The purpose of feminism is not to treat men and women the same. The core problem of feminism is to redress the natural imbalance of reproductive costs and decisions, which biologically fall almost entirely on women. As such, feminism has to be an “affirmative action”, not an “equal opportunity” movement.
For a woman, a chance at reproduction is as good as assured. For practical purposes, she can make her offspring herself. However, on her own she would face the entire cost of bearing and raising young, which is enormous. A man’s reproduction is not assured. He has to find or make a woman willing to have his young. Beyond that, only social and emotional factors motivate the man to share into the costs of raising the offspring, and the man needs high confidence of fatherhood before competing on their behalf for resources and power in the world. This is the natural situation, devoid of any value judgments. Nature lumps all the costs, but also the decisions, on women. Feminism is the attempt, throughout history, to balance the costs with men.
Men’s agenda, Patriarchy, is an attempt to control the decisions and avoid sharing the costs. What sexist men want of women is not carefree pleasure (that is a good thing, for all involved) but free kids. A chance at reproduction without the costs. Behaviours such as rape or withholding abortion or contraception carry the belief that if a man manages to impregnate a woman, by whatever means, the man wins a free ticket to the next generation.
Four main approaches have been developed by feminism to share the costs of reproduction between women and men:
- The family: The family is an attempt to make a bond between the specific mother and father, so that they can share the costs and rewards of raising their own children. This is a solution from nature. It’s what birds do.
- Sex work: Prostitution, various forms of making a living as a concubine, or modern forms of sex work are attempts to get men to pay, directly through market means, for women’s reproductive capacity. Instead of pairing one to one, the woman exchanges a small act of sex with a small amount of material support.
- Affluence: Raising kids is easier if you have money, or if the cost of bringing up kids becomes a lower fraction of the overall cost of living. This has been the solution of the elite.
- Socialization: In an environment where the costs of raising young are borne by the wider society, such as the extended family or village, rather than by the direct parents, they can be shared equally between women and men. This is also a solution form nature, such as a herd. In modern form, it encompasses child care, maternity and paternity leave, child-accessible travel, and other social measures to stop the cost of children falling only on mothers.
You may criticise or dispute some of these as feminist measures, but they are feminist measures. Perhaps they are crude or failed. Briefly, the main criticism of the family is that it’s been co-opted by churches, which in the Yahveh religions are openly patriarchal. Still, it’s the dominant mode of regulating gender responsibilities and thus delivering whatever feminism is achieved in practice.
Sex work is usually framed as undesirable competition to the family and that angle dominates the discourse, causing hostility to the people involved. Aside from that, the modern criticism of sex work (which also applies to marriage) is lack of economic scalability. In a pre-technological society the work of having children was full-time work. Now it’s not. Therefore, someone who defines her role as motherhood or sex ends up a less than full economic participant.
Affluence is a suspect form of feminism. Undoubtedly, lowering the costs of children relative to one’s economic capacity greatly helps. As western societies become affluent, feminism appears a less pressing or perhaps solved problem for many women. Affluence allows us to see feminism as just an issue of human rights, where women simply need to reclaim their human rights and equal treatment and thereafter can carry the costs of reproduction themselves. I don’t agree. As with class conflicts, it’s easier to focus on win-win prosperity than to confront zero-sum redistribution. However, the feminist need for redistribution of costs is still there. Affluence doesn’t make feminism irrelevant.
In my view, socialization of the costs of children is the obvious and only good way to achieve feminism in societies today. What might a society that shares the cost of children equally between women and men look like? Here are some examples:
- Work should be organized around the idea that people have kids. There should be no “men’s jobs” that are incompatible with children. One approach might be to limit working hours, etc. to achieve a greater separation between professional and private life. I think that’s obsolete. Better would be to have work places that are integrated with life, close to homes and not in a sterile commute park, with offices full of people’s kids.
- Career breaks should be compulsory, even and especially for CEOs, male and female, irrespective of whether they actually have kids. There should be compulsory parental leave by the time you hit certain ages, no matter what, enforced at the company rather than personal level. Only this way will we see more women take up positions of power.
- Everywhere should make space for kids. Contrast Sweden and the UK. In the UK we’re refused entry at most cafes/bars, which are the hub of social life, after 8pm with our son. In Sweden there are spaces for kids in every train, museum, hotel, or other public place. In italy too it’s normal to eat out in the evening with kids. In the UK it’s frowned upon, and many restaurants actively exclude kids. It’s sexist and should be illegal to do so.
- Since there are same-sex households, it should be seen as normal and desirable for two men to raise kids. If lesbian households raise kids and gay ones don’t, the burden falls on women again. It should be even.
A society that shares the cost of raising children is good for people. For adults, it removes the pressure to exchange sex for commitment, family-style, which in our societies we feel all the time. You may be fortunate enough to have had a time in your youth when sex was not possessive and was fully equal, as concerns of children and their cost didn’t weigh on your mind. It would be this way throughout life, if the costs of children were truly socially shared.
It’s good for children too. Our kids spend too much time just with us, the parents. Humans did not evolve in groups of three or four. Being in a small group, a pack or a village, is natural for us. Our children crave social interaction and look for it in all the wrong places, such as on screens. They need to learn from the group, not just the parents, to be open-minded and resilient. We used to have towns where kids played together, only thirty years ago, and we lost that.
A social approach to children is also good for society. Today we hide our kids. We don’t want others to get too close because we’re scared, allegedly of rare bogeymen, but actually we’re scared that people from a different social class or class trajectory may make bonds with our kids and weigh them down. We want our kids to be disconnected so they can climb the social hierarchy solo, without climbing ropes so to speak, and that is why our selfish societies and selfish economies are in the mess that they’re in.
In the end the excessive competition and conflict in our world is the result of a very male perspective. If a woman wants to improve her reproductive success, usually the best way would be to secure a nurturing environment and have another kid. For a man, the best way is often to compete, in business or in war, to eliminate the offspring of other men from the race and secure resources for his own. A man is willing to go to war and risk death either because he has no offspring and hopes to force some on the conquered women, or because his offspring are safe at home. In patriarchy, war is a dad’s game. Now we need to build societies with much lower levels of conflict than at any time in the past. The way to do this is through feminist, social raising of children, such that the competitive strategies of men and women become as far as possible the same.