American women seem to be of two minds about feminism. Opinion polling from Pew in 2020 shows that most women under 30 (68 percent) identify as feminists. Feminism tugs at our aspirations and summons our loyalties. We want to be strong, confident, and self-reliant, like the pictured feminist. Our mothers and grandmothers have told us dismaying stories of what the workplace was like before the cultural shifts of The Feminine Mystique.
Yet nearly 40 percent of women also believe that feminism is polarizing. They are right: Modern feminism is a branch of identity politics. By functioning as an interest group that solely represents women, it has been (at best) deaf to other injustices, including a crisis in our own homes: the boy crisis.
The Boy Crisis, written by Warren Farrell and John Gray, tells the staggering story of how our young men are being left behind. By the eighth grade, 41 percent of girls are at least proficient in writing, compared with just 20 percent of boys.
Men now earn 39 percent of college degrees while the median annual earnings of a man with a high-school diploma have dropped 26 percent in the past 40 years.
The consequences are dire. Fifteen- to 19-year-old boys commit suicide at four times the rate of girls. Ninety-three percent of those in prison are men, and, according to the authors, “more black boys between ten and twenty are killed by homicide than by the next nine leading causes of death combined.”
As civil-rights activist and community-development leader Robert Woodson says, “If you devalue your life, you’ll either take your own, or you’ll take someone else’s.” Our young men, he adds, are “dying in acts of self-hatred.”
The absence of fathers—this includes the fact that they do not get equal time with their children—is the primary driver of the boy crisis. Both mothers and fathers are indispensable and contribute uniquely to raising children.
With 40 percent of children born out of wedlock and custody laws favoring mothers, more children are missing Dad’s, rather than Mom’s, influence. Just some of the effects of dad deprivation include higher rates of suicide, drug use, violence, hypertension, poverty, lack of empathy, and ADHD.
The sexual revolution is partially responsible for this crisis. Around 1972–73, the National Organization for Women started pushing for custody laws that favored mothers.
Farrell, who served on the New York City board of NOW, approached the organization’s leaders at the time. “I argued that children were the priority, not women or men, and that even the nascent evidence we had at the time suggested that children did better with both parents,” he recalls in The Boy Crisis. “Many board members were sympathetic, but they felt that NOW’s primary mission was to support women and that if NOW undermined its political base it would undermine its ability to support women. . . . Mothers’ rights trumped equal rights.”
Proponents of the sexual revolution treated women as an isolated interest group, rather than citizens with rights and duties. Interest groups focus on narrow issues and advocate on behalf of their constituencies. For example, teachers’ unions represent teachers, sometimes at the expense of students. And the National Organization for Women represents women, sometimes to the detriment of men and families.
Such feminists were self-interested. Or seemingly self-interested. It does not benefit women to have and raise children on their own or select a husband from among men struggling with addiction, depression, and a crisis of purpose, as our boys in crisis are likely to become. Women are not atomized individuals but citizens situated within communities affected by this crisis and by what happens to families.
As Mary Harrington, a contributing editor at UnHerd, argues in “The Sexual Revolution Killed Feminism”: “Defending women’s interests is properly, and rightly, a defense of the family. Which is to say of all humans including men—understood as relational beings.” Women have an obligation in this crisis—a moral obligation—as mothers, wives, and sisters.
This civic-centered understanding harkens back to an earlier conception of feminism. First-wave feminists desired full participation as citizens, and they acted as citizens, affirming the importance of individual rights as well as the family. They won on equality before the law, the right to vote, and property rights. But they were also abolitionists; they opposed abortion; and, out of concern for the human character and the devastating effects of alcohol abuse on the family, they led the temperance movement
For feminism to earn women’s allegiance today, it would need to replicate this approach: one that is holistic and confronts the injustices of our time. Whatever affects the family also has an impact on women, and certain cultural trends have severely damaged the boys in our families.
According to an Ethics and Public Policy Center report on porn, porn addiction is rampant and leads to a “greater tolerance of sexual violence toward women,” and it has been linked to sexual aggression. Religion, which provides guidelines for behavior and a moral code, is on the decline, many polls show. Fathers are absent, and healthy masculinity is attacked. But it is good men who get the rest in line.
Addressing the boy crisis in the spirit of first-wave feminism requires the partnership of men and women rather than the advocacy of an interest group rooted in identity politics. Custody laws should not presumptively favor Mom. Fathers need to take responsibility, and women need to demand it of them.
American women are strong, smart, and ambitious—capable of directing the American conscience. In thinking of what we can do to bring about a more just society, we should aim high and take on a task worthy of our energies.
If feminism is, as Harrington writes at UnHerd, “a story of how men and women renegotiated life in common,” the main character of our next chapter should be our boys.
This piece originally appeared in The National Review