Women on Top?

Women on Top?

Is our society on the verge of becoming a matriarchy? In your dreams.


Don’t worry, gentlemen. "The End of Men," Hanna Rosin’s much discussed Atlantic cover story, isn’t really about the end of men. It’s about men’s declining economic ability to dominate women and various sociocultural consequences of that fact—but who’d read a piece with an unsensational message like that? Women are surging forward educationally, entering the professions and the burgeoning service fields in great numbers, having children on their own, putting up with less crap from boyfriends and husbands—we all know that. Men are taking less than half the BAs, have suffered from the decline of manufacturing and other traditionally male jobs, and have lost some of their domestic privileges and some of their cultural prestige—we all know that too. It may even be, as Rosin claims, that women are particularly well suited to the postindustrial economy, where brains, self-discipline, the ability to work well with others and verbal skills matter more than brawn and testosterone-fueled thrill-seeking. It takes a clever picker of statistical and anecdotal cherries, though, to make plausible Rosin’s claim that we are on the verge of becoming a matriarchy.

Take, for example, Rosin’s opening vignette. In the 1970s, when flamboyant Marlboro Man biologist Ronald Ericsson figured out how to sort sperm to select a baby’s sex, he assumed prospective parents would want boys and was criticized by some feminists for enabling this "universal" desire. Since the 1990s the decision has been made by the woman, and to Ericsson’s surprise, the majority have gone for girls. "These mothers look at their lives," she writes, "and think their daughters will have a bright future their mother and grandmother didn’t have, brighter than their sons, even, so why wouldn’t you choose a girl?" Let’s cheer that son-preference is on the wane in the United States (but note that a disturbing study shows that men are more likely to stay in a marriage when they have a son, and, as Echidne of the Snakes points out on her blog, a 2007 Gallup poll still gives boys the edge). But it is hardly "over" in South Korea, as Rosin claims; sex-selective abortion is still common there and may be increasing in China, India and Vietnam, as ultrasound becomes more available and prosperity rises. Furthermore, even if those countries’ preference for boys vanishes forever while you are reading these words, they will be dealing with the female-unfriendly consequences—including the sale, kidnapping and enslavement of girls and women—for decades.

One problem with Rosin’s optimistic picture is that every fact she cites in support needs about a dozen asterisks after it: women may be taking more than half of college degrees, for example, but both men and women are going to college in greater numbers than in previous decades; men still dominate in science, math, engineering and IT (where the good jobs are); women need a college degree to earn as much as a man with a high school diploma and, in any case, are sandbagged in the workforce by discrimination, as well as by childcare and eldercare responsibilities men are able, still, to slough off onto their wives or sisters. That women earn 20 to 30 percent less than men in nearly every occupation from salesclerk to surgeon is not a detail, and suggests that gender reversal is hardly around the corner, no matter how well girls do in school. Similarly, I’m wary of reading too much into Rosin’s interviews with Victoria, Erin and Michelle, sorority sisters at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. These young women are hopeful, organized and ambitious, and assume their lackadaisical boyfriends will be the ones who stay home with the kids. (That would indeed be a role reversal—right now, there are 158,000 stay-home dads, as against 5.1 million stay-home moms.) Great news—does that mean I can throw away my file of articles claiming that startling numbers of young, educated women just want to be homemakers? Or has Rosin, like Lisa Belkin before her, found interviewees who illustrate her preconceived ideas?

Must women’s gain be men’s loss? Rosin is no Christina Hoff Sommers—her villain isn’t feminism but the impersonal workings of postindustrial capitalism, which have marginalized working-class men. But as her title suggests, she sees gender as a zero-sum game. Deprived of the economic superiority that was the basis of their dominance, men don’t know what to do with themselves. As Kansas City teacher and social worker Mustafaa El Scari tells the down-and-out deadbeat dads in his fathering class, "All you are is a paycheck, and now you ain’t even that. And if you try to exercise your authority, she’ll call 911." Excuse me, exercise your authority? Are men really so brittle that they can’t imagine a more fluid, flexible, loving, egalitarian way of relating to women and children than "because I said so"? Can they really not take advantage of the expansion of female-dominated working-class jobs like nursing and food preparation? (Actually, aren’t most restaurant cooks already men? And if nursing sounds too girly, how about physician’s assistant, EMS tech, phlebotomist?) Why should it be that women can change but men cannot?

Perhaps boys just haven’t had enough incentive. The old ways worked so well for so long, so much of life was rigged in men’s favor: all they had to do was show up. It can take a few generations for the new reality to sink in. Unfortunately, society at large isn’t doing much to help. American males are bathed from birth in pop culture that reveres the most childish, most retrograde, most narcissistic male fantasies, from misogynistic rap to moronic action movies. Where would they get the idea that they should put away the video game and do their homework? That social work or schoolteaching is a good life for a man? Girls get a ton of sexist messages, too. But even if they grow up hating their bodies and dressing like prostitutes, they know that if they don’t want to end up waitressing, they’ve got to hit the books and make a plan.

Hit the books. Make a plan. Boys can do that.

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