In Raising Boys Without Men, Peggy Drexler praises a group of “maverick moms” – lesbian couples, single mothers by choice, and a variety of single mothers not by choice – for raising the next generation of “exceptional men.” The core of the book is Drexler’s study of 16 boys raised by lesbian couples in San Francisco in the 1990s. She then supplemented this dissertation work with interviews with another 60 single mothers, half who had chosen to raise sons alone, half who had not. The lesbian couples, who make up the bulk of the analysis and examples in the book, are white, educated, white-collar, older women in stable relationships.
Drexler, a long-married mother, approaches the issue with some rather old-fashioned questions. Will boys raised by women only be sissies? Will boys raised by lesbians be gay? Sociology in the fifties and early sixties was concerned that over-mothered boys would not be manly enough. That question was largely laid to rest in the decade or so following. Likewise, research from the seventies and eighties found that children of homosexual parents were no more likely than average to be homosexual themselves, though they were more likely to be liberal in their attitudes toward sexual orientation.
Drexler did find that these boys were normal boys in most respects. They were typical boys in their interests and their play. I was pleased and a little surprised to find that Drexler expected this, as she agrees that much of the gendered activity of children is hardwired, and not simply the result of social convention and socialization.
Indeed, Drexler’s stronger claim is that the sons of lesbian couples are more sensitive to emotions and social relations than average boys are. Far from being morally retarded by growing up in a female-run household, Drexler seems to be saying that this small group of boys is morally superior to the average lad. She also seems to be making the same claim for the sons of the single mothers she studied, though it is hard for me to be certain about this as there are no real quantities reported here.
Drexler sets out to answer a too-easy question: Is it possible for lesbian couples and single women to raise good boys and men? It is practically a sociological truism that it is possible for good individuals to arise from any social circumstance, no matter how risky. The more difficult sociological question is, are lesbian couples and single mothers as likely to produce good boys and men as stable heterosexual couples are? Drexler’s sample is much too small, and much too select, to answer that question. Moreover, other research makes me think that she is mixing apples and oranges. Stable, two-parent couples generally produce better outcomes for kids than single parents do, regardless of any other factors. Calling lesbians couples, single-moms-by-choice, and women who become single mothers by divorce, widowhood, or inadvertent never marrying all “maverick moms” obscures very large differences among those groups.
Peggy Drexler did, I think, demonstrate her main point – sons of lesbian couples grow up to be regular guys. There are other questions, though, that her study raises, but does not fully answer.