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Has Feminism Made Good on Its Own Promises?
July 7, 2004
by Carey Roberts

In the distant primordial past, men took care of women, and mothers took care of children. Men produced, women reproduced.

That basic social contract was simple as it was profound: Men were responsible for protecting and providing for the family. And women took care of the childbearing and childrearing part. It was the proto-nuclear family.

That social arrangement allowed the human species to multiply and thrive. It worked so well that over the last 100,000 years, homo sapiens spread from Africa to the farthest reaches of the world.

So what would happen if that ancient social contract were radically reworked over the course of a few decades?

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that it was men who decided one day to abandon the old ways. What would the new social contract look like? Bear with me as I lay it out.

First, let's pretend that some wondrous invention relieves men of the obligation to provide for and protect their families - no more demands to work sunrise to sunset or to fend off the ever-lurking saber-tooth tiger.

Next, some mad scientist comes along and clones a female uterus. So now men have the choice to become pregnant and bear children.

Actually, that idea is not as outrageous as it sounds. Biomedical cloning has advanced much farther than most persons realize -- scientists have already proven they can sustain a uterus outside a woman's body. Now, some say it's just a matter of time until we begin implanting wombs in men.

As improbable as the previous three paragraphs may sound, what I have just described is the social equivalent of what has happened to women over the past 44 years.

Because on May 21, 1960, the FDA approved Enovid as the first birth control pill. In addition, lower mortality rates of their offspring allowed women to conceive only two or three children without threatening the survival of the species. Anthropologist Lionel Tiger argues that those two medical advances liberated women from their biological destinies much more than feminism every could.

In 1973, the Roe v. Wade decision took things even further by granting women legal control over reproduction. And three years later in Danforth v. Planned Parenthood, the Supreme Court ruled that a wife could obtain an abortion even without consulting her husband. In his dissent from that landmark opinion, Justice William Rehnquist argued that the State should recognize "that the husband has an interest of his own, which should not be extinguished by the unilateral decision of the wife." In other words, Rehnquist was saying that this decision was tantamount to the biological disenfranchisement of fathers. Now, women were no longer bound by the age-old social obligation to bear and raise children. Instead, women were encouraged to pursue fame and fortune.

This had the unfortunate effect of displacing men from their traditional roles as provider and protector. Dislocated from their traditional family roles, many men became dispirited and marginalized. Many younger men opted out of marriage altogether.

In hindsight, we now see that we have engaged in an extraordinary social experiment. The rapid rise in divorce rates, out-of-wedlock births, and fatherless families reveal the effects of altering that timeless social contract.

And women are discovering that the provider/protector role is more onerous than they had imagined. Working the corporate grind is not as glamorous as Cosmo once made it out to be.

And our children - does anyone truly believe that a child prefers to come home from school, only to find a note from mom with preparation instructions for tonight's microwaveable meal?

To be sure, dramatic reductions in infant mortality rates have thankfully relieved women from the burden of non-stop procreation. So this essay is not a sentimental appeal for a return to the days of rigid and outmoded sex roles.

Rather, this column is a call for an honest appraisal of whether feminism has fulfilled its own promises of creating a kinder, gentler, and more egalitarian society - not just for women, but for men and children, as well.

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