Quick fixes to kill feminism doomed to fail

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, December 17, 2009 15:24 EDT
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One of the things that really undermines the anti-choice argument that they’re motivated strictly by love of “life” is the way they obsess particularly over college women, specifically the tendency of college women not to marry and have children while still in college, due to the fact that this is often ruinous to one’s career prospects. For anti-choicers, of course, that ruinous nature is the point, but of course they’re smart enough to realize that a straightforward message to young women to get that MRS degree, put their careers on hold, put their husbands through school, and get busy having babies instead of building a career so when your husband leaves you for a younger model at age 50 you’re left destitute isn’t going to work. So, instead they’re patching together a program to lure young women into this lifestyle by creating hysteria over the “hook-up culture” (and then blaming access to condoms for it), telling young women that they need to see sex as a man-trap instead of something you do for fun, sponsoring lectures about how getting pregnant on accident in college will make that boyfriend marry you and make life perfect forever, concentrating crisis pregnancy centers around campus, and running misleading ads about abortion (which some seem to think is the primary form of birth control on campus) in campus newspapers. Lesson: the uteruses of young middle class women are of primary concern to the anti-choice community. Which makes sense, since it’s those women working, delaying marriage and childbirth, and enjoying careers that are competitive to men’s that bother conservatives the most. They don’t see working class women as competition, nor do they see them as shirking their housewife duties, since society has always allowed—nay, forced—working class women to work outside of the home.

It’s in that spirit that I present to you this article by Wendy Norris about a proposal made by Allan Carlson at a recent Family Research Council lecture. Carlson wants to bribe college-educated, married women to have children by paying them cold, hard cash in the form of debt forgiveness. (Or, it seems men would also be eligible if they are married fathers.) Carlson’s faux concern is that young people are delaying childbirth because of crushing student loan debt. Carlson doesn’t really conceal that his larger agenda is depriving women of their opportunities to compete with men in the job market, or his belief that women are mainly for breeding:

He blames the “growing obstacle to marriage and children” as a manifestation of more women attending college and insisting on marrying men with equal post-secondary education achievement.

In other words, had young women not attended school, become burdened by massive student loan debt and narrowed their marriageable prospects they would not now be delaying marriage and childbearing.

Carlson snears that college loans stunt young people’s transition from adolescence to adulthood, which he identifies as solely attained by marriage and making babies, because recent graduates are living with their parents while starting their careers or, worse, cohabitating sans wedding bells.

Carlson is obsessed with the fact that the birth rate amongst college-educated women declined 34% between 1984 and 1995. As Wendy notes, he’s less concerned about it going down amongst non-college-educated women 14%. What he has done is become obsessed with the theory that student loan debt is the main reason women don’t get married and have babies straight out of college. It’s an odd thing to think, unless you consider his aims. If your main goal is getting women out of the workforce, at least in high enough levels where they’re competing with middle class men for plum jobs, then it’s easier to believe that women attain those high levels of competitiveness as a mere side effect of larger forces. Picture the argument as this: Women who graduate from college have to work instead of having babies. While they’re out there working—to pay off that student loan debt, of course—they climb up the ladder and continue competing for men with jobs. They’d prefer to be at home making babies, of course, but if they have to be at work, they’re going to make the best of it. But if they were relieved of student debt, then they would immediately quit the rat race and get to knitting doilies and pushing out pups. And being good helpmeets to men, which we have plenty of statistical evidence to show helps men in the rat race.

This is a preferable theory to the more likely one that women are delaying marriage and child-bearing because they actually want to do well in both their marriages and their careers. Why? In part, it’s about sales. It’s easier to sell the oppression of women if you argue that women want to be oppressed. But it’s also a matter of wishful thinking. If it’s just student loan debt that has created this situation—and deep in their hearts, women want to get married and have babies and support working husbands while not having ambition themselves—then you merely have to figure out the debt situation and voila! Feminism is defeated. But if it is in fact that women want to work and delay marriage and childbirth, then you have to unravel a whole lot of progress to force them into it. The increasingly successful use of contraception with college students would mean that a mere abortion ban wouldn’t help much at all, so you’d have to assault contraception, a politically unpopular strategy. You could make it harder for young women to get educated in the first place by repealing all those laws that make education equal, but again that’s politically unfeasible, and honestly, I don’t think that conservatives really want women not to have college educations. A college education is a class marker that’s treated as a necessary part of making someone a good wife to a striving middle class man, and also part of the conservative fantasy is that women go to college to meet their husbands. Unraveling this situation is a lot harder than it might seem at first blush, and so of course there’s a lot of appeal to an easy-peasy scheme involving student loan forgiveness.

But it’s also more than a little silly. Paying off student loans is important, of course, but I think it’s a small piece of the big picture when it comes to delaying marriage and childbirth, and also to limiting childbirth, which is another part of Carlson’s complaint. (He has an ideal family size of four children from college-educated parents.) Women are marrying and having kids later in no small part because they want their marriages to work, and as the post-divorce generation, they know that it’s unwise to go into marriage with every conceivable kind of stress on it, or create family situations that ruin their career prospects and make them resent their families. They’re having fewer kids, because reliable birth control has helped reveal that most people take a quality-not-quantity approach to child-bearing, if they have a choice.

And of course, the entire suggestion that there’s a crisis if middle class women don’t outpace working class women in child-bearing is offensive and has more than a whiff of eugenics to it. Specifically, I think conservatives ringing this particular bell are offended at the idea that working class people, especially working class people of color, should get slots in college classrooms and jobs that they believe should be reserved for white children of privilege. And that the quickest way to put an end to class mobility is for the college-educated class to have so many children that there isn’t any room for anyone else to move up the ladder.

Frankly, if their fears are right and lower child-bearing in the middle class creates more opportunities for working class people, I’d argue that it’s your moral duty as a middle class person to have few to no children. Give someone else’s family a chance.

By the way, none of this should be taken to mean I don’t think student debt is a problem. It is, and I think schemes of debt forgiveness are a great idea. I just don’t think they should be tied to marriage or child-bearing, but instead should be tied to giving back to society for real, through working on charitable projects or for non-profits that give back, etc.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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