Why do we love to start gender wars during recessions? Because we hate to talk about class.
This post appeared on thepublicintellectual.org in June. A bit of news from recent Census Bureau numbers inspired me to repost it here now: "The large gender poverty gap that has persisted since poverty measurement began continued in 2010. Adult women were twenty nine percent more likely to be poor than adult men in 2010, with a poverty rate of 14.5% compared to the 11.2% rate for men. 17.2 million adult women were poor, compared to 12.6 million adult men."
George Hurstwood was a man in crisis. He’d lost his white-collar management job and couldn’t hold on to the blue-collar work he eventually found. As his savings dwindled, Hurstwood became dependent on his partner Carrie’s small income. Tension grew in their New York City apartment. One day, when Hurstwood was on a walk, Carrie moved out, leaving behind a good-bye note and enough cash to cover the grocery bill.
Hurstwood was seemingly swept up in a social phenomenon that’s been getting a lot of press lately: the end of men. Though his predicament might feel familiar to the men hardest hit by our current recession, George Hurstwood was produced in the first modern end-of-men scare more than a hundred years ago. He’s a character in Sister Carrie, the classic novel published in 1900 by American author Theodore Dreiser.
In the early 1900s, the number of women attending college and finding white-collar jobs was increasing, the start of a tidal wave that has gained momentum in fits and starts ever since. In the United States today, women’s educational and employment rates are overtaking those of men. Women earn almost 60 percent of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees and, for the first time ever, account for slightly more than half of the workforce. As a result of the recent economic downturn, it might appear that women have done even better for themselves: Female-dominated sectors like nursing and teaching have grown, while typically male-dominated industries like manufacturing have sunk.
This growing employment disparity has disrupted family life, as changing gender roles threaten to drive men into the ground, argues Hanna Rosin in an article in The Atlantic: “The working class, which has long defined our notions of masculinity, is slowly turning into a matriarchy, with men increasingly absent from the home and women making all of the decisions.”
The end of men is often framed as a freshly accomplished female takeover of the male role. But end-of-men crises have cropped up repeatedly since the late nineteenth century, until they have assumed almost mythic stature. They are most acute whenever there is an economic slowdown, often resulting in a backlash against women in the workforce instead of a focus on the factors that lead to such downturns in the economy.
Why does the story of the ascendancy of women at the cost of men’s security keep surfacing? Maybe end-of-men crises function to obscure a long-term problem that’s a lot harder to solve: the dearth of decent jobs for both genders. It’s worth mapping the cultural history of end-of-men scares against the economic record of the booms and busts of the past century to reveal how this works.
Sister Carrie was an exemplar of what was known at the turn of the century as the New Woman—pretty close to a prototype of the 1960s feminist. The New Woman wanted autonomy outside the home; she wanted, among other liberties, to work. And she did well for herself. American women made up only one-fifth of college students in 1870, but by the early twentieth century, that number jumped to one-third. They also found new and visible roles as the service economy grew and opportunities for secretaries and shopgirls also expanded. “Her successes,” writes historian Gail Bederman of the New Woman, “undermined the assumption that education, professional status and political power required a male body.” That knowledge stung, especially when times of economic upheaval threatened men’s financial stability.
Throughout the twentieth century, the economy steadily moved away from the small, independent farms and businesses of the nineteenth century and towards ever-larger conglomerates. The number of self-employed men dropped from more than 60 percent in 1870 to less than 40 percent in 1910. The sons of the new middle class began to understand that instead of being able to emulate their fathers’ self-made manhood, they might live the life of an employee or a company man. By mid-century, the booming economy temporarily put the brakes on end-of-men fears and idealized the stay-at-home wife and mother and the husband who could support her.
The next challenge to male identity resurfaced with the recession of 1973, followed by the oil crisis and the stalled economy of the late 1970s. Families needed additional income, and women went to offices—albeit in low-wage jobs—in greater numbers, encouraged by both corporate welcomes and the women’s movement. “The male in our culture is at a growth impasse,” worried Herb Goldberg in his 1976 book The Hazards of Being Male. “He lacks the fluidity of the female who can readily move between traditional definitions of male or female behavior and roles.”
The bust years of the early 1980s saw the rise of men’s self-help groups like the Mankind Project, a New Age–tinged group that conducted New Warrior Training Adventures where men could reconnect with their masculinity. The lingering recession of the early 1990s coincided with articles in Newsweek and Time that alternately blamed or defended men for their “decline” (“White Male Paranoia” and “Men: Are They Really That Bad?”). An evangelical group called the Promise Keepers also emerged to encourage men to take back the traditional masculine role that women had “usurped.” One Promise Keeper urged other PKs to sit down with their wives and have a talk like this: “Honey, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’ve given you my role. Now I must reclaim that role.” Stadiums full of enthusiastic PKs testified to the popularity of such appeals.
Within the crises is always the same recurring theme: the story of the disloyal woman—reminiscent of Sister Carrie—who betrays her man and takes his social place. Writer Susan Faludi heard this story over and again in her interviews with laid-off men for her book Stiffed, an examination of American men, set in a Southern California ravaged by downsizing in the aerospace industry in the late 1990s. In one especially vivid version, a woman throws her unemployed husband out and then humiliates him by arriving at the employment center, in a van driven by her new boyfriend, and throwing a cardboard box with his treasured possessions on the curb.
Instead, once again, men’s losses are cast as women’s gains. According to a recent article in Newsweek, men make up the majority of only two of the twelve job titles expected to grow the most between 2008 and 2018: construction worker and accountant. Growth industries are in the (relatively low-paying) pink-collar sector, jobs traditionally held by women: teachers, registered nurses, home health aides, and customer service reps. Where’s the place for men in this new world order, when the new economy favors caretakers and service providers, and values skills that are historically the provenance of women?
Since the first rise of the New Woman, Americans have developed a bad cultural habit of turning economic problems into an all-out gender war. We’ve taken the inevitable ups and downs of unmediated capitalism and turned them into a problem that men have with women, and women have with men. We’re distracting ourselves from asking hard questions about our economic structure—examining why and how our system regularly hurtles members of the middle and working class toward financial disaster. Instead of wondering why an economy that used to support a family on the salary of one worker now requires the work of two, or where well-paying blue-collar jobs went, we snipe at each other in silly, unproductive sex wars.
There’s another macroeconomic reality we tend to ignore: rising income inequality between the classes, not the genders. From the late 1880s to the early 1900s—the first appearance of the end-of-men crisis, back when Hurstwood couldn’t find a job—the United States was hugely unequal. One percent of Americans earned 18 percent of the country’s income in 1915. Income inequality continued to grow until the Great Depression. During the decades when the end of men seemed far off, from the New Deal through the 1960s, income inequality shrank. Then, in the late 1970s, while end-of-men discussions resumed in earnest, inequality started to shoot up again. Since 1979, the top tier of Americans has seen its wealth grow exponentially. Today, the richest 1 percent of Americans controls 36 percent of the country’s wealth.
Most men do fare worse today than they did in the economic heyday of the postwar, prefeminist decades, but not relative to women as much as to previous generations of men. On average, men between thirty and thirty-nine make $5,000 less now than they did in 1974. That’s not because the workforce has been taken over by women in recent years. The percentage of women working in 2009 has held steady since 1997—at 61 percent, compared to 75 percent of men. The growing sectors Newsweek lists that “favor” women—nursing, teaching, home health, and customer service—don’t pay particularly well, with the exception of the upper echelons of nursing. That’s part of the explanation for the pay gap that continues to exist between men and women, as women’s wages average eighty-one cents for every dollar earned by men. The growth of service positions reflects a nationwide move away from well-paid industrial jobs and the weakening of unions, rather than a growing field of opportunity for women. Put it this way: rather than a redistribution of jobs from men to women, there has been downward pressure on almost all jobs, the old ones that are disappearing as well as the new job categories that are expanding. It’s just that the better jobs, which men had, were most affected.
Why haven’t we rallied and fought against this painful trend of more people doing more work for less pay? What would happen if men and women united to oppose policies that make the many poorer and the powerful few richer?
Perhaps it’s easier for Americans to be angry about changing gender roles, and target mythical traitorous women, than to question the economic rigging of their own country.
This piece originally appeared in Brink magazine, available online at Brinkmag.org. Thanks to Leah Bartos and Deirdre English for their invaluable editorial advice.