The 21st century, brought to you by women
Marchers wearing pink hats with pussy ears. Lady lawyers and camp volunteers pouring out sympathies over undocumented immigrants and refugees. Protesters baring their breasts to stop traffic and attract news cameras. Politicians chasing the “women’s vote.” These are among the more visible manifestations of what must qualify as one of history’s great shifts: In the US and other Western countries, women now have an enormously powerful, perhaps even dominant influence over policy and the culture.
How has that influence been changing Western societies? It’s hard to know the precise extent, but about the general directions there is no mystery, for women’s preferences are routinely measured in polls and surveys, market research, and psych/sociological studies. These show that the fairer sex, as compared to the other one, tend to favor more generous welfare, more open immigration, more expansive notions of civil rights, more leniency in policing and sentencing, and more stringent gun laws. They are also less tolerant of deaths in war.
Plausibly underlying all of these differences I’ve just listed is women’s greater capacity, on average, for empathy and compassion—noted since ancient times and widely presumed to be an evolutionary adaptation for motherhood. That’s just one dimension of cognition/personality, yet it may cover the most important societal changes of the past several decades.
How did Western women acquire their newfound cultural influence? It wasn’t principally through the female suffrage movement. Western women have had voting rights for about a century, but the big cultural shifts have occurred only since the early 1960s. These are the decades in which women began to go to college and enter public life, including professions of strong cultural influence (academia, law, politics, management, media), at rates approaching or exceeding men’s. Over the same period, due to their presence in the workforce and to more liberal divorce laws and friendlier family courts, women achieved unprecedented independence from men, and increasingly postponed marriage or avoided it altogether. Married women are more likely to vote the way their husbands vote—and men are more likely to be conservative—whereas single women (who now outnumber married/divorced/widowed women) are on the whole decidedly left-wing.
In short, women with their newfound independence and influence have been pushing Western culture in a generally leftward, more compassion-based direction. That cultural shift has surely helped reshape modern men too—that’s what cultures do: they shape everyone’s thinking and behavior—in part by shifting the perceived “acceptable range” of opinion and speech on a wide variety of issues.
That large shifts in the culture have happened is undeniable; that they are solely or mostly due to women’s new influence is harder to demonstrate. But there are at least strong hints of that causal connection all around us. Politically incorrect speech, for example, is typically decried as a form of insensitivity—a state to which women pride themselves on being less prone than men. Such insensitive speech is sometimes even mocked as “mansplaining.” Especially in the US, political scientists and journalists now also employ the term “women’s vote”—or, synonymously, “empathy vote”—to describe a pattern of voting or policy preference that is characteristic of women; that same pattern has lately been adopted by the mainstream media, large corporations, academia, and other elements of the modern Establishment.
Moreover it has long been clear from polls and poli-sci studies that the simple subtraction of the women’s vote from elections—even without any further correction for their wider cultural influence—would shift the political center dramatically, leaving it close to where it stood half a century ago, i.e., before the recent rapid social changes. As conservative provocateur Ann Coulter has said, “If we took away women’s right to vote, we’d never have to worry about another Democrat president”—although in fact, in that unlikely scenario, the Democrats could recover their competitiveness, but only by reversing most of their leftward drift since 1965.
A curious feature of the new cultural and political influence of women is that—as obvious as that influence is, and despite jibes like Coulter’s that implicitly recognize it—no one seems to want to examine seriously its role in the sweeping political social changes of the past half-century.
To hear those on the Left tell it, the recent changes to Western societies reflect not the power of women or any other demographic shift but rather the natural, teleological drive of civilization—the long march of benevolent History—towards compassion, equality, cooperation, nonviolence, and other progressivist desiderata. Since there were already a lot of cultural moves in the same direction (e.g., the outlawing of slavery, the institution of government welfare) long before the modern emancipation of women, this explanation carries some weight.
Even women seem to want to deny their ascendancy. When millions of them marched recently in Washington DC and other cities, they did so not in celebration but in protest—as if they remained an oppressed minority, beset on all sides by the dark forces of patriarchy. Similarly, when Hillary Clinton prepared a recent video speech on women, it was titled “Yes, the Future is Female”—not “Yes, The Present is Female,” which would have been more accurate—and began with the usual litany of victimhood: “Despite all the challenges we face . . .”
On the Right, there is the same remarkable reluctance to acknowledge the role of women in the West’s recent cultural transformation. That transformation is instead blamed on a “Cultural Marxism” semi-conspiracy involving a methodical Leftist takeover—since World War II—of academia, the mainstream media, Hollywood, and other commanding heights of Western society. In the variants of the CultMarx explanation I have read, “radical feminism” is sometimes cited as a secondary player, an allied ideology, but there is no hint in these accounts that women in general may have caused most of the recent social shifts simply by working more in the higher, culturally influential professions and less as homemakers.
If no one wants to acknowledge women’s major role in the recent refashioning of Western culture, it follows that no one wants to talk about the long range implications—although it is possible that the causation here runs in reverse, i.e., that the potential implications of women’s new cultural power are too controversial to permit the subject to be broached at all.
Men bring their own traditional, even primordial tendencies to the realm of culture and policy. They apparently have, for example, a relative affinity for systems and “systematizing” (a term popularized by Simon Baron-Cohen) in preference to empathy, and that predilection for abstract system-making may underlie the complex and inhumane ideologies that in centuries past have oppressed and destroyed many millions of human beings. The male predilection for violence and risk (on average compared to women) likely also helps explain many wars, depredations and disasters that need not have happened. With their lesser store of empathy men also seem generally more likely to overlook short-term adverse consequences in their pursuit of long-range solutions; thus (to take one famous example) General Sherman’s dictum, with which he justified his army’s pillaging march through the South in 1864: “the crueler war is, the sooner it will be over.”
These apparent male traits are not necessarily bad in themselves; it may be only their expressions in excess that bring the truly bad outcomes. Moreover, men are “the devil you know”: they have been managing societies ever since the dawn of the human species, and it is plausible that some of their traits are adaptations specifically for that role.
Women in this context are not a known quantity. When the culture that underlies a civilization suddenly shifts from a state reflecting principally male traits to a much more “female” orientation, we don’t really know what will happen as this new influence plays out. Will things get better or worse? Is empathetic compassion—for instance—a proper guide to making policy in the modern world, or is its insensitivity to long-term adverse outcomes a fatal flaw?
The rise of women in public life is certain to have brought other traits to bear on 21st century culture. I’m far from certain what all those traits are, but I speculate that they favor, among other things: environmentalism; alternative/holistic medicine; the new non-hierarchical forms of religion (from Wicca to evangelical Christianity) that are rapidly replacing traditional forms; and the new, more emotion-laden forms of protest and political dialogue in Western societies, with associated terms such as “hate speech.”
Not all female traits, newly ascendant in the culture, will have had major implications for the Western way of life. But it’s impossible to believe that none has been consequential, and again—because this is all unprecedented—it’s impossible to predict how our civilization will change in response to those impacts. The old order, the exclusively male-run version of Western civilization, established a lot of things that seem unequivocally good. Will the new order retain these? There is no guarantee. No one even wants to admit that that new order is already upon us.
Originally published 8 Feb 2017.