Debate | ‘We’ve lost touch with what gives our lives shape and significance’
Is the traditional family the foundation of democracy?
It’s the foundation of many things—happiness, social order, identity—and it’s essential to the good working of democracy too. The family, with marriage as its foundation, is the first building block of civil society, and democracy is reliant on the idea of people being able to self-govern, to control themselves, to tend to their own needs and not just be servants of the state or, God forbid, wards of the state. There are necessary tasks the family performs that involve love, care, selflessness, which the state is very bad at. Whenever the state is called upon to do these tasks, it fails.
Unfortunately, in our society, 40 percent of children are now born to unmarried women, and a majority spend some time in a single-parent home before the age of 18. Some single parents do a great job, but it’s not a great model, and many struggle unnecessarily. It’s also leading to greater inequality in society. There’s now an elite top third who practice a very conservative morality, who tend to get married and stay married, and whose rate of out-of-wedlock birth is comparable to the overall rate in the 1950s. And they are zooming ahead of the other two-thirds of society, who are descending into dysfunction.
How would you define the traditional family?
I’m talking about a two-parent, opposite-sex model, but I recognize that gay marriage is here to stay. What I say to my gay friends—and some are perfectly OK with this—is that if you’re a gay couple, you really have to make an extra effort to find role models of the opposite sex for your children. So if you have a son, and you’re in a lesbian couple, you should go out of your way to find men to model a male style of parenting, and vice versa.
Stephanie Coontz: ‘The “traditional” family was a relatively late invention’
Were families ever “traditional”?
I know that books such as The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz say that era never existed, that everybody was alcoholic, or victims of incest, or having domestic trauma. I’m exaggerating, but that’s been the tone of that kind of literature—that the family was the source of misery and that it was never that great. But women themselves didn’t report that, and women today want it. Maybe they’re deluded, but I don’t think so. Women who have stable marriages and nice careers are the happiest people in America. Men too.
What effect has feminism had on families?
I believe that feminism, while it did some good things, took some very bad wrong turns, in particular assuming men and women are the same when it comes to sex. Feminism tried to make women over in the image of the worst, most abusing men. And of course that hasn’t worked out well. A lot of the detours we’ve seen since then are the result of feminists trying to correct the mistakes they made in endorsing this sexual free-for-all. I think the #MeToo movement is just the latest expression of women’s dissatisfaction with the new sexual morality. They don’t like that men have been permitted to act in these ways, so they call it rape culture, but they really mean they want men to control their lust. But we’ve celebrated lust, and we are paying for that in a million ways. Women especially, but men are suffering too. Men unattached to families and the workforce are at record numbers. Women are less happy than they were in previous generations, despite the advances of feminism. Statistics show that women value security, that they are less risk-taking than men, and it’s not surprising. Why wouldn’t we value security? We get pregnant and have babies and are vulnerable at certain times of our lives, and we need someone to stick by us.
Are there other forces in society that undermine stable families?
Feminism didn’t invent the sexual revolution. That came before, from a libertine philosophy that said the whole ethic of your life should be one of pleasure-seeking rather than being a better person and being of service to others. Our society with its focus on pleasure and fun and self-actualization and identity and so forth has lost touch with the things that give our lives shape and significance. It’s a deep psychological strain that will require a lot of work to undo. If you look at data on what people think marriage is for, people used to think it was mainly to take care of children. Now people think it is mainly about personal happiness. It does bring personal happiness, but if you think that’s the whole ballgame, your marriage will have trouble.
Does the government have an obligation to support families or encourage a particular kind of family?
Not an obligation, but no humane society wants people to live in destitution, so to the degree we can afford it, we should support needy families. As for government efforts to encourage or discourage certain family formations, I don’t think the state belongs there. It’s purely a matter of culture, which is far stronger in any case.
Does Judaism offer insight into these questions for you?
Judaism is very wise about a lot of these questions. For example, the idea that women don’t have to do the same tasks as men under religious law. A lot of feminists resent that, or think it’s demeaning, and I don’t dismiss that, but there’s something nice about the recognition that, look, women are really busy. They might not have time to drop everything three times a day and pray. The Old vreliant female characters. And I think the emphasis Judaism has always placed on family is a great strength. So much of Jewish practice is focused on home life. For me, there’s nothing more beautiful than a Shabbat dinner, with everybody scrubbed and ready to celebrate together and parents blessing their children. It’s a lovely and unifying thing.
Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author of Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love and Common Sense.