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Advice for 21st century young women


I am not suggesting you live your lives as I lived mine. I only ask that you be true to yourselves.


I've long wanted to visit this school, which I've heard so much about from friends.  As well, I'm a fan of single sex education, which benefited my own son and daughter enormously, both academically and socially.

You girls are growing up in a culture that is quite radically different for women from that of my own era.  The last 50 years have transformed the way men and women look at themselves and each other — both willingly and grudgingly — provoking existential self-examination unprecedented in human history.

I'm speaking of what we've termed the sexual revolution, ushered in by the combined influences of the birth control pill and feminist activism.  (In fact, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the book that sparked the feminist revolution — Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique.)  And that's my topic for today.

Reliable birth control not only breached the historic unity between sexual relations and procreation, but also sharply diminished the historic link between sexual relations and morality.  We have witnessed a dramatic re-evaluation of male and female roles, the reverberations of which can be felt in the attitudes and policies that touch our social, legal, educational, medical and cultural institutions, none more so than the conventions of marriage and family.

Ideas that were once unquestioned and unquestionable are continually challenged: What is marriage for?  Is it necessary or desirable?  Is a single long marriage normal in an era of steadily lengthening lives?  Why not simply serial relationships?  Is having children the best way to maximize personal happiness?  What kind of a family is in a child's best interests?  Do children even really need fathers?

I went to university with the expectation that I would pursue intellectual interests on the same footing as men (I did: I never experienced condescension or lesser respect), but also that I would (and I did) meet my future husband in that excellent pool of male prospects.  In my day, women held the power in sexual relationships.  Young men understood that serious romantic pursuit would lead to commitment, marriage and family.

Young women heading to university today have been educated to believe that early commitment is harmful to their future careers and an obstacle to sexual libertinism, (falsely) understood by feminists as empowering to women.  The message I see being pushed today is that it is only when your biological clock starts running down that you must seriously consider which fork in the road you want to take.  And that neither pathway — on the one hand, a mate, children and a balancing of work and domestic life; on the other, singleminded ambition and no children, with perhaps a committed relationship, perhaps not — should be judged better.

All these options are a fact of life today.  All I ask is that whatever choice you give your consent to is informed consent.  Especially when it comes to human sexuality and reproduction, the prevailing approach is to obscure information that might tend to put a brake on extreme pleasure-seeking and extreme sacrifice-avoidance.  So today I want to fill in a few of those knowledge gaps.

Probably the most important thing you need to know concerns the implacable facts of biology.  You may be living in the 21st century, but your body is essentially the same female body it was 10,000 years ago when the average life span was 35 or 40 years.

Probably the most important thing you need to know concerns the implacable facts of biology.

Most women long to have children.  Some find out the hard way.  After 25, female fertility slowly drops off.  After 30, the decline in fertility begins to hasten.  By 35, difficulty in conceiving children is commonplace and accounts for the boom in fertility clinics.  By 40 you are playing Russian roulette.  Never mind those celebrities you see on the covers of magazines with their IVF achieved "baby bump."  For every one of them, there are many others who will never get pregnant by any means.  Assisted reproductive technology will not be perfected or risk-free before your biological clock runs out — and Australian studies have turned up disquieting data concerning Clomid, a popular fertility-enhancing drug — so you must be mindful of these realities.

Women are more successful today than men, but sexually, men rule.  The American National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health revealed that 30% of young men's sexual relationships don't involve any romance, affection or dating outside the bedroom.

That is not what girls want.  For girls, sex without affection is hollow and eventually degrading.  (To understand the soul-deadening effects of male-female relations without moral constraints, watch the unutterably sad TV series Girls.)  Elevated rates of cutting, burning, binge drinking and anorexia amongst girls — not boys — suggest that today's cultural trends are harmful to girls.

Women in political and educational leadership are not helping the situation.  Many are encouraging young women to consider hook-up culture and retarded mating as a triumph of female empowerment rather than the triumph for male entitlement it has turned out to be.

From the discourse of our feminist elites, you would think that before the feminist revolution, it was impossible for a woman to have a satisfying career unless she put her ambitions first and any idea of mating and family last.  But that is a myth.  I could cite you cases of my pre-feminist generation, including two Supreme Court judges, who married and bore children early, and with the support of collaborative husbands went on to achieve all their life goals.

The number of women aged 25 to 45 living alone has doubled over the past two decades.  Extending adolescence 20 years into what should be one's most energetically responsible years is for many of them an emotionally withering process, a fossilization of immaturity rather than the maturing process it is assumed to be.

By definition, maturity is the willingness to take on responsibility for others, to make accommodations out of love, to defer certain gratifications and to permanently exclude others in the interest of a steady, timely personal evolution that respects natural realities.

By definition, maturity is the willingness to take on responsibility for others, to make accommodations out of love, to defer certain gratifications and to permanently exclude others in the interest of a steady, timely personal evolution that respects natural realities.  Accommodation for the sake of larger priorities is a life skill, and the earlier we learn it, the better.

It's a well-known fact amongst behaviourists that too wide a choice of options diminishes one's capacity to select one option with assurance and contentment.  A smaller range of options conforms more closely to our psychological nature.  In that sense, I was lucky in my era.  I had far fewer options than you, but the choices I did have provided just enough latitude to realize my ambitions as a woman and as a contributing member of society without inner conflict, without enmity toward men and without pandering to values that compromised my personal integrity.

I am not suggesting you live your lives as I lived mine.  I only ask that you be true to yourselves.  Don't be a guinea pig for theories devised with indifference to human nature.  To achieve happiness, you should limit your options to those that truly accord with your self-respect, with nature and with the excellent values you have had the good fortune to inherit from loving, protective parents, values daily reinforced at this extraordinary school.



Barbara Kay "Advice for 21st century young women." National Post, (Canada) 13 February, 2013.

The preceeding are excerpts from a Feb. 7 speech to the upper grades of Hawthorn School for Girls, a private Toronto Catholic K-12 school serving both Catholic and non-Catholic students, that stresses excellence in academics and character development in equal measure.

Reprinted with permission of the author, Barbara Kay, and the National Post.

The Author

kay Barbara Kay is a Montreal-based writer. She has been a Comment page columnist (Wednesdays) in the National Post since September, 2003.

Copyright © 2013 National Post
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