A politician running for the Senate declares that “legitimate rape” doesn’t cause pregnancy. Texas gets judicial backing to deny state money to Planned Parenthood clinics — which provide basic health care to thousands of people — because the group supports the right to an abortion. A Princeton professor turned policy superstar gives up the halls of power and writes a widely discussed article telling women we just can’t have it all. Google’s first female engineer announces she’s leaving the company to run the tech giant Yahoo — and all we can talk about is how she’ll manage everything when she gives birth this fall.
I’ve never liked the defensiveness of the phrase “the war on women.” Considering recent developments, though, I’m inclined to think it’s time to praise the 19th Amendment and pass the rhetorical ammunition.
Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men” drops into this siegelike atmosphere like a grenade — at least its title does. Whatever the headlines say, however beleaguered we may feel, Rosin argues that females are gaining the upper hand. That’s why the “war on women” rhetoric fails, in her view. “A society that has become utterly dependent on the unfettered ambition of women cannot possibly, with a straight face, reopen the debate about contraception,” she writes.
That’ll boost troop morale. Rosin marshals evidence that we women have taken over college classrooms and previously male professions such as pharmacology. “Women are not just catching up anymore,” she writes; “they are becoming the standard by which success is measured.” We earn almost 60 percent of undergraduate degrees, she notes more than once. We have more ambitious life plans than a lot of menfolk and follow through on those plans. We can choose to stay single without paying the social price our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations would have paid. Forget spinsters and hope chests; this is the era of spinning classes and MBAs.
This is good news — right? Yet once you get past the book’s title and those college-completion statistics, Rosin’s reporting indicates that men are far from over and that women, while better off than we used to be, are a long way from Amazonian hegemony. It’s a free-for-all out there. “There is no ‘natural’ order, only the way things are,” Rosin writes in the book’s most telling sentence.
Messy is how things are. The book roams freely, sometimes haphazardly, through a chaotic, shifting, uneasy social landscape. Rosin reviews some of the research — not enough to be entirely persuasive — into how fluid gender roles and expectations have become. She interviews singles at elite and not-so-elite colleges. She hangs out with couples and families in trailer parks and in gentrifying city neighborhoods.
In her own life, Rosin is a great example of contemporary female accomplishment. She works as a senior editor at the Atlantic, where this book began life as a cover story last year. She helped launch the online magazine Slate’s DoubleX feature, which promises to reveal “What Women Really Think.” She’s familiar with the dual-career family; she’s married (to Slate editor David Plotz) and has three children as well as a robust career. She belongs to the educated class that’s invented what she calls “seesaw marriages,” in which earnings and domestic obligations shift back and forth between spouses, “giving each partner a shot at satisfaction.”
Rosin’s not a rarity — we’re used to high-achieving women — but she’s still an exception. Many of her subjects haven’t achieved a seesaw marriage or any stable domestic arrangement. Some don’t want it now or ever. Many, like the couple in Pittsburgh where the dad stays home with the toddler while the mom has a high-octane law career and still does the bulk of the housework, haven’t come up with a winning formula for equality. “I’m just the mediocre house dude,” the dad tells Rosin, explaining why he doesn’t cook or do laundry. “A toddler kills my productivity. I don’t multitask.” Rosin observes that the full-time working mom, meanwhile, “has not actually ceded the domestic space, but only doubled her load.” There’s progress for you.
Rosin spends a lot of time on hook-up culture, a subject that’s gotten cultural commentators hot and bothered lately. Now that they don’t “need” boyfriends or husbands, Rosin argues, “young women are more in control of their sexual destinies . . . than probably ever before.” She combines her interviews with studies of student behavior to get a sense of how young women handle contemporary sexual freedom. She points to research on “women who were managing their romantic lives like savvy headhunters” and using “temporary intimacy” as a way to make sure love doesn’t trip up schoolwork and career plans.
That sounds more like self-defense than empowerment. Many young women say they’d like to ditch the bar-and-party circuit someday for something more stable, but Rosin points out that suitable partners are in short supply. “These days the problem in the dating market is caused not by women’s eternal frailty but by their new dominance,” Rosin writes. “In a world where women are better educated than men and outearning them in their twenties, dating becomes complicated.”
The further down the socioeconomic scale Rosin’s investigations go, the greater the imbalance between women and men apparently gets. “Marriage has become yet another class privilege in America, the gated community of human relationships,” she writes. The middle and lower classes include more men out of work or just squeaking by — Rosin invokes the term “mancession” — and more women who have become the financial mainstays of their families. For some of the couples she profiles, the man has become another dependent, and not always a welcome one. “For the 70 percent of Americans without a college degree, the rise of the breadwinner wife is associated with the destruction of marriage,” she writes.
In a chapter on female executives’ experiences, Rosin tells stories about hard-chargers who find they have to tone down their approach in order to get heard and get promoted.
The book bounces around a lot: between bedroom and classroom and boardroom, between the upper and lower classes, between headline-grabbing themes (hook-ups, violent female behavior) and sober sociological research. I’d have liked a steadier, sleeker set of arguments, more footnotes and fresh data points (one hook-up-culture study dates from 2004, for instance), and a better feel for how Rosin organized her investigations. A chapter on “gold misses” — the new class of ambitious Korean woman — feels tacked on to what’s largely an investigation of the U.S. social scene, while the situation of women in other parts of the world gets only a nod. (Try telling a girl in Afghanistan who can’t go to school or a woman in Saudi Arabia who’s not permitted to drive that we’ve arrived at “the end of men.”)
Some readers won’t make it past the title and the hot-pink lettering on the book jacket. That would be a shame. Incomplete as it is, Rosin’s book should get men and women talking, more honestly than we sometimes do, about the changes we’re living through — changes that hit much deeper than phrases like “the war on women” or “the end of men.”
THE END OF MEN
And the Rise of Women
By Hanna Rosin
Riverhead. 310 pp. $27.95