Melanie Phillips' "The Sex-Change Society," widely noted as a comprehensive survey of gender politics in the United Kingdom, largely succeeds at blending factual presentation and political analysis of recent events. If you only read one work about developments across the pond affecting men's and women's relationships, marriage, and children, this is probably your book.
While the author focuses on the UK, much of her message is equally applicable to North America, as when she laments: "The undermining of marriage as a meaningful institution has played a crucial role in collapsing the equilibrium between the sexes and driving men away from their families." The writer effortlessly shreds feminist theory suggesting that men seek highly compensated work so as to exercise economic power over their wives in their families, demonstrating instead that women retain significant power in traditional marriages and also that men have their own biological and social imperatives motivating them to become effective providers in order to create a useful role for themselves. Phillips is a big fan of marriage and places its systematic destruction as perhaps the most critical change on the gender front in recent decades. She rightly takes to tasks the "pervasive non-judgmentalism" which has led us to paradoxes where marriage's importance is ostensibly acknowledged while society all too often refuses to back up this lip service with appropriate social support for this increasingly fragile institution. Phillips also pinpoints no-fault divorce for "legitimis[ing] illegitimacy," which "in turn encouraged more women to get divorced, thus creating a socially devastating feedback loop."
The author pinpoints an important yet rarely discussed issue: "the threshold of what is tolerable in a relationship has become extremely low. What would once have been considered an irritating problem... is now the trigger for marriage collapse." A "culture of divorce" has displaced a culture of marriage. Phillips proposes that marriage where children are present should not be dissolvable in the absence of wrongdoing by the non-petitioning partner and asks in effect, why not turn back the clock on this issue? Why should marriage be cancelable at will when other less socially critical contracts are binding on both parties?
Where are we heading with our "sex-change society"? "Men are  to be re-engineered into the emotionally literate unemployed... so that women can take their jobs and the state can perform the women's role--with fathers turned into au pairs. The aim is nothing less than the removal of the distinctive social and cultural role for fathers that has defined civil society [for centuries]." Phillips calls for an end to the virtually unique taxation system in the UK which levies separately on husbands and their wives without offering the possibility of joint filing or acknowledging the reality of married couples with a wage-earning husband and a stay-at-home wife.
Melanie Phillips is a careful wordsmith, and her clever and telling phrases tend to stick in one's memory. A few examples: "The idea that women were repressed until the sexual revolution in the 1960s is absurd... they were certainly restrained, a crucially different matter." "The term `single-parent family' by definition excludes the second parent from the institution, while at the same time sanitising the loss." "Fear of giving offence has left people so reluctant to criticise irresponsibility that irresponsible behaviour has itself been redefined as blameless, even heroic." The author brooks no nonsense and positively brims with common sense. "Men and women have more in common and more differences than either feminists or socio-biologists care to acknowledge." "The general emphasis on personal autonomy and individual rights undermined parental authority and with it parental responsibility.... Children were invested with adult responsibilities as fast as the adult world divested itself of them." Phillips forthrightly confronts the somewhat mind-boggling yet pervasive claims that social policies and laws have no effect on decisions regarding marriage and children.
The writer also has a facility at succinctly summarizing complex and far-reaching social developments in a few sentences, as when she notes that there are "three key characteristics of the new social order. The first is the spread of sexual relationships outside marriage, free from social disapproval. The second is the erosion of stable marriages.... The third is the widespread toleration of illegitimacy and the exclusion of the father from the family unit, now defined as the mother and child alone." Phillips emphasizes the critical role of this trio of changes: "In detaching sex from permanent union between individuals, they have robbed men and women of the freedom to build relationships with each other in which they can place reliance and trust.... Fathers have increasingly been turned into an optional bolt-on extra."
The writer rightly calls attention to a number of glaring contradictions in feminist thinking, such as the remarkable claim that fathers in intact families cannot effectively parent while holding full-time jobs that require them to be away from home, but yet somehow mothers with full-time jobs become better parents and also after divorce the father's physical presence is unnecessary as long as he pays the all-important child support "Male breadwinning is thus forbidden inside marriage but compulsory when the marriage is over." She also points to the clash of the concepts that on the one hand, women should be treated the same as men and androgyny is a laudable goal, and on the other hand, women are quite different from and superior to men. Regarding domestic violence, she highlights the irony that women have come to rely on men's refusal to respond to physical provocation and have themselves become more violent and men less violent while the law continues to act as if only men can commit domestic violence. (Astoundingly, a British government produced a report admitting heavy female involvement in domestic violence was met with public silence, and the government made no changes in its policies to bring them into even minimal compliance with its own findings.) Unfortunately, the author does not always avoid her own brand of inconsistency, as when this straight-laced conservative forthrightly calls for government spending to privilege matrimony and at another point proposes cash payments to mothers.
Phillips is good on the subject of fathers, noting that dads' play with their children is "not only more physical, but has a quality of apprenticeship, showing the child how the world works, while mothers play at the child's own level." Later she distills the critical nature of dads as "the other parent that made me," whom the child needs to "avoid the suffocating and potentially manipulative closeness of a relationship with [only] one parent." Daughter-father relationships facilitate learning about and managing intimate relationships with the opposite sex, and fathers provide their sons with a role model in successfully managing male aggression and power both inside and outside the family. Although it has been done before, the author wisely devotes a number of pages to summarizing the wealth of evidence proving fathers' critical role in promoting happy life outcomes for their children.
Perhaps inevitably in a book of this level of depth and thoroughness, Phillips does tend to repeat facts and ideas and also occasionally veers toward long-windedness. Also, "Sex-Change Society" at times suffers from the writer's unabashed conservatism, which suffuses some of her analysis with biases that certainly differ from those of the society she studies but may not be fully palatable to all readers. Finally, there are times where she may for example note the "huge differences" between a mother deserted by her husband, a woman of 28 who has a baby through a sperm donor, and a pregnant girl of 16, without offering any concrete suggestions as to what specific steps she would support in responding to these three situations. Be that as it may, the author offers her readers a wealth of fascinating information and analysis. In another of her signal encapsulations, Phillips comments that the "never-ending tension between men and women over their division of roles" is inevitable because stems from "two unalterable givens"--individual freedom and the needs of the vulnerable human infant. The tension may be insoluble but the clarity and commitment of gifted authors such as Melanie Phillips will serve all of us in good stead as we work toward ensuring the continued vitality of marriage and healthy families in the twenty-first century.