Another [Un]helpful Book about Modern Women?

The New York Times Book Review featured a review of Hanna Rosin’s new book, The End of Men, And the Rise of Women, on September 13.  When I saw the headline, I must confess I was intrigued.  Could it be that the feminist revolution had actually worked as anti-feminists of the 1970s and 1980s feared?  Did Feminists finally put an end to men in their campaign stamp out social constructions of gender and rid the world of patriarchy?

All kidding aside, I was curious and did something I haven’t done in some time.  I read a book review in the New York Times.  (Seriously, between my full-time day job, teaching a class, and revising my manuscript, who has time to read book reviews?)  Jennifer Homans has provided a pithy and insightful review of Hanna Rosin’s new book, which if I understand the reviewer’s take on the text, is a frustrating evaluation of the status of women in contemporary American society.

According to Rosin, we are in an era of women, where they dominate in education, work, and at home.  They are better at love and marriage, and generally speaking, women have more success in the global economy.  Wow…The trouble with Rosin’s book, as Homans sees it, has to do with how Rosin characterizes women and men’s roles, and their successes.  She relies on stereotypical gender traits for women and men and overlays them onto the existing social, political, and economic situations where by the numbers it looks like women are more successful all around.

Women have reached this pinnacle of achievement (despite still earning less on average than men) because they are more caring, have better people skills, and better at time-management (what with all the juggling of home, family, and work, where men can’t seem to find their way out of a paper bag).  These traits that women seem to naturally possess are in reality stereotypes and to a lesser extent social constructions of gender expectations.  As Homans put it:

Is it really a good idea to say that we are, by gender if not by sex, open, empathic, flexible, patient, prone to communal problem-solving and the like? We’ve known for a long time that men do not hold a monopoly on being rigid, hierarchical, close-minded or authoritarian. Yet the women in this book are almost all organized go-getters, whereas the men come across as lazy, unambitious couch potatoes.

Right, and women are not universally better at cooperating and nurturing.  Just like men are not universally knuckle-dragging neanderthals.  Homans continues:

To suggest, in other words, that success — material, social, sexual, emotional — depends on (our!) gender traits and not on the legal and institutional frameworks we live in? I’m all for each of us remaking ourselves from within, but this kind of argument seems carelessly apolitical, especially at a moment when we are faced with public officials actively working to undermine access to birth control, abortion, equal pay for equal work.

Having not read the book,  I wonder if Rosin deals with an equity feminist or legal feminist approach to women’s rights.  Legislation was necessary to move the feminist movement along in the second half of the twentieth century to provide the structure (albeit not often adhered to) to guarantee women’s equal right to education, work, and maybe some day, pay.  It seems we, as a culture and society, cannot move beyond the understanding that women and men are different, therefore unequal.  We do not know what to do with difference.  How do we respect that while gender exists, it should not fundamentally determine or limit women’s or men’s status in society.

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