Thursday, August 31, 2006

Time Warp: Forbes and the Right's Attack on Women's Independence

Shit! I knew there was a reason why I’m not married! I went to college and got a job instead of marrying the first guy who would knock me up! I read books, learned new things, and grew into an interesting person with a life of her own, thinking that someone might want to share in it with me someday. Now what am I going to do? I never wanted to go to Europe—I wanted to have five kids and make casseroles every night! Damnit!

By now you’ve probably heard of that infamous Forbes article. You know, the one that told men not to marry a woman with a career because they would wind up dirty, sick, and cuckolded by the selfish, neglectful, and adulterous bitch. The one that is now gone from the web site (though you can read the text of it—complete with editorial comments—here), replaced with a side-by-side “debate.”

In this “debate,” Elizabeth Corcoran actually had to address some of the preposterous “issues” and “facts” used (so badly used, poor things) by Forbes editor Michael Noer to support his contention that marrying an educated woman who works full-time and makes more than $30,000 a year would bring nothing but woe. I guess this presentation was supposed to make Forbes look a little bit more like a publication out of 2006, instead of say, 1956.

I learned about “Don’t Marry Career Women” (what is a man with a career? A “Career Man”?), courtesy of the Weekly Dig’s Media Farm column (August 30, 2006). I don’t read big business rags like Forbes and usually get my news on things economic from NPR’s Marketplace, so I must express my gratitude to the Dig. I was riding home on the train, looking to get my fix of Bostonian culture, music, and swear-strewn reporting (sometimes it’s just the thing), when I read in horror that a secular, presumably respectable, magazine actually published this thing, and that it wasn’t a joke. First thing I did when I was at a computer was check it out, and yep, they were right.

There isn’t any point to taking up the “facts” featured in the “debate” (I’m sorry I can’t leave off the quotes. It’s not a legitimate debate) here. Noer’s “points” are laughable. Basically, the guy’s prescription that men should seek out women willing to take care of them as a full-time occupation because men are unable to take care of themselves is flat out asinine.

To wit: If women have been able overcome millennia of oppression to achieve the right to education (still working on that improving access on that one, Larry Summers), employment (maybe even for equal pay someday), and (at least for now, kind of, if you don’t live in South Dakota) our own bodies, then men can surely learn how to boil water, pick up their underwear, and go to the fucking doctor for checkups.

Relationships between men and women in many places in the world have come a long way from the efficient system of property transfer between the father and the husband they once were (all those “defenders of traditional marriage” don’t seem to talk about bride prices too often). Although there's a ways to go yet, relationships are evolving toward willing partnerships between equal human beings, bonded by love and respect. Since the Forbes article was about male/female marriage, I’ll stick to it, but suffice it to say, there have been considerable gains in what constitutes an acceptable relationship. Things are far from perfect, but at least the ideal is there, right?

Yes, but in the onslaught of a sustained and vicious backlash, the ideal is fading. More than almost anything else, what scares me about the right how successful they’ve been in their campaign to erode the gains made in women’s rights. Despite all of the careful logic and evidence that exposes the baseless grounds on which women’s equality was denied for so long, the right is still managing to erode women's equality by making critical advances in the “battle for hearts and minds."

All this talk about “traditional family values,” regardless of how it is packaged, stems in no small part from fear of women taking control of their own lives. The right fears this because it undermines the privileges that have been reserved for men and makes them, well, equal to women. Equal rights and privileges mean equal responsibilities. This terrifies the right, and they use emotion-charged “values” language to convince people that equality is the death of civilization as we know it, evidence to the contrary be damned.

Often this “family values” language is associated with the religious right (if you want to see some praise for Noer’s position from rightwing Christian women, look here, and be afraid). This language is usually more overt, as the religious right maintains that the husband is over the wife and that independent (un-submissive) women are sinful. It’s easy to dismiss “values” language as strictly a phenomenon of the religious right, but it has made subtle appearances in the secular right for years (I’m dating myself, but I remember the movie Baby Boom).

Recently, the more secular right has been very successful in co-opting the language of “choice” to describe women who stay at home as wives and mothers instead of engaging in the “futile struggle” to “have it all.” Articles in the mainstream media have touted “post-feminist” women who get college degrees before marrying, having children, and “choosing” to spend their lives like June Cleaver, only with a SUV and better hair. The statistics used to support these articles have been contested, but the right doesn’t need to prove its point in order to make it (just look at Noer’s article).

This new language of "choice" resonates enough to be seen as true because the fact is that in too many households in this country, the woman is still expected to bear the primary responsibility of caregiver, chef, chauffer, and maid in the household economy. Supermom or no, these women are only human, and something often has to give. With the exorbitant cost of childcare in this country, not to mention the guilt still heaped upon women who do not stay at home full-time with their children (this makes the whole get-the-welfare-mothers-to-work-at-minimum-wage-jobs stand taken by the right all the more puzzling), I wonder how much of a “choice” these women really have when it comes to family and career.

And that’s it. The right doesn’t want women to have a “choice” at all. While I don’t necessarily believe that the nine-to-five life suits everyone, male or female, I do know that financial independence is key to self-sufficiency. It is women’s self-sufficiency that Noer—and the right—attacks. And if practical tactics like fighting tooth and nail to block measures to ensure equal pay for equal work and affordable childcare don’t do the trick, then things will get dirtier. Michael Noer states the right’s ultimatum clearly: Women, either get out of the workplace and get back home, nice and dependent, where you belong, or you will never have love in your lives.

Written by the editor of Forbes or no, that this ridiculous article even countenanced a “debate” instead of being retracted immediately tells me that the right has made more inroads into eroding women’s gains than I’d feared. These days are surreal, and they are not a little frightening.

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