Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Dowd-y old things

I SWORE I wouldn't do this. I swore I wasn't going to put a post about Maureen Dowd's now infamous article in last Sunday's NYT. For eight whole days I managed to resist the temptation, at points physically clutching onto my desk from getting started. When posts about the issue appeared on Veena's blog, on Indian Writing, I still managed to hold out.

Then, yesterday, just as I thought the worst was over, a friend sent me a copy of the article, wondering if I had read it (clearly, she'd been in hibernation all of last week). It was the straw that broke the cavil's back.

Let me start by saying that unlike many others, I wasn't particularly offended or angered by Dowd's article - on the whole I found it entertaining, if somewhat irritatingly trite. Maybe it's just a predilection for not taking things too seriously, but I didn't see it as being the next definitive comment on feminism in our age, more as a sort of tattle piece for a lazy Sunday morning. Dowd is not, I think, food for serious thought; in the pyramid of intellectual diet she is a light dessert, a fluffy concoction with an amusing taste but little nutritional value.

That said, I thought there was a lot to disagree with in the article. Much has already been said by others about the poor factual quality of the article, the empirical flimsiness of its contentions. I will only say that I fully second these objections, adding only that I can safely say, on evidence at least as good as Dowd's (read: my mother and I both agree) that while there are men who are intimidated by smart, successful women, there are also a fair (and I suspect growing) number who actively seek them out.

So much for the facts (never my favourite topic). My larger objection to Dowd's article is that she obscures an important, no, critical difference between having to make a difficult choice and being placed in a difficult situation without any realistic choice at all. To understand this, consider a market where there is initally no trading, no money, and all consumers have to go to a standard ration shop, that gives them whatever is available. There are differences in quality in the goods that the consumers receive, but these are not systematic, and consumers have little control over what they get (partly because information is hard to come by / demand, partly because they have little or no ability to postpone consumption). So no matter who the consumer is or what her utility function might be, she has to take what's available.

Now imagine that at some point private shops are allowed and money is made available to consumers to buy from them. The private shops offer significantly higher quality goods. Because this is a new and unfamiliar situation, private trade will evolve slowly. Consumers will be slow to shift to private shops, and given the slow increase in demand, private shops will develop slowly and sporadically as well. Over time, however, consumers will come to realise the benefits of private shops and more and more consumers will seek out the private market. On the assumption that private traders are slow to predict the sudden upsurge in demand as early adopters of private shops give way to mainstream consumers, there will be a period where demand for private goods will outstrip supply - private shop prices will rise and consumers whose utility preferences for private goods are not that strong will be competed out of the market. These consumers will be seen to exit the private market and return to the ration shops to get the goods they need (or they will simply delay their consumption to the point when private trade supply catches up).

To an external and uninformed observer, this may look as though the old ways were coming back. But it's obvious that that is not true - even if a large number of consumers are still dependent on the ration shops, this is a fundamentally different economy. First, because of the high profits that private traders stand to gain in the short run, more and more production will shift to private trade - not only will supply increase bringing down prices, but quality of product may go up as well, driven by the needs of private trade. In the medium run, then, we will see an expansion of private trade and a further improvement in the situation. Even if this does not happen, though, the presence of money means that the economy is more efficient, in a Pareto sense, than the ration shop system - even if only few consumers are getting higher quality private goods, these are the consumers whose utility for them is the highest, as revealed by the price they are willing to pay. That's better than a system where consumers and goods get matched to other randomly.

What does all of this have to do with the Dowd article? My contention is that what Dowd is observing (to the extent that her empirics are valid at all) is precisely the same sort of short-term spike in demand - in a world where the supply of men who value smart, successful women, (though steadily growing) has not kept up with the supply of such women, the 'price' of getting such a man will be higher, and there will be women on the margins who will not think it's worth it. The cost that smart, successful women have to pay to get a man who will appreciate them is not a symptom of their increasing marginalisation, then, on the contrary, it is a consequence of their rapidly growing numbers.

The critical point, I think, is that an increasing number of women have the economic freedom that gives them the opportunity to make that choice. Dowd seems to gloss over this, but it seems to me to be a critical point. Not only have decades of 'feminism' (for want of a better term) ensured that women have far superior access to economic independence, it has also significantly changed (I think) the household dynamic, with the division of household chores moving towards greater equity [1]. Yes, women, in general, are still assigned a disproportionate share of household chores (though the NYT also carried an article a while back about a growing trend of stay at home husbands), but I think the differences are smaller than they were in our parent's generation, and continually shrinking. These are not small victories.

A closely linked problem I have with Dowd's article is that she seems to assume that by not getting a man, any man, a woman is somehow missing out. I'm not sure why this is true - the question it would be useful to ask, I think is: If you have to dumb yourself down to be attractive to him, is getting into a relationship with him really desirable at all? Getting a man may be the only point of life in Dowd's world, but I suspect (and hope) that there are women out there who have other sources of fulfillment. For such women, not getting together with some neanderthal who will expect them to be meek and dainty may not be such a loss, and they may in fact be grateful for being able to make an informed and independent choice about the matter.

Of course, Dowd would argue that a woman shouldn't have to choose. And that, I think, is the essence of what's wrong with Dowd's piece. Joan Didion, in an essay on feminism in the White Album, argues that in many ways the 'vision' of modern feminism is little more than a schoolgirl fantasy, an ideal world where women get to live like spoilt and innocent princesses. That's precisely the sort of petulant 'why can't we have our cake and eat it to' daydreaming that Dowd seems to fall into.

Yes, it would be wonderful if we could all have rich, fulfilling lives both at home and work. If we could be respected, successful, loved, desired and worshipped all at the same time. Yet the fact that we can't always have it all, that there are trade-offs between work and personal life, that succeeding at one thing often means giving up on something else, is hardly an exclusively feminist problem - it is the reality of being an adult, of either gender, in the modern world. It would be disingenuous to assume, for instance, that men are not as much victims of gender roles as women are, that men do not make trade-offs between work and family (often with less leeway than women - try being a man without a career and getting someone to marry you), that men get everything they want out of life and are always completely fulfilled. Life is about making difficult choices and living with the frustrations and disappointments that naturally follow, not even the most rigorous gender equality will make that go away.

To summarise then, even if we assume that by some miracle Dowd's 'facts' are empirically accurate - we still need to think carefully about their implications. It is my contention that a) the very framing of the problem that Dowd puts forward represents a considerable advance for the status of women from a few decades ago, that b) there is no reason to believe that this advance will not continue and that c) even as we evaluate that advance, we need to keep in mind that the purpose of the feminist movement cannot be to make women happy - it is only to ensure that there are no more unhappy than men.


[1] See, this is why I didn't want to argue about facts. I have no idea whatsoever if this is empirically true. Based on anecdotal evidence I think it may be true, but I'm probably just making it up. I wonder if there's a spot on the NYT staff for an Op-Ed columnist?


Mrudula said...

You sound like an economist:) I read that stupid article last week. Silly woman.

Veena said...

Nice try. Has any unsuspecting woman emailed yet? :)

Falstaff said...

Mru: Errr...that may be because I am one - to the extent that having a degree in Economics makes you an economist

Veena: You misjudge me - i'm not doing this for the attention. I'm doing it for the principle of the thing. (would you believe me if I told you that I said that with a straight face?)