Kathleen Parker
President Bush's new family initiatives, which promote such antiquated notions as marriage and fatherhood, have the Rad Fems in high dudgeon, charging that the seedpods now occupying the White House are fundamentally sexist. As part of a multipronged program aimed at encouraging marriage, Bush proposes doubling the child tax credit and reducing the marriage penalty in the tax code. Some even are talking about adding marriage bonuses to the tax code, financial incentives to get married and stay married. "They're suggesting that the way for women to get out of poverty is to get a husband, and we oppose that notion," said Loretta Kane, a National Organization for Women vice president. As for a marriage bonus, Kane said: "When you've got a guy saying we should give preferential treatment to marriage, that tells me there's a vein of sexism running through his politics." It is of course true that marriage and fatherhood, as normally defined, (ital) do (end ital) imply involvement of a male. But marriage, though oftentimes tedious, difficult and exhausting, isn't inherently sexist unless both parties agree. (You can just say no, honey, or slam the door on your way out.) Likewise, fatherhood isn't innately patriarchal in the feminist sense or oppressive, unless you marry the wrong guy, but whose fault is that? Strictly speaking, trying to help restore solid families and involve fathers in the lives of the offspring they've sired seems like a dandy idea that might actually benefit many of the women NOW purports to represent. Given the quantity of research showing that family breakdown is the single greatest cause of poverty for women and children, one might infer that finding ways to sustain marriage is at least worth considering. Getting married before having children is also a pretty good idea, though you wouldn't know it to judge from recent trends. By 1997, 26 percent of white infants were born to unmarried mothers, compared to just 2 percent in 1960, according to a new book on American trends, "The First Measured Century," by Theodore Caplow, Louis Hicks, Ben J. Wattenberg (The American Enterprise Institute, 2001). Among black Americans, the comparable figure was 69 percent in 1997 compared to less than 25 percent in 1960. Yet we also know from research and common sense that children who grow up without fathers suffer a number of social pathologies that might be remedied with a little more help from dear old dad. Girls without fathers grow up with self-esteem problems that often lead to promiscuity, which leads to unwanted pregnancy, which leads to another fatherless child and government dependence and another cycle of same. Ditto boys, who, absent fathers, tend to behave badly, perform poorly in school and learn little about civil behavior toward women. Shouldn't a responsible government seek ways to enhance father-child relationships rather than only impose draconian policies to punish those who behave irresponsibly? Doesn't it make sense that a responsible government might seek ways to stop the cycle (insert Father here) rather than institutionalize it? Critics of Bush's proposals say that he's inappropriately trying to mold private behavior through public policies that contradict promises of less government. Of (ital) course, (end ital) government programs mold behavior (see welfare state), so why not an agenda that promotes positive behavior? Bush's programs are only contradictory, meanwhile, in the knee-jerk, short term. Ultimately, they're predicated on planned obsolescence. Any government wishing to sustain itself would ignore the root causes (broken families) and seek Band-Aid solutions (government programs). One nurtures dependence on government; the other seeks to eliminate government's paternal role. Bush may not be able to get some of his programs through Congress for constitutional or other reasons, but he shouldn't be stymied by charges of sexism. If by their absence or neglect men have contributed to the breakdown of America's families, by all means, let them fix it.

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
 
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