What Suzanne Venker Says, And What She Represents

You all may recall that, prior to the new year, in an effort to promote her book, How to Choose a Husband, Suzanne Venker published a few bits on Fox News’ website, most notably “The War On Men” and its follow-up.  Followers of this blog may recall that I published responses to theses pieces, because Venker gets a number of things wrong in them.  This week, she published another posting, but instead of going through and attacking each bit she says, I just want to address the broader issues that appear across Venker’s work, and why I think they should matter to us.

The reality is that while the things Venker says annoy me, she represents a broader misunderstanding of feminism and a broader view of gender that are hugely problematic, and these are what I feel should be discussed.  Because what Venker actually seems to believe is that gender is entrenched, and that feminism’s goals are unnatural and therefore unattainable; that because there is presently some confusion about gender roles in a time of transition and change, feminism ought be vilified because confusion is inherently bad; and that because feminism taught women that their roles weren’t just as wives and mothers, the roles of wives and mothers are in considerable jeopardy.  This just simply isn’t true.

So first, I think we need to have a long, hard talk about gender.  Social scientists across disciplines agree and accept that gender is a

It would help me if people would read this…

social construct: it is the ways that individuals are expected to behave, according to category, based on social expectations and norms.  Venker seems to disagree, but she’s not the only one: lots of people seem to be under the impression that gender is set at birth. We know, however, that this isn’t true.  A few weeks ago, I wrote about gender non-conforming children, because as our society shifts towards a view of gender as socially constructed and therefore malleable, individuals who don’t fit in the male or female boxes have been expressing themselves differently.  Psychiatric professionals seem to think that’s a good thing, even while certain past readers on this blog have indicated that these children will end up “messed up” because boys played with Barbies and girls played with tanks.  On top of this, the mere fact that we have a transgendered population is indicative of the fact that gender can’t truly be assigned at birth.  It’s time for people to accept the idea that our behaviors are based on social expectations, and aren’t all necessarily hardwired into our biology.

On top of that, different societies have different patterns than we do in the United States.  Venker uses the example that we have few female CEOs and stay-at-home dads.  But in places like Scandinavia, this is a much lower gap, as fathers get things like paternity leave and women are encouraged to pursue careers.  Their cultures make it easier to cross those lines, which supports the idea that gender exists within the confines of culture, not within our DNA.

Moving on: it’s true that right now, people are still figuring out what it means to live in a world where women may be the primary breadwinners, or men may want to stay home with the kids, or people choose to delay marriage, etc. etc.  This is the reality of a transition period.  This isn’t the world my mother grew up in.  When she was a kid, she saw her career options as relatively limited.  Her mother was a part-time substitute teacher.  She herself grew up to be a teacher, and got married within a year of graduating college.  That’s a path that many women in my generation won’t follow, as we pursue different kinds of careers, pursue higher degrees, possibly put off marriage, etc.  But that’s not necessarily bad.  The reality is that as social structures change, society needs time to adjust.  Men and women need to learn to navigate in this new world of altered gender structures-~-adjust, not go back fifty years just because it was simpler back then.  The truth is that simpler isn’t necessarily better.

Venker makes a claim that women weren’t oppressed back then because men were expected to stand when we entered the room-~-but they also weren’t expected to listen to what women had to say, respect when their wives said no to sex, or respect them as true equals.  Women didn’t have the same job opportunities and didn’t earn the same amount as men (heck, we’re still working on this).  So yes, I’d have to say that we’ve made progress over the last couple of decades, and even if things are confusing, we’re going to adjust.  But going back just isn’t an option.  You think things are bad now, think about life before rape shield laws.

Source: fanpop.com

Which brings us to the issue Venker is most concerned with: marriage and relationships.  It’s true that these institutions have changed as gender roles have been adjusted, but that doesn’t mean they’ve become endangered.  They’re just a little different.  Our economy doesn’t allow for women to just stay home with the kids in most families anymore, so things were bound to have to change.  But feminism hasn’t taught young women-~-it hasn’t taught me-~-that marriage is bad.  It has just taught that it isn’t my sole purpose in life.  That I can do more, be more, if I so choose.  That staying home is respectable, but so is going to the office.  And feminism has also given women a different standard for me, which the same reader I referenced earlier told me is impossible, but I disagree: feminism has told women that their husbands should respect them, treat them as equals, and share with them the work at home just as women share with them the burden of providing for the family.  Feminism has taught women that saying “I do” doesn’t mean “I will every time”.  It has taught women that they deserve better than to be abused or raped by the men they love.   I have yet to see an argument for why cohabitation is necessarily so problematic (except for this: some couples who co-habitate do so before they are ready, because they feel it is the “next step”, and then get married when they possibly shouldn’t because they feel it is the “next step”, and this often ends in divorce-~-I’ll try to find the study that said this), or any evidence that women “worship singlehood”-~-because I have to tell you, from where I’m standing, that just isn’t the case.

Feminism has changed things, and is still trying to change things.  And yes, change is difficult and sometimes a little confusing.  But a world in which women are treated like subjects with agency, rather than objects of men’s desires, is a clearly preferable world to live in.  So while it may be a bit of an adjustment, it’s a worthwhile one.


~ by Randi Saunders on February 9, 2013.

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