- Sacrificing Women on the Altar of Equality
It has been 2,500 years since Plato in his Republic revealed the necessary core beliefs, not only of every community, but specifically of democracy —of every democracy that has ever been or ever will be, including our own. The caricature of democracy that he presents in Book VIII of that classic is most unfair in one sense, in that no democracy could ever reach the absurd extreme he depicts, but eminently fair in another, in isolating and magnifying, and thereby revealing, the true tendencies, prejudices, and fanaticisms of that regime. Linda McClain's Place of Families is a remarkable illustration and unfolding of this aspect of Plato's analysis: that political power—and for us, that means above all the love of equality—corrupts and debases our understanding of the world and of one another and reaches over and degrades even our most private and precious goods, romantic love, and the family.
McClain answers the question, "What is the family?" (and hence what it should be) primarily in political terms. The family plays a vital role, not merely in biological or physical reproduction (in rapid decline in all liberal democracies), but in the far grander task of "social reproduction": that is, the "formative project" of "producing persons capable of responsible personal and democratic self-government."1 The government also plays a vital role as the family's partner in social reproduction: it needs to foster the "capacities for self-government" (e.g., by expanding welfare benefits for single mothers) and "refrain from coercive action with respect to a range of decisions and behaviors" (e.g., by refraining from coercively refusing to pay for the abortions of indigent women).2 The government also should "foster responsibility," (e.g. by a non-abstinence-based and non-gender-role-stereotyped program of sex education, such as educating adolescents about the varieties of "outercourse," including female masturbation).3 But the foundation of all McClain's assessments and hopes is that subtask of government called "fostering equality," both equality within and equality between families (e.g. by governmental promotion of sex equality in a "reconstructed marriage," and the establishment of gay marriage and a "kinship registration system").4
As one can readily imagine, a book of this sort (despite the occasional discussion of teenage sex) is bound to be rather abstract and legalistic, and it does not disappoint. All those novelists and playwrights and philosophers who so lovingly depicted the nuances of sexual difference and inequality, in all its drama and humor, from Sophocles and Euripides to Shakespeare and Tolstoy, including of course such eminent female writers as Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Edith Wharton, have a huge and terrible advantage over the grey and mirthless tracts put out by those who wish to embark on "formative projects" to rid us of this manifest curse and injustice, that the sexes are not in fact equal, even now, after all the political and social revolutions to make them so. But this would be an unfair burden to put on J.S. Mill, Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de Beauvoir, or their numerous heirs and fellow travelers: it is still a new movement, and it is a bold project, and we have to judge not on the still lacking historical record, but on the future possibilities. Still, it is well to keep in mind that a lot of the beauty of the world as we have known it so far, in art and literature and faith, has been tied up with the recognition and even promotion of sexual difference and inequality, however unjust it may be. Moreover, female authors of those benighted times often exhibit an exasperating failure to describe the plight of women in terms of servility and subjection, although many of their works do describe a remarkable and doubtless deplorable servility and subjection of men to the women around them.5
At the risk of seeming naïve, I ask: Is McClain's project possible? And is it good? The second question presupposes an affirmative answer to the first. Consider a simple analogy. If some persons were to say that the elimination of private property were...