“Mother and Child,” Helen Hyde. Creative Commons Zero (CC0).

Women and Children First

The American economist Bryan Caplan has a pleasing habit of giving his books clear and direct titles. Open Borders (2019) argued for, well, open borders. The Case Against Education (2018) did exactly what it said on the tin, as did Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids (2011). His latest book, Don’t Be a Feminist, is similarly straightforward in both its branding and its content. It’s a collection of essays originally published on the blog that Caplan has been keeping for many years (of which I am a longtime reader).

The titular essay is addressed to his daughter, Vali, though she is currently too young to read it. “As you’ve probably heard, Vali, I am one of feminism’s opponents,” begins Caplan. “And since I am your father, you know I’m not evil.” 

Any non-evil polemic against feminism must necessarily begin by defining feminism in a somewhat unorthodox manner, given that the definition of feminism that most of us will be familiar with—the definition offered by, for instance, Merriam Webster: “belief in and advocacy of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes”—is so mild as to be agreeable to all but your more reactionary Saudi sheik, and even the Saudis are now permitting women to vote and drive. So Caplan offers an elegant alternative, one that he believes actually describes the meat of what twenty-first century Western feminism is all about: “the view that society generally treats men more fairly than women.” It’s a good definition in the sense that it identifies a point of disagreement between (at least some) feminists and (at least some) non-feminists. Whether one is willing to, as Caplan terms it, “sign on the dotted line” in response to such a statement does, I agree, tell us something meaningful. 

But Caplan’s is also a definition that invites people on both sides of the feminist aisle to whip out a scorecard and start adding up instances of gendered unfairness, as he promptly proceeds to do. Which sex does the most dangerous, dirty work? Men, unless you count prostitution. Which sex is raped more often? Women, although high rates of rape in American prisons is a complicating factor. Which sex is the victim of more violence in general? Men, although the single best predictor of being a victim of violence is whether or not you also dish it out—whether or not you’re a career criminal, in other words, which is a profession entirely made up of men. 

You can see already that the scorecard is getting messy. It turns out that assessing the “fairness” of how “society” treats one half of the population compared with the other is difficult to judge, since there are so many different metrics one might use. Which, of course, is Caplan’s point: he offers up a definition of feminism, only to demolish its priors. As the philosopher Alex Hill has pointed out, “Caplan wants the question of whether one ought to be a feminist to be empirically decidable.” If we accept this premise, then most of us will be forced to concede that men are not, always and everywhere, treated “more fairly than women” in an empirical sense. According to this definition, I am not a feminist. 

And yet I persist in describing myself as such, and not only because I enjoy confounding my critics’ expectations (although I do). I believe that there is some merit in using a looser definition of feminism that incorporates the recognition of substantial differences between the sexes. I assert that there are important ways in which men and women differ from one another, both physically and psychologically, and that these differences mean that the interests of the sexes are sometimes in tension. 

Women are less likely to be found in positions of power. This is true for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is that it is women who give birth to babies, and women who tend to experience the strongest emotional pull towards being in close proximity to their young children. This basic biological fact means that all mothers will have to spend a short period of time out of the labour force when they give birth, and many mothers will want to extend that time further in order to care for their children. That’s a completely legitimate desire, but it inevitably impairs a woman’s career progression. Combine this with women’s higher average agreeableness (that is, the urge to put the interests of other people before one’s own), and we end up with an important problem: the interests of women, particularly mothers, are less likely to be given voice in the corridors of power. Feminism—specifically, a feminism orientated towards maternity—is, I posit, the political movement that exists in order to counteract this problem.    

I can imagine the response on the tip of Caplan’s tongue: that’s not how everyone else uses the term. Again, I agree. I concede that my definition is an eccentric one, even if I think it has merit, and that when most people describe themselves as “feminists” they’re thinking of something closer to Caplan’s “fairness” definition. 

Except not quite. There’s a dimension to the real-world manifestation of feminism that is missed in the empirical “fairness” definition, and it’s a dimension that explains a great deal of how the feminist movement actually operates, including why my own brand of maternal feminism is so frequently marginalized. The magic ingredient is status. 

The Importance of Status

As a writer, Caplan is, for good and ill, somewhat blind to the issue of status. A consistent theme in his work is a general insensitivity to the more emotional side of human motivation. 

In Open Borders, for instance, Caplan makes a compelling case for the potential economic advantages of completely free migration (paired, necessarily, with a huge reduction in the size of Western welfare states). Yet there would be important social costs to the open borders future that Caplan envisages. Indeed, we are already experiencing some of these costs in a country like the UK, which has just posted record net migration levels. Mass migration can result in a lower-trust society, for instance, as well as the loss of cultural identity. It can also lead to a feeling—particularly among natives at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap—of being disrespected or even despised by those who applaud the arrival of cheap migrant labour. 

Caplan does not set much store by these kinds of concerns, which in the end come down to status, on both an individual and a cultural level. People like to feel good about themselves and about the groups they belong to. This desire drives an enormous amount of human behaviour, and it often appears from the outside to be ugly and foolish, which is a large part of why status anxiety is a source of so much self-deception. 

Status anxiety is not, however, irrational—at least, not always. Status often has a cash value, and by its very definition it has enormous social value. Our preoccupation with status is a product of our evolutionary history, during which the esteem of one’s peers was an important determinant of one’s access to mates and resources. To put it more bluntly: in conditions of scarcity, low-status people often died. As the descendants of people who managed to avoid this fate, we all have a built-in desire to be regarded as high status. 

This is highly relevant to feminism. In Don’t Be a Feminist, Caplan raises and rebuts a familiar feminist argument:

Even if men and women spend equal amounts of time toiling, isn’t it unfair that men get to work so much outside the home, while women are stuck home taking care of kids? You could just as easily ask, “Isn’t it unfair that women get to take care of kids, while men are stuck working outside of the home?”

It’s a good question, and it’s asked with a touching degree of sincerity. I should note here that Caplan is a highly attentive father of four: he homeschools his children, and he took on the night shifts when they were babies, including for a pair of twins. This may go some way towards explaining this blind spot. While I agree with him that taking care of kids is both joyful and enormously important, Caplan seems not to have noticed that his admirable tendency to hold childcare in high regard is a long way from being a universal position.

Nearly all of us adore our mothers, of course, and most people take a vaguely benevolent attitude towards “the fairer sex.” The “women are wonderful” effect is a phenomenon found in psychological research, which suggests that people associate more positive attributes with women than they do with men. If asked to choose between saving a male and female stranger, for instance, research participants will consistently opt to save the woman. True misogynists do exist, but they are rare. 

At the same time, and seemingly counter-intuitively, women are consistently positioned slightly further down the pecking order in terms of status compared with men, as are the roles and preferences associated with women. As Caplan himself observes, “childhood is much harder for the ‘sissy’ than the ‘tomboy’—and this disparity likely continues into adulthood.” Femininity is not only disfavoured in boys and men, but also very often in girls and women, who are liable to earn labels like “bimbo” and “airhead” for leaning into it. 

This aversion to the feminine is hard to pin down empirically, since it often operates at a subconscious level. But we can see it in playground taunts (“throw like a girl”) and Germaine Greer’s observation that words associated with women have a tendency, over time, to move from being neutral to being pejorative. “Tart” and “mistress” are both examples of this phenomenon. We can see it, also, in the fact that professions tend to shed status as soon as women enter them en masse. Teaching is one historical example, medicine a more recent one. As soon as women formed a majority in both workforces, both pay and status dropped. Again, this has nothing to do with “misogyny.” No one hates doctors or teachers. If anything, they are regarded with sentimental fondness. But then, that’s the point: we adore our mothers, but we don’t necessarily respect them. 

Benevolent Sexism

A classic 1972 essay by the anthropologist Sherry Ortner asked, “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” In other words, could the consistently lower status of women across time and place be explained by a psychological association between women and the natural (i.e. non-human) world? Ortner is onto something with this formulation, but I want to suggest an alternative: it is not that women are both blessed and damned by their association with nature, but rather by their association with children. 

Human beings have a persistent habit of regarding women as childlike, both as a result of their smaller physiques, and also as a result of their role as mothers. There’s a reason that “women and children” rolls off the tongue in a way that “men and children” does not. The mother-infant dyad comes as a package, for both practical and emotional reasons. And not unreasonably, in our efforts to make sense of the world, we tend to slot these two categories of people alongside one another. If men are at the top of the status hierarchy, and children are at the bottom, then women are always and everywhere positioned somewhere between the two—more or less adjacent to children, depending on the culture in question. 

If we run with this model, then the simultaneous elevation of and condescension towards women makes immediate sense. Because while we all adore our children, we don’t respect them. Children are loveable and precious. If asked to choose between saving an adult and a child stranger, research participants will consistently opt to save the child. But children are also (correctly) regarded as incapable of self-governance. To return to Saudi Arabia for a moment, Caplan notes that “until recently, every Saudi woman had a male ‘guardian’—typically a father, husband, brother, or uncle—who could legally forbid her to work, travel, or marry.” At the risk of stating the obvious, what such a system does is offer women the same legal status as children. Our own Western legal systems did the same thing until relatively recently, and the instinct to regard women as childlike persists still. 

This has its advantages. As Caplan notes, women—like children—are not conscripted in war or tasked with doing dangerous manual jobs, such as logging and waste disposal. Women also enjoy acts of benevolent sexism that are often invisible to the feminists who rage against male chauvinism, not recognizing that men are often far harsher to one another than women realize. 

But the status insult still stings, particularly for women of particularly high intelligence, or with particularly masculine temperaments, who highly resent the more-or-less implicit suggestion that they are intellectually childlike. This, I propose, is the true motivating force behind the feminist agitating that Caplan criticizes so strongly. It’s not that feminists have looked at Caplan’s scorecard and concluded that women are, on an empirical level, at a disadvantage. Rather, they have correctly intuited that, despite all of the legal gains of the feminist movement over the last century and more, the status gap persists. All else being equal, a woman will never have as much social status as a man. 

So when Caplan asks why feminists don’t envy the women who “get to take care of kids, while men are stuck working outside of the home,” he is missing the point. For feminists intent on masculine status, this is like asking why junior staff who “get to fetch the coffee” envy the guy who is “stuck” as the big boss. Isn’t is obvious? asks the bewildered would-be girlboss. The woman’s role is just…. worse. 

Maternal Feminism

So, what to do? If our new working definition of feminism as it works in practice is “the view that society unfairly regards men as higher status than women,” should Caplan’s daughter follow her father’s directive and reject feminism? If not for its empirical problems, perhaps she should reject it for its sense of hopelessness. If women are so consistently consigned to a child-adjacent status position across time and place, are feminists agitating against the status gap just howling at the moon? 

In his 2021 book The Status Game, author Will Storr advises against efforts to ignore our instincts towards status-seeking, given how deeply embedded they are. Instead, he suggests, we can deaden the pain of low status by (as he puts it) deliberately playing multiple status games at once. Storr, for instance, gains a sense of status from his professional work, but also from taking part in amateur cycling competitions. If he is feeling bruised from status loss in one endeavour, he can comfort himself in another. 

In this seemingly trivial piece of advice lies great wisdom for feminists. I make no secret of the fact that I oppose the kind of feminism that seeks to erase the differences between men and women in the hope of erasing the status gap. I reject the kind of feminism that insists on 50/50 representation in boardrooms while forgetting about 50/50 representation in waste disposal, since the goal is not “equality” per se, but rather masculine status. 

I oppose that project not only because it’s hopeless, but also because it doubles down on the disdain directed towards femininity and so ends up causing material harm to other women. An unfortunate feature of the influx of women into elite professions over the last half century is that the women who tend to get to the top of the ladder are the women most likely to deprioritize motherhood relative to career. These powerful women can often be more contemptuous of the feminine role than are their male colleagues, and it is partly due to their influence that, as Caplan writes, “schools and media aggressively encourage girls to pursue career success.” This rejection of motherhood is evident in policymaking. For instance, in the UK, families with stay-at-home mothers are penalized by our tax system, sometimes paying twice as much tax as families in which both parents earn the same, all in the name of “equality.” 

My proposal, instead, is that feminists should play a different status game entirely by pugnaciously asserting the status of motherhood—a status no man can ever achieve, whether he be a CEO, an astronaut, or the President of the United States. Fairer Disputations contributor Helen Roy describes the self-sacrificial beauty of the maternal ideal: 

I don’t know a mother who would not die for her children. There is no greater love, and, speaking politically now, there is no greater responsibility. Contrary to the oft-parroted shibboleths of modern feminism, a mother’s role is not beneath her. It is actually above her, in the sense that motherhood inherently elevates women as cultivators of the gratuitous gift we know as life itself. 

My guess is that Bryan Caplan would be quite happy to “sign on the dotted line” when it comes to the statement “a mother’s role is not beneath her, it is actually above her,” even if he is bemused by the emotional messiness of status games in general. Perhaps, if pushed, he might even concede that such a statement might be considered “feminist.” My hope, in time, is that his daughter Vali will agree.