Off Topic

27th September
written by Mad Cow

An Occasional Off-topic Essay

I’m hooked. A while back I skimmed the Atlantic article, The End of Men “The End of Men” by Hanna Rosin in the July/August 2010 issue, discussed critiques of it with colleagues, and let it alone. It’s come up again with someone asking for my serious opinion of it. So I gave it a close read. I first read a really good critique of the article in The American Prospect I will supplement this critique with some remarks of my own.

The piece could have been framed very differently and named The End of Male Dominance, although I must say that we are not yet even closely approaching either the end of men or the end of male dominance. The latter is more to the point, though. Throughout, Rosin refers to “role reversal” and her underlying assumption appears to be that of a fixed set of gender roles, organically determined. There is no such evidence for these extreme dichotomies. Moreover, although she cleverly touches base with the facts, she quickly overrides the statistics with anecdotal evidence that is supposed to trump what is actually happening nationally.

In her first “example,” Rosin interviews biologist Ronald Ericsson who came up with a method of choosing the sex of a child. To his surprise, couples are requesting girls more often than boys. Rosin makes a point of saying that they no longer apologize for this! What is the U.S. coming to? But more important is that Rosin sees this as a trend. She says that the polling data about sex preference is “sparse” without defining the term. In fact, Gallop polling indicates that couples have indicated a preference for a son, when they had a preference, consistently since 1941. Where there is a preference, a greater percentage of men indicates a preference for a boy. In polls done in 2000 and 2003, men chose boys over girls 2.5 more often than women. It’s important to notice however, that in these polls, even in 1941, more than 30 percent of both men and women answer “either or no opinion.” See Gender Preference

So what is this fuss about? With regard to girls, the good news, and I happen to see this as good news, is that a preference for girls is approaching the preference for boys, which may indicate a less patriarchal attitude in society. Is it really lamentable that the “era of the firstborn son is totally gone”?  

And speaking of lamentable, the article doesn’t skip a beat in snappy tone when it reports that South Korea, since 1990 (!), now allows women to have custody of their children after divorce, allows them to inherit property, and allows them to register children under their own names. Shocking. The U.S. made these changes as a result of the women’s movement of the early 20th century. (It wasn’t all about suffrage.)

Hinson quotes Kathryn Edin saying “I think something feminists have missed is how much power women have when they are not bound by marriage.” In fact, feminists have always known this and thus the legal strategies of the movement over the last 100 years have been focused on making marriage a level playing field, from a legal standpoint, for married women. Again, I can’t see that this is a bad thing. Now feminists are trying very hard to reduce the degree to which women are abused by their husbands. This is much harder to do. And by the way, while violence among women has increased, it’s miniscule compared to men’s violence in U.S. society.

Hinson states that “rates of violence committed by middle-aged women have skyrocketed since the 1980s and no one knows why.” I don’t know where she gets her statistics, so I couldn’t check them, but I did go to a Department of Justice site:

In a nutshell, the source indicates that women are much less violent than men. When they are violent, they are much less likely to use a weapon and their victims tend to be family, people they know and once loved. Some cases are undoubtedly self-defense but I don’t have the statistics on this. The numbers are so low that saying that a proportion of the female population has a “skyrocketing” increase may be suspect.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Homicide Trends in the U.S.,” a series of statistical tables and graphs published online, January 2001, available at Greenfeld, Lawrence A. and Tracy L. Snell, Women Offenders, December 1999, pp. 1, 2, 4.

Several social problems at the moment are indeed gendered. As Rosin mentions, working class men used to have the ability to get and keep well-paying jobs even without high school educations, in the auto industry, in construction, in industry. Many of these jobs have disappeared and the recent recession has cast a final blow. But the loss of income for men is the reason why the “wage gap” between women’s and men’s incomes is lower. Women are not making more. Men are making less.

It is true that women’s share of the family income has been rising, really since women flocked into the labor force in great numbers beginning in the 1960s. But it was the economy, not the women’s movement (that all-encompassing bugaboo, feminism) that got them into the labor force. They were needed and their families needed the money. In the 1950s it took just one earner per family to maintain the economic quality of life that now for most families requires two earners. What the feminist movement did do is to work like hell to get the laws changed in the 1970s to open jobs up to women through the passage of non-discrimination laws, which up to this day are not entirely enforced. Women would have entered the labor force anyway, but employers would have been able legally to continue paying them less, even for the same work, and restricting women’s choice even to apply for particular jobs.

I find it insulting and outrageous for Hinson to state that “over the course of the past century, feminism has pushed women to do things once considered against their nature.” Her implication is that “non-traditional jobs” are indeed against their nature. History is full of stories about women barred from pursing their interests. Women in World War II filled factories everywhere to replace the men who were at war. They were quite capable and enjoyed the work. They were systematically fired from industry jobs that most of them wanted to keep. It took a PR campaign to try to get them to like leaving their jobs and to try to get them not to work at all. (Check out the film The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter.”)

The 1970s women’s movement, led perhaps not coincidentally by the daughters of the Rosies had the support of thousands of women who were barred from using their talents and interests in paid work. They worked indefatigably to get Congress to change the laws that would open jobs and educational institutions. Women eagerly pursued these new opportunities as soon as they knew they could Ask any woman engineer, or doctor, or dentist, or computer scientist if she ever felt “pushed in.”  Many, especially in the sciences, still feel cultural pushes in the opposite direction.

The fastest growing jobs are those dominated by women and also are the lowest paying. Child care workers are the lowest paid workers in the nation. And while women hold greater numbers of “managerial” jobs, the Department of Labor lumps all managerial jobs, including the manager of the local MacDonald’s. When one looks at the income of people in managerial jobs, not to mention the scope of their responsibilities, one sees that men still are in the majority of the managerial positions that count.

Two comments by Hinson are so contradictory that they leave me breathless. She says that “Firms that had women in top positions performed better” in one study. Hurray. But wait! She goes on to say, “It could be that women boost corporate performance, or it could be that better-performing firms have the luxury of recruiting and keeping high-potential women.” What could this mean? If women are getting educated in large numbers and surging ahead, why would recruiting and keeping high-potential women a luxury?

Another confusing statement is that UMKC and other universities are not-so-secretly giving preferences to male applicants in order to maintain gender balance because too many women (60% at UMKC) “could permanently shift the atmosphere and reputation of a school.” But if women are taking over, wouldn’t a large number of women boost a school’s reputation?

There are other ways to describe and discuss some of the phenomena that Hinson addresses. For one thing, class issues are paramount. Middle and upper-class white men and women and middle and upper-class men and women of color are doing what they’ve been doing for quite some time – going to college. For lower-middle and poorer people the picture is different. A larger number of poor and working class women are obtaining higher education degrees to support their children and because they cannot afford not to. Working class men are not.

It is quite likely that the national economic transition from physical labor to an information economy, the feminist movement (yes), and the fact that men are no longer unequivocally “in charge” are all having an effect on working class men, whose wives have been in the labor force for a long time but have not been the major breadwinners. Even men who have been low-earners have been able to feel secure in the belief that they were superior to women, sometimes especially their wives.

Changing the education system to adhere to the “individual learning style of boys” is an interesting solution given that in U.S. history all of the powerful positions in society have been held by men. The most popular writers, most successful economists, etc. have been men who somehow got through what is now being described as an education system that is more suited to girls. Again, this is a class issue. When society needed brawn from a certain segment of society, working class men, it didn’t matter whether they graduated from high school or learned as much as they need to learn now in order to get a decent-paying job. Now it matters a lot. But placing the focus on gender is misguided.

I am not an expert on elementary education, but it seems sensible for schools to pay more attention to individual children and their needs then to lump them into two groups. Of course there are differences between boys and girls but is gender always the most important factor? My nephew used to sleep with books when he was a small child and he still reads a lot. Recently a speaker at a prestigious private university asked a group of women students what kinds of toys they played with when they were children. She made the point that because girls play with dolls they grow up ill-suited to certain jobs, having to do some make-up in learning. But the young women, mostly WISER students, actually said that they most enjoyed playing with Legos. I suspect that parents of boys who love dolls and girls who love Legos don’t talk about it as much. Maybe they should. Homophobia is a factor here, too, but that’s a topic for another essay. In any case, boys and girls who don’t fit the gender mold are going to suffer if we blindly assume that the two groups have substantially different monolithic characteristics and learning needs.

Male dominance is definitely weakening in the U.S. Much of what Hinson writes can be interpreted as a backlash, as if nothing good can come from some of the gendered social changes that we see. Emphasizing the importance of macho male-dominance over a collaborative view of marriage, partnerhood, private and public work is, in my view, what is holding men back. The “battle of the sexes” holds everyone back. Framing problems in terms of men being the “real losers” and women now being “in charge,” is unproductive and really untrue in practical terms. Most of the men who have lost their jobs are in economic and emotional partnerships with women – i.e., married or partnered. As an economic partnership, women too suffer when men lose their jobs.

Hinson cites the movie Up in the Air as a prime example of what’s happening to men. “If the sexiest man alive [George Clooney – Hinson and I agree on something] can get twice rejected (and sexually played) in a movie, what hope is there for anyone else?” Ah, but Hinson misses the point, which I think George Clooney understands. There needn’t be a dichotomy between the Marlboro Man and the Bud Light Guy. Those aren’t men’s only choices. Men are not becoming extinct, but in today’s world they are being given the opportunity to be fully developed, secure human beings who don’t have to rely on the idea that they are superior to half of the human race in order to live productive and fulfilling lives.

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