Badhwar on Feminism: My Reply
I agree with you that unfairness against men often goes unrecognized, or dismissed without discussion or, worse, supported by some feminists…
However, I still think that even now women are more often victimized than you acknowledge. (I don’t know how to measure unfairness to women with unfairness to men, so I can’t say who is worse off.)
Suppose you’re correct. I underestimate the unfairness of society towards women, but we really don’t know if women are, on balance, treated more unfairly than men. Given these premises, it is still hard to see why a feminist movement or a feminist identity exists. Unless unfairness toward women is especially severe or overlooked, why focus on unfairness toward women rather than unfairness toward humans?
You rightly describe some of the excesses of the MeToo movement. But I disagree that sexual harassment is - or was - not a big problem for those who are harassed, especially if the harasser is someone with power over the woman.
Sexual harassment has long been a big problem for a small share of workers. Fear of being accused of sexual harassment is now a big problem for a large share of workers. I maintain that the latter problem is, on balance, much bigger. MeToo has responded to complex trade-offs with fanatical zeal, to the point where workers fear to initiate any workplace romance.
What are these “complex trade-offs”? In a nutshell:
Wanted attention is good.
Unwanted attention is bad.
Figuring out whether attention is wanted is hard. Humans can’t read minds, and social interactions are full of misunderstandings.
At minimum, these three facts argue for a high burden of proof for sexual harassment accusations, combined with harsh punishments for not just falsehood but hypersensitivity. Needless to say, MeToo has aggressively pushed in the opposite direction. (#BelieveWomen)
It is also worth pointing out that the free market always gave people who felt harassed the option to search for a more hospitable workplace. Sexual harassment law, in contrast, makes it illegal to have any workplace that says “Accusations not welcome here.”
And at least according to one poll, women said that things had improved quite a bit at work since the MeToo movement.
It is easy to end unwanted attention by ending all attention. Easy, absurd, and tyrannical. Any major business that vocally stands up to MeToo can expect to be sued into the ground.
I am especially puzzled that someone like Neera with long-standing libertarian sympathies takes such a rosy view of the modern workplace. If we can trust unregulated coal mines to set a reasonable level of physical safety, why can’t we trust unregulated offices to set a reasonable level of emotional safety?
You’re probably right that men are now scared to show an interest in a co-worker, but after the dust settles, they will surely be able to see the difference between showing a romantic interest in someone, and harassing her. The same goes for the woman, of course.
“Surely”? We have a system that financially and emotionally rewards hypersensitivity, in defiance of big, blatant relevant facts. Why on Earth would the dust ever settle? Unconvinced? I would be delighted to bet against you. Meeting romantic partners on the job has crashed since 1995. I predict that it will just keep falling. I’d even bet you at even odds, though given your confidence I should get at least 2:1.
More importantly, you leave out some very serious problems for women: rape, domestic abuse, spousal rape (which wasn’t criminalized in all 50 states till 1993), and the criminalization of abortion (which often turns into criminalization of accidental losses of pregnancy). It’s women who are by far the main victims in the first three cases, and women who are the only victims in the 4th case.
I discuss rape at some length in my original essay, so you haven’t really defended your thesis that women are more victimized “than I acknowledge.” To recap: Due to extraordinary levels of prison rape, it is not in fact clear that women suffer more rapes than men in the U.S. But in any case, men clearly suffer much more violence than women overall. So why is there so much focus on “violence against women” rather than violence per se?
I said little about abortion, because - as any philosopher knows - the issue is hard. I did however mention the legal asymmetry where women are free to abort an unwanted child, but men are not free to refuse to support an unwanted child. Rightly or wrongly, states that ban abortion once again put women and men in the same boat.
…Putting women in the position of having to ask their husbands for money is demeaning, and worse if the man is unfair. (I doubt many men are like my father, who used to turn over almost his entire paycheck to my housewife mother, since she was running the household and looking after her children. I used to think every husband was like that, and was shocked to discover otherwise. And no, he was not a wimp nor my mother a harridan! They were a traditional couple, with my mother not even addressing my father by his name.)
Question, Neera: Does this arrangement show that your mother treated your father unfairly? Did he experience “demeaning” treatment?
Unlike many who stand up for “men’s rights,” I actually say no. When we look at romantic relationships, there are two basic perspectives. I call them:
The fairness police perspective. There’s some external standard of “fair treatment” that all couples should follow. If they don’t, total strangers should point fingers, “call out” wrong-doers, and complain until they repent. Maybe even alert the literal police.
The voluntarism and tolerance perspective. Whatever couples voluntarily decide between themselves is probably fine. Total strangers should keep their mouths shut, and even close family and friends should think twice before expressing an opinion. (And no, being a full-time homemaker does not invalidate your consent).
For the sake of argument, I’m happy to use the “fairness police” perspective. Then, you could plausibly complain that housewives deserve equal control over family funds. However, you would also have to deplore the plight of husbands like your father. If “My father never complained” is a decent rebuttal, then so is, “Most housewives in the 1950s never complained, either.”
My actual perspective, however, is one of “voluntarism and tolerance.” If a couple leaves the power of the purse in the hands of the husband, that’s their business. If a couple leaves the power of the purse in the hands of the wife, that’s their business. If one of my children was in such a relationship, I would be a little concerned. But unless I saw something egregious, I would hold my tongue. They’re adults; they should work such matters out for themselves.
But wasn’t it awful that businesses treated women differently back in the old days? Given your long-standing libertarian sympathies, I’m again puzzled that you don’t try to see things from the merchant’s point of view. If you were running a bank in 1955, and a housewife wanted to borrow without her husband’s knowledge, I say you would be nervous about approving the loan. Like anyone with common sense.
It's not just married women who were denied credit cards without the man’s consent, but also unmarried, widowed, and divorced women – even if they were working. They had to take a man along to cosign.
Let me level with you. I have never investigated these specific claims, but I greatly doubt them. I can believe that businesses preferred to have a male co-signer. But the idea that zero or near-zero single women could get credit cards without such co-signers seems extremely implausible.
Again, it’s worth asking how many non-working wives were not working because society or their husbands frowned upon married women working. And how many married women were expected to do all the housework even if they were working outside the home.
From the “fairness police” perspective, these are good questions. But in that case, it is also worth asking “How many working husbands were working because society or their wives frowned upon married men not working?,” as well as “How many working husbands were expected to provide for housewives who totally ignored them?”
From the perspective of voluntarism and tolerance, however, none of these questions are very good. The way that a couple divides up paid and unpaid labor is up to them. Strangers should mind their own business, and family and friends should think twice before expressing an opinion.
If Kat is right, husbands could sell their joint property without their wives’ consent. Horribly unjust!
Horribly unjust in a worst-case scenario, where the husband plans to abscond with the money? Or in normal scenarios where husband and wife keep living and spending together?
Here are some other things women couldn’t do till the late 1960s or 1970s:
Use the birth control pill to control pregnancies (giving even married women this choice was regarded as encouraging women to be immoral – never mind that, by this standard, men had always been encouraged to be immoral).
A reasonable complaint, which I agree unfairly burdens women. But the idea that “Men had always been encouraged to be immoral” is odd. I don’t recall ever being so encouraged. I doubt older male readers do either.
Get an Ivy League education.
A reasonable complaint, but relevant for a miniscule share of the population.
Serve on juries (you might think that’s better than being forced to serve on juries, but again, the reasons for not allowing women were demeaning).
I don’t just “think that it’s better.” It is better. If only women were forced to serve on juries, who would imagine that this “demeans” men? You could object that forcing women to serve is about giving female victims and female defendants a just procedure at the expense of female jurors, but what is the evidence that women were, on balance, mistreated by all-male juries? (This recent paper that finds little overall effect of allowing female jurors, but quickly refocuses on a tiny subset of offenses where juries’ gender makeup mattered).
Neera, I value your engagement. But you haven’t presented notable evidence that women are (or were) more victimized than I initially acknowledged. Admittedly, if you raise the fairness bar high enough, then we horribly mistreat women. But if you apply that same high bar to men, we also horribly mistreat men. As long as we stick to a modest, common-sense bar, however, horrible mistreatment by gender is, at least in Western societies, thankfully rare. And has been for a very long time.