Hanna Rosin, The End of Men and the Rise of Women, (NY: Riverhead Books, 2012), 271 pages, $27.95
Think of The End of Men and the Rise of Women as a labor economics book with a narrow focus on gender and jobs. Rosin compares men and women as job seekers and job holders after 40 years of feminism and a decline of gender discrimination.
The book opens with an introductory chapter that defines plastic women and cardboard men. A plastic women is the stay at home mom of the 1950’s transformed into an assertive college educated women who keeps her old role as mother and homemaker while succeeding in a career and taking over the role of breadwinner. Cardboard man hopes he can hold on to the past. He wants to keep defining manliness from work and the role of breadwinner even though manliness defined that way only matter in the major league team sports. These become the stock characters to compare and contrast with the people and families we meet in narrative material divided into seven chapters and a brief conclusion.
In the chapter, Hearts of Steel, we meet young single women experimenting in a hook up sub-culture and what can happen to sexual roles in college and work when women compete for jobs and status formerly reserved for men.
The next chapter, Seesaw Marriage, explores old and new gender roles in marriage and family with more varied material than other chapters. There is discussion of gender in old and new television shows, the literary work of Sylvia Plath, Philip Roth, and the Richard Yates novel Revolutionary Road set in boring suburbia with a settled husband and a frustrated but adventurous wife. Of course it ends badly, but that’s the point.
Rosin also cites a sociology study from the 1930’s titled the Unemployed Man and his Family, an era when the men were either providers or failures. A few quotes come from the interviews with 59 depression era families. One wife said “What a woman wants in a husband is a good steady worker who will support the family.” When the interviewer asked how she felt about her husband’s unemployment she said “Certainly I lost my love for him.” Her husband accepted that he was a “fallen idol.”
Seesaw Marriage includes a mix of interviews with contemporary couples. David and his live in girlfriend Clare have degrees and jobs but David feels discomfort with the dads he sees at the playground. “Yeah it haunts me. It doesn’t matter how Brooklyn-progressive we are we still think he’s pitifully emasculated. I’m progressive and enlightened, and on an ideological political level. I believe in that guy. I want that guy to exist. I just don’t want to be that guy.”
Rosin finally asks David: Why? He says “It’s certainly not resentment.”
“And it’s not really confusion.”
“I don’t think I could categorize my feelings about my situation as either positive or negative.”
Then “It’s because our team is losing. All the things we need to be good at to thrive in the world we imagine existing ten or twenty or even fifty years from now are things that my female friends and competitors are better at than me. Than us. And I am loath to tell that to someone who is going to put it in print, but it’s true.”
The remaining chapters focus mostly on women, their career ambitions, how they cope with the responsibilities they are taking on, and how they deal with the men in their lives. We go to Alexander City, Alabama where many wives took over the bread winner role after Russell Athletic Ware Inc. closed up and left the country. The chapter titled Pharm Girls highlights the lives of some of the 64 percent of women earning pharmacy degrees. In Degrees of Difference we learn men make up a minority of college graduates while women pursue degree skills with a determined and single minded purpose.
Women wrestle with the trade offs of career and family in the last two chapters. A woman in a white house job got a call from her boss about 8:00 PM. He demanded to know why she was home and not at work. “I’m putting my children to bed.” He wanted to know if it was some sort of emergency. These last two chapters review the feelings of women confronted with those tradeoffs: American women in one chapter, South Korean women in the other.
The book reads easily as journalism with interviews and elements of academic research that includes citations of data and from previous work in books and journals. Except for a chapter on women and crime the narrative does not stray into other areas or topics. Some of the women interviewed for the book sound wistful and sentimental more than angry or resentful, but all sound determined to press on. I do not recall anyone looking backward.
Reading through the narrative I gradually decided the book is an invitation to think about gender roles in a service economy. The author ends the interview of David without comment, which I took as a hint to her own opinion, but the book primarily describes the declining condition of men and personal feelings of women without the heavy hand of instruction. Near the end Rosin tells readers she would not cook dinner while her husband drinks beer, but that is about it for advice.
There was a time when families depended on the physical strengths and skills of the mister, which helped define their masculinity. Those days are over but competition for money and status on the job was always a wearing and destructive substitute. The End of Men and the Rise of Women makes that much clear, but no answers on gender roles. Possibly real men drink beer before they cook dinner, but I’m not sure. You’ll have to think it over.