Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Why are women like Andrea Yates who kill their children often assumed to be mentally ill, while men like Adair Garcia who do the same are perceived as merely evil? The traditional answer, of course, is that the maternal bond is so powerful that only insanity can overcome it, whereas paternal love is weaker and more fragile, and can be countered by mere rage or malice. Slate's Dahlia Lithwick, however, has an alternate explanation: "Men are disproportionately jailed for filicide not because they are more evil than women but because we believe they have harmed a woman's property—as opposed to their own." Hence her political program: "It would, of course, help if we could stop thinking of children as anyone's property....It will do a good deal to advance the cause of children's rights if we begin to consider them as legal entities in and of themselves."

Ms. Lithwick is hardly the first to disparage a traditional virtue like maternal protectiveness by redefining it as an expression of ownership. Back in the 1960's, feminists such as Kate Millet began to deride the male ideal of duty and commitment to family as merely one component of an oppressive system of "ownership" of women and children. Previously, male identity had been so strongly associated with the role of provider that husbands and fathers would endure incredible hardship rather than admit (say, by allowing their wives to work outside the home) that they had failed in their responsibilities. (It seems inconceivable in this era of absent fathers and hard-pressed working mothers, but the architects of New Deal poverty relief efforts concentrated on jobs programs, rather than welfare payments, in part because a great many husbands and fathers would simply have refused a government "handout" as an insult to their status as family breadwinner.) But where some saw admirable commitment and solicitude, Millet and her cohort saw only tyranny. By placing the burden of financial support for the family firmly on the father's shoulders, the early feminists argued, society was in fact treating mothers and children as powerless subordinates unable (and hence unentitled) to fend for themselves.

At around the same time, the widespread availability of the birth control pill began to erode the connection between sex and the obligations of parenthood. Seizing the opportunity, advocates of sexual libertinism, including feminists such as Germaine Greer, began portraying the traditional obligations of lifelong marital fidelity as mere "possessiveness", interfering needlessly with every consenting adult's right to recreational sex. Forward-thinking couples, recoiling from the associations being made between commitment and ownership, began to eschew marriage, divorcing more readily and entering into more casual, less constrained--and less long-lived--sexual relationships. Over the past thirty years, the consequences of these twin revolutions against the constraints of traditional family structure have been unmistakeable: they have succeeded in effecting nothing less than the disintegration of the traditional family, and the mass impoverishment of abandoned mothers and children.

Of course, the feminist supporters of these social changes were not concerned primarily with relieving irresponsible men of their marital obligations. Rather, they were advocating on behalf of millions of intelligent, self-confident, ambitious women--the Dahlia Lithwicks of the world--who chafed under the traditional female roles of lifelong wife and mother. Many of these women have since found enormous joy and fulfillment (not to mention wealth and power) by exercising their talents and options to the fullest in both the vocational and sexual spheres. And since they are disproportionately wealthy, powerful and influential, they form a vocal, articulate (and not entirely unsympathetic) constituency militating against any rollback to traditional notions of familial duty.

But it's hard to find any likely beneficiaries of Ms. Lithwick's proposed extension of the same thinking to children. Where are the intelligent, self-confident, ambitious youngsters held back by their status as their mothers' "property", and aching to exercise their "children's rights" to maximize their individual potential? And would freeing mothers from their solemn commitment to care for these newly empowered, implicitly independent "legal entities" really improve children's well-being? Who, apart from a whole host of lawyers--the Dahlia Lithwicks of the world, again--could possibly benefit from a massive legal intervention to restrict and hamstring (of all things) motherhood, in the name of a concept as dubious as "children's rights"?

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