and women behave when they're living by themselves: the women do twice as much housework as the men do. Single men do less cooking and cleaning, because those jobs don't seem as important to them. They can live with unmade beds and frozen dinners.

And we're finally to the point that you knew we'd get to eventually. We are supposed to ignore the fact that egalitarian marriages have never really been tried. We should assume they wouldn't work anyway, because men and women are just built differently. It's the old nature vs. nurture debate rearing its ugly head again. And true to form, the people arguing the most strenuously on behalf of nature are the ones who have the most to lose.

Nock doesn't claim to have divined the feminine soul, but he does have one answer to Freud's question.

"A woman wants equity," he says. "That's not necessarily the same as equality."

If there has ever been a better definition of patriarchy than that last sentence, I haven't seen it.