THE REVOLUTION that has changed the relations of men and women at home and at work is much discussed but little studied. Barbara Ehrenreich has written an important book that takes a small step toward exploring this new world; I can only pay her the compliment of wishing she had gone even further.
The Hearts of Men is about the ideas and perceptions that undermined the economy of the family wage (the idea that "a male worker should be paid enough to support a family") and the ideology of the male breadwinner ethic, which together framed so much of the "traditional" social system. Ehrenreich's credentials as a feminist and a radical make it all the more interesting that she sees, as part of the revolt, so many intellectual forces that are neither feminist nor radical. She's right, but she gives too little space to the thinkers of the women's movement; I think she is denying them the revolutionary honors they deserve in an effort to show that feminism has not made war on the idea of marriage.
The breadwinner ideologists of the 1950s were the psychiatrists and writers, from Harry Overstreet to Herman Wouk, who made "maturity" the magical, universal goal; read in the 1980s, they have more than a touch of unintentional self-parody. They reinforced the fear (was it ancient or only Victorian?) that men would suffer the "taint" of homosexuality if they slammed door on the traditional system. One of Ehrenreich's insights is that when homosexuals became readily distinguishable as an open, tolerated community, other men no longer had to fear being classed as homosexuals if they gave up traditional masculine social roles.
Ehrenreich also notes the failure of liberal sociology and men's liberation to deal with issues of class. Liberals and the liberated were mostly middle class; they saw blue-collar men as macho opponents of the "new consciousness," but never looked too closely at class differences in masculine roles. Ehrenreich's most important idea is that what we see as a backlash against feminism is even more an attack on men who have departed from the old family wage and breadwinner norm. She believes that it is part of a right-wing campaign against changes in the economy and culture.
Successive chapters of the book look at a succession of rebels, almost all of them men. Among them: gray-flannel protesters against conformity, like novelist Frank Yates and sociologist David Riesman; Hugh Hefner, who proved that a playboy doesn't have to be a husband to be a man; the Beats and their parody, the beatniks. I had never thought of cardiologists as a revolutionary phalanx, but Ehrenreich shows how they (unintentionally) assaulted the breadwinner ideology with discoveries about masculine heart disease and stress that for a time threatened to force men to choose between their health and their role as dominant breadwinners.
The weaknesses of the book start with Ehrenreich's admission that she is not trying "to trace the behavioral and attitudinal changes that have accompanied the changes in ideas." That's unfortunate, because changes in behavior and attitude are among the causes of the changes in ideas on which she focuses. This decision makes her seem ahistorical despite the historical sense of the whole book. It impairs her effort to explore the effects of the decline of anti-Communist machismo as a result of sentiment against the Vietnam war and the evolution of the counterculture.
Ehrenreich also acknowledges that she does not do justice to the internal politics of the "men's movement" --but fails to realize that this prevents her from fulfilling her goal of tracing the evolution of "the notion of male psychological transformation." She talks about the failure of many "liberated" men to deal with men's power, or at least men's habit of command over women, but she never discusses Elizabeth Janeway's idea that most men are in fact powerless--like women--and that the weak, too, have power.
In her goals, Ehrenreich is both radical and conventional. She wants corporate employers to acknowledge the demise of the family wage and the breadwinner ethic, to ensure that women get living wages, and to provide high-quality child care.
She doesn't really prescribe new roles for men--not even that men should do half the work of child care from the moment of birth, which Dorothy Dinnerstein and Nancy Chodorow have suggested as the best basis for a real social revolution. She only hopes that men and women "might meet as rebels together" against a social order that condemns so many to degrading work and the prospect of mass annihilation.