This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
Excerpted from the February 26, 1983 Issue
In popular wisdom, it was women, and especially feminists, who brought about “the breakdown of the family.” What has gone almost unnoticed is that men too have changed. In the last three decades, men have come to see themselves less and less as breadwinners, and have ceased to measure their masculinity through their success as husbands and providers.
This drastic change in men, and in our cultural expectations of them, has been ignored, downplayed or else buried under the weary rubric of “changing sex roles.” Our expectations of adult womanhood have also altered dramatically in the last thirty years. The old feminine ideal—the full-time housewife with station wagon and suburban ranch house—has been largely replaced by the career woman with skirted suit and attaché case. The collapse of the breadwinner ethic, and with it the notion of long-term emotional responsibility toward women, affects not only the homemaker who could be cut loose into poverty but the financially self-sufficient working woman. We face the prospect of briefer “relationships,” punctuated by emotional dislocations and seldom offering the kind of loyalty that might extend into middle age. If we accept the male revolt as a fait accompli and begin to act on its economic consequences for women, are we not in some way giving up on men? Are we acquiescing to a future in which men will always be transients in the lives of women, and never fully members of the human family?
I would like to think that a reconciliation between the sexes is still possible. In fact, so long as we have sons as well as daughters, it will have to happen. “Grown-up,” in the case of men, should have some meaning for a boy other than “gone away”; and adulthood should mean more than moral vagrancy. If we cannot have—and do not want —a binding pact between the sexes, we still must have one between the generations, and that means there must be a renewal of loyalty and trust between adult men and women. But what would be the terms of such a reconciliation? We cannot go back to a world where maturity meant “settling,” often in stifled desperation, for a life perceived as a “role.” Nor can we accept the nightmare anomie of the pop psychologists’ vision: a world where other people are objects of consumption, a world of chance encounters of a “self” propelled by impulse alone.
I see no other ethical basis for a reconciliation than the feminist principle that women are also persons, with the same need for respect, for satisfying work, for love and for pleasure as men. In a “world without a father,” that is, without the private system of paternalism built into the family-wage system, we will have to learn to be brothers and sisters.
I hope we might meet as rebels together—not against one another, but against a social order that condemns so many of us to meaningless or degrading work in return for a glimpse of commodified pleasures, and condemns all of us to the prospect of mass annihilation. If we can make a common commitment to ourselves and future generations, then it may also be possible to rebuild the notion of personal commitment, and to give new strength and shared meaning to the words we have lost—responsibility, maturity and even, perhaps, manliness.
Barbara Ehrenreich has contributed regularly to The Nation since 1982 and has been a member of the editorial board since 2007. Her most recent book is Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything (2014).