A strict feminist and a stringent gender-role traditionalist alike will probably find vindication of their premises between the lines of Wolfers and Stevenson’s careful prose. The feminist will see evidence of a revolution interrupted, in which rising expectations are bumping against glass ceilings, breeding entirely justified resentments. The traditionalist will see evidence of a revolution gone awry, in which women have been pressured into lifestyles that run counter to their biological imperatives, and men have been liberated to embrace a piggish irresponsibility.
There’s evidence to fit each of these narratives. But there’s also room for both.
Feminists and traditionalists should be able to agree, for instance, that the structures of American society don’t make enough allowances for the particular challenges of motherhood. We can squabble forever about the choices that mothers ought to make, but the difficult work-parenthood juggle is here to stay. (Just ask Sarah and Todd Palin.) And there are all kinds of ways — from a more family-friendly tax code to a more accommodating educational system — that public policy can make that juggle easier. Conservatives and liberals won’t agree on the means, but they ought to agree on the end: a nation where it’s easier to balance work and child-rearing, however you think that balance should be struck.
They should also be able to agree that the steady advance 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.
No reason, of course, save the fact that contemporary America doesn’t seem willing to accept sexual stigma, period. We simply don’t have the stomach for permanently ostracizing the sexually irresponsible — be they a pregnant starlet, a thrice-divorced tycoon, or even a prostitute-hiring politician.