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Wall Street Journal

 

The Original Culture Warriors

October 09, 2012

By Kay S. Hymowitz

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For lower-middle-class women serving coffee to bosses, full-time motherhood wasn’t the concentration camp described by feminists.

Even as we tremble at the edge of a fiscal cliff, the culture war insists on our attention. Abortion, contraception, gay and women’s rights, and welfare have all returned to shake up an election season that was supposed to be a simple economy slugfest. Robert O. Self’s "All in the Family" could help explain why. Mr. Self, a professor of history at Brown University, has heroically researched the history of the culture wars from the early 1960s to the present. He offers a provocative analysis that accounts for today’s alliance between small-government and social conservatives, on the one hand, and welfare-state and social liberals, on the other.

Mr. Self begins his history by describing "breadwinner liberalism" as the status quo of the early and mid-1960s. The architects of the Great Society assumed the primacy of male-earner and female-homemaker families. Labor unions fought for a family wage for their predominantly male membership, the Moynihan Report (1965) raised alarms about black male unemployment, and the first efforts at affirmative action took the form of quotas in municipal contracts for male construction workers. In all these cases "women were largely an afterthought," Mr. Self writes. Breadwinner liberalism, he argues, was based on a model of "masculine individualism": hardworking, striving, self-reliant.

By the late 1960s, male breadwinners were beset from all sides. Their antiwar sons grew their hair long and scoffed at verities about masculine honor. Gays, going public early in the decade as self-defined "homophiles," challenged presumptions about masculine sexuality. Traditional men watched anxiously as their wives brought home paychecks and as women generally demanded relief from sexual harassment, low pay and pink-collar ghettos. Men soon saw their daughters demonstrating for abortion rights. Between the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and various court decisions, it seemed as if the government, the courts and their own families all agreed: The traditional male-headed family was an anachronism.

But, the author concludes, breadwinning men weren’t disappearing; they and their female supporters were just changing political parties. For many lower-middle-class women serving coffee to bosses and stocking grocery shelves, full-time motherhood wasn’t the concentration camp described by feminists. They found a voice in antifeminists like Phyllis Schlafly, who almost single-handedly stopped the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1970s. Catholic women and men organized groups to oppose abortion and were soon joined by evangelicals. Other grass-root groups emerged, some in support of Vietnam veterans and others celebrating what came to be known as family values. What was taking shape was the profound class and cultural divide that vexes our politics to this day.

In a vivid chapter, Mr. Self describes the 1972 Democratic National Convention, a pivotal moment in the reshaping of political alignments. AFL-CIO President George Meany railed that, in the party platform, "there were no steelworkers, no pipe fitters, and worst of all, no plumbers." Instead there were feminists, radical blacks, Chicanos and gays—co-conspirators in a left-wing attack on breadwinner liberalism. In reaction, a constellation of religious, white, "ethnic" and anti-feminist objectors joined forces to create "breadwinner conservatism." By 1980, with the help of a vigorous evangelical revival, these one-time Democrats helped elect Ronald Reagan president.

Mr. Self’s history delves into the crosscurrents roiling this realignment. Black activists didn’t like white, middle-class feminists hitching their cause to the Civil Rights Act. Black nationalists and Catholic Mexican liberationists eyed abortion as an attempt to curtail black and brown fertility. Anti-porn feminists echoed pro-decency conservatives. Eventually the anti-breadwinner groups made an uneasy truce within the Democratic Party. Tensions still complicate Democratic politics—between "negative liberty" liberals, who focus on the removal of barriers to equality, and their "positive liberty" counterparts, who insist on large government efforts to equalize results.

Alas, after giving us such a carefully researched chronicle, "All in the Family" descends into a partisan tract, obscuring the very conflict it is supposed to elucidate. Mr. Self describes the breadwinner model as "obsolete," a "political and ideological fiction" invented in the U.S. "between the 1920s and the 1960s." The "model of family set forth by feminists, lesbians and gay men, and others on the broad liberal left," on the other hand, "was adaptive and sociological."

This claim is dubious on many counts. A division of labor between a male provider and female hearth-bound nurturer was as old as marriage itself; it was also highly adaptive until 20th-century technology reduced the burdens of domestic labor. While it is true that traditionalists came to accept the movement of women into the work force later than liberals, working motherhood has become so widely accepted that the term "breadwinner conservatism" is itself obsolete. Moreover, a large body of social science suggesting that the adaptive benefits of two-parent families for children tramples any claim of sociological rigor on the part of the anti-family left.

Mr. Self’s views on these matters are surely related to his belief, shared by many in academia, in a uniquely American malevolence. "Lesbians had little standing in America’s patriarchal society," he writes about the years before the 1970s, though it is unclear how that separates the U.S. from almost any place on earth. He calls the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor a "classic American idea" despite its origins in Victorian England. He reduces concerns about crime and welfare dependency to American racism. He criticizes those who believed that spreading the breadwinner model to the post-Jim Crow black family would improve the lives of the poor. He never mentions the 72% black or the 41% overall nonmarital birthrate, both partly a consequence of the adaptive sociology he admires. "All in the Family" tells us a great deal about recent political history but much less about the history of the family.

Original Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444358804578017242554945624.html

 

 
 
 

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