In 2010, for the first time in our nation’s history, men constituted a minority of the nation’s workforce. Colleges typically boast a 60-40 female-male ratio. Women make up an ever-larger percentage of corporate executives and other high-paying high-profile positions. It is no longer an oddity when a woman runs for the nation’s so-called highest office.
Are men on the decline, the victims of the increasing authority and prominence of women? So we see in an increasing number of studies and essays. Women are ascendant, men descendant. If evidence were needed for this claim one would need only consult the pages of The Atlantic, that once-proud organ of American letters and essays, which has increasingly been dominated by women talking about women, or perhaps talking about men. One doesn’t see in its pages men talking about men, or – more audaciously – men talking about women. The essays range from the more social sciency sorts of essays, such as Hanna Rosin semi-gleefully announcing the end of men, to the narcissistic ramblings of Sandra Tsing Loh, which are so shamelessly self-revelatory they’d likely make Rousseau blush.
Not that the essays are typically accompanied by self-awareness, or any sense of irony. The quest for emancipation has led mainly to confusion and a lot of feeling sorry for oneself. But it takes a gifted writer to turn this self-pity into an art form, worthy of the magazine that has published Emerson and Lowell and Whitman and Thoreau and Twain and Stowe and Dickinson and the James brothers and … well, you get the idea.
Kate Bolick’s recent cover story doesn’t exactly put her in a league with those august writers. The essay is too poorly organized and too poorly researched to be the serious piece of scholarship it sometimes aspires to be, and by pieces both too self-conscious and not self-conscious enough to be an essay that can manage any sense of universality. Neither does it try, for the intended audience is clearly women like her, in the middle way and toward the end of their child-bearing years, with a vague sense that something has gone wrong, but without the critical apparatus to figure out what, exactly, that might be. And since men and children both are largely regarded as accessories to a stylish and independent upper-middle class life, she’s unlikely to find any answers by exploring a genuine alterity. Her life consists mostly, it seems, of talking to women like her who all seem intent on mutual affirmation in the name of independence. But for all that, it’s an essay worth reading.
Bolick indicates early that she intends to give us a memoir that merely describes without seeking to gain any clarity in the process. The first paragraph contains nine personal pronouns. Not to be outdone, the second manages ten. The pace is maintained throughout the essay. Bolick’s sensibilities are formed of two principles which offer no concession to competing ideas or experiences: “a post-Boomer ideology that values emotional fulfillment above all else” and the related idea that the summum bonum is personal autonomy.
This emphasis on personal autonomy extends across relationships and all moral claims. All Bolick’s moral reasoning typically involves thinking through choices in language too thin to bear the weight of the choices themselves. It may be the case that some women “want their own biological child” and those that do may or may not find a man useful in this context. Indeed, these are “great times” for women because of all the “non-traditional” ways of bringing children into one’s life. So one chooses between a more traditional route of having children and a newfound one, but here we find that reality has a way of intruding itself upon our choices. As she ages, Bolick finds that the pool of men who are willing to settle down with her and have children is getting shallower all the time, so even if she chose to pursue the traditional route, it is increasingly unavailable to her. In a classic moment of amor fati she writes:
“But what can I do about that? Sure, my stance here could be read as a feint, or even self-deception. By blithely deeming biology a non-issue, I’m conveniently removing myself from arguably the most significant decision a woman has to make. But that is if you regard motherhood as the defining feature of womanhood – and I happen not to.”
“I happen not to.” When personal autonomy cuts itself off from the enframing possibilities of tradition and the wholeness of relationships grounded in the complementary otherness of man and woman, moral choices have no greater evocative force than “I happen not to.” Why Bolick believes her musings her might have value to anyone else is beyond me. They certainly don’t bring clarity to her own situation, because precisely at the moment she finds herself pulled away from her own inclinations by the reality of her condition, she returns to them with a shrug rather than attempting the difficult working of asking whether the feminist movement, as embodied in her own mother, has perhaps sold her a bill of goods. (For the record, one shouldn’t blame only feminism here, for it is only a species of the larger emphasis on emancipation.)
So while celebrating the gains of the feminist movement (“good for everyone”) she simultaneously wonders why men and marriage have had a hard time of it, never asking for a moment if the two things might somehow be related to one another, except for the vague realization that perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of female sexual exploration are sexually charged males with no moral compass.
Here again, even while she reflects on the piggishness of men who are more interested in sex than commitment, she doesn’t see how her own choices and transparent moral calculus have contributed to the problem. She laments the novelist who, “after a month [!] of hanging out” decided he wanted to have sex with other women but also wanted to “keep having sex anyhow.” Well, no one can accuse either of them overvaluing chastity. One is struck time after time when reading the story about the disjunction between intemperate sexual behavior and sexual fulfillment. One of the great ironies of the essay is that, for a person who values personal fulfillment above all else, she has no idea how to go about achieving it, and the more she makes it a goal of her actions, the more elusive it becomes. And in that we see the piece is really emblematic of our culture at large.
She makes this even clearer when she engages in conversation with a group of young women about their sexual lives. The sad stories are of young women who have been well-schooled in comparative shopping and sexual technique, but have found none of it “particularly sensual or exciting … fueled less by lust than by a vague sense of social conformity” (lust and conformity being apparently the only two options for engaging sex). The author describes these young woman as having “grown up in a jungle” where they’ve never had a satisfying relationship and are frightened by the prospect they may never have one. Yet for all that, the author never once questions the sexual paradigm itself.
In inveighing against “the tyranny of two” the author ends up with the hell of herself and little means of escape. She tries to celebrate “the rise of the aunt” by noting, with no small hint of desperation, that “there are many ways to love in this world.” Perhaps those ways might include settling for someone much lower on the desirability scale. Perhaps it might involve polyamory or “ethical nonmonogamy.” Perhaps it might involve imitating primitive tribes who allow women in the cloak of night to have as much sex with as many partners as they like, or none at all, and distribute parental responsibilities across the clan. Or perhaps it might involve the formation of secular cloisters wherein women provide each other with all the intimacy they need and sexual desire is sublimated into creative pursuits. Or perhaps it might involve the endorsement of “alternative family arrangements” that signify the next step in the evolution of the species.
But what it cannot involve is a cessation of the pursuit of the holy grails of personal fulfillment and autonomy. It cannot involve reflecting on the possibility that men and women are particularly suited to join with one another in a permanent and monogamous relationship, directed toward their children, and thus learn to live selflessly with one another, putting aside their own projects and desires in loving sacrifice to someone else. Ms. Bolick cannot entertain the possibility that her “aching loneliness” and sense of unhappiness result from, and are not incidental to, her blithe acceptance of her mother’s second wave feminism with its insistence that marriage was a form of captivity.
Christianity insists on the paradoxical nature of our existences. In losing our lives, we find it. In seeking the good for others, we find it for ourselves. In dying we live. In obedience we find freedom. Else we are trapped in our solitude, like Ms. Bolick, and while on occasion we may intuit things have gone drastically wrong, we lack the spiritual resources which may lead us back on the path to our true humanity. So the world of personal autonomy abandons the poor soul to itself, and now its victim surveys the rubble of her life, with the “too many ex-boyfriends to count” who could provide no deep or sustaining human relationship, the “grim-seeming options” that are the apogee of personal choice, the sense that “something was missing” but no cultivated imagination to identify what it might be and the concomitant inability to “envision my life any differently,” the feckless moral judgments that she tries to compensate for with vague assertions about progress and evolution, and the pervasive ambivalence grounded in the fear that perhaps she has chosen unwisely.
At least she can compensate for all this with an expense account and a six-figure income. She’s not the hardest hit victim of this experiment in de-institutionalizing human love and sex. What of the black women and the poor women she draws our attention to and then abandons, just as surely as the men who impregnated them? What of the children of these couplings? What of the young college student who is promised a four-year long sexual playground and emerges with no capacity for intimacy and a boatload of memories and God-knows-what else he or she will be carrying into the marital bed? And then this student graduates, having never taken advantage of the single best pool of potential mates he or she is ever likely to happen across, and are now in an entry-level position at minimum pay while at the same time trying to pay off $24,000 in college loans? These young people, whose elders and professors are busy telling that there is no greater good than personal fulfillment and personal autonomy, and now find themselves in their 20’s with grim economic prospects and even grimmer relational ones? To whom, or to what, shall they turn? Is it any wonder that personal libertinism is being accompanied by political quackery that promises to make those problems go away?
Ms. Bolick’s essay is a sad reminder that modern selves have paid a high price in estrangement for their “emancipation.” Estranged from themselves, from others, and from a set of spiritual resources that places them in the larger context of reality that we cannot control but can only serve. And in such service human beings find their purpose and fulfillment. One imagine Ms. Bolick in her Amsterdam cloister twenty years from now, looking out at the cold drizzle falling on the canals, neither wiser nor happier, only sadder. Such is the fate of the “I.”