Divorce and Toxic Femininity

A Review of Carrie Gress and Nancy Pearcey 

I recently wrote an article defending Florida’s new default rules governing divorce. The new default rules would, I argued, deter some women, who file for most divorces, from filing for divorce. Child custody would be split evenly between spouses. Alimony schedules were changed to take away incentives from dependent spouses. Critics trolled me. Some ignore how women file for 70 percent of divorces. Some celebrated the female penchant to divorce as an expression of women’s liberation.

Attitudes about the 70-percent statistic reveal much about thinkers. Many refuse to see the statistic. One recent book, Carrie Gress’s The End of Woman: How Smashing the Patriarchy Has Destroyed Us, thinks the statistic reveals how women have changed. Another, Nancy Pearcey’s The Toxic War on Masculinity: How Christianity Reconciles the Sexes, partly adopts the feminist narrative that men are to blame for women filing for divorce.

Gress is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) and a Catholic mother of five. Women, she notes, “have become less happy over time” under our feminist regime and this “helps to explain why nearly 70 percent of divorces are initiated by women.” From the first, feminists from Mary Wollstonecraft to Ruth Bader Ginsburg wanted to shape a new woman, who would “create her own life, outside of any of the demands of family, society or social convention.” This new woman would be economically and emotionally independent of marriage, family, nature, and faith. Patriarchy as expressed first in the laws, then in Christian customs and faith, and then in nature itself stood in the way of making this new woman. Patriarchy, a system designed by men to control women for the good of men, then would have to be smashed to emancipate women and bring about their happiness.

Gress does not tell a “who-stole-feminism” tale. She writes about the “real problems at the core of feminism” and “its misdiagnosis of what ails women.” Hers is an intellectual history of feminism told mostly through biographical snippets. This feminist ethic was, Gress shows, created by women broken “either by parental abuse sexual trauma, drug use and abuse, or mental illness.” Many were occultists and satanists too (e.g., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Kate Millett). America allowed women who had horrible family backgrounds and who summoned evil spirits to set the tone for family life. The deepest question is, “Why did Americans listen?”

Listen we did. Feminism, as Gress writes, went “from a fringe movement to the monolithic belief system accepted by a majority of Western women today.” The victory of feminism created restless women—dissatisfied with home, confused about their bodies, never sufficiently honored at work—who blame society’s phobias for their problems. If feminists summon demons, Gress would summon “fly-over women” to lead a new birth of marriage supported, in part, by traditional sex roles. She calls for restorations: Restore monogamy. Restore the patriarchy. Restore motherhood. Restore faith in the true God. She hopes women “stop blaming the patriarchy” for their problems, give “up feminism” and see themselves once again as mothers. “As uncomfortable as it is to say, we have to consider women as mothers—even if, of course, many among us aren’t mothers now or won’t become mothers. All women are called to a type of psychological or spiritual motherhood in our relationship with others, where we look out for the best interest of others, mentor them, and help them grow.”

How can Gress get away with such heresies? She does not worry that “the deep entrenchment of feminism” will destroy her “academic or journalistic career” since, as she writes, “I have neither.” She is not interested in worldly honor. Though Gress is a fellow at EPPC and she cites EPPC scholars like Carl Trueman throughout her book, not a single person from EPPC blurbed her book and EPPC press releases have been tepid in their promotion of it. Hers is among the best and most courageous anti-feminist books since Carolyn Graglia’s Domestic Tranquility.

Pearcey’s book surprisingly embodies as much as it challenges feminism. At first, Pearcey, a Scholar in Residence at Houston Christian University, defends Christian husbands from accusations arising from modern feminists. Following Brad Wilcox’s Soft Patriarchs, New Men (2004), Pearcey relays statistics to show that church-going men are the most engaged, least abusive husbands; their wives are happiest as well.

Pearcey kind of takes it back later. She notes that “80 percent of divorces are initiated by women. (Among college-educated women, the rate is 90 percent).” Why? Men are not willing to do the emotional work to sustain healthy marriages. Men “are not taught to be intimate partners, husbands are not equipped to understand what their wives mean when they express hurt and frustration over the lack of intimacy in their relationship.” The “health of a marriage depends primarily on the husband” and his willingness to “accept influence” from his wife.

Why do men fail to do the emotional work or worse? For Pearcey, too many simply follow “the narrow, one-dimensional script for the “Real” Man.” This may sound like a Mark Driscoll rant, but it is not—or not exactly. The “toxic war on masculinity” comes, according to Pearcey, not from the feminist left (as Gress implies), but mostly from something like the pagan right, whose glorification of the “Real” Man is used to justify verbal abuse, controlling behavior, assertions of male chauvinism, emotional distance, adultery, physical abuse, and tyrannical control. “Real” Men are, we are falsely told, distant, on the run, wild boys, wealth-hungry, skirt-chasers, unwilling to do “women’s work,” stoical, barbaric pirates or not prone to tears.

Pearcey’s story is told according to the theory of precarious manhood. According to this theory, well known to the psychological literature, boys fall behind in school and the workplace because society foists the “Real” Man ideal onto boys. Boys and men thus avoid scholarly or workplace behaviors typically considered “feminine.” Boys do stupid things like commit crimes or join gangs and husbands, sometimes, become abusive to avoid feminine behavior. Boys adopt the “Real” Man narrative so they are alienated from their feelings of connection to others and have stunted emotional maturity. When boys become men, they are neither ready for marriage nor emotionally available within it. To end precarious manhood, its norms must be stigmatized and de-emphasized and the alternative Christian vision must be used to replace it. Or so goes the argument.

Pearcey’s analysis of divorce reveals the problems with the precarious manhood argument. Men can, as Pearcey suggests, be abusive and women can be too tolerant of their abusers. Men can be emotionally distant.

Yet to hang divorce on such behavior mistakes the part for the whole. According to one study, domestic violence ranked sixteenth in order of importance as a reason women cited for divorce. Another study of divorcing couples in Virginia found that in only 6 percent of cases was domestic violence mentioned as a contributing cause for divorce. Malleable categories like irreconcilable differences, financial troubles, and emotional abuse are the top reasons cited for divorce—and these categories capture both legitimate and illegitimate female discontents. Pearcey seems unwilling to analyze how women have changed under our no-fault divorce regime.

The larger problem with the analysis is the precarious manhood framing, which both ignores female corruption (Gress’s emphasis) and provides only a partial treatment of male corruption. Pearcey defines the good man by how he relates to family life or women generally. There is more to being a man than that. “Real” Men capture that wanderlust and camaraderie that are often missed when manhood is defined exclusively in terms of relationships to women. Transforming the “Real” Man ethic with Christian commitment to duty is key. Biblical manhood promotes “Real” Men attributes like courage, strength, self-control, ambition, and responsibility. It encourages actual accomplishment in work. It includes banding together with other men (i.e., deep male friendships) to accomplish great things. It encourages men to put on the whole armor of God against wicked worldly powers. It also encourages men to take responsibility within their families, which will include protecting the weak and taking responsibility for the whole. Something much easier to do when taking such responsibility is honored and expected.

All people are restless until their hearts rest in the Lord. Gress’s book presents a penetrating and unfashionable analysis of female restlessness to be corrected by elevating considerations of marriage and motherhood in womanly character. Pearcey’s book, unintentionally perhaps, ascribes male restlessness to feminist tropes against “toxic masculinity.” Remasculanizing men would build on male restlessness toward a character capable of taking on serious responsibilities both outside and inside the family, both for its own sake and for the sake of others.

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Scott Yenor

Scott Yenor is Director of State Coalition at the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life and a professor of political science at Boise State University. His Recovery of Family Life (Baylor, 2020) is now out in paperback.

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