Are men really necessary? Nagging doubts seem to be getting more vociferous, not least among men. Last week there was a great deal of fluttering among the cockerels in the hen house about the proposal to remove the requirement to consider the “need for a father” when deciding whether to offer IVF fertility treatment. This is part of ministerial efforts to make it easier for homosexual couples to have test-tube babies.
If the government is to be evenhanded, it ought to remove the requirement for IVF clinics to consider the “need for a mother” as well, since a gay male couple would not provide one, except biologically. In these confused times, the search for both logic and equality is far from consistent.
Be that as it may, all that MPs are required to do so far is vote to abandon the “need for a father” idea in IVF clinics. This has caused outrage. Angry letters were written to The Times. The Archbishop of York protested that the proposed legislation was designed to remove the father from the heart of the family; Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor said it was profoundly wrong and that Catholics should oppose it, and Iain Duncan Smith went further: it would “drive the last nail”, he said, “in the coffin of the traditional family”.
All this has coincided with a powerful portrait of a group of women living almost entirely without men, or traditional families, in considerable difficulties and managing very well. Mrs Gaskell’s novel Cranford was broadcast last weekend by the BBC to general acclaim. There is hardly a man in it and the brave lone ladies help each other. This was fiction but it does raise the same awkward question: are men necessary?
For nearly 30 years we have seen a subtle but increasing onslaught against masculinity. From the female separatism of the 1970s, when I went to feminist meetings that were open to “women and girl children only”, to the feminisation of the classroom and exams and the widespread use of the word testosterone as a term of blame and abuse, men and boys have come to understand that they are increasingly seen as hairy, smelly, lazy, disruptive, violent and generally rather a bad thing. Women regularly blame their difficulties on men and expect them to make reparation. They increasingly tolerate men only if they take on domestic chores and childcare. Meanwhile, women are beginning to feel truly independent of men, at least financially. It is hardly surprising that men increasingly feel dispensable.
However, that is no reason for seeing lesbian couples and their children as the beginning of the end of family life. Nor is it a rejection of men. Anyone who knows any lesbian parents knows they are usually keen on family life, keen to be accepted into the normal world of parenthood and to welcome men into it, too. They just don’t welcome men into their beds.
Lesbian women who go through the misery of IVF treatment to have a baby, and who make the commitment of marriage as well, are people who by definition want to start a family. They support family life and they want to be part of the ordinary family-friendly world. It may not be traditional family life, but it is closer to it than the behaviour of an irresponsible straight girl who gets pregnant the quick and easy way without thought of providing a companion to help her bring up her child and then relies on state handouts. It is those girls who are aggressively banging nails into the coffin of family life, not the tiny number of thoughtful lesbians.
No, lesbian IVF seekers do not undermine family life. What they do, innocently, and like the lone females soldiering on in Cranford, is undermine men’s idea of themselves; they contribute to a longstanding and general attrition of the power of the male. A man would have to be cocksure indeed not to feel dismayed by the increasing numbers of straight women who don’t appear to need men at all.
There are plenty of boys at the bottom of the social heap who know that no girl worth having will take them on, just as there are many nervous husbands in the middle classes who feel they may soon prove extra to their wives’ requirements. Highflying hedge-fund queens or sensible girls from sink estates: plenty of women are smart enough to work out that in some circumstances a man is a liability. Other women, straight or gay, may be more dependable in the business of getting through life. This is the anxiety that Duncan Smith is expressing.
From a time when women needed – or depended – on men too much, we have quickly reached a stage of overreaction in which all too many women imagine they need men very little. As always the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The answer to overdependency is not separatism. It is proper recognition, of men and of ourselves.
I loathe the word celebration, as it is now used, but what we need, I believe, is a celebration of men and masculinity. If feminism is running according to the usual historical rules, we will probably get one: a backlash is overdue. Men have wonderful qualities which women often lack and need. Men are much more likely than women to be of exceptionally high – and exceptionally low – intelligence; they are on average stronger, funnier and have a better three-dimensional sense and they are usually better at techy things. They are much more likely to be architects, composers, mathematicians, joke tellers and orators and are more inventive. As Camille Paglia once said, if civilisation had been left to women, we’d still be living in grass huts.
However, men are not mostly as good at bringing up small children, according to research from Bristol University published last week. Little boys brought up by stay-at-home dads are less likely to do well at school than other children and the absence of the mother may do emotional damage. Researchers warned that couples should beware of swapping traditional roles.
This is a moment for serious revaluation of men. The women at Cranford managed, despite the lack of men, and so did my mother, who was widowed with four tiny children, and others like her. But it is at great cost and a great loss – and to the children, too. What we need is the rehabilitation of real masculinity, because that is something most of us do need and like.