Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Dennis Prager answers the question: What do women want?

I'm on record as having a fair amount of contempt for the relationship writings of conservative radio host Dennis Prager, so I braced myself when he started writing a series of columns -- posted at National Review -- about what men and women most want in the world. His column today on the second part of that question (what women want) turned out to be not as awful as I feared, but still off-target. 

What a woman most wants is to be loved by a man she admires.

The notion that a woman most wants a man, admirable or not, has been scoffed at. This was encapsulated by the famous feminist slogan, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” Even feminism that did not agree with the fish-bicycle metaphor communicated to young women that an “authentic” woman would not have as her greatest desire to bond with a man.

It is problematic enough to say that a woman most wants a man. But that pales compared to the claim that she most wants man whom she admires. That seems to affirm gender inequality. The image it conjures up is of a woman looking up to her man as if he were some sort of lord and she his serf.

Yet any woman who believes that she is married to an admirable man would laugh at such a dismissal. Admiring one’s husband doesn’t render a woman a serf. It renders her fortunate.

I have no doubt that some women, many women, want most to be loved by a man they admire. Furthermore, I have little doubt that in the conservative circles Prager runs in, there are many, many women who profess as much. (I went to an evangelical Mennonite college in the Midwest where women regularly said they were seeking a husband who could provide "Christian leadership." I know that lots of folks like this exist.) Where Prager goes wrong, I think, is in his apparent implication that he could pluck any woman out of a crowd and know that's what she wants most -- or if she doesn't, she's clearly been brainwashed by feminism.

First of all: Not every women wants to be loved by a man

Second: Love isn't necessarily the highest goal of every remaining straight woman. Different people prioritize things differently.

Third: Prager is right that the word "admires" does conjure some of the cognitive trouble he expected. If he'd used the word "respects" -- and I think it would've covered many the aspects he intends by the word -- I might not quibble. Much. 

But all of this, as I said, is incidental to Prager's foundational problem: His belief that he knows what women want. Modern conservatism, as a political tradition, tends to very strongly emphasize individual rights and responsibilities -- rhetorically, at least, it recognizes that different people want different things, and wants them to be free to pursue those different things in their own way. Prager doesn't seem to really belong to this tradition, though. Instead -- whether he realizes it or not -- he's the reason that feminism came into being in the first place: Because some women wanted the freedom to make and pursue different choices than the ones expected of them in a male-dominated society.

It may be that many women want what Prager believes they want; but his framing doesn't allow for the possibility that healthy women may make other choices, may want other things. Indeed, he pretty clearly holds such differing ideas in contempt. So while some of his advice might seem sound -- dudes, work hard to improve your lot in life! -- it's founded in a worldview that seems to deny women their individuality. Because of that, I'm not really interested in taking his relationship advice.

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