I was pleased to see Melissa Kirk’s thoughtful response to my blog post. I have been interested in gender issues for more than 35 years, and have watched my own feelings change as (a) women began to achieve more and more success and power while men became more and more the subject of scorn and ridicule, (b) boys and young men began to trail their sisters in school at every level, from K through graduate school, and (c) the two sons I already had were joined by another, and then by three grandsons. Having taught courses on gender issues, and having written about gender extensively (one book, several articles, many blog posts, and more than a million words in my journals), I am well aware of the shifts that have occurred.
To briefly summarize my personal history on this subject, as young assistant professor of psychology I was very much pro-women and pro-feminism. I strongly supported my college’s fledgling women’s studies program, and, when my department was all-male in the early 1970s, I strongly urged us to hire a woman (amazingly, given what the Western world is like today, there were several dissenters; now, of course, the department today more than half female, and the majority of students and graduate students are women as well). On top of that, I couldn’t understand what I often read about, that some male professors didn’t take their female students seriously. I had excellent women students and encouraged them as strongly as I could. I have long cherished a note which a returning student wrote to me after I had been teaching for nearly 20 years:
“I was a student for twenty years before I heard the big, strong voices of women ring out in any class. I heard them when you welcomed them.” (emphasis hers)
By this time, I had done considerable research on gender issues, with my focus being on understanding women and how they saw and experienced the world. I co-wrote Afterplay: A Key to Intimacy (1979) with a male colleague, based on our discovery that this part of the sexual experience was very important to women – and surprisingly important to many men as well. With a female colleague, I researched what men talked about with men, and women with women, and this culminated in a paper in Psychology Today magazine in 1984, titled “Man to Man, Woman to Woman.” Our research revealed reasons for problems and misunderstandings in male-female communication, issues that Deborah Tannen would discuss some six years later in her best-selling book, You Just Don’t Understand.
When I would lecture on this latter project, I would point out that part of the motivation for this work was that, never having had a sister or daughter, I really had no idea what girls and women talked about amongst themselves. I felt like an anthropologist, fascinated by people who seemed like they were of a different culture than I was.
But then one day, watching a national TV show, I heard a casual and disparaging comment about men by Robin Morgan, then editor of Ms magazine. It was late 1992 or early 1993—I didn’t note the date—but the effect was immediate. I didn’t care that she was talking about me; I could take it. But I suddenly realized that she was also talking about my sons, ages 12, 19, and 28, the three human beings who—in addition to my wife—I loved more than anyone else in the world.
I began to look at data, and found—not to my surprise, since the women in my classes tended to be better students than the men—that girls and young women were clearly surpassing boys and young men in school. This, at the same time as the Ms. Foundation was starting “Take Our Daughters to Work” Day and, a year or so later, the Sadkers were publishing their book, Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls.
By 1993 my focus within gender issues had almost entirely shifted. Instead of being being fascinated by gender differences, and writing about them with great excitement over women’s ways of seeing and experiencing the world, I became obsessed by the fact that boys and young men, in spite of their so obviously falling behind, were not getting much attention at all. Early that year I wrote a piece intended for “About Men,” a one-page section in the New York Times magazine (it alternated weekly with a section called “Hers”), in which I expressed my concerns about boys. But it missed getting published by one vote in the editorial board (the editor called to tell me this painful information, which sometimes pains me even today, nearly 20 years later).
I did publish a letter in the New York Times three years later questioning the plans for an all-girls school in New York City. In it I wrote that “an unbiased observer looking at the data would have to conclude that boys should be a more immediate concern.”
Then, finally, came the books and magazine cover stories. First, there was Christina Hoff Sommers’ The War Against Boys (2000), which had lots of good data, but also had a conservative slant that turned off many feminists (Sommers had not endeared herself to many of them with her earlier book, Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women). A few years later, a Business Week cover story talked of the problems created by “The New Gender Gap” (May 3, 2003), and then, less than three years after that, there was Newsweek’s cover story, “The Boy Crisis: At Every Level of Education, They’re Falling Behind. What to Do?” Next were books like Leonard Sax’s Boys Adrift (2007) and Richard Whitmire’s Why Boys Fail (2010).
But a tipping point, where the problems of boys and young men will finally begin to get the attention they deserve, has not yet been reached. To do my part, earlier this year I accepted the editorship of a blog for a Washington-based non-profit, The Boys Initiative, and I keep publishing posts on the subject on other sites.
A book like Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men: And the Rise of Women is simply the frosting on a deplorable cake. And while Kirk says she doesn’t think that Rosin is truly “sounding the death knell” of men, I see no other way of looking at it when, in her first 12 pages, she says that parents who request sperm selection procedures—which enable them to select the sex of their baby—much more often ask for a girl.
Many women will still look at the current situation with so few women at the top, and say we need not concern ourselves about boys and young men until that imbalance is rectified. But Kirk refers to seeing “more women as bosses…and more women with a general sense of power and strength.” And, serving as one of the two people taking the affirmative for a debate in 2011 on the resolution, “Men are Finished,” Rosin said, “Now, from my opponents, you’ll likely hear a lot of talk…about the Fortune 500 list and at the echelons of Hollywood and how few women there out there at the top. I hear this argument on nearly every panel that I’m on and my answer is always the same, duh, men have been at this for 40,000 years and women have only been at this for 40 years, so of course the world doesn’t flip upside down overnight. But the writing on the wall is still clear, men are finished…”
Yes, Rosin is referring to the obvious fact that the way things are going now, there seems little doubt that over time women will be able to occupy as much of the top echelons of any segment of society that they want, especially when successful women are role models for younger women, and can help them directly with such organizations as Catalyst Inc. and WITI (Women in Technology International).
Where that leaves today’s often floundering boys is an interesting and important question.