Conservatives have long criticized second-wave feminists for attacking the basic cell of society—namely, the family. But there is now an emerging “masculine critique” of the fruits of 1960s feminism. The crux of this nascent movement is that men should rethink their approach to marriage, children, and family in a society where women have more economic, political, legal, and cultural power than ever before.
But conservatives should be wary of adopting the “masculine critique” as their own. In its own way, it’s as hostile to the family as second-wave feminists were.
Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique is widely credited with sparking this second wave. She coined the term “feminine mystique” to describe the belief that women found fulfillment playing the roles of wife and mother and had no interest in matters outside the home. She countered that suburban housewives were unhappy with largely domestic lives. Friedan thought women would be most fulfilled by pursuing education and other interests outside of the home:
A woman today who has no goal, no purpose, no ambition patterning her days into the future, making her stretch and grow beyond that small score of years in which her body can fill its biological function, is committing a kind of suicide.
Her feminist allies claimed marriage and children kept women on the sidelines of American political, economic, and social life. For them, the benefits of the nuclear family for children were not worth its costs for women.
Today, more women are putting off marriage and having children altogether. The median age at first marriage in 1960 was 20 for women. By 2020, it had risen to 28. The prevalence of female breadwinners has also changed over the last half century. In 1972, only 16% of women earned as much or more than their husbands. Now, 45% of women do.
It is only natural that changes to women’s roles in the home and workplace would make some men reevaluate their responsibilities as husbands, fathers, and breadwinners. One man rethinking the traditional approach to family formation is Brookings Senior Fellow Richard Reeves. His analysis of the nonmarital birth rate sounds like something one of Betty Friedan’s most devoted disciples would say:
Marriage and motherhood are no longer virtually synonymous. About 40% of births in the U.S. now take place outside marriage, up from just 11% in 1970. (A particularly striking trend is the decline in “shotgun” marriages). From a feminist perspective, which to be clear is my perspective, these are marvelous developments. But we should also ask: what do they mean for men?
Reeves’s answer? Men should pursue fatherhood regardless of marriage. Reeves believes a man should focus on strengthening his relationship with his children, irrespective of his relationship with their mother. But can this even work?
More involved fathers are good for children and society. Yet studies show that fathers who live apart from their children are less active than co-residential fathers. For example, one CDC study that measured paternal involvement (e.g., reading, eating, playing) across ethnic groups found that 82% of married fathers played with their young (i.e., under 5) children every day. Only 10% of fathers who did not live with their children did the same.
Cohabiting fathers were about as involved as married dads. But Reeves himself knows that the bond between merely cohabiting parents’ relationships is unstable. He cites studies showing that 66% of cohabiting parents break up before their child reaches age 12, compared to 25% of married parents.
The CDC paints a bleak picture of father involvement after parents split. Only 16% of fathers who live apart from their children report speaking to them every day and 53% had not eaten a meal with their child within the previous four weeks.
Jeff Younger, a former candidate for the Texas House of Representatives, goes a step further. He argues that men should separate their desire to be fathers from relationships with women by using surrogacy and adoption if they want to have children.
Younger is most known in conservative circles for his high-profile custody battle with his ex-wife involving decisions about their son, James. Younger’s fight is every father's worst nightmare. His response to that ordeal, however, is far from a dream scenario for families or society. Creating a motherless child on purpose is a selfish act that puts the desires of adults over the needs of children.
Rollo Tomassi, an author and online “red-pill” personality, promotes a different vision of manhood than Reeves or Younger do. His version of the “masculine critique” sees marriage and family as a drain on a man’s body, soul, and bank account. Tomassi argues that men who want to get on the fast-track to becoming a “high-value” man should not get married or have children. His advice to men? Get a vasectomy in your 20s, lift weights, and build wealth.
Tomassi cites the familiar statistic that women initiate 70% of divorces as a reason men should avoid marriage altogether. The irony is that Tomassi would tell a man to risk likely failure in starting a business but discourage him from pursuing a family because of the chance of divorce.
Conservatives need to offer a much better vision.
Children need healthy marriages and strong families. These institutions require love, order, discipline, selflessness, forgiveness, fidelity, patience, and understanding. The last thing they need is more narcissism and naked individualism, whether that comes from the feminist left or masculinist right.
Men of past generations fought wars for the sake of civilizations. The least men can do today is fight for the future of their families.
This piece originally appeared in the Institute for Family Studies