Save the Males

The United States leads the Western world in mother-only families, according to Kathleen Parker, author of Save the Males: Why Men Matter and Why Women Should Care, which has just been published by Random House. Since 1960, she continues, the number of children living in fatherless homes has tripled, from 8 million to 24 million--at a time when the population didn't quite double.

Interesting observations. And Save the Males--a book that purports to shows how men and fathers are under siege, and what might be done about it--has plenty of them.

Because of these observations, Save the Males is almost a very good book. Parker has raised some interesting ideas here and collected evidence from a wide variety of sources. But Parker doesn't quite succeed. She's done too much Googling, and not enough original reporting. And she delivers her observations in an snarky tone that is sometimes entertaining but more often sour.

But Save the Males has virtues. Parker busts commonly accepted myths about fathers, and tells us what's really going on. Here's one example: Deadbeat dads refuse to pay their child support to spite their exes or because they've abandoned their kids. That, says Parker, is not the common scenario. She quotes statistics showing that in 2005, 70 percent of child support debt was owed by men earning $10,000 a year or less. In other words, men who don't earn enough to live on themselves. These are not angry, outlaw husbands and fathers. They simply can't pay.

And she has a sharp eye for trends. Family courts, she says, are increasingly adding "virtual visits" to custody arrangements, counting emailing with Dad as part of the visitation time. She jumps into the charged debate about single motherhood, making her point by citing an extreme view. She quotes Peggy Drexler of Cornell University, who argues not only that fathers are not necessary in raising kids, but that they get in the way. "Single mothers get to do it their way, no ifs, ands, or buts," Drexler has written. No father means no marital discord over the kids. Parker amusingly disagrees.

Midway through the book, however, Parker seems to lose her way. She veers into a chapter decrying the Vagina Monologues and feminist seminars that teach women how to pleasure themselves. (The chapter carries a printed warning underneath the title: "Reader discretion is advised.")

She then zig-zags to an attack on "celebrity sluts" and the "porning of America." Next comes an extended commentary on the military and on Private Jessica Lynch, the unfortunate young West Virginia woman who was manipulated and made into a hero by the Bush administration.

All of this is interesting, fun, maybe true. But what does it have to do with saving males?

Parker's personal views also seem muddled. If it were not for feminism, she says, "I probably would be publishing this book under the name Kevin Parker." But in a typical unpleasantly jokey aside on the same page, she wraps up a century of feminism this way: In first-wave feminism, women got the vote; in the second wave they got "employed and divorced"; and the third "is busy making them porn stars. More or less." Another reader might take this to be a clever way of saying that feminism has been a mixed bag. I find it confusing.

And while Parker has some interesting things to say about parenthood, her own approach is strange. When she and a fellow Cub Scout leader wanted to talk to their cubs about Women's History Month, Parker summoned the troops this way: "Boys, get in here, sit down, and shut up. Now!!" (The emphasis and exclamation points are Parker's.)

I regret to say that I've used that tone with my kids, but I've always been sorry later. And I certainly wouldn't recommend it, as Parker does. "Lo and behold, they did get in there. And they did sit. And they did shut up," she reports.

In her conclusion, Parker loses the snarky attitude, and seems to finally tell us what she's been trying to say. "Overall, I was happy to highlight the flaws of radical feminism and its damage to both men and women," she says, "while recognizing that sensible feminism isn't so much about advancing women as it is about advancing humankind."

Even some moderate feminists might disagree with that. But props to Parker for entering the fray.

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