Ross Douthat doesn’t know it, but his column this morning was written in 1772. Justus Moser took a harder line in “On the Diminished Disgrace of Whores and Their Children in Our Day” than Douthat does in “Liberated and Unhappy,” but I suppose it’s easy to be brave when you’ve been dead for two hundred years.
Moser, like Douthat, was concerned about rising illegitimacy rates but, unlike Douthat, he was willing to do something about it — specifically, he wanted to keep in place the guild rule that required apprentices to have been “conceived by honorable parents in a pure bed.” He doesn’t necessarily want to return to the days when mothers who drowned their infants were repaid in kind, he says, but he does acknowledge that, if we want to disincentivize the otherwise very attractive behavior of getting it on no-strings-attached, we’ll have to be mean to the people who engage in that behavior. Otherwise, we can count on more bastardy, which leaves everyone worse off.
This line of argument inspired this snark from John Holbo: “Oh yes he did. He concern-trolled the humanitarians. With a sack of drowned whores. You can say that you saw it on Mulberry Street.”
Douthat, like Moser, assumes that everyone can agree that “the steady advancement of single motherhood threatens the interests and happiness of women”:
Here the public-policy options are limited; some kind of social stigma is a necessity. But a new-model stigma shouldn’t (and couldn’t) look like the old sexism. There’s no necessary reason why feminists and cultural conservatives can’t join forces – in the same way that they made common cause during the pornography wars of the 1980s – behind a social revolution that ostracizes serial baby-daddies and trophy-wife collectors as thoroughly as the “fallen women” of a more patriarchal age.
This, of course, is a little concern-trollish, too — who is Douthat to tell Catharine MacKinnon, et al., what a real feminist would do?
The real feminists, of course, have turned up right on schedule to tell Douthat that, if he were really on their side, he’d join feminists in supporting their two favorite methods of reducing single motherhood: abortion and the Pill.
And that’s the real problem with Douthat’s column. The old ways of stigmatizing unwed motherhood have disappeared; therefore, we ought to come up with new ways to re-stigmatize it; it is true-though-not-obvious that in order to do that, we have to come down one way or another on birth control.
After all, what Douthat doesn’t know is that the feminists have been stigmatizing single motherhood, just not in a way that would please him. A line from Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip:
“Did you and the last honest man get loaded on Jägermeister and forget that there’s, like, five hundred different kinds of birth control?”
You’re pregnant on your own — what, were you drunk or something?
That kind of stigma works, but presumably the conservative half of Douthat’s alliance couldn’t really unite behind it. This leaves Douthat in a corner from which there are a limited number of ways to escape. If he doesn’t like the feminist paradise of unlimited contraception (and therefore, presumably, unlimited sex with negligible unwed motherhood), then he’ll have to save women from the “unhappiness” of single motherhood some other way. Marry earlier? Fine, but the delayed adolescence of college makes that difficult to manage. Also, women who marry before they establish their careers are left particularly vulnerable by no-fault divorce. If Douthat accepts late marriage as a social given, then he’ll have to create an America in which “thirty-year-old virgin” isn’t a punchline.
(Of course, the interesting question is this: Between the world we have, where single motherhood is on the rise, and the world feminists want, where there is very little single motherhood but contraception is near-universal and so is casual sex, which bothers Douthat more? I would guess the latter, which makes his attempt to cozy up to feminism that much stranger.)
Either way, Douthat can’t stigmatize single motherhood and contraception and abortion without putting forward some controversial moral vision, one that attacks late marriage, easy divorce, mothers with careers, or some combination of those. And, whatever his vision ends up being, my guess is that Catharine MacKinnon won’t like it.
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