Don't Call This Empowerment

By Heather Wilhelm

Are women taking over the world? According to The End of Men, an upcoming book by Atlantic editor Hanna Rosin, they're getting pretty close -- and in many cases, they're leaving their men behind.

Today, The End of Men reports, women earn almost 60 percent of all bachelor's degrees, hold more than half of all managerial and professional jobs, and are soaring in the ranks of medical, law, and business schools.

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Forty years ago, American women brought in 2 to 6 percent of their family's income; now the average is 42 percent. One out of two girls now participates in sports, compared to one in 27 in 1971 -- and in survey after survey, today's not-so-delicate young ladies easily match the "assertiveness" scores of their testosterone-laden peers.

Even in the brave new world of designer babies, women rule: 75 percent of requests for a new method of sperm selection, Microsort, are for girls.

"Women live longer than men. They do better in this economy. More of 'em graduate from college," biologist Ronald Ericsson, who first isolated male and female-producing sperm in the 1970's, tells Rosin. "They go into space and do everything men do, and sometimes they do it a whole lot better. I mean, hell, get out of the way -- these females are going to leave us males in the dust."

 

That proverbial dust, untidied by female hands, often grows into unsightly, unmanageable piles -- a symbol of the entropy plaguing an increasing number of modern men. Once the key to conquering the world, testosterone may now be a liability, Rosin argues, particularly for the lower and middle classes.

Of the 7.5 million jobs lost in the "Great Recession," she notes, three-quarters of the pink slips went to men. The value of brawn has withered in today's "new feminized economy," and women, Rosin writes, are far more flexible in adjusting to the new rules than men. "In 1950, roughly one in twenty men of prime working age was not working," she notes. Today, that number is "about one in five, the highest ever recorded."

With an increasing share of men out of work, underemployed, or frequently found smoking, drinking, napping, or randomly gutting a carp on the newly polished kitchen table at two in the afternoon, many breadwinning women are throwing up their hands -- and asking themselves, as Coming Apart author Charles Murray recently told a gathering in Chicago, "Why should I marry that bozo?" Marriage rates have plummeted, particularly for those without a high school diploma.

Meanwhile, in the middle class, high-achieving women face a dearth of equally qualified men, leading them to go it alone rather than "marry down." MIT economist David Autor puts it this way: "When men start to flame out, women by necessity have to become self-sufficient...They don't marry the men, who are just another mouth to feed."

 

But here's where things get weird. These supposedly unmarriageable, childlike men-the men who are couch-surfing in dirty t-shirts, wasting their days on the Internet, or maybe just not pulling in enough cold, hard cash to impress the upwardly mobile ladies in their midst -- are still apparently good enough to date.

They're also still good enough to live with, and, crazier yet, good enough to father a child or two (although "father," perhaps, is accurate only in the biological sense of the word). "A child born to an unmarried mother, once a stigma, is now 'the new normal,' The New York Times reported in a 2012 front page story," Rosin notes, "as more than half of births to American women under thirty occurred outside marriage."

This new breed of woman, profiled repeatedly in The End of Men, is exhausted, overtaxed, and barely keeping it together -- and yet, in Rosin's book and elsewhere, they're repeatedly presented as somewhat empowered. "Many of these single mothers," Rosin writes, "are struggling financially; the most successful are working and going to school and hustling to feed the children, and then falling asleep in the elevator of the community college," but they're still, at least, "in charge."

"I think something feminists have missed," sociologist Kathryn Edin tells Rosin, "is how much power women have" when they're not tied up by marriage. "The family changes over the past four decades have been bad for men and bad for kids," adds sociologist Brad Wilcox, who recently conducted a study on marriage's widespread disappearing act, "but it's not clear they are bad for women."

 

Not to pick on sociology, or its occasional tendency to echo Advanced Studies in Missing the Obvious, but come on, people! Taking on increasing levels of paid work, housework, and childcare simultaneously -- as studies demonstrate many women are doing -- is far from empowering.

Surveys show that even busy career women have increased, not decreased, their child care time, and despite their supposed liberation, today's women rate their happiness as no higher than their supposedly oppressed 1970s counterparts. Even in today's higher-income, double-earner "seesaw marriages," which Rosin heralds as a more flexible roadmap to gender equity, women often run themselves ragged. Marriages where a successful female can quit her job and stay home, meanwhile, are labeled a "tragedy" for female advancement.

This is not, in other words, Joan of Arc triumphantly leading armies across Europe. It's not even Billie Jean King whipping blustery Bobby Riggs in tennis. This new dynamic is more like the famous "accidental waterskiing" scene in the 1980s comedy The Great Outdoors, when a fully-clothed John Candy is dragged behind a suped-up, warp-speed powerboat, getting cattails shoved up his nose, dock splinters in his arms, ducks up his pants, and fierce water burns, all because he forgets to let go of the rope.

The End of Men offers a wealth of research, reporting, and insight into society's shifting gender dynamics. It also, when read between the lines, offers a fascinating look at how women often cling to that metaphorical rope, sabotaging themselves along the way.

Often, the culprit is as simple as buying into mainstream feminist tropes: embracing casual sex (which, as Rosin admits, ultimately devalues both sex and marriage), celebrating single motherhood, viewing highly qualified, nonworking women as a "tragedy", refusing to judge bad life decisions -- and, ultimately, expecting absolutely nothing from men, which turns into the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy.

Certain women may be going places, and certain men may be falling behind, but it's a bit silly to view these new gender roles -- the hyper-achieving, hyper-stressed female workhorse, the hapless or indifferent man-child -- as an empowering "rise of women." It seems more accurate to argue that women have, in a certain sense, been taken for a ride.

The good news is that no one, including men, appears to be winning in this equation. The bad news is that it may take a few more cattails up the nose for women to figure that out.

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Chicago. http://www.heatherwilhelm.com/

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