Ms. Atwood's novel and Mr. Gilder's jeremiad are each animated by strong opinions on feminism, but one suspects that never the twain shall meet. In fact, these recent books display just how severe the polarity within thought about the sexes has become, even while there is an ironic convergence between them. And, of course, the respective receptions accorded to each shows not only which way the wind is blowing, but also that that wind blows at gale force.
Atwood's book has received fulsome praise, such as a page one feature in the New York Times Book Review, and frequent inclusion on various critics' "Ten Best Books of 1986" lists. Gilder, the best-selling author of Wealth and Poverty and The Spirit of Enterprise, was repeatedly rebuffed by the major New York publishing houses in his attempts to place Men and Marriage, an updated version of his 1973 book Sexual Suicide. (Stories abound of feminist and feminist-fearing editors torpedoing the book at several of these houses of repute.) As such, the fate of these two books ingloriously reveals the extent of corruption of contemporary intellectuals.
The Handmaid's Tale aspires to be the Darkness at Noon of feminism. ("This visionary novel," E. L. Doctorow gushed, "can be read as a companion volume to Orwell's 1984.") Judged strictly on its merits as a piece of fictional prose, it is a bad book. But throw in its ideological purpose and it becomes excruciatingly pretentious.
The story is cast in the form of the tape-recorded diary of Offred, a "handmaid" under an oppressive right-wing regime that has overthrown the American Constitution. The chief objects of this regime's oppression are women. They have been put in their place, so to speak; they can't own property, divorce and abortion are forbidden, and evidence from a single woman is not admissible in court. (It is fairly obvious what this latter means, given what feminists teach is the natural posture of men towards women). Middle-class men own "econowives." Handmaids like Offred are virtual slaves, assigned to a family for two purposes: to keep house and to bear children.
Never mind the implausibility of the notion that the supposedly nefarious forces of the Moral Majority would stage a coup primarily on account of uppity women, or for the cause of unencumbering rape. What really arrests the reader is the suspicion that Atwood intends her novel not as a cautionary tale, but as an allegory that she is attempting to depict the reality of woman's present (and of course, past) oppressed condition.
This theme emerges intermittently throughout the book. When Offred and one of her fellow handmaids see a group of female Japanese tourists, dressed "conventionally," Offred offers this reflection:
It's been a long time since I've seen skirts that short on women. The skirts reach just below the knee and the legs come out from beneath them, nearly naked in their thin stockings, blatant, the high-heeled shoes with their straps attached to the feet like delicate instruments of torture. The women teeter on their spiked feet as if on stilts, but off balance; their backs arch at the waist, thrusting the buttocks out. Their heads are uncovered and their hair is too exposed, in all its darkness and sexuality. They wear lipstick, red, outlining the damp cavities of their mouths, like scrawls on a washroom wall, of the time before.
The passage acts as a two-edged sword, pointing out both the oppression of the new regime (women in public are cloaked much as in post-revolutionary Iran) but moreover the oppression of the old regime, today's American regime, which dictates an equally oppressive standard of what constitutes feminine beauty. The bitter accusing finger is pointed-at men. It's men's fault. We live in a cyclical "penocracy." Heels today, veils tomorrow, and so on.
But Atwood's sword is poorly honed. In an essay entitled "Notes For a Novel About the End of the World," Walker Percy-author of Love in the Ruins-writes: "A serious novel about the destruction of the United States and the end of the world should perform the function of prophecy in reverse. The novelist writes about the coming end in order to warn about present ills and so avert the end." This is Atwood's intention, but The Handmaid's Tale is merely a 311-page feminist cliché. Even Mary McCarthy wrote that it lacks "imagination," the most severe criticism possible for such a novel.
As with all feminists, Atwood's ultimate quarrel is with nature, though, like most of them, she never really joins the issue. (Rage is subversive of reason, and Hell hath no fury . . . or so they say.) But novels especially cannot evade the issue of human nature, and it is over this that one finds the point of convergence between The Handmaid's Tale and Men and Marriage.
Atwood's protagonist confronts the nature of relations between the sexes in a hateful but laconic passage: "Men are sex machines . . . and not much more. They only want one thing. You must learn to manipulate them, for your own good. Lead them around by the nose; that is a metaphor. It's nature's way. It's God's device. It's the way things are." To which George Gilder would respond: Yes, exactly! And long may it so be!
Gilder argues that female manipulation of the male sex drive is the cornerstone of civilization. Though this is a bit unseemly at first encounter, he does build a case in the course of the book. And his essential premise is that male and female natures persist and matter: "The differences between the sexes are the single most important fact of human society." Masculinity and femininity are not merely "roles" which are "imposed" on men and women by "society," but are instead rooted in nature itself. Therefore the attempt to obscure the differences between or avoid the consequences of masculinity and femininity, for the cause of promoting "sexual equality," is profoundly destructive.
Gilder is like the little boy confronted with the emperor's skivvies in the Hans Christian Andersen classic, saying what everyone knows but won't dare speak aloud: the sexes are unequal. But after this his argument takes an unusual turn. For women, he would have it, are naturally superior to men in the end. Moreover, though the differences between the sexes are natural, their resolution depends on a social convention-marriage.
Marriage is a conventional rather than a natural institution for Gilder because fathering and providing is indeed contrary to man's impulsive, nomadic nature; while childbearing and loving nurture come naturally to women.
Even sympathetic reviewers have balked at Gilder's view of marriage, ignoring as it does the mutually noble desires that arise out of natural sexual differences and which are fulfilled through marriage. It should be said at some point that although Men and Marriage is a sort of brief on behalf of human nature, Gilder does not reason from truly traditional premises as one might expect. Throughout the book he relies heavily on modem social science; Margaret Mead and a raft of other anthropologists appear too frequently. Gilder claims not to be a neoconservative, but he argues like one.
Nevertheless, Gilder's explanation of how marriage effects a transformation of men's character is useful and correct. Through marriage, women dispose men toward long-term perspectives on life. Whether it is natural or not, single men left to their own inclinations tend toward "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" Hobbesian lives of unfulfilled desires. Thus Gilder argues that the problems of crime and poverty are much more attributable to singleness than to race or class.
In short, marriage civilizes men and makes them stable and productive. It is here that Gilder's argument on marriage intersects with his works on entrepreneurship and economics. The family, as the fundamental institution of society, is essential to our prosperity and progress: "The driving force of a free economy [is] not material forces or even physical capital, but the metaphysical capital of family and faith." In fact Gilder compares the faith of parents with that of entrepreneurs: "Parents are the ultimate entrepreneurs, and, as with all entrepreneurs, the odds are against them."
The odds are against them, according to Gilder, because of the contemporary assault, at once overt and subtle, against marriage and family life. The radical feminists, of course, explicitly attack the family as an "oppressive" institution, but far short of this extreme the attack persists nonetheless. Marriage and motherhood are now presented to young women as one "option" among many, as a "lifestyle" or as a single facet to be "integrated" into the "lifestyle" of the thoroughly modem woman. "The feminists may have failed to pass the Equal Rights Amendment," Gilder observes, "but they seem to have achieved the much more important goal of transforming the lives and attitudes of American men and women."
It is of course to be expected that modern economies will afford women more latitude than their grandmothers. In pre-industrial societies, men were providers by necessity, as hunters and tillers of the field, while women minded home and family as a full-time occupation. In the modern world, the role of provision is performed by money, which lacks gender. Thus everyone, but especially the woman, has more "opportunity." There is no avoiding that the changes in society wrought by modem economies will affect relations between the sexes. It is doubtful whether even Phyllis Schlafly, J.D., would stand for the domestic regimen of her grandmother.
But the fact still remains that whatever our material progress, only women have babies. Regardless of how far science progresses in subduing natural impediments to our material well-being, nature itself cannot be conquered and bent to some human will (though Gilder speculates in a chapter on genetic engineering how some might try to bend it so). And even Atwood is aware of this somehow or dimly. "You can't cheat nature," one of her male characters says, and this weakness in her imaginary tyranny sustains the hope of the women's resistance (the "Underground Femaleroad").
It is above all for our children, born of women, that we are concerned, morally and politically and personally, with the future. The distinguishing characteristic of today's "yuppie" culture-the idea of children as liabilities, nuisances, hindrances to the pursuit of career and the enjoyment of "lifestyle"-is scary in that light. Nothing could be more profoundly destructive to civilized society in the long run, if not the short.
To make such an argument in the 1980s is to invite the wrath not only of feminists, but of the New York Times, the United Nations, Democrats, social scientists, and other avatars of sophisticated opinion who are presently captive to the thinking exemplified by The Handmaid's Tale. It takes someone either extraordinarily naive, like the little boy seeing the emperor's new clothes, or extraordinarily courageous, to point out that the feminist movement is a calamity. Gilder is not naive; he knows he will suffer attacks on his reputation and that his popularity, such as it is, will plummet. Thoughtful readers, therefore, should rally behind his book.