Girls on Top
For me, the rise of women began in my sophomore year of high school.
From just a few weeks in, my high-school life was dominated by a single activity: interscholastic policy debate, also known as “cross-ex” or “team” debate. I had always been both a bookish and a highly verbal kid, social but not very socially adept, and in debate I found an activity that played to all of my strengths. Competing for the Bronx High School of Science, I could even delude myself into believing that, as a debater, I was one of the cool kids—at least in comparison to the geeks on the math team.
Sophomore year I was promoted to the varsity level, and my partner and I began to face teams with two or three years of competition under their belts. We won some rounds, lost others, but I don’t remember ever being awed by the competition, ever thinking, “Jeez, am I ever going to be able to measure up to that?”
Until we faced Hanna Rosin.
She and her debate partner, David, were juniors from Stuyvesant High School, our local rival, and they were exceptionally sharp. Hanna in particular had a way, in cross examination, of slipping a pair of logical handcuffs on you without your noticing, and then calmly filleting you before the judge as you writhed, unable to defend yourself, much less strike back. And she did it all with an amused little half-smile. I wanted to destroy her. I wanted to be her. And because there’s something undeniably exciting about being butterflied by a woman’s wit, I wanted—well, never mind.
Suffice it to say that we faced them eight times over two years, lost all eight rounds, and I’m still not really over it. So you can imagine my excitement when the opportunity presented itself for me to review her first book, The End of Men. Unfortunately, I found the book to be thought-provoking and engagingly written. So much for round 9.
The title is a bit of a misnomer, and the book itself a bit of a collage—a survey of various aspects of life in (mostly) America in the 21st century and how power relations between men and women have changed in the past generation, in a way that Rosin understands to be both historic and permanent. The eight chapters cover the following topics:
- The “hook-up” sexual culture of the contemporary American college (and post-collegiate) life.
- The ways in which highly educated couples are navigating the two-career household, developing what she calls the “see-saw” marriage, in which partners take turns being the primary breadwinner.
- The rise of female-headed and -dominated households among the traditional middle and working classes.
- The increasing roster of professions that are turning into primarily female preserves—without, she argues, becoming low-wage occupational ghettos.
- The striking rise in the female crime rate.
- The remaining challenges extremely high-performing women face in rising to the very top in different professions.
- And, in a brief foray outside the United States, the ongoing transformation of the highly patriarchal South Korean culture in the face of the same economic and cultural forces that, in her view, have inexorably transformed the United States.
The thrust of the book, as the title suggests, is that these trends are related, and what they portend is, on the whole, very good for women but a mixed bag for men (and children). Her chapter on the hook-up culture, for example, takes pains to argue that, far from being evidence of male chauvinism run amok, that culture is sustained primarily by women. A substantial portion of college women, of course, don’t participate at all, and most of those who do treat it as a vacation: a way of letting off steam after a relationship goes bad or after an especially grueling studying schedule that leaves no time for a relationship at all. Only for a small minority of women does the hook-up culture become a lifestyle—and who are we to gainsay their pursuit of happiness?
Rosin’s approach is similar with the decline of marriage in the working and (increasingly) in the middle classes. As male earnings have stagnated and long-term male unemployment has spiked with each recession, it has been less and less obvious that marriage is a financially winning proposition for women who are capable—steadily more capable—of paying their own way. It’s one thing to take on a man as a provider and protector, but why saddle yourself with one merely as a responsibility? The women Rosin describes in her third chapter sound exhausted. But they don’t sound unhappy, certainly not when they consider the available alternatives. Even the crime chapter suggests that the rise in female criminality is but the inevitable dark side of empowerment.
Yet while this frame is a good one for selling books, I’m less convinced of its analytical utility. “Is it good for women?” is a question for an advocate, not an analyst. And as ideological feminism becomes less and less relevant to American women’s daily lives—because some of its core assumptions have been largely absorbed by the culture, while others have been discarded without fanfare—it’s past time to ask the whether sorting the population by gender might not itself be promoting a species of false consciousness.
The picture Rosin paints of women in the professional classes, after all, diverges widely from the picture of the working and middle-middle classes. The college women Rosin describes are highly motivated, organized, and goal-directed. They seem destined to conquer. Whether they actually will all conquer, of course, may be questioned. A female executive friend of mine, when I described Rosin’s argument, laughed and said, sure, it’s easy to find plenty of women who are highly organized and diligent and so forth. But finding women with the requisite analytical skills and creativity to do the work she needs done is much more difficult, and she usually winds up hiring men.
The same native talents that Rosin thinks make it easier for women to succeed more readily than men at school may handicap them later on. A future in which middle management is dominated by hyper-organized women isn’t quite what Rosin has in mind, but it’s at least as plausible an extrapolation from her data as a future of female dominance from top to bottom.
But assuming they do conquer, will they all be able to marry up, if the sex ratio among the college-educated passes 50-50 and approaches a 3-2 ratio of women to men? Obviously not. Some will by choice or necessity seek a dominant role vis–à–vis a more nurturing, home-centered man. Some will work out “see-saw” arrangements. Some will marry “peacock” men, who may not be big earners but are exceptional ornaments—great musicians or conversationalists, or just plain lookers. And some, of course, will marry up. But the details of these arrangements really are best left to the people in question—the interest of an outside observer is pretty much limited to the prurient.
As for the “end of men,” if there’s evidence that men are uninterested in competing with women in highly competitive fields, Rosin doesn’t present it. My high-school debate experience suggests that women might just as easily spur male competitive instincts (however futilely) as blunt them.
The situation among working and middle-class women is very different. If the professional-class story is primarily about the “rise” of women, the working-class story is primarily about the “end”—or at least the fall—of men. We’ve seen this movie before—in the post-civil rights African-American community, in 19th-century Ireland, in the Jewish shtetl of the Russian Empire, and in vast swathes of America during the Great Depression. The rise of matriarchal family structures in each of these contexts was a consequence of economic deprivation—specifically, the scarcity of work sufficiently remunerative to sustain the male position as an essential provider.
There’s nothing really new about women stepping up to the challenge of filling the gap. If feminism and the ascent of the service economy have made it possible for today’s working-class women to do much more effective filling than had previous generations, that’s all to the good, but it doesn’t change the fact that, among the working class, this is a narrative of decline, not of the “rise” of anybody.
The psychological adjustments that professional-class men and women have to make are, of course, interesting in their own right, particularly to us folks in the professional classes. I’m in something of a see-saw marriage myself, having ditched my Wall Street career to pursue my much less remunerative literary dreams, and the way this has changed the dynamics in my house—mostly for the better, mind you—are endlessly fascinating to me (and may owe something to my experience competing against Rosin in high school).
But the ways in which the experiences of the professional classes apply to a laid-off factory worker are distinctly limited. And their utility to a policymaker thinking about the economic and social consequences of the breakdown of that factory worker’s marriage are pretty much nugatory.
Rosin’s confidence in the durability of the rungs of the ladder that women are climbing is also subject to question—not because of women’s abilities but because of trends in the economy. Healthcare, for example, has been the largest, most stable job-generating sector through the last three recessions, and from pharmacies to nursing homes to hospitals it’s a sector increasingly dominated by women. But healthcare now absorbs an unsustainably large fraction of the American economy, and front and center of the national agenda is figuring out how to stretch that dollar farther. How will the inevitable restructuring of healthcare change the employment landscape for women?
Rosin’s book is, in a sense, the mirror image of the flawed Charles Murray book Coming Apart. Both recognize major changes in the national culture and in family structure and suspect that those changes are related. Murray suggests that the professional classes have pulled away from the working class culturally and come to their own arrangements that work fine for them, but that have proved disastrous for the working class. If only the elite would get out of their bubbles and participate more in working-class culture, he suggests, maybe their stable-marriage ways would rub off, and the burgeoning economic and social deprivations of the working class would be ameliorated.
Rosin similarly seems to be arguing that the professional classes have worked (or, at least, are working) out new, more egalitarian arrangements that make better use of women’s talents and abilities and will ultimately make everybody—men and women—happier. If only working-class men could accommodate themselves to similar arrangements, then their own marital lives would become more stable and happier, and who knows, maybe even the growing economic and social deprivations of the working class would be mitigated.
But it’s just possible that the arrow of causality runs the other way: that it’s not that men haven’t adapted as quickly as women to the opportunities presented, but that the experience of doors closing—which is what men have experienced as first factories closed and then the housing boom busted—is very different from the experience of doors opening. The difference between a successful see-saw professional marriage and a stressed-out waitress going to pharmacy school at night while trying to mother her two children by herself has more to do with trends in wages than with trends in culture. And the economic trends that women are adapting to successfully may, in some cases, be trends that can and should be resisted.
Rosin is smart enough to be aware of this. And she’s to be applauded for trying to look at trends and see them for what they are, without imposing a pre-existing frame, whether socially conservative or evolutionary-psychological—Rosin professes to be agnostic on that “brain science” stuff, as am I—or, for that matter, classically feminist, the corner from which she’s taken the most flak. But merely by virtue of collecting these different trends under the same pink-fonted cover, she is imposing another frame that may not be accurate. The “end of men” and the “rise of women” may both be real, if limited, trends, and are certainly worth studying. But they may not be two sides of the same story. They may be two only peripherally related stories, the one requiring a policy response that has much more to do with class than with gender, the latter needing little more than the time and freedom to let consenting adults work out what arrangements suit them.
Noah Millman is TAC’s theater critic.