223 Women and the Future of the Family

In 1998 Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, a distinguished humanities professor at Emory University, gave the Kuyper Lectures at Eastern College in Pennsylvania.  The lectures appear in Women and the Future of the Family (Grand Rapids:  Baker Books, c. 2000).  As an historian, she sought to place current issues in their proper context; as a concerned woman she sought to contribute to the formation of better, stronger families.  She began by noting the problems of sex and violence among our young.  While many “experts” blame external factors such as pornography and firearms, something more profound is at work, and refusing to recognize “direct connections between the aberrant behavior of children and the nature of family life” (p. 16) is manifestly self-deceptive.  To the author, “even while it is impossible to blame a child’s family for his or her behavior, it is entirely appropriate to draw connections between prevailing types of families and prevailing patterns of behavior among children and youth” (p. 16).  

Discerning “the signs of the times,” she acknowledges that the modern family faces great stresses and that our children are doing poorly.   It is obvious “that children would fare better if their mothers did not work outside the home, or, at least, if one of their parents were at home when the children return from school.  These days only the most unreconstructed traditionalists—many with some hesitation—dare to suggest that a mother and a father may play different roles in a child’s life and, hence, have different responsibilities” (p. 17).  Disturbingly, there is an “astounding complacency toward the ominous tendencies of our political, social, and cultural life, for within a remarkably brief period we have, almost without noticing, embraced a cataclysmic transformation of the very nature of our society” (p. 17).  

In part this results from the historic rise of individualism.  Whether one considers economics, with men and women seeking salaried employment, or religion, where neither men nor women seem particularly heedful of their churches’ admonitions, Americans clearly value their freedoms.  To many, personal autonomy—releasing the chains that tie them to spouses or children or parents, communities or traditions, churches or theology—is life’s summum bonum.  This love of freedom flourished, particularly on the frontier, from the country’s earliest days, but it was, until recently, counterbalanced by strong families—still quite hierarchical and traditional—wherein the father assumed “authority over all, including his wife,” and parents assumed “authority over their children” (p. 21).  By reacting against any husband’s authority,  however, 19th century feminists launched a liberation movement that subtly bore fruit in the 20th century.  Yet, Fox-Genovese asserts:  “One thing is blindingly clear:  “The transformation of women’s lives and expectations during recent decades has no historical precedent, and its consequences reach into every aspect of family a societal life.  Above all, the changes in women’s lives and expectations are having a radical impact on families and the very idea of the family, and therefore on the lives of children, and therefore on the character and prospects of future generations” (p. 24).  

Much has improved for women, thanks to the feminist movement, and “the comparative improvement in the position of women relative to that of men has been revolutionary, vastly surpassing the improvement secured in a comparable span of time by any other working group in history” (p. 26).  But the very freedoms enjoyed by modern women bring with them another set of challenges.  Sexual liberation, secured by abortion rights, has certainly been less than an unmixed blessing!  Importantly, preeminently:  “Defense of abortion on demand has remained a sacred tenet of feminists, who regard it as the cornerstone of women’s sexual freedom and who oppose any restrictions on it” (p. 28).  Autonomous individuals cast aside all ties that bind!  Autonomous women must, above all, be freed from childbearing, even if it involves killing infants in the womb.  Recourse to abortion, of course, frees a woman from “children—the possible consequence of her sexuality.  This strategy effectively divorces children from any social institution by labeling them the concern of a woman rather than of a woman and a man” (p. 28).  The courts, notably the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v Danforth, declared “the husband has no more stake in his wife’s pregnancy than any other individual, which effectively strips him of any stake in the family and strips the family of any standing as an organic unit.  More disturbing, as Tiffany R. Jones and Larry Peterman argue, Danforth, but shredding the husband’s stake in children, establishes that ‘there is nothing of one’s own in the most serious sense left for husbands in the family’” (p. 29).  

Inevitably—it necessarily follows—the family loses standing, subject to the volatile desires of adults and children who may or may not choose to live together.  Sexual liberation cannot but cause “the disintegration of the family” (p. 31).  Though virtually all careful studies demonstrate how children suffer when their parents divorce, roughly half of them will spend at least part of their lives in a single parent home.  With an inexorable inevitability, in the wake of the “equality” of the sexes came the “skyrocketing number of out-of-wedlock births and the declining rate of marriage” (p. 32), developments hardly anticipated by the champions of women’s liberation 50 years ago.  Like it or not, Fox-Genovese says:  “The sexual liberation of women, combined with the feminist campaign against marriage and motherhood as the special vocation of women, has directly contributed to the declining birthrate, the proliferation of single-parent or single-mother families, and the number of children born outside of marriage” (p. 35).  

Even apparently bland feminist demands, including calls for egalitarian marriages and insisting men and women should abandon traditional roles with men cleaning and cooking and keeping house, spoil domestic tranquility, for “couples in which men share domestic tasks with their wives are more likely to divorce than those in which they do not; those in which the man earns more than 50 percent of the family’s income are less likely to divorce than those in which he does not; and the larger the share of the family’s income the wife earns, the more likely her husband is to abuse her” (p. 34).  Feminists insist that marriage be a “contract,” obligating both partners to share equally in all aspects of life together.  Consequently, a woman defending her “rights” within such a relationship easily feels umbrage when it seems she is doing more than her fair (i.e. equal) share.  Forgotten is the fact that marriage, unlike a business deal, demands surrendering rather than promoting one’s rights!  

Women asserting individual autonomy encouraged men to claim it as well, and “the sexual liberation of women has realized men’s most predatory sexual fantasies.  As women shook themselves free from the norms and conventions of sexual conduct, men did the same” (p. 31).  The permission granted our sexual license “effectively destroys the ideal of binding moral norms.  By definition, when morality becomes a matter of personal preference, it ceases to be a binding social norm, and personal preference is merely the logical application of the consumer choice vigorously promoted by global corporations.  The discrediting of binding social norms in turn undermines our ability to protect children, who themselves are now seen to enjoy virtually the same individual rights as adults” (p. 39).  

While this great social upheaval has transformed our social world, the only institution (the Church) capable of providing guidance amidst it all has “showed little enthusiasm for condemning the disintegrative forces out of hand” (p. 37).   Quite the opposite!  The churches have in fact become agents for sexual liberation and feminist theology.  To Fox-Genovese—so lately returned to the Christian faith—this poses a major challenge.  Indeed:   “The greatest danger of all may lie in the dissemination of sexual egalitarianism within our churches, for the core of Christianity has always lain in the simultaneous reality of our particularity and our universality” (p. 44).  

This brief book, composed of five succinct lectures, is followed by responses by Stanley J. Grenz, Mardi Keyes, and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, all taking exception to some of Fox-Genovese’s views.  Basically they all support some strain of evangelical feminism.  Other than illustrating enduring tensions within the Christian world, they merit only cursory attention.  

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In the 1980s Elizabeth Fox-Genovese was a lustrous fixture in the pantheon of academic feminism.  A decade earlier she’d aligned herself with militant feminists who  “supported a woman’s right to have an abortion, equal pay for equal work, a married woman’s right to keep her name, women’s equal access to credit, and no fault divorce” (p. 15).  Along wither her husband, Eugene Genovese, she articulated a Marxist vision of history, and she was selected to establish and head a department of women’s studies at Emory University.  Having done so, however, she found that the women she recruited as professors quickly envisioned themselves as social activists rather than serious scholars, and in time she was shoved aside by   supposed “scholars” determined to indoctrinate naive students.  

By the 1990s Fox-Genovese had become both disillusioned with radical feminism and drawn to the Christian Faith—and in particular the Catholic Church which she joined.  To better understand her final views on the subject one must read her “Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life”:  How Today’s Feminist Elite Has Lost Touch with the Real Concerns of Women (New York:  Doubleday, c. 1996).  In writing the book Fox-Genovese blends an extensive number of interviews with the academic literature so well known to her.  She found that for ordinary women, almost without exception, “Feminism is not talking about my life” (p. 2).  Feminists talked incessantly about themselves and their theories, but they knew little or nothing about common women who love men and deeply treasure marriage and children.  The author’s “book is no conservative manifesto,” says Maggie Gallagher.  “Instead it is one feminist writer’s attempt to understand why, at a time when feminist ideas about work and equality are widely accepted, so few American women identify with feminism as a political cause.”  

Consequently most of these women avoid any association with “feminism.”  For example, to a “tough, independent and strikingly beautiful” New Mexico rancher’s wife, who routinely saddled up and helped work cattle, “feminism has nothing to do with her life and feminists, whom she views as soft as well as softheaded liberals, would no last two days on her ranch” (p. 22).   Such women bear bad news for feminists, for the “overwhelming majority of American women perceive feminism as irrelevant.  In their view, feminism has no answer for the women’s issues that most concern them” (p. 33).  And Fox-Genovese has increasingly identified with these hard-working common folks rather than her peers in the academic elite!  For example:  “I have always known that, faced with a choice, my marriage would come before my career” (p. 6).  As a childless academic, she never faced that choice, but in her heart she’d already decided—her man comes first! 

The author’s love for and commitment to her husband revealed her deeply feminine nature.  But feminists, she notes, “have not had much patience with femininity, which they see as a trap that distracts women from the pursuit of power and independence.  For what is femininity except a disguise that women adopt to appeal to men?  As it happens, most women still do want to appeal to men, which may help to explain why they do not have much use for feminism” (p. 36).  This conviction leads Fox-Genovese to justify and actually celebrate many of the alluringly feminine interests and endeavors so despised by prominent feminists—shopping with friends, fashionable dresses, sculpted nails, regular perms, etc.  Feminists who condemn femininity ignore the blatant truth that women themselves cheerfully embrace it.  

For many radicals, Fox-Genovese says, “feminism is mainly about sex,” and their fervent commitment to pre-marital sex, shacking up, no-fault divorce and abortion rights—“the litmus test” of the movement—illustrates it (p. 59).  Sexual activity has been freed from moral restrictions, reduced to a pleasurable realm wherein most anything goes.  Almost overnight (in the 1960s) “a solid majority of young people in their late teens and twenties saw no connection between premarital sex and morality at all” (p. 75).  Women could, at long last, enjoy unfettered sex as freely as men. “This much is clear:  The sexual revolution has irreversibly transformed the lives of American women, who are trying to understand what that transformation means for them” (p. 60).  For most women, however, the sexual revolution has proven problematic, and for a large number of them its consequences have been injurious.  “What these apostles of liberation were unwilling to imagine was that sex itself might make women unequal to men” (p. 63).  Unmarried, impoverished, rearing children by themselves, numbers of mature women pay the price of our nation’s sexual liberation!

Coping with their sexual liberation certainly challenges the women Fox-Genovese interviewed for this book.  Feminism “has convinced a surprising number of Americans that ‘fairness’ to women requires permitting them virtually the same sexual freedom as men, although they obviously face immeasurably greater risks.  Uncertainty about what that freedom should mean has undermined their willingness to defend any single public moral standard” (p. 90).  Cut loose from the firm standards once prescribed by Christian churches, left to devise their own “personal” perspectives, they struggle to make sense of their world and look critically at feminists’ promulgations.  “Slightly more than half have come to believe that the increased acceptance of premarital sex has been bad for society, and only 30 percent think more sexual freedom in the future a good idea” (p. 94).  Now that they’re rearing their own children, the promiscuous freedoms of the ‘60s generation seem less and less exciting!  “Teen pregnancy, AIDS, drugs, and pornography intertwine to threaten everything they believe in and, especially, everything they want for their children.  They do not view the collapse of traditional values as liberation” (p. 101).  While wealthy and well-educated women—the ruling class and leaders of NOW—insulate themselves from the consequences of their social engineering, ordinary women find themselves saddened by them.  

The feminist movement, of course, helped establish career opportunities for millions of women.  Indeed:  “Modern feminism emerged as a direct response to the economic revolution that has transformed our world” (p. 111).  Yet the sword that granted employment proved two-edged, effectively severing ties between mothers and children!  There’s a monumental difference between working women and working mothers!  And successful careerists, whether male or female, cannot but prioritize work—80 hour weeks for young attorneys, constant-on-call status for young doctors.  Charging up the career path, there’s simply no good time to pause and have children.  But normal women deeply desire children!  “Hence the grim threat of the economic revolution:  As workers women need to be liberated from children; as mothers, they need to be liberated from work” (p. 114).  Most all the alleged “inequities” women suffer in the workplace stem from their strong maternal desire to be present with and actively engaged in the lives of their children.  Feminists angrily insist they pursue careers, dispatching their young to day care centers and schools, content to spend a few hours of  the ever-elusive “quality time” each week with their kids.  But their children, inevitably, “know that they cannot count on their mothers’ always being there” (p. 123).  

To radical feminists, the mother simply should not be there, if by “there” you mean home!  Let nannies or day care workers do the nitty-gritty work of nursing babies and changing diapers.  A real woman should be working, breaking through the glass ceiling and making her mark on the world, proving herself the equal of any man.  “Feminists tend to see any talk of women’s responsibilities to mother as a male plot” (p. 188).  Most women, however, find motherhood important and rewarding, and “most would prefer jobs close to home with flexible hours and higher pay for the time worked.  Half would prefer not to work at all while their children are young” (p. 189).  Challenging the feminist elite which frequently condemns women who stay home with their children, Fox-Genovese defends their right to choose what suits them.  “By any reasonable standard,” she concludes, “the rearing of children is the most important thing that individuals—or, for that matter, societies—do.  And the evidence is mounting on all sides that, especially in a society as complex and dangerous as our own, that rearing takes time” (p. 197).  

Without question, Fox-Genovese says, children torpedo the feminist message of sexual equality and personal autonomy.  This message regarding marriage and family, succinctly stated, is “driven by two convictions:  first, that women should not be forced to marry in order to have children, and, second, that children do not need relations with parents of both sexes” (p. 235).  Such thinking, however, has little contact with reality.  “Children, not men, restrict women’s independence; children, not men, tend to make and keep women poor.  Few but the most radical feminists have been willing to state openly that women’s freedom requires their freedom from children.  Yet the covert determination to free women from children shapes much feminist thought and most feminist policies even, and especially those policies aimed at having the government assume a large part of the responsibility” (p. 229).   

Sadly enough—and despite so many mothers’ sacrificial efforts—children are not being reared well.  Symbolizing our disinterest in our young is the massive killing of the unborn through abortion.  In countries where children flourish, there are “significant limitations on abortion, which none of them defines as a woman’s ‘right’” (p. 244).  Given our elites’ support of abortion rights, however, it ought not surprise us that “the United States stands out among industrialized nations as the one in which women do best and children do worst.  Our society is unmistakably failing its children, who are increasingly being left to cope alone with a world that adults find daunting.  American parents spend 40 percent less time with their children than they did only a few decades ago—down from thirty hours a week to seventeen” (p. 201).  Thanks largely to radical feminists, firmly established in socially powerful positions (universities, media, and bureaucracies), neither traditional marriage nor devotion to children receives little praise and stay-at-home moms frequently find themselves subject to ridicule and discrimination.  

Yet women want men, as well as children, nearby.  They actually like men!  Unfortunately, radical feminists, pushing their cause beyond legal equity and economic opportunities, have launched “an assault on all manifestations of masculinity” (p. 145).  The ordinary women Fox-Genovese interviewed, however, consider “the struggle against men as actually an attack on their own femininity and sense of what it means to be a woman.  Increasingly, the ‘backlash’ against feminism is coming from women who are appalled by the claims and efforts presumptuously made on their behalf” (p. 145).  They appreciate and even celebrate the differences between the sexes and deeply crave a romantic union with a strong man who will protect and care for them.  However permissively they may regard premarital sex, they still want a lasting marriage with a faithful man.  Admittedly they frequently find their husbands “just plain impossible,” acting all too often like little boys!  But they still want to marry and stay married and, “with eyes wide open, women have clung to love and sex as central, if risky, to a woman’s life” (p. 168).  Contrary to the message conveyed by TV programs celebrating single mothers, ordinary women know how difficult it is to rear children without a husband, though large numbers of them are doing so.  “Ask any woman who as tried,” (p. 174) Fox-Genovese insists, and they will disabuse you of any fantasies regarding their lot.  Single mothers, unlike TV characters (or the elite female professors in universities) are overwhelmingly poor, and there’s usually too little money, too little time, too little help to make life enjoyable.