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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Obama essay reveals outmoded thinking on gender realities

President Barack Obama with first lady Michelle Obama

President Barack Obama with first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia Obama and Sasha Obama arrive at Air Station Cape Cod, in Mass., Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016. The president and his family are vacationing in the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard. Photo Credit: AP / Manuel Balce Ceneta

As President Barack Obama goes on the stump for Hillary Clinton as the first female major-party nominee for president, he has penned an essay on feminism for the women’s magazine Glamour.

The piece, which draws on Obama’s experience as a husband and a father of two daughters, has been widely praised. But while it makes important points, it also highlights some of the limitations of contemporary feminism.

While Obama opens his essay by celebrating women’s progress, he also stresses that there is much unfinished business — largely cultural rather than political: “. . . All too often we are still boxed in by stereotypes about how men and women should behave.”

Of course, we should all strive to treat people as individuals. But a few caveats are in order.

First, many Americans espouse some degree of traditionalist beliefs about the sexes, often for religious reasons — for instance, that it’s the man’s primary role to be the family provider and protector and the woman’s role to be the caregiver.

In a free society, people must be able to follow those beliefs in their personal lives and teach them to their children — however outmoded those views may seem to many of us. It is also quite possible that sex roles have at least some basis in biology. While it’s important to support nontraditional choices, societal crusades to re-educate the citizenry can easily turn coercive.

Second, some of Obama’s observations seem quite outmoded themselves. Do we really still face a prevalent “attitude that raises our girls to be demure and our boys to be assertive, that criticizes our daughters for speaking out and our sons for shedding a tear”? That doesn’t match my experience — or statistics showing that girls increasingly dominate leadership roles in schools.

Finally, while Obama mentions that stereotypes limit both sexes, much of his argument treats women as the victims and men as the problem — the ones who “feel threatened by the presence and success of women.” Yet even studies showing that women at work can pay a social price for being too aggressive find that much of the negativity comes from other women.

Meanwhile, men face their own set of challenges and biases.

If women can be judged for being too career-focused when they have children, men can be harshly judged — not just by “the patriarchy,” but by women — for failing as earners. And while in some ways the feminist revolution has promoted more flexibility for men, from paternity leave to the concept of stay-at-home dads, it also has had less positive aspects.

The valorization of single motherhood has left millions of children growing up without fathers, a situation that puts boys at particular risk.

Efforts to aid girls’ academic advancement have neglected the growing problem of boys falling behind in schools.

Moreover, too much modern feminist rhetoric vilifies men.

The effort to combat campus sexual assault, which Obama praises, tackles a real problem — but it also tends to treat all young men as potential rapists, and even many female jurists say it has led to a hostile climate for accused male students.

Many feminists have opposed the recognition that men can be the victims of domestic violence and women the perpetrators. Mainstream feminist groups such as the National Organization for Women have fought measures that would give more equality to divorced dads.

Obama’s article ends with an assertion of what he says is the basic principle of 21st century feminism: “ . . . When everybody is equal, we are all more free.” But true equality requires fighting all forms of sexism — including the ones perpetuated by feminism itself.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.

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