A couple of weeks ago, a friend stopped me at a party and asked for my commentary on what Lou Dobbs said about the latest Pew study on working women: women are now the breadwinners in forty percent of American homes with children. I knew Dobbs had said something sexist, and that Fox commentator Megyn Kelly had taken him to task for it, but I hadn’t followed the issue closely because my feminist attention has been deeply absorbed by a book I’m reading. As it turns out, that book—Sacred Pleasure, by Riane Eisler—is integral to my understanding of what Dobbs said, and how Kelly replied.
Dominator and Partnership Models
Eisler discusses two possible ways to organize human society: the dominator model and the partnership model. The dominator model is what feminists call patriarchy, in which dominant men hold power over women and men who do not fit the definition of a dominant male. The partnership model, which has roots in prehistory, is one of equality in which gender roles are less rigidly defined. Eisler also puts forth her theory of cultural transformation—we are currently moving toward a partnership model from a dominator model, and have been for a few hundred years. The resistance to that move (which Eisler calls co-option) is what Susan Faludi termed backlash.
At the heart of backlash is fear. Fear of change, and of vulnerability, for in a dominator culture’s binary definition of power, the only options are to dominate or be dominated. (A partnership culture defines a third: share power.)
The Dominator Model and Fear of Change
The conversation between Dobbs, Erick Erickson, and Juan Williams had dominator speak all over it. It also emanated fear, articulated as concern. If you haven’t seen it, here it is:
Juan Williams says that there is “…something going terribly wrong in American society, and it’s hurting our children. And it’s going to have impact for generations to come.”
And then we get to Erick Erickson: “”When you look at biology, look at the natural world, the roles of a male and a female in society, and other animals, the male typically is the dominant role. The female, it’s not antithesis, or it’s not competing, it’s a complementary role. We as people in a smart society have lost the ability to have complementary relationships in nuclear families, and it’s tearing us apart.”
Dominator speak is all OVER that.
And he truly believes it—in spite of the evidence all around him: if biology dictated the female role as subordinate, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. As Eisler points out, the argument doesn’t even hold up in the animal kingdom—she discusses pleasure-based interaction among some primate societies that defuses aggression among dominant males. (She doesn’t refute the idea that some primates organize around the dominant male; only the idea that this way of organizing society—for primates or humans—is the only natural alternative.)
Finally, Doug Schoen says that the change in female breadwinner status could “…undermine our social order.”
That’s fear talking; and he’s not wrong about sweeping change. Moving from patriarchy to equality requires changing our current social order. There is a way to enact this change that values mothers, fathers, and children—but only if we leave the dominator model of social organization, including its power structures, its biases, and its rigid definition of gender roles—behind.
We Aren’t There Yet
We’re living in a half-changed world, a society caught between the push toward partnership—equality—and the pull toward what we’ve always known (patriarchy). The conversation between Megyn Kelly, Dobbs, and Erickson highlights exactly how far we’ve come—and how far we have to go:
Kelly challenges Erickson’s sexism via dominator speak right off the bat: “What makes you dominant and me submissive, and who died and made you scientist in chief?”
Later, it is clear that she is speaking as a working mom—watching her speak, it is evident that she is defending herself as well as all working women: “You come out very clearly and say that you believe that women who choose to work instead of staying at home to quote ‘nuture their children’ and instead have the father do that are imposing a worse future on their children than women who make a different choice—the choice you and your wife made.”
Ah, the political is personal indeed.
And it gets more personal—her exchange with Dobbs is all about domination and subordination on the personal as well as the political level. Dobbs mentions male domination (claiming to disagree with Erickson about animals, and yet indirectly stating that male domination is important to society) and then calls Kelly, “Oh dominant one.”
Man, I wish Riane Eisler had been on Fox News that night.
Sadly, she wasn’t—and neither was anyone else deeply versed in patriarchy and its forms. Kelly stated that she doesn’t identify as a feminist—which is too bad, because if she did she could have responded differently. While she deflected the sexism beautifully and defended working moms (even touching on racism and history at one point), she avoided the heart of the matter: that breadwinner figure isn’t primarily about middle-class white moms who could have stayed home but didn’t. As Jill Filopovic points out in an article for The Guardian, the majority of the female breadwinners are single moms: “…the single-mother breadwinners are more likely to be black or Latina, less likely to have a college degree, and younger. Their family incomes average $23,000.”
I’m guessing that Kelly wanted to avoid that part of the conversation because she thought she’d lose ground, possibly jeopardizing her whole argument. If she identified as a feminist, she would have invited that debate, so that she could make Filipovic’s point: “We’re talking about two very different groups of women corralled under the same umbrella of ‘breadwinners’. Their experiences are radically divergent—but a few simple policy changes coupled with the adaptation of more progressive gender roles would make a world of difference for nearly all of them.”
The men wanted to talk about the problems of single, poor, non-white women to make the point that families fall apart when women aren’t home; Kelly could have talked about them to make the point that society needs to change to help all working women and their families.
The Dobbs/Kelly controversy was media sexy—it went all viral with its bad self. People rightly praised Kelly for her handling of the situation. And yet it was a conversation that will not truly help us move forward—it will just result in more head-shaking on both sides of the patriarchy/partnership divide.
To move forward as a culture, we need to understand the fears of those who would have us move backward. Otherwise, we will be forever locked in a “he said/she said” battle based on dominator structures, and forever caught in the stasis of a half-changed world.