Hanna Rosin’s new neon-covered book, The End of Men, just hit bookshelves and has already led to a slew of interviews and excerpt placements. The title may sound familiar: the book grew out of her Atlantic article of the same name. That piece came out at the height of the recession, when men were suffering historic levels of unemployment. Rosin’s thesis is that the recession exaggerated a broader trend already well underway, in which American men are ceding economic dominance to women, who are better suited to a new economy that values communication, collaboration and service work. Her story’s moment may have faded: since the recession officially ended, women have gotten less than 20 percent of the jobs added to the economy, regaining just a quarter of the jobs they lost during the crisis. Men have recovered 42 percent of lost jobs.
But perhaps the biggest challenge in grappling with Rosin’s book is her tendency to use key concepts over and over without stopping to consider what they actually mean. “Matriarchy,” “success,” even “feminism” all play major roles in the End of Men, but they’re sketchily defined at best. Women have what it takes to be successful in the economy, she tells us, and calls this a matriarchy, suggesting that thousands of years of ruling patriarchy are coming to an end.
Let’s do some defining, then, starting with patriarchy. What does it mean to live in a patriarchal society? It is not just men’s ability to earn more income and control the TV remote. In Stephanie Coontz’s fantastic Sunday New York Times op-ed, she describes a
“patriarchal dividend”—a lifelong affirmative-action program for men. The size of that dividend varied according to race and class, but all men could count on women’s being excluded from the most desirable jobs and promotions in their line of work.… At home, the patriarchal dividend gave husbands the right to decide where the family would live and to make unilateral financial decisions. Male privilege even trumped female consent to sex, so marital rape was not a crime.
Patriarchy is not just a system that rewards (mostly white, straight, upper-class) men with the jobs and the money. In a highly patriarchal system, men are endowed with almost complete social control over women, not just economically but in sexual, political and reproductive realms. But, of course, having access to all the jobs—highly paid and low—and therefore all of the money is a great way to reinforce this system. Rosin acknowledges this system, saying, “For nearly as long as civilization has existed, patriarchy—enforced through the rights of the firstborn son—has been the organizing principle, with few exceptions.” Men took over “social and political institutions and [kept] women under their control,” allowing them to have “the power and resources.”
As Coontz points out, these “entitlements” for men have been losing strength for a while now, but began to erode more quickly in the past half century, as women flooded the workforce. Does this mean that we’ve ended the patriarchy? According to Rosin, the end is nigh, if not here yet.
If patriarchy is on its way out, then “matriarchy,” as Rosin puts it, is on the way in. The term figures prominently in the book, showing up on page five of Rosin’s introduction and even in one of her chapter titles—“The New American Matriarchy.”
It’s worth pausing to consider what a matriarchy would really mean. Here are some of the ways Rosin defines it:
an American matriarchy, where the younger men especially are unmoored, and closer than at any other time in history to being obsolete—at least by most traditional measures of social utility. And the women are left picking up the pieces.… a matriarchy, with men increasingly absent from the workforce and from home, and women making all the decisions.
So a “matriarchy” means women are the Deciders. But what decisions do they get to make? This is best put by someone Rosin interviews: women “‘make every important decision’—whether to have a baby, how to raise it, where to live.” In other words: all decisions about matters inside of the home.
The idea is not new. Fear of matriarchal rule in the home first arose with a group Rosin references: low-income black women in the 1970s and ’80s. After the release of the infamous Moynihan Report in 1965, which attributed black poverty to a “deviant” family structure with a focus on “momism,” black women as all-powerful matriarchs who demoralize the men around them became a national preoccupation. Rosin copies that language, saying black society “has turned into a virtual matriarchy.” Yet even back when this idea was sweeping the nation, these women’s supposed decision-making power within the home didn’t hold up to scrutiny—they still shared decision-making with the fathers of their children. And then as now, some have raised the question, in the words of sociologist Robert Staples: “Over whom do these women have control?” It matters where and over what women make decisions.
Domestic decision-making does not a matriarchy make. In a true matriarchy, women would sit at the head of more than a kitchen table. As Coontz mentions in her op-ed, women currently make up only 17 percent of the seats in Congress. This trend holds across all levels of governing: women are a quarter of officials and legislators at the state and local level, hold only 12 percent of governorships and are 8 percent of the country’s mayors. (And we’ve never once had a female commander-in-chief.) Few women are in charge of the decisions that affect the lives of Americans who don’t live in their own households. So to start, a matriarchy would entail not just equal political representation but political domination, putting women at the helm of nearly all policymaking.
And despite the fact that it was economic power that sparked Rosin’s original thesis, women don’t hold the decision-making roles there either. Less than 4 percent—that’s right, not even four out of 100 people—of the CEOs in the Fortune 500 are women. Women would not only be the majority of high-powered executives in a matriarchy, but they would also bring in the big bucks. Yet less than 8 percent of the top earners at these companies are women.
They also wouldn’t have to contort themselves in the extreme ways that the high-powered women Rosin interviews do. To be taken seriously, as Rosin herself reports, these women have to be “girlish enough not to trigger a backlash,” yet also “aggressive enough”; “polite, but firm”; “a self-starter and a team player.” This “tightrope specificity” and need to “play by the rules” are hardly the characteristics of a matriarch drunk on unchecked power. They are merely attempts to find a way to fit into the existing patriarchy’s guidelines.
It’s hard to claim that women have so reversed the roles that they now hold the social and economic reins in American society after looking at those numbers. But even Rosin’s narrower claim—that women are going to edge men out of the jobs and earning picture— doesn’t play out either. She suggests over and over that women have met and will continue to meet with far more success than men in our new economy. But it’s hard to say how we should define “success.”
Here are some of the trends that form the bedrock of her thesis: women made up half the workforce in 2009 (even though that percentage has again slipped), they dominate twelve of the fifteen job categories predicted to grow the most of the next decade, the average wife contributes just over 40 percent of family income and women are the majority of college students and are earning more degrees.
I’ve already looked in depth at why dominating these jobs may not be all it’s cracked up to be and why women are still not the richer sex. But do college degrees now spell economic power in the future? It’s not likely. After they move beyond high school, women make less than their male peers at every level of education. They make an average $800 a month less, but it gets worse the more education they get. In fact, women have to get a PhD to make as much as a man who has a bachelor’s. This seems a poor way to measure success—a degree that merely catches you up to the men on the educational rungs below you.
Rosin’s final confusion is about the term “feminism” and what the movement’s goals are. In a passage about a small town in Auburn, Alabama, in which women earn more than men at the median, she calls it a “feminist paradise.” It’s “a town dominated by women,” where they make up over half the workforce. And while no unemployment numbers are cited, Rosin paints a picture in which men are virtually all put out of work by the decline in manufacturing.
The purpose of feminism was never to win a battle of us versus them. Remember the slogan “A world that is good for women is good for everyone”? The point is equality—which is not the same as trying to flip the world upside down so that women rule over men.
Rosin moves fluidly between declaring this a fait acompli and a future event. She calls ours the “age of female power” and says of women that they “have…dominated the workforce.” Yet she also says “the transition to a new era is not yet complete” and that some of the trends she describes offer only “a glimpse of the…future.” It seems she believes this is “the way the world is inevitably moving,” but even she asks, “Why hasn’t it arrived yet?” It may never arrive. Women still have a huge amount of territory to gain before they can be called equal peers with men. And there’s no reason to assume or hope that they will leapfrog over men and institute another 5,000 years of rule by one gender. We’re still working on the rise of women. Let’s hope it never leads to an end of men.
For more feminist Nation coverage, check out Katrina vanden Heuvel’s latest on the GOP’s War on Women.