Twenty years ago, Alkeline and I decided to give a talk together at a conference in Thessaloniki. I can’t remember the content of the paper, but it had something to do with gender and the culture of the body. When we finished our talk someone in the audience stood up and said he had a question for ‘the Dutch Couple’.
We liked that. So much so that the reference to the ‘Dutch Couple’ became an anecdote we regularly told our friends when they came to visit. After Thessaloniki, Alkeline continued to give courses on the culture of the body. But when she became Dean of the liberal arts faculty the focus of her attention shifted elsewhere.
Issues of gender, however, never lost her interest. On the contrary. Alkeline was, and still is, a passionate feminist. She started campaigning on feminist issues from early on. She began her academic career in the Department of Women’s Studies and was on the editorial board of the Dutch Journal of Women’s Studies for many years.
Naturally, this had consequences for the Dutch Couple. Although living together had made us acutely aware of our class backgrounds - she was the daughter of a shoemaker, I the son of a diplomat – “women’s lib” came before class. The visible and invisible forms of the unequal treatment of women, the discovery that our culture - in books, films, science or economics - was marked by what Carlota Perez aptly called “a female shaped absent presence”, the impact this had on women’s lives and bodies –issues like these concerned both of us more than the hidden injuries of class or race.
Alkeline was born in 1956 in Amsterdam. In those days grievances about ‘sex discrimination’ usually remained private. Indignation about the unequal treatment of women only went public in the 60s. Then, in the 70s and 80s, women’s discontent began to soar. ‘Sex discrimination’ became an umbrella term for a whole series of complaints.
It’s not so difficult to understand why the grievances went public. As more and more women entered the labour market –partly out of economic necessity, partly because they desired to work - protests against marriage bars, pregnancy bars and nepotism bars grew louder and louder. Aspirations changed. Certainly, within the elites, women craved a life beyond what Betty Friedan had termed the ‘feminine mystique’. Neither men nor women wanted to live ‘like mom and dad’ anymore. The simmering discontent of both sexes with employment, promotions, earnings, and family life, that had started to bubble up in the 50s, exploded in the 60s and 70s in revolutionary ways.
When Alkeline entered university in the 70s, women’s-liberation and consciousness-raising groups were cropping up everywhere. Women acquired a political voice and used it to express their discontent loudly. The only time this had happened before was during the end of 19th and early 20th century, when suffragettes took to the streets to secure the women’s right to vote.
During the protests a new notion took centre stage: that of ‘gender’. ‘Sex’ was narrowed down to the biological characteristics that determine whether an individual is male or female; ‘gender’ was used to refer to the social meanings imposed upon those biological facts – the way women are treated because they are perceived to be female. ‘Gender’ came to refer to the power of ‘social constructs’ that needed to be ‘deconstructed’ to enable women to live safer, less confining and more fulfilling lives.
Armed with these new insights women actively started exposing and filling in the gender gaps and silences that had, for centuries, impacted and often severely damaged their life. In the wake of former Marxist and primarily class-based ideology-critiques a new ‘science of discrimination’ was born, which gave rise to novel ideas about the importance of diversity and inclusivity. These ideas were then further developed by other suppressed minorities to detect and fill in the gaps of their absent presences.
Reaching a high point in the 70s and 80s, the measure of women’s discontent slowly faded away. In the 90s one after another department of women’s studies was closed. Alkeline had to move to another department and became a sociologist.
It is only recently that women’s discontent has begun to soar again. #MeToo and Time’s Up movements became the symbol of their defiance and resistance to a still demeaning status quo. Sexual harassment and male aggression –at home and in the workplace - had never really stopped. And women’s lives were still unsafe.
The great difference between the two waves of protests was that in the meantime significant gains had been achieved in women’s employment, earnings, and education. Women’s expectations had been raised. Those who had acquired a college education went for careers instead of jobs. They aspired to the same level of achievement as their male spouses.
Though the differences between a job and a career are gradual, having a career means more than just being employed. It involves learning, growing, investing, and reaping the returns. It is a long-lasting, sought-after form of employment for which the type of work – professor, writer, teacher, doctor, surgeon, accountant or CEO – often shapes one’s identity. Careers require time and attention. Jobs tend not to become part of one’s identity or life’s purpose. They are taken for generating income and generally do not contain a clear set of milestones that define what having a successful career is.
Alkeline and I fell in love in the 90s, just in the period when these changes were taking place and her job at the university was transforming into a career. I worked at the Philosophy Department at the University of Amsterdam, where I had luckily received a permanent position without earning a PhD. Failing to write a PhD put an end to my career. But I was good in teaching and remained a philosophy teacher at the University of Amsterdam for the rest of my working life. Compared to Alkeline, I received a small salary. When she became a professor and Dean of liberal arts, her salary was more than twice that of mine.
Looking back, I only now realize how typical our situation was. Like so many other couples around us, we were adapting to a life with much greater (but certainly not ideal) levels of gender equality in the workplace. We were not the only ones who had to figure out what that meant in terms of couple equity at home. Changing gender-roles were reaching deep into the intimate lives of both sexes and shifted the way we thought about marriage, love, and sex.
Among our friends there were other women too, who had become the breadwinner of the family. Suddenly it was they who determined whether ‘my money is your money’. And the males, working or not, who had to decide what role they would play as home makers and carers of the family -a role they were badly prepared for and that gave them little social prestige. It certainly didn’t help that the women often reminded them of how amateurish and clumsy their home making was.
Before continuing with the Dutch couple, permit me to make a detour and say something about the wider social and economic background against which these changes were taking place.
First of all, as already mentioned, the gender gap in earnings had narrowed considerably for all workers across society. But second, there was a sharp rise in income inequality that split the higher and lower classes in Western societies apart. In the 90s commentators in Europe and the US increasingly began to worry about the ‘hollowing out of the middle class’.
Globalization played a crucial role in this development. Beginning in the 80s, new technologies in communication and transport enabled companies to move parts of their production elsewhere and reap higher profits. The consequences were momentous. Once prosperous industrial areas in the Western world began to decline. Incomes stagnated and millions of industrial workers lost their jobs. The middle class fell apart. Patriarchy, the central organizing principle of middle-class existence, collapsed. Industrial workers, nearly all of them men, not only lost their jobs but also their breadwinner status. Thousands of men disappeared from the labour market altogether and were registered as NEETs: Not in Employment, Education or Training. Male suicide rates went up. Marriage rates declined and divorce rates soared.
Single motherhood, long regarded as the threat par excellence to a decent middle-class life, was no longer an exception. Within a decade the middle-class rules for sex, marriage, politics and religion lost their hold on society.
Through globalization the economy started to shift away from traditionally male jobs. Blue-collar factory work, requiring brawn and masculinity, decreased. White- and pink-collar jobs, demanding soft skills and femininity, increased. Due to the rapid growth of service-, care- and information sectors, society was becoming a place where it was easier for women to hold a job than men. What had once been the industrial working class, where, ideally, the men worked and women were the home-makers, was now gradually transforming into a servicing and caring class –a class in which women workers and single moms became prominent. And in which the former good jobs and high wages of industrial workers were being replaced by bad jobs and lower wages of the workers in the retail-, service and care-sectors. Although globalization worked to the advantage of lower-class female workers it certainly didn’t add to their pay-checks.
When told working class neighbourhoods deteriorated and traditional middle-class modes of life collapsed, it was the women who picked up the pieces. In families where the men had dropped out, the patriarch became a matriarch who did double shifts: going out to work in the morning, taking care of the kids when coming home. When the men stayed in the house, women could give up some of their domestic duties, but not enough to balance the new loads they took on. The men picked up some of the slack, but not all, and often with resentment.
The ideal of patriarchy, however, lingered on. And not only among the men. There was nostalgia. Many lower-class women yearned to bring back at least some aspects of the patriarchy. They generally appreciated their new economic independence. They felt pride at holding their families together, at working and doing things on their own, but sometimes they longed to have a man around who would pay the bills and take care of them and make a life for them in which they could work less.
How did the changes affect higher-income and college educated elite couples like us? While marriages became less stable in the lower rungs of society, they tended to solidify higher up. Males and females, both with well-paying careers, realised they could only afford to have a career and a family if they stayed together. Only in that case did they possess the financial resources to outsource most of the care work and find time to have kids and both pursue a career instead of a job. In the upper strata of society divorces were becoming careers-wreckers for both males and females. Marriages frequently became what Hanna Rosin calls seesaw marriages, where couples take turns being lead caregiver or lead breadwinner.
Another important change was that thanks to contraception and assisted reproductive techniques, elite-women were now able to pursue a career in a manner that put them on an equal footing with the men. Contraception enabled them to delay marriage and follow an education. New fertilisation techniques enabled them to get their career going before having children at a later age.
These changes confronted women with a whole new set of questions. Should you date someone whose career is just as time consuming as your own? Should you put off having a family, even if you know for sure you want one? Is it an option to freeze your eggs if you aren’t partnered by thirty-five? What do you choose if you cannot excel both in having a career and raising kids? Who will pack the lunches, pick up the children from soccer training or music lessons and answer the calls from school if something goes wrong?
When I met Alkeline she was a single mother. Philo, her daughter, was born when she was 28. So, none of these questions ever bothered her. I first met Philo when she was 11. She was brought up by Alkeline, by her biological father (from whom Alkeline had separated soon after she was born), by the successive partners of Philo’s father, and by me. And yes, she was also brought up by a bosom friend of Alkeline, where she stayed one day in the week. That’s where she learnt what life is like if you are not a single child. Philo has, I think, no regrets about the way she was brought up. All of us knew that Alkeline was the primary caretaker and Philo’s fixed reference point, but we did our share and played an important role in Philo’s upbringing. I very much dislike calling her my stepdaughter. Though not a ‘nuclear family’ we were definitely ‘family’. And if there is one thing I have learnt, it is that love follows in the wake of caring and being cared for. Seldom the other way around.
Alkeline was one of the many women of her generation who worked more hours than most of the former middle-class women. The women in her generation brought up children and had demanding jobs or careers. Compared to their male partners they still were the better carers and house workers. Even now, the stay-at-home dad remains a rare phenomenon. In The End of Men, Hanna Rosin quotes David, a twenty-nine-year-old with a master’s degree, talking about the idea of a stay-at-home dad: “Yeah, he haunts me. It doesn’t matter how Brooklyn-progressive we (urban, educated men born after 1980) are, we still think he’s pitifully emasculated. I’m progressive and enlightened, and on an ideological political level I believe in that guy. I want that guy to exist. I just don’t want to be that guy.” Elite men may support their partner in her career goals, but seldom to the point of giving up or significantly compromising their own.
The manner in which Alkeline, Philo’s father, his successive partners, Alkeline’s bosom friend and I solved the problem of who stays home is not representative. In the most frequent case, says Anne-Marie Slaughter in Unfinished Business, “instead of being faced with the choice that ambitious career men have traditionally faced—working 24/7 and seeing little of their children but still having them cared for by a parent—an ambitious woman faces the choice of working 24/7 and having neither parent available for the children. Even if she can afford round-the-clock childcare, a big if, that means no parent is reliably available for school plays, sick days, homework help, and late-night hard conversations about everything from being teased at school to adolescent love. That is a far harder choice.”
The problem is this: rich elite couples may have become wealthy enough to outsource all the care they want, but there is a limit. What’s the point of having children if all the nurturing and loving is outsourced? In the ideal case couple equity should yield fifty-fifty care-sharing. But that barely ever happens. Why?
In a way, the fifty-fifty choice can be seen as the gender issue par excellence: a test on where to draw the line between ‘gender’ (nurture) and ‘sex’ (nature) when accounting for the fact that usually the women end up doing more on the home front than the men. Some say it’s nature that drives their choice. Others go for gender, the social meanings we impose on women’s sex.
Whatever the reason, neither explanation works from an ethical point of view. Explanations are not justifications. Whatever the explanatory cause, there is always the possibility to correct for the differences between the sex and/or gender of males and females by means of social reforms that make their choices more equitable.
There is another reason blocking the way to fifty-fifty sharing: it can be extremely costly. Income inequality doesn’t only occur between but also within professions. In the high career sector, the CEO, lawyer, doctor, surgeon or financial expert, who puts in overtime, weekend time, or evening time will earn a lot more—so much more that, even on an hourly basis, the person in question is earning more. Within many professions you cannot get to the top without being prepared to work 60 to 80 hours a week. Top jobs, says Claudia Goldin, are greedy. They swallow up nearly all your time and attention.
It is the greediness of the job that makes top-jobs one of the last vestiges in society where males dominate. This is not because women cannot do those jobs, it is because many tend to forgo these jobs when they have children. In an economy where most of the top-jobs are greedy, there is a high chance that couple equity will be jettisoned for increased family income.
Greedy jobs help us understand why there is a glass ceiling at the top. It is not so much that women are actively discriminated against (though that can be a cause too), or that they are less talented, competitive, or ambitious than men; it is because they prefer to tone down their career and accept a smaller pay check so that they can be there for the children. They want to be good at their job and a good mother too. And together with the harder working male partner take advantage of the higher overall family income (I do not know how this works out for same-sex couples).
This explains why, even though many women have become the breadwinner of the family, only a few break through to reach the top. Of those who do get to the top quite a few tend to become just as ‘masculine’ as the men, sometimes becoming even tougher and less accommodating of work-family conflicts than the male bosses in the office. That is why in these jobs both sexes tend to feel justified in believing that it is the nature of women, not the nature of the work, that explains why females cannot break through to the top. There are notable exceptions. Take, for instance, Jacinda Ardern, the former prime minister of New Zealand, who not only reached the top but also developed a form of feminine leadership that has been an aspiration to both women and men. Even at the top, at least anecdotally, ideas about the role of gender and sex are changing.
But instead of waiting for more women to reach the top, the best way to achieve gender equity is to change the system itself: make top jobs less greedy. One can do that through changing the law, changing norms, in short: through intelligent institutional reform. Claudia Goldin points out that greedy jobs can be eliminated by creating teams of equally competent persons, men and women, who divide up the work. Physicians, pharmacists and lawyers found out they could be extremely good substitutes for each other and form teams without compromising the quality of the work offered. Many marathon jobs were split up this way, making the choice for couple-equity more easy and less costly.
Alkeline will retire in March. Philo and her female partner Stef gave birth to a child in February. Philo is 37. She conceived her child with the help of assisted reproduction techniques. She is the breadwinner of the family and has a glittering career ahead of her. Her starting position is different from Alkeline who came from a low-class background and was one of the thousands of men and women in the 60s and 70s who, with the generous assistance of the welfare state, climbed up the social ladder through education.
I sometimes wonder whether the Dutch Couple is still an applicable name for us. Since the split, in Western Societies, between the higher and lower classes, Alkeline and I have become part of a highly educated cosmopolitan elite. We now have more in common, say, with similar educated couples across the Atlantic Ocean than with couples from poorer backgrounds living a few blocks away from us. We live and work in different places. We have different experiences. For kids today from poorer backgrounds, the path Alkeline took through education no longer exists, or at least has become much more difficult.
In the twenty-first century the ‘science of discrimination’ has been turned upon itself. Everyone is using it to express their grievances. Not only minorities, who feel their race, gender, sexual preferences, or colonial past has been neglected, suppressed or violated by the majority; but also, populist majorities from the right, who are using the insights of the science of discrimination to argue that their values and way of life have been systematically undermined by that very science. In the ‘culture wars’ that have ensued the lines between war and peace have blurred. Everything can be weaponized.
Even the physical War in Ukraine, where millions of citizens and soldiers are being slaughtered, has taken on the hue of a culture war. In his speech on September 30, 2022, celebrating Russia’s annexation of four regions of Ukraine, Putin accused the west of “moving towards Satanism” and “teaching sexual deviation to children”. He asserted that “we’re fighting to protect our children and our grandchildren from this experiment to change their souls”.
He shares this view with many cultural conservatives in the West. A small, fanatic minority of Republicans in the US feel closer to Putin than to the Democrats. They see him as a defender of traditional Christian values, an opponent of LGBTQ and of the weakening of masculine virtues that, they believe, were responsible for the rise of the West. In Europe, in nearly all countries populists on the right urge their fellow populists to wage a war on WOKE activists who, in their view, want to abolish the western way of life. The populists, too, are driven by nostalgia, the longing for a mythologised past of national greatness and cultural homogeneity, when “men were men” and women and minorities knew their place.
It’s futile to believe the clock can be turned back. But there is a grain of truth in the complaints of the conservatives on the right. Globalization and technology have not worked well for boys and men in the lower rungs of society. Though much of their plight can be explained in terms of class and race, gender plays an important role too. Across Western societies, without exception, boys and men are struggling in school, at work and in the family. Men at the top are still doing fine, but, as the The Economist magazine put it: “The fact that the highest rungs have male feet all over them is scant comfort for the men at the bottom.”
It is ironic. I began this story by telling how gender inequality worked to the detriment of women. It still does. But we have to understand that gender inequality now works in two directions. Existing conceptions of gender and existing social structures can damage the plight of men too. More than ever, it seems, we have to ask ourselves how we can open up and facilitate new ways of being male and/or female without ignoring or denying the biological characteristics of our sex.
Let me end by returning to the Dutch Couple. Looking at our past through the lens of gender has, for me, been the best way to honour Alkeline and give the reader of this volume a snapshot of what life for the ‘Dutch couple’, intellectually speaking, was like. It is a testimony to the many conversations we had and a reminder of how personal the political for both of us is. May we keep this conversation going to the very end.
I could not have written this essay without the help of the following books on issues of gender and sex: Claudia Dale Goldin, Career and Family. Women’s Century-Long Journey Toward Equity (Princeton University Press, 2021), Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women. Exposing data bias in a world designed for men (Penguin, 2019), Richard V. Reeves, Of Boys and Men. Why the modern male is struggling, why it matters and what to do about it (Swift Press, 2022), Hanna Rosin, The End of men. And The Rise of Women (Penguin 2013), Anne-Marie Slaughter, Unfinished Business (Oneworld Publications, 2015). The Quote from The Economist is from the article ‘Men Adrift. Badly educated men have not adapted well to trade, technology or feminism.’ (https://www.economist.com/node/21649050).