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BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD, “Women and the Future of Fatherhood”

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BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD, “Women and the Future of Fatherhood”


The success of the fatherhood movement is dependent upon the restoration of the nuclear family, according to Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. She argues that, in order for men to be good fathers, they must be supported by the structure of traditional marriage. Therefore, she calls upon women to wait for marriage before having children and to work to preserve the union so that their children will have resident fathers. Women need to see motherhood as a role that is best carried out within a traditional marriage because, whether they know it or not, “marriage and motherhood are coming apart.” Whitehead says that “the traditional bargain between men and women has broken down,” and both parties need to negotiate their changing roles as members of a couple. Women, for instance, will need to recognize that men are “less fully committed (to their own) sexual fidelity” than women and that men cannot fulfill the role of husband and best friend simultaneously. Men, on the other hand, cannot be expected to “develop the qualities needed to meet the new cultural ideal of the involved and ‘nurturing’ father without the help of a spouse.” Whitehead insists that “men need marriage in order to be good fathers.”

Because “the fatherhood problem will not be solved by men alone,” Whitehead argues that men will have to make some compromises, too. Men must recognize the “changed social and economic status of women” by contributing more of the unpaid labor to the maintenance of the household. However, Whitehead is quick to offer that “this does not necessarily mean a 50/50 split of the household chores.” She suggests instead that men “do more than one-third of household chores.” Men need to recognize that contemporary women have “more exacting emotional standards for husbands,” and that women “seek intimacy and affection through talking and emotional disclosure”—not the “physical disrobing” that men prefer.


Because “women have dominated . . . the debate about marriage and parenthood . . . for at least 30 years, Whitehead addresses them primarily in this essay. She appeals to women to help solve the fatherhood crisis in America, arguing that “Men can’t be fathers unless the mothers of their children allow it.” Quoting poet and polemicist Katha Pollit, Whitehead panders to her female audience with the pronouncement that “’Children are a joy. Many men are not.’” Although her arguments urge women to preserve traditional marriage and family ties, the author does admit in the conclusion of this essay that “Women can be good mothers without being married.” However the overwhelming point of her essay is to convince women that “the best mothers cannot be good fathers.”

Many of Whitehead’s younger readers will have grown up in single parent homes, and a substantial number will have been affected by the current perception of absentee fathers as “’deadbeat dad[s].’” They are a skeptical audience who finds the proofs they require for persuasion missing from this essay. Although Whitehead argues that men cannot be good fathers outside of marriage, she doesn’t offer any concrete evidence that resident fathers are necessary to the development of their children. The specific benefits Whitehead promises are for resident fathers, not children: they will be spoken of more highly and they will learn from their more sensitive spouses how to be good parents. Whitehead reveals that a 1994 national survey showed that half of the women questioned believed that “one parent can bring up a child as well as two parents together,” and that two thirds of men disagreed. Nowhere in this essay does Whitehead demonstrate that resident fatherhood is better for wives or children; she simply takes it for granted that resident fathers are best.


The language in this essay is strong. Whitehead frequently makes pronouncements such as “marriage and motherhood are coming apart,” and “Men have no positive identity as fathers outside marriage.” She wins acceptance for her point of view by presenting it as incontrovertible fact. Subtly, through telling women that they hold the reproductive and nurturing power in our society, she makes them responsible for the parenting opportunities and abilities of men. She argues that “the success of any effort to renew fatherhood as a social fact and a cultural norm . . . hinges on the attitudes and behavior of women.” Thus, she appeals to her primary audience of mothers to bear much of the burden of social change.

Whitehead’s analysis of the current situation attempts to placate her female readers. She acknowledges that the changing face of the family is paralleled by the changes in women’s role is society. As wage earners, women are no longer solely dependent upon their husbands for survival. In a divorce, women generally “enjoy certain advantages” in that they often get custody of the couple’s offspring and “do not need marriage to maintain a close bond to their children.” Contemporary women also have “more exacting emotional standards for husbands.” Whitehead must cautiously exhort women to compromise these privileges and values, because she realizes that “many women see single motherhood as a choice and a right be exercised if a suitable husband does not come along in time.” In this delicate situation women have the emotional and reproductive advantage.

Joan Acocella, “Under the Spell”


Pundits and serious literary critics are innately skeptical of popular culture. In her review of author J. K. Rowlings’s Harry Potter series books to date, Joan Acocella admits that she “would love” to inform her audience that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, “is a big nothing.” However, her purpose is to explain why “it’s wonderful, just like its predecessors.” The Harry Potter series has received widespread acclaim, including as Acocella notes, four volumes simultaneously included on The New York Times best seller list, the largest advance order for a book ever for its latest volume, and, consequently, the largest-ever first printing of a book. Because children don’t comprise the lion’s share of the reading public, there must be a significant number of adults up past bedtime with Harry Potter books propped on their pillows as well. Acocella, who herself admits to standing in line at Books of Wonder on West Eighteenth Street in New York for two hours around midnight on the release date of Goblet of Fire, is investigating the reasons behind the cult of Pottermania. Her scholarly examination of the Potter series books reveals why there is much to admire in them for children and adults alike.

Skeptics of Acocella’s thesis that the Harry Potter series is worthy of scholarly attention may be swayed by her application of the tenants of literary criticism and theory to the texts. She holds the Potter stories up against Vladimir Propp’s 1928 Morphology of the Folk Tale and finds that Rowling has “unabashedly picked up. . . . about every convention ever used in fairy tales.” Acocella finds other classic inspirations for the tales of the youthful wizard, including Arthurian legend and the Bible, as well as the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, John Milton, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. She praises Rowlings’ prose for its “wealth of imagination” and “sheer, shining fullness.” The Potter books also, covertly at least, raise questions about personal and social problems including depression and racism, and pose difficult questions such as whether power inherently corrupts its possessor, and if there exists an inextricable connection between good and evil. Clearly, there is much at work behind and between the lines of Rowling’s own sorcery to keep a keen critic’s attention.

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