“Domestic life today is like one of those behind-the-scenes TV series about show business. The main narrative tension is: “How the hell are we going to make this happen?” There are tears and laughs and little intrigues, but in the end, it’s just a miracle that the show goes on, that everyone is fed and clothed and out the door each day.
We live in a hollow patriarchy: the edifice is patriarchal, while the majority of its occupants approach egalitarianism. This generates strange paradoxes. Even women with servants and powerful jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars feel that they have an institutional disadvantage. And they’re right. Women in the upper reaches of power are limited in ways that men simply are not. The greatest power still resides in the hands of a few men, even as the majority of men are being outpaced in the knowledge economy. Masculinity grows less and less powerful while remaining iconic of power. And therefore men are silent. After all, there is nothing less manly than talking about waning manliness.
The good husbands—the selection of whom Sheryl Sandberg calls “the most important career choice” young women can make—are as silent as the good wives once were.
In the 1950s, the patriarchy at work and at home were of a piece. The father was the head of the household because he provided for the family, and the boss was head of the company because he provided the work that provided for the family. At home, for the overwhelming majority of families, the old order has disappeared. The days of Dad working all week and then, having fulfilled his duties, going to play two or three rounds of golf on the weekend are long gone. So are the days of Dad as the head of the household, the decider in chief. A 2008 Pew study asked cohabiting male-female couples, “Who makes the decisions at home?” In 26 percent of households, the man did; while in 43 percent of households, the woman did. The family has changed and is further changing, while at work, patriarchy survives as a kind of anachronistic holdover, like daylight savings or summer vacation.
The hollow patriarchy keeps women from power and confounds male identity: the average working-class guy has the strange experience of belonging to a gender that is railed against for having a lock on power, even as he has none of it. The current arrangement serves almost nobody’s interests.
The plutocratic feminists almost always end up, out of habit, calling for an attitude adjustment, a switch in thinking—they hope to re-create, and perhaps cash in on, the transformational optimism of ’60s-era consciousness-raising. But the consciousness has been raised. Gender attitudes do not affect economic reality, but rather the other way around. The rise of women is not the result of any ideology or political movement; it is a result of the widespread realization, sometime after the Second World War, that families in which women work are families that prosper. And countries in which women work are countries that prosper. In 2006, a database created by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development demonstrated what common sense tells us: with few exceptions, countries in which women have more economic and political power are richer than countries where women are relatively powerless. Patriarchy is damn expensive. That’s why it’s doomed.
The rise of women is a result of the widespread realization, sometime after the Second World War, that families in which women work are families that prosper.
Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In Circles”—her national network of book clubs professional self-help groups for women—are not supposed to be mere marketing exercises; they are intended to be psych-up sessions for elite women who want to learn to be more demanding. Good for them, I suppose.
But do we want women emulating the egomania of the corporate male?
Do we really want that particular brand of insanity to spread? Wasn’t it exactly that arrogance that led to the 2008 financial collapse? I suppose a world in which female bankers spend as much on blow and hookers as their male counterparts would be a fairer world; but is it a world worth fighting for?
The solution to the work-life conundrum is not “enlisting men” (as Slaughter puts it) in the domestic sphere. The solution is establishing social supports, at home and in the workplace, that allow families to function and mothers to stay on the career track, balancing motherhood and work without punishment. The fact is, men can’t have it all, for the same reason women can’t: whether or not the load is being shared 50-50 doesn’t matter if the load is still unbearable. It will not become bearable once women lean in, or once the consciousness is raised, or once men are full partners, always, in domestic life. It will become bearable when decidedly more quotidian things become commonplace— shared parental leave, flexible working, modern work culture and affordable, quality day care. Not surprisingly, low-income mothers are far more likely to stay at home today than are upper-income mothers. Such women are forgoing paid work not because they refuse to lean in but because they can’t earn enough money at their jobs to cover child care.
If men’s voices are absent from the conversation about family, we have, I’m afraid, only ourselves to blame. Yes, there are the occasional pieces in newspapers and magazines by new fathers—a genre that at times seems more oriented toward establishing one’s literary machismo than toward engaging in substantive dialogue—but men have generally failed to make themselves heard. Those who speak loudest tend to be either members of the aforementioned men’s-rights groups, or explicit anti-feminists, who long for a traditional family that bears little resemblance to the current reality. Men are not victims in this story, nor helpless witnesses to their wives’ struggles. And yet: A chorus of women demands longer paid maternity leave and flexible working. Where is the chorus of men asking for paternity leave and flex-work arrangements?
When gay-rights activists shifted their focus from the struggle for their rights as an oppressed minority to the struggle to create and support families, their movement experienced nearly unprecedented political triumph. It is easy to have a career as an anti-feminist. Force the opponents of day-care support and family leave to come out instead against working families. Let them try to sell that.“
Adapted from `The Masculine Mystique`