NR Digital

A Mild Battle Cry

by Florence King

The End of Men and the Rise of Women, by Hanna Rosin (Riverhead, 320 pp., $27.95)

My initial opinion of this book is based on its cover, which is not at all unfair in this case. The title is divided into two phrases. The first phrase consists of huge blood-red letters suitable for a Viking war chant, while the second is couched in tiny black letters suitable for a tactful reappraisal. Every time I see it I can’t help thinking that the author has given new meaning to a woman’s right to choose.

My second opinion concerns the dedication page, which reads: “To Jacob, with apologies for the title.” I assumed that Jacob was her husband, but her husband is David Plotz, editor of Slate, where Rosin edits what newspapers used to call the “woman’s page” and Slate calls “Double X.” They have three children, two of whom are boys. Is Jacob one of them? Isn’t that hurtful favoritism, or does Rosin believe in a book for every baby the way mothers of the calcium-deprived era used to believe in a tooth for every baby? She doesn’t explain and I couldn’t find the answer anywhere else, not even on Wikipedia, which would at least mention it before getting it wrong. I had spent entirely too much time on this before starting this review, so I gave up and concluded that she had played the name game intentionally, because gumming up a dedication page is the only way left to be a woman of mystery in the brave new mess she describes in this exhaustive screed.

It’s all here, as they say. Everything you have already read, heard, and seen on TV over and over again: More women than men are now enrolled in college; more women are now majoring in math and science; women are taking over jobs once reserved for men; more and more women are choosing to have babies without husbands; nobody but gays cares about marriage; men now think it’s okay to let a woman support them if she makes more money, which she frequently does; stay-at-home dads are the latest thing . . . and on and on.

Rosin’s method is to discover what other people are thinking and doing and then rule on her findings from a serene perch designed to be above the battle. Take the matter of emerging new attitudes on fatherhood. She describes the tortured rationale of Sarah, a prosperous female lawyer whose husband stays at home with their son because, as he explains, “testosterone has been marginalized.” Sarah sometimes gets tired and angry but she is sustained by a study she read that claimed her son gets the best of all possible worlds: “A kid with a stay-at-home dad gets more total parenting hours because he gains the father’s time and retains almost all of the mother’s, and ends up with higher test scores.”

Rosin backs this up with “a massive Department of Education study showing that a child’s grades were more closely correlated to how many times the dad showed up at a school event than any other factor. Children with involved fathers measure as having high IQs by age three, higher self-esteem, and in the case of daughters, grow up to be less promiscuous.” But one of her studies claims the opposite: “In poorer communities women are raising children alone while one third of the men are in jail. In fact, one recent study found that African-American boys whose fathers are in jail have higher graduation rates than those whose fathers are around, suggesting that fathers have become a negative influence.” In yet another study, Rosin came across a group of deadbeat dads who were given the choice of going to jail or attending a weekly class on fathering. Naturally they chose the class. One week’s lesson, taken from a workbook called “Quenching the Father Thirst,” assigned them to write a letter to a hypothetical estranged 14-year-old daughter named Crystal, whose father had left when she was a baby.

Next we get her interview with a guilty liberal who experiences an involuntary shudder when he sees a stay-at-home dad in the playground with his kids. “He haunts me,” he confessed. “I’m progressive and enlightened, and on an ideological political level I believe in that guy. I want that guy to exist. I just don’t want to be that guy.” (In what has to be the worst sentence in the book, Rosin explains that he is “stuck in this dead space, where the only momentum comes from the aggressively malignant mutations of his own ambivalence.”)

Having set up the conflict, Rosin now mounts her serene perch and gives us an answer based on her own generous spirit of patient compromise. Her husband has offered to take the children on a trip so that she can meet the deadline on this book in peace and quiet. The trouble is, he’s doing everything wrong: packing the wrong socks, the wrong gloves, the wrong snacks, and the water bottle with the loose top. “But I am disciplining myself to wipe these images from my mind and say nothing,” she writes. “For one thing, it’s not fair. I would never go up to a colleague and tell him a story he’d worked hard on, which I had asked him to do, was all wrong just because I would have done it differently.” Besides, she tells herself, it doesn’t really matter, the children can make do. “And in the meantime, I will get my work done, simple as that.”

Very little about this book is simple. It’s a welter of surveys, focus groups, interviews, in-depth interviews, follow-up interviews, percentages, statistics, records, and too many sentences beginning “Studies show . . .” The only section with any sustained readability is the chapter titled “Pharm Girls,” which is about the huge increase in the number of women pharmacists now earning as much as $100,000. It holds our interest because it details the theatrics that men once performed around the heavy job of rolling pills by hand and in general showing off like shamans and magicians with the power of life and death over the rapt, medically ignorant crowds who watched them — “the wow factor,” as Rosin aptly calls it. Once the pill-making machine was invented, the show was over. The male pharmacist, like the once-powerful and influential male secretary, who was done in by the invention of the typewriter, was on the way out. The hand that rocked the cradle was also the hand holding the spoonful of tonic, and attached to the voice saying, “Take your medicine,” so the public accepted women pharmacists with nary a protest.

Rosin has a tendency to strive for irritatingly cute chapter titles, but readers with an ironic turn of mind will nonetheless enjoy “A More Perfect Poison: The New Wave of Female Violence.” It begins with the story of Larissa Schuster, who in 2007 tried to melt her husband in a vat of hydrochloric acid and very nearly succeeded; most of his body was liquefied “as if he were never here,” said someone who saw it. Far from being a downtrodden housewife limited to rat poison and foxglove salads, Larissa owned and operated Central California Research Laboratories, so a better title would be “Mothers, Don’t Let Your Daughters Grow Up to Major in Chemistry.”

Women are also taking over the public brawl, and Rosin gets this low-rent aspect of our contemporary culture just right. “A whole corner of YouTube could be devoted to women who go ballistic in fast-food restaurants,” she contends, and she nails America’s new sweetheart: “An episode of Jersey Shore isn’t complete until Snooki throws a drink in someone’s face or shoves someone over a table.” But Rosin’s girls-gone-wild approach doesn’t last. Soon she is back to victimization, acceptance, Title IX, counseling, and interviews with directors of programs studying “female aggression.”

Once she has reverted to studies-show mode, she produces the ultimate statistic: “A female suicide bomber is more likely to be successful, and kills 8.4 victims on average, as opposed to 5.3 killed by the average male suicide bomber. . . . As British agencies discovered, a woman in traditional Muslim garb can hide twelve pounds of explosives under a chador.”

Despite its suggested triumphalism, The End of Men is not the Viking war chant of its title. Rosin honks out the standard you-go-girl cheers, but basically the book is middle-of-the-road tame. An unfailing clue is her tendency to take refuge in rhetorical questions, a fixture in books by feminists whose authors are reluctant to come down too hard or let up too much on whatever it is they are holding forth on lest they make somebody really, really mad and lose their friends. Betty Friedan used rhetorical questions incessantly, and Rosin joins the club here: “Does more money mean more power in the relationship? Do more hours worked mean fewer hours taking care of the children? Do the men feel liberated? Humiliated? Do the women feel proud? Taken advantage of? Does a husband ever separate darks from whites?” After ending on this cute note, she mounts her serene perch again and assures her readers that “a power arrangement that’s prevailed for most of history does not fade without a ripple.”

Sometimes The End of Men reads like one of those ubiquitous advice books on how to succeed at your career without losing your femininity. To find out what the people who hire women thought about it all, Rosin studied “lab-tested scenarios” devised by the human-resources (read personnel) gonzos of corporate America. It was here that she heard about “The Twitch” — their jargon for “the instinctive wince we do when a woman unsheathes her sword.” A woman must be nice enough not to trigger it, but not so nice that she never gets a promotion. A woman must be careful never to self-promote too much. A woman must be a self-starter but also a team player. A woman must never speak aggressively, express any kind of anger, and never, never be aggrieved. If she does, somebody will Twitch and that will spell curtains for her.

Rosin calls this “tightrope specificity” and clearly resents it, but she also likes her serene perch, her discipline, and her generous spirit of compromise, so she goes along to get along: “The key, it turned out, was to meet the stereotype halfway.”

I ask you: What other aggrieved group would tolerate being told to meet their stereotype halfway?

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

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