In Defense of “Wives, Mothers, and Daughters”

In case you missed it, certain feminist quarters have, in recent months, taken the Obama administration to task for his tendency to refer to women as “our wives, mothers, and daughters” in policy speeches. Back in February, a petition on the White House’s “We the People” page protested the President using similar language in his State of the Union speech. The feminist blogosphere has since been in a bit of a remarkably prolonged state of fury over what they perceive as a tendency to only value women in direct correlation to their relationship to men. One blogger recently equated talking about women in this more relational sense with “perpetuating rape culture by advancing the idea that a woman is only valuable in so much as she is loved or valued by a man.”

Now, all of this uproar over a relatively innocuous turn of phrase, (innocuous compared to, say, drone strikes against innocent women in Yemen and Pakistan), might seem a bit overblown. Far be it from me to wander unwittingly into the linguistic hinterland that is home to the contemporary gender-equality movement. However, behind all of this debate over the President’s language, I think something much more profound- and troubling- is taking place here.

What is really being objected to is not so much the President’s choice of words but a particular understanding of human nature. The current culturally-prevalent view of human nature rests on an anthropological assumption that posits womankind as consisting, ultimately, of atomized female  individuals with no inherent social or familial obligations to any other individuals (male or female). Speaking generously, one could perhaps attribute this individualistic view of human nature to a misguided affirmation of the undeniable value of each individual man or woman. But to the extent that this modern anthropology advances each woman’s individual identity as an alternative to the preponderance of social/familial identities that traditionally have held sway over both genders, one can easily expect those (quite legitimate) relational identities to be seen as a threat to a woman’s true worth, which proponents of this view argue is internal and non-relational. In other words, to the extent that women see their relationships with other individuals (or with the Divine) as an integral part of their being, their status as women is somehow suspect. Melissa McEwan, who started the We the People petition against Obama’s “wives, mothers, and daughters” language, did so because she took exception to any expression of femininity that “defines women by their relationships to other people.”

The problem with all of this is that society cannot long remain functional once its members (both male and female) reject their traditional obligations to one another. The foreseeable social consequences of such a radical break in human self-understanding sound all too familiar today:

-          an increase in divorce and abortion rates

-          an increase in the number of children born out-of-wedlock or raised in single-parent households

-          an increasing, culturally-pervasive materialism that attempts to fill relational voids with physical possessions

-          an increase in interpersonal egocentrism that sees other people as mere tools to be used for one’s own gratification

-          a decreasing amount of mutual respect among relationships (particularly inter-gender relationships) of all forms

If these indications of social disintegration sound familiar to the modern ear, it is because of the enormous extent to which modern American society (with considerable help from the welfare state) has successfully stripped modern men of those relationships- as husbands, fathers , brothers, etc.- that historically have given male life meaning. Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon references as much when she writes that  “women are still living in a world where we, unlike our male counterparts, are defined by our relationships to others.”

From a relational and familial standpoint, American society today seems to be on the verge of going completely off the rails, if it hasn’t already. To the extent that proponents of gender-equality are troubled by the perceived increase in destructive behavior patterns among American males (especially in regard to their relationships with women), they recognize this problem. To then present women in an individualistic manner- particularly to the exclusion of the relational components of human nature- is not only to deprive each female life of a significant source of meaning, but to exacerbate their own social disintegration.

Categories: Atomism, Cultural renewal, Feminism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

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11 thoughts on “In Defense of “Wives, Mothers, and Daughters”

  1. oh my gosh i can’t even so what if he said wives mothers and daughters? that’s what women are………..

  2. Val

    Also – you claim a foreseeable social consequence as rising divorce rates. In fact, if you break down divorce trends, college educated women today who get married at 25 or later (like most of these feminists) have a divorce rate of only 20%, significantly less than the rest of the country.

    • The rising divorce rates are a consequence of atomistic individualism, not feminism.

      • joeptak

        do you have any evidence to support your claim that 1) atomistic individualism is prevalent and 2) that it is the cause of the divorce rates and other social problems?

      • Rachael

        Previously, you’ve said that feminists support atomistic individualism, implying many of them practice or believe in atomistic individualism. I think it’d be reasonable to assume the majority of women who become college educated, and wait until their late 20s to get married define themselves more by their status as an individual rather than their status in a familial unit.

  3. Another problem is assuming men have “traditional obligations” to their spouse/children. Men have never really been defined by their relationships (at least in the way women have/are).

    • I don’t like using the language of “being defined by their relationships”- it’s not very precise and lends itself to us talking past each other. To assert that men have traditionally not felt any social pressures to provide for their families is absurd. In fact, I would argue that the vast majority of the human experience has seen people of both genders “defined” by their relationship to any number of collectives: the immediate family, the extended family, the tribe, the Church, the guild, the community, the state. The conception of the “human individual” is a relatively recent one (c. 17th century).

  4. Sunira,

    A fair point. I didn’t include research tying this type of individualism to social disintegration, mostly because I don’t know that causality of such sort can be mathematically proven. Consequently, I think the best people can do is try to pick up on aspects of lived human experience that everyone can relate to (this is part of the reason I don’t consider myself a social scientist). The most I can say is that if my analysis doesn’t square with your experience, feel free to disregard it.

  5. joeptak

    I am curious about the necessity of a mathematically precise causal relationship demonstrated between liberal/atomistic individualism and social disintegration. I also have to wonder whether or not, Ben, if you are finding a “cop out” in your reference to such a precise causal certainty. As any good qualitative researcher knows – any good historicist, to boot – we don’t need know stinkin’ math!

    a lengthy provocative blog post about the rise of feminism and the decline of our culture and no evidence? there is stuff out there…

    also, i’m curious: am i wrong to state that an implication of your statement about the centrality and plurality of lived human experience is cultural and moral relativism?

  6. Reblogged this on oogenhand and commented:
    Strong family ties are useful if you need allies in a fight. On the other hand, some families discourage their members from becoming politically active.

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