Le Québécois Libre, May 15, 2009, No 267.
Progress in technology in the last hundred years has made the traditional division of labor between the sexes and the accompanying roles they played in society all but obsolete. When the most important issue facing society was survival itself, pressure on women to be fruitful and multiply was intense. That pressure fell on men, too, but the male role in reproduction is trivial compared to the female, so men were directed into supporting activities. Traditionally, women had the babies while men had the muscles, which suited them better to work outside the home. This historical imperative, which was reinforced by all the major religions, has changed drastically in the 21st century.
Before the change, natural scarcity dictated basic morality. There is safety in numbers in an environment of natural scarcity, and the larger any given family grew at that time, the better fixed it would be to deal with the challenges of life. The more hands around to contribute to labor on the farm in an economy based on agriculture, the better off its members. Before professionals assumed responsibility for taking care of the sick and aged, it was primarily family that fulfilled this need. The bigger the family, the more secure its members, especially as they grew older. If the extended family or community had conflict with another family or community, the side with greater numbers had a better chance of surviving.
The archetypal work for men outside the home is defense, whether the home is being threatened by natural, animal or human assault. Men have always been the first line of defense because their minimal role in reproduction makes them expendable. Ironically, young men have been so highly valued because in a pinch, when the female core of society is threatened, they can be thrown into the breach and sacrificed. As long as one male survives, the community sperm supply is adequate; losing all but one woman in some form of catastrophe in all likelihood means the end of that community. From a biological point of view, the survival of individual men is a trivial concern with respect to the survival of society as a whole.
Now, however, things have changed. Improvements in medical technology reduced infant mortality and increased life expectancy dramatically in the twentieth century. What might be considered the central principle of all major religions and traditional moral systems has been all but inverted. Reproduction is often regarded with suspicion, as somewhat socially irresponsible, in the technologically developed world. It is a financial handicap in a developed economy not dominated by agriculture.
Other improvements in technology have made labor less physically intensive in general. As machines became capable of doing much of the work previously done by people, it became irrelevant whether they were operated by a large and muscular person, or a smaller person, perhaps “disadvantaged” further by being pregnant. The old division of labor began to seem arbitrary and discriminatory to most Americans as the Malthusian population bomb detonated. As women felt their traditional, vital importance to society in child bearing and nurturing decline, they pushed hard for entry into areas of work always dominated by men, including defense. Their success has been dramatic, if not total.
How total success might be defined is a difficult question, but one very interesting answer was posited by Aldous Huxley in his prophetic novel, Brave New World. Neither gender is handicapped in the labor market in this futuristic society because babies are not born of woman, but fabricated in factories like automobiles or television sets. Once brought into existence this way, no special responsibility is placed on mothers, as opposed to fathers, to care for them because they have neither. They are tended and conditioned by professionals until they reach adulthood.
In Huxley's brave new world, the connection between sexual activity and child bearing/nurturing is eliminated. Men and women have sex as they please without regard to the natural reproductive consequences and without any responsibility for children. Our society has instituted this kind of separation between sex and children for women, but not for men.
There are no baby factories in America yet, but developments in birth control and abortion have freed women from the natural repercussions that might arise from their sexual activity. Birth control pills came on the market in the 1960s and the morning after pill would seem to have made contraception almost foolproof. In case of a mistake, however, or if a woman changes her mind, abortion is easily obtainable and free in many jurisdictions. If religious or moral principles are a determining factor, adoption is the answer. A woman can surrender her baby for adoption with no questions asked in most parts of North America. She then walks away with no further responsibility. The courts will not pursue her for child support, garnishee her wages, or put her in prison for being a deadbeat mom.
The difference between the situation of women in Huxley's Brave New World and that of women in American society today is the element of choice. In Huxley's dystopia a woman is not permitted by law and oppressive social conditioning to bear a child the natural way. Fortunately, women in 21st century America can choose not to use the alternatives to the natural consequences of their sexuality. They are totally free to make babies and families the old fashioned way, or not. Nadya Suleman, known as the octomom, feels oppressed because some have questioned her choice to have fourteen children without a father. Women have attained the level of freedom, or irresponsibility, that men enjoyed in a state of nature before being forced by society to make a connection between sexual pleasure and children.
While new technology has separated women from the natural consequences of their sexual activity, it has tied men more closely to those consequences. In the natural order of things the male of the species has the choice. His reproductive role is accomplished in a matter of minutes, and then he is free unless he chooses to stay and help with the results. But social expectations have grown through the centuries and the institution of marriage developed largely in order to encourage a commitment by men to the next generation. Until recently society lacked the means to enforce this connection effectively. With social security numbers, not to mention DNA identification, it's much more difficult for a deadbeat dad to disappear, now. But an enthusiastic dad has little or no choice either. The man who wants a child, and would be happy even as a single parent, is powerless before the secret deliberations of a woman and her doctor.
Men in our society have no legal influence about whether there is to be a child, but heavy responsibility if a child is born. Women have complete control regarding conception and birth, and they can opt out of the process at almost any point.
The conscious attempt to break down traditional sex roles gained serious momentum in the 1960s and 70s. The idea at that time was for women freely to enter the public sphere, always dominated by men, and for men to play more of a role in the home, which was always the woman's domain. Since then, affirmative action programs have proliferated, and women have made a great deal of progress in business and politics, though complaints continue of a glass ceiling keeping them from attaining full participation. There is nothing transparent about the barrier keeping men from full participation in family life. It is beyond the boundaries of the current debate, almost ridiculous, to suggest some kind of vote, veto or opt out clause for men regarding their reproductive choices. The American male remains disdainfully aloof in macho never-never land. After the crucial, existential decision has been made unilaterally, he may find himself sterilizing baby bottles and changing diapers, or not. If men were somehow legally included at this primary stage of the family, perhaps the glass ceiling in the public domain would also wither away.
In any case, while women enjoy a full range of choice from birth control to abortion to adoption, men in America must decide between abstinence and vasectomy to have “equal” input in family planning. Women were in a similar situation before the pill and legalized abortion. Feminists were right to complain that the choice between abstinence and tubal ligation was inhumane. But the economic and psychological consequences of conception by mistake can be severe for a man, too, involving public humiliation and decades of servitude through expropriated wages.
The traditional appropriation by society of a woman's body as a baby making machine, happily, has ceased. Now, in a striking reversal of roles, our society commandeers the man's body as a “wage” slave to support children that others have decided to bring into the world. "No taxation without representation" was a battle cry of the American Revolution, but something similar has been reinstituted. To participate on an equal basis in reproductive decisions, a man would have to employ expensive, futuristic technology. He would have to freeze a sufficient quantity of sperm and then have a vasectomy. Artificial insemination is not a very romantic alternative for anyone, and this possibility is not practical on a large scale for obvious economic reasons. The point needs to be made, however, to highlight the gender difference on this issue. Only by resorting to such a science fiction scenario could a man enjoy the same degree of choice that women in our society now take for granted, a degree of choice that has been enshrined in American constitutional law.
* Steve Lehman teaches English at John Abbott College.