Thursday, June 23, 2011

On reading Mamet(2): Feminism and birth control

[This is an unsourced essay. That is, it is not based on research or larded with links. Rather it is written based on my (perhaps rather odd) view of what has happened in my lifetime. Not my usual style but not, I would argue, an approach wholly without merit.]

As I said in my previous post, I’m reading David Mamet’s The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture and I have a serious quarrel with Mamet’s list of bad “Good Ideas”:

Our current societal (as opposed to cultural) development is burdened by the presence of "Good Ideas." These ideas are called Good not because their implementation has led to the betterment of life, but in homage to the supposed goodwill and and intellectual status of their instigators. Examples will come to mind based up the individual reader’s political or moral complexion, but, for the purposes of illustration in this essay, they may be said to include feminism, birth control, “diversity”, free love, and the profusion of “countercultural” innovations spawned in the 1960s.

As I said, I do not believe either feminism or birth control belong on this list (for very different reasons) and I wrote this post to explain why. After writing it, I had the bright idea to see if Mamet talks more about feminism later in his book (I’m only on page 50) and I found that he does, in fact, have an entire chapter on the topic. I decided to go ahead and post this now (I’ve waxed fairly wroth in it and I do hate to waste a shiny wroth). I’ll re-examine this issue once I’ve read his later chapter.

I’m not entirely sure what Mamet believes is a bad idea about feminism. The idea that women (and men) should be able to choose their vocation and avocation based on interest, ability, and circumstance rather than on genetic configuration? The idea that women and men should receive the same pay for the same work? The idea that a woman should be able to find work that lets her support herself if she chooses not to marry; or she marries and her husband dies - or runs off with his secretary?

Feminism didn’t spring full-blown from the mind of some crazy woman who wanted to upset the apple cart of Western civilization. Feminism was a reaction to a specific set of circumstances:

- Increasing numbers of women were becoming increasingly well-educated.
- In middle-class homes, their domestic efforts were no longer necessary to keep the family’s head above water - that is, tasks like feeding chickens and harvesting crops were not done at all and the amount of time needed to do essential home tasks like shopping, cooking, and cleaning had lessened.
- The divorce rate was climbing, resulting in more women who were left without husbands whether they wanted to be in that position or not. Jokes and movies about men impoverished by alimony aside, a woman could count on her standard of living falling precipitously when her husband left. And, since it was quite possible she would not be able to find reasonably paid employment, she was totally at his mercy financially.
- Women were surviving childbirth, having fewer children, and living longer lives. A woman who married at 22, had her first child at 23, and had three children 2 years apart would be 31 years old when her youngest child entered first grade. She could look forward to about 30 years of “free” time until her husband retired and joined her at home.*

In other words, there was a critical mass of well-educated women looking at decades of life with no essential role to play in keeping the family going. Or, to put it more positively, the desire on the part of women (like men) to be able to choose how they lived their lives intersected with a point in time when such choice appeared possible. Add to this the ideals espoused by the Black civil rights movement and you got the intersection not just of desire and possibility but also of moral imperative. The definition of “men” in “all men are created equal” was once again being rewritten.

In a charming example of unconscious irony, Mamet discusses the novel Lost Horizon as a parable for what is wrong with the Left yet finds no applicability to his dismissal of feminism. In summing up the novel, he says:

Here [on the Mountain] he discovers a perfect land - all its inhabitants are artists and philosophers, there is no disease, a parson can, indeed, live as long as he wishes to; there is no want, the people of the Valley have for millennia devoted themselves to the care, physical, material, and sexual, of the folks on the Mountain. (page 32)

The women who were talented enough to become doctors but were only allowed to become nurses and so spent their working lives supporting the men who were doctors; the women who were talented enough to become corporate executives but were only allowed to become secretaries and so spent their working lives supporting the men who were executives; the women who were talented enough to become lawyers but were only allowed to become paralegals and so spent their working lives supporting the men who were lawyers; the women who were talented enough to work outside the home but were only allowed to become wives and so spent their “working” lives supporting their husbands: how are these different from the people of the Valley?

There is nothing wrong with being a nurse or a secretary or a paralegal or a wife - so long as those positions are chosen rather than being filled by restricting other options. But the simple fact is that before the modern feminist movement, society underpaid and underutilized half of its population in order to prop up the other half. I am at a loss to understand how changing that was a bad idea.

Two very disparate writers have talked about this. Unfortunately, I don’t have either book in front of me so I’m writing from memory but here goes. In Atlas Shrugged, Dagney Taggart leaves her position at the railroad and goes off to live in a cabin. She spends some time doing little other than keeping the cabin clean and shopping for food and cooking it. Very soon, however, she realizes that all those activities are circular: you do them today and tomorrow there is no sign that you’ve done them - and you must repeat them again and again. She longs to return to linear action where what you accomplish today is done and need not be repeated and - most important - provides the foundation for what you will do tomorrow.

In one of her essays, Miss Manners writes of two women each of whom has a small child and both of whom want to work outside the home. One woman gets a job in a corporation and leaves her small child in the care of the second woman. The second woman is now taking care of two small children but she is being paid for it. The work she is doing may be largely circular but what she can do with her income is linear.**

So that’s why I think feminism doesn’t belong on Mamet’s list of “bad ‘Good Ideas’”. Why doesn’t birth control belong there? That’s pretty simple.

First, the idea of birth control is ancient so it can hardly be considered a recently instigated “Good Idea”. Second, effective birth control is not an idea; it’s a scientific fact. To oppose it either you must argue that development of effective birth control should have been strangled in its infancy - and explain who should have the power to do that - or you must argue that women (couples, really) should not be using it even though it exists. If you are going to do the latter then you need to explain why, in which case the idea you consider bad is not birth control but premarital sex, failure to have as many children as physically possible within marriage, sexual activity with no consequences, or something of that sort. It would be interesting to know which of these it is that Mamet considers a bad idea and why.



* I am well aware that a child does not stop needing a parent simply because he has entered first grade. The tricky thing about children in school is that they do not need a parent for most of the day on most weekdays but when they do need a parent they need one immediately. This means our mother whose youngest has entered first grade is in the same position as, say, firemen: sitting around waiting for a call. Although the call may be a matter of life and death, the waiting is insanely boring. And our mother isn’t even doing it in company with others while cooking chili, playing poker, and telling tall tales.

** I understand that raising children is a linear activity, arguably the most important linear activity there is. However, the day to day work of doing so is 99-44/100% circular.



Does the American Family Have a History? Family Images and Realities - An odd little piece from the Digital History site supported by the Department of History and the College of Education at the University of Houston. Distressingly without links for backup, it still provides an interesting look at the history of the family in the United States. I had to read parts of it twice - the events described as taking place in the 1800s sounded a lot like those that took place in the 1900s.

The Surprising Roots of Liberal Nostalgia - From The Wall Street Journal (This is behind the subscription wall. For reasons I don’t begin to understand, I find that if I do a Google search for the name of the article I am almost always presented with a link which enables me to read the whole thing - even when that same link, entered directly, gives me only partial access. Please don’t tell the WSJ about this trapdoor.)


Grim said...

Re: circular v. linear:

Hannah Arendt has an interesting account of just this distinction in The Human Condition, where she calls the distinction (roughly) labor v. work. The laborer is doing tasks that must be endlessly repeated; the worker is crafting lasting features of the world that enrich and improve our life for the long term.

The problem she identifies -- rightly -- is that "work" in the current era has lost its linear quality for most people. The woman who goes to the corporation is probably engaged in just as circular a behavior as the woman who cares for the children: she is producing not a lasting feature of the world, but a good or a service that will be consumed as quickly as the food the caretaker creates for the babies.

In that case, the question becomes merely "which sort of labor do you prefer?" The opportunities for work are at this point limited -- she thought -- almost exclusively to artists. They alone still have the opportunity to produce work of lasting value; and there is therefore no reason to weight the labor of the corporate worker above the labor of the mother or caretaker.

Elise said...

Hey, Grim, glad you stopped by.

My response to your comment is a new post:

Work and labor