My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Feminism and The Moral Animal

In “The Moral Animal,” Wright argues that feminist anti-polygyny is misplaced. Feminists often argue that polygyny is misogynistic because it places women in a subservient and oppressive system that does not consider their well-being. Wright counters this argument from a Darwinian perspective, noting that women are statistically more economically stable and better cared for when the wealthiest members of society take on multiple wives. Excessive resources get more evenly distributed, benefiting both the traditional wife and children. This is not to say that polygyny is not harmful to society. When the poorest men have no access to wives, there is a drastic increase in violence within a society.

What is interesting is how this relates to contemporary Western society. We do not actually live in a society built on monogamy, but on serial monogamy. In polygamous communities, a man must have the proper resources to take on extra wives. In serial monogamy, men are welcomed to leave their first wives (and children) and move on to a second set with little or no requirement to support the first set. Not only are economic resources withdrawn in divorce, but also so are the social advantages to having a present father. Wright suggests that our current state is actually the worst of all possible worlds. Women have limited (and not guaranteed) access to economic resources and there is a high probability that they will be the sole parent as stepparents are often more problematic to households and estranged fathers rarely provide the social support necessary for the well-being of children. To make matters worse, the poorest and least desirable men have little access to women (as the most powerful men *** multiple women), increasing the violence in society.

Of course, Wright fleshes out these theories in full detail and recognizes that social practice is not explicitly theory realized. Yet, in reading this, what struck me was the placement of these theories in relation to feminism. Access to divorce and freedom from non-monogamous husbands was all thought to be beneficial for women. Opening up the job market to women was going to provide equality and opportunities for social dominance. Yet, a half a century into these massive changes, Western women face a whole new set of challenges, and it is hard to say whether they are better off. There are less social structures in place to provide for emotionally enriching child support, making raising children a much more daunting practice. Since women bear the brunt of this work even when they have jobs, careers are an added struggle as opposed to an alternative. Even in marriages, women practically need to maintain job capabilities so that in the case of divorce, they are not left stranded and destitute.

Of course, Wright does not argue for a return to Victorian times, but a reflection on what has changed and its impact. Regardless of warped Republican rhetoric, instituting family values requires more of a social change than a legal one, as parental involvement must be genuine, not simply economic. But i have to wonder – in turning our social structure topsy-turvy, what have we lost? Perhaps i have the freedom and privilege to be a doctorate student, but what new challenges am i facing? And in instituting Judeo-Christian values on other cultures, are we actually causing the women more harm? Are my arguments for eliminating gender-based oppression improperly structured? Or more interestingly, can culture help evolve away from the Darwinian perspective?

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3 comments to Feminism and The Moral Animal

  • The one weakness I see in this line of reasoning is that in serial monogamy, men are often obligated to support their former wives (alimony) and any children from that marriage (child support). So I wouldn’t call that the worst of all possible worlds. But none of this is really about survival anymore… the thing that people always seem to forget when discussing social evolution is that there is no selection pressure anymore (at least, not in developed nations). It’s an analogy, and it’s important not to get tangled up in mixing the reasoning of one system (genetic evolution) with another (social change).

    I also find this to be a bit reductionist… poor men having lack of access to women results in violence? There are so many conceptual leaps being made there that it feels like frogger. Reflecting on my own personal experiences, it seems like there are a lot more emotional (socially or biologically based) questions about polygamy or polyamory than answers to be found in looking at social effects…

  • zephoria

    Having been the product of those divorce situations, i’m very fully aware of how that support *completely* breaks down. Legal rights are getting better, but in most cases divorce makes men richer and women poorer while depriving the children of economic support and an available father, while simultaneously making it impossible for the mother to be as present.

    There is no doubt that the system is not currently optimizing towards genetic evolution, but that doesn’t mean that the imbred habits for evolution do not affect contemporary social culture. Social change and social values do not eliminate embedded desires for sex and children or our tendencies towards jealousy and violence.

    There is no doubt that i’m taking 200 pages of an argument and skimming over it to suggest what i’m thinking about.. call it reductionist if you like. All the same, there is a distinct inverse corrolation between access to healthy sexual interactions and violence in men (just as there is a direct corrolation between marriage and health, which is why health insurance is cheaper when you are married). The military knows how to utilize this to its advantage and i suspect that this will make China and interesting powerhouse in the next decade or so.

  • phil

    Hmmm…

    zephoria I guess you have a point… celebate monks have been invading cities for generations now. It is time to put an end to this madness.