In 1929 Virginia Woolf marched into the British Museum to find out why women were poorer than men. What she discovered in the card catalogue stunned her. “Have you any notion of how many books are written about women in the course of one year?” she asked. “Have you any notion how many are written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?” The discussions were all more or less insulting (sample entry: “Mental, moral and physical inferiority of,” or so Woolf caricatures it). The discovery, of course, had the salutary effect of providing yards of material for A Room of One’s Own, her brilliant essay on women and fiction. If she had wanted to consult the arbiters of truth about men and fiction, however, she would have had less luck. “It was a most strange phenomenon; and apparently — here I consulted the letter M — one confined to the male sex. Women do not write books about men…”
No longer. If proof be needed that women have achieved a room of their own, look no further than the rash of books about men with which they have revenged themselves. Offhand I can name Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary?: When Sexes Collide, bell hooks’s We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, and Christina Hoff Sommers’s The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men. Despite their disparate political orientations, all have in common a concern (sincere or satirical) about the current state of men.
In the past few months two books have emerged chronicling fresh revolutions in the sexes’ Wheel of Fortune. Liza Mundy’s The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family came out in March, and, reversing Woolf’s question, seeks to explain why men in the U.S. and elsewhere are fast becoming poorer than women, and how the shift will play out. Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men: And the Rise of Women describes an even broader reversal of fortune than the purely economic. File these books about men under “Economic, educational, and social inferiority of.”
The central arguments of both books rest on some compelling trends. The percentage of women working has skyrocketed in the last fifty years and the percentage of men working has declined; women now represent half the workforce; as of 2010 young women’s median income was higher than that of their male peers in 1,997 of two thousand metropolitan areas in the U.S. The causes of these trends are not mysterious. Women outnumber men in college three to two (and they outnumber men in almost every other type of higher education). With a college degree an increasingly essential condition for entry to the middle class, this disparity alone tips the scales heavily in favor of women.
Then there’s an economy moving away from male-dominated sectors (construction, manufacturing) and toward knowledge- and service-based industries, which tend to be female-dominated. Nearly all of the jobs with the highest projected expansion are majority women — not just the obvious ones like nursing and teaching, but also accounting and auditing. More companies, new and old, are abandoning top-down leadership and climates of machismo in favor of collaboration and a culture that requires social skills. And men, these authors argue, aren’t adapting to the new economic landscape.
Both authors agree on the basic state of affairs, which they gather from an assortment of sources: social-trend books like their own, news articles, Bureau of Labor statistics, think tank reports, the work of economists and sociologists (many of the same ones), academic journal articles, and their own interviews. Rosin uses a survey she conducted of “seventy-five hundred people in female breadwinner couples in the online magazine Slate.” Statistics and studies are plentiful and often contradictory, and since the publication of The End of Men the blogosphere has enjoyed a vigorous debate about whether women have risen as much as Rosin claims. But most of her critics concede that they have risen quite a bit, and haggle over the degree of the achievement and the tone with which she reports it.
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The Richer Sex takes as its subject the female breadwinner, the woman who is the sole or primary earner in her household. (I was alarmed at Mundy’s introduction of the coinage “breadwomen” to describe them, but she went on to use it blessedly seldom.) Predicting that women’s economic star will only continue to rise, at least until some other demographic force enters the fray to displace it, she imagines what this new world will look like for family life. Her interviews with early adopters (or early adapters) of the new order reveal high-powered moms, stay-at-home dads, and some couples who seem to be neat inversions of the overworked office man and Suzie Homemaker of the fifties.
In some ways Mundy’s findings are predictable. Household roles and power dynamics depend more on money than on gender, and are shifting accordingly. Perhaps the best summary of the findings of both books comes from the crime writer Patricia Cornwell, whom Rosin quotes: “The more women appropriate power, the more their behavior will mimic that of other powerful people.” The idea seems straightforward enough. But of course there are throngs of people and studies to say otherwise.1 One of the phenomena Mundy questions is “gender-deviance neutralization,” the idea that couples who deviate from gender roles in one sphere (working wife earns more than husband) overperform those roles in another (she takes on even more housework). This theory derived from the shaky but widely propagated statistic that the more women earn, the more housework they do. More recent studies have shown that men are taking on more housework and adapting to their wives’ job demands.
So it goes with everything else, Mundy says: women are marrying down, delaying marriage, not marrying; men are working less, going to PTA meetings more, growing eager to settle down. Breadwinning women are behaving like breadwinners and dependent men are behaving like dependents. Naturally, some men and women slide more comfortably into the new roles than others. Some men resent and sabotage their higher-earning partners; more of them just feel guilty about shirking what they still see as their duty to provide. Mundy suggests that women are ceding gender roles more reluctantly than men and may not want to come home to an apron-clad husband with a tray of cookies. But the main difference between female and male earners she discovers is that women want a partner they admire.
Mundy consulted an anthropologist on this female quirk; I wondered why any explanation was required — far more mysterious to me is why men would not want a peer as a partner. This criterion may explain declining rates of marriage, as women become better-educated and look to a shrinking pool of equally-educated men. For the most part, though, Mundy takes a rosy view of the future. She thinks most people will adjust by taking complementary roles that are neither rigidly gender-determined nor rigidly fifty-fifty on every front.
One of the flaws of this breed of book is the marquee-headline boldness and rigidity of the claims it makes. Mundy says the rise of female breadwinners will both “complete the revolution” and “rescue the travel industry” as high-earning women seek mates in other cities or countries. What if men just catch on? If one of the central reasons they lag is that their education lags, and one of the central reasons their education lags is that they cling to outdated ideas about how to become providers (go straight to work after high school), as Mundy argues, won’t men adjust to the realities of the new economy? Similarly, if men have suffered because traditionally male sectors have taken a hit and traditionally female sectors are expanding, won’t they eventually swallow their pride and move into those sectors? Mundy allows that men will do just that — but I wonder if the trends she forecasts well into the future could reverse or plateau in a couple generations.
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The End of Men, as its title implies, is the pessimist to The Richer Sex’s optimist. It contains much of the same information and material as Mundy’s book, but emphasizes — well, if not the end of men, then the decline of male power. And it’s not a celebration of the death rattle of an oppressive regime; it’s an equivocal hurrah for women’s rise, and a furrowed brow for men’s floundering. Where The Richer Sex is explicitly and exclusively focused on money, The End of Men adopts a more catholic scope, at least in theory. In practice the only thing Rosin covers that Mundy doesn’t is female violence, which she describes in a delicious if rather silly chapter recasting the timeless role of the female poisoner, “A More Perfect Poison: The New Wave of Female Violence.” Old murderer: abused wife slipping a household item into her husband’s dinner. New murderer: high-powered biochemist dissolving her meek husband in a vat of acid. Yes, this really happened.
Vincent Price Gothicism aside, Rosin offers a grimmer picture of the gender-bent landscape as a whole: none of Mundy’s happy stay-at-home dads concocting gourmet meals and elaborate family budgets. Instead she reports on a couple of hip lawyers with a son named Xavier whom they call “X.” The woman makes the money and does the lion’s share of the housework and X-care — gender-deviance neutralization lives! — while her husband accurately dubs himself the “mediocre house dude” without aspiring to become even the reasonably proficient house dude. While Rosin sees this imbalance as evidence that this generation has advanced far enough to draft relationships on a “much cleaner slate,” where adherence to gender roles need not be obsessively stamped out, it sounds like old-fashioned sexism to me. Rosin says that “the stay-at-home father is still a front-page anomaly” and “the roles do not just reverse. I did not talk to a single breadwinner wife who has entirely ceded the domestic space.”
It’s not just that Rosin’s cast of modern men doesn’t include the spectacular house dude. It’s that her muse for the book seems to be the deadbeat. Mundy offers a few glimpses of freeloading husbands who prefer video games and fishing to working — but this man is one of Rosin’s principal characters. Her answer to “breadwoman” is what she calls “Plastic Woman” (modern, adaptable, infinitely reinvented), whose counterpart is “Cardboard Man” (outdated, inelastic, single-use). She presents these models as caricatures she seeks to transcend but only spends a few concluding paragraphs on the transcendence, saying she decided not to focus on the Plastic Men “because there didn’t yet seem to be enough of them to constitute a definite trend.” Mundy shows us a world full of Plastic Men; Rosin shows us a world with no way forward. Is either option accurate?
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The shift these books describe is compelling; the shift is not trivial; and yet.
I closed both books with a lingering “and yet.” The yets are several. To begin with, how long a way have you come, baby? Neither author spends much time acknowledging or even debunking the structural sexism that pervades and persists. Mundy says only that the wage gap still exists but will likely close soon. Rosin says a little more, for instance that “women today are far less likely to get murdered, raped, assaulted, or robbed than at any time in recent history,” as a White House report on women and girls outlined “straightforwardly, to the great irritation of many feminists.” No citation on the feminist irritation; I’ll have to take her word for it. I did, however, find the latest White House report, “Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being.”2 Having just consumed several hundred pages trumpeting women’s economic ascendancy, it was jarring to see sections titled “Women are more likely than men to be in poverty” and “Female-headed families have the lowest family earnings among all family types.” Straightforward indeed.
Rosin also cites a British study that she says “showed that women were three times more likely to be arrested for domestic violence, and far more likely to use a weapon.” This is cherry-picking in the worst way. On closer inspection the study shows that the difference between men’s and women’s use of weapons in domestic violence police calls was not statistically significant, and that women’s weapon-wielding “was at times in order to stop further violence from their partners.” The statistically significant disparities concern rates of physical violence, threat, and harassment, all of which men were more likely to perpetrate upon women. Men were “significantly more likely to be repeat perpetrators,” and “the intensity and severity of violence and abusive behaviours from the men was much more extreme.”3
Rosin also dismisses “the ‘war on women’ that popped up in the 2012 primary season and centered on contraception” as “absurd…A society that has become utterly dependent on the unfettered ambition of women cannot possibly, with a straight face, reopen the debate about contraception.” And yet the absurd is all too possible and the debate was reopened. Remember the notorious congressional birth control hearing at which zero women testified? The Republican-controlled House determined the proceedings of the hearing, but no less relevant is the male-dominated House: the 112th Congress is not quite seventeen percent female. How do these facts square with the end of men?
Further, the stories these books tell are myopic to matters of class and race. When Mundy says in The Richer Sex that Betty Friedan “name[d] the problem that defined a generation,” she means a generation of middle-class white women — and to some extent the phenomenon she describes as “The Big Flip,” the recent shift of economic and educational resources into the hands of women, applies to a similarly limited group. Because she interviews and discusses women from various racial and class backgrounds, she gives the impression of describing a more representative set of women than she really does. But she acknowledges (primarily in an endnote) that for black women the supposed new world order is less new: “In 1910, 55 percent of black women were employed compared to just 20 percent of white women.” Most black women worked a hundred years ago! Surely that merits some discussion in a book about female breadwinners. Most women in the U.S. are white, so broad-stroke trends about women have a way of hiding demographic differences. Because the Big Flip happened earlier for black men and women, “the main catalysts of this current transformation are white women.”
But “catalysts” seems a less accurate word than “subjects.” Back to that straightforward White House report: the black and Hispanic members of the “richer sex” are still much more likely to be poor than the white members. They also suffer from both the gender pay gap and the race pay gap. The End of Men has similar caveats: Rosin describes a “new American matriarchy” of the middle- and lower-classes, but then allows that “this script has played out once before in American culture,” in the black community. But this fact alters the script: if by her own definition black men have already “ended,” how can she announce the end of men as breaking news?
And what about poor women who work, who may even be the primary earner, but whose earnings are not enough to afford them the autonomy, airy confidence, and homeownership Mundy so extensively documents? She discusses many women from working-class backgrounds who have climbed the ladder to financial stability or even wealth. But the top rungs are neither reality nor possibility for everyone. Rosin has a better grasp of class dynamics, distinguishing the idyllic “seesaw marriages” of the elite, where household roles may switch at different points in the marriage as each partner has a shot at career success, from the “new American matriarchy” of stalled men and exhausted superwomen who increasingly choose not to marry. “Marriage has become yet another class privilege in America,” Rosin says. Yet she makes the implausible claim that a few women at the top will improve working conditions for all women — a trickle-down theory of gender equity — as they institute family-friendly changes like better maternity leave policies. Most of these benefits seem more likely to trickle laterally, to men and women at the same class level, than to poor women. The receptionist can’t do her work remotely, on Flex Time, after putting her kids to bed.
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If these twenty-first century dispatches seem weirdly second-wave — in their whiteness and in their concern with employment to the exclusion of other battlegrounds of liberation and oppression — their biggest failure is squandering the opportunity for gender transcendence. For all the talk of big flips and matriarchies, their vision is ultimately conservative.
At first they seem promising. Both authors manage to avoid getting entangled in fatuous debates about evolutionary psychology and how men and women are “programmed” to be. “There is no ‘natural’ order,” Rosin says, “only the way things are.” Mundy, too, dismisses the sort of Darwinian determinism that believes women have “some innate biological urge to find a provider who can usher them into a life of ease and bonbon consumption.” Each is at her best in handling the sex question, which has prompted reams of moralizing and junk science from some middle-aged writers bewildered by hook-up culture. And as they applaud the expanded menu of possibilities, personalities, and professions for women, they lament that men’s options have not been equally enlarged. In fact they show this cryogenically frozen masculinity to be the source of men’s troubles. As the economy shifts toward traditionally feminine professions and skills, men resist pursuing lines of work that smack of femininity or even that have recently become majority female, like pharmacy. If men are to adjust to the changing economy they must do women’s work one way or another, Mundy and Rosin argue: seek jobs now dominated by women; or do childcare and housework to support, and be supported by, the women dominating those jobs.
But both authors take with one hand what they give with the other. They ultimately fall into the very trap they describe, failing to confer the possibility of discarding gender roles on men as well as women. (Forget about retiring the gender binary; in these books there are men and there are women.) Mundy vitiates her vision of the happy homemaking husband by pandering to the masculinity of yore. Though she salutes the man who says “A lot of masculinity is just bravado,” she closes the book by advising female-earner couples on some good old-fashioned gender-deviance neutralization. She includes tips like “For couples who struggle sexually, there’s nothing wrong with looking for realms in which the man can appear conventionally manly…Go chop some wood,” and “Get a joint checking account…Why should your husband have to ask you for money? Of course that’s emasculating!” She reassures men that the kitchen is now fertile enough ground for their bravado (it’s full of tools, like the cave men used, see?). She encourages them to fish and hunt as part of their domestic masculinity. What promised to be a recipe change looks like the old potions rebottled.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with wood-chopping and joint checking accounts. It’s that the revised edition of what a man can and should be is so circumscribed and unimaginative. Rosin’s worst offense lies in the title of her book. As long as the death rate for men has not seen a sudden dramatic uptick, what can “the end of men” mean? What can it mean but that men are so defined by power that losing it renders them no-longer-men? She describes middle-class men as “closer than at any other time in history to being obsolete — at least by most traditional measures of social utility.” Social utility is a dangerous way to measure human worth. The main difference between these nonworking, little-educated men and the nonworking, little-educated women who preceded them for time immemorial is that the women fulfilled the socially useful function of producing babies. If Rosin doesn’t think women’s worth is stored in the uterus, she must broaden her understanding of men’s worth.
Feminists have long said that patriarchy hurts everyone, not just women. The rigid gender roles men can no longer fulfill but hesitate to abandon crisply illustrate this principle. These books promise us a door out of these roles and then elect merely to change the doorknob. Instead of expanding the definition of providing, why not expand the definition of male value? Of human value? Why distinguish between the two? To get riot grrl about it, why not smash the patriarchy while the smashing is good?
After Virginia Woolf left the British Museum eighty years ago, she reflected on the gifts financial independence, secured by an inheritance from an aunt, had given her. “I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me,” she says. “I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me.” Mundy quotes these lines in The Richer Sex. But there were greater gifts still to come as Woolf observed how masculinity hurt and hemmed in men, driving them into windowless offices and onto killing fields.
And, as I realized these drawbacks, by degrees fear and bitterness modified themselves into pity and toleration; and then in a year or two, pity and toleration went, and the greatest release of all came, which is freedom to think of things in themselves….Indeed my aunt’s legacy unveiled the sky to me, and substituted for the large and imposing figure of a gentleman which Milton recommended for my perpetual adoration, a view of the open sky.
We have come a long way in removing the imposing figure of a gentleman from women’s view. Let us do the same for men, and give them a view of the open sky.
1 The following example is just one of many theories predicated on fixed, innate gender. Both authors discuss competing theories of gender more extensively than I can here.
Rachel Luban lives in Chicago, where she reads, writes, and makes coffee.