Book Summary – The Unmade Bed (The Messy Truth About Men and Women in the 21st Century)
Essayist Rebecca Solnit minted the word “mansplaining” after an interaction with a man at a party. When she told him she wrote a book about film pioneer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), the man attempted to impress her with his knowledge of Muybridge by lecturing her about her own area of expertise. Many women have been subjected to mansplaining, and the word quickly became part of everyday parlance. Identifying who talks more, men or women, is an ongoing issue in gender discussions. Research produces no clear answer. Early in the feminist movement, male silence was an issue. Society expected a “real” man to be the “strong, silent type.” Men showed power by speaking rarely and keeping their opinions and emotions to themselves.
The communication gap between men and women is just a symptom of their failure to understand each other. Books on the subject – John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, and Deborah Tannen’s That’s Not What I Meant and You Just Don’t Understand – reflect this frustration. Using metaphors for the power balance or imbalance between men and women – such as “the gender wars” or the “battle of the sexes” – pits one against the other. The time has come to let go of us-versus-them language and mind-sets so that conversations about feminism can include men. Both sexes are experiencing profound shifts in their roles in relation to each other, the family and society. Gender discussions need a new framework that adapts to today’s realities.
“If men and women are from different tribes…we are doomed to a permanent stand-off.”
“The Hollow Patriarchy”
Since the mid-1990s, “American women have earned more bachelor degrees than men.” In 40% of the American households with children younger than 18, women are the major breadwinners, up from 10.8% in 1960. The pay gap has decreased: in 1980, women earned 64% of a man’s wages; in 2012, they earned 84%. For workers under age 30, women earn 93% of what men earn.
“We are entering the intimate wave of feminism, a wave that will have to include men.”
Women’s improved economic equality hasn’t translated into a parity of power. Men still hold the majority of board positions and dominate the upper echelons of most fields. Women in top tech firms account for only 15.6% of engineers and hold only 22.5% of leadership positions. There is a dearth of women in government; in 2013, women held only around 20% of congressional seats.
These statistics reveal a “hollow patriarchy: The shell is patriarchal, but the insides approach the egalitarian.” No matter how much wealth a woman accumulates or what position she achieves, her gender still limits her options. Cracking the shell of the hollow patriarchy in the name of gender parity requires men and women to collaborate. Emerging trends in gender dynamics require renegotiating every aspect of life. The time has come to set aside the gender wars in favor of gender negotiations and to abandon “revolution” to make way for “rearrangement.”
“The work-life problem belongs to both genders now. It belongs to everybody who needs money and has children and is subject to time.”
Stephen Marche is a 31-year-old professor, married with a son and a daughter. Marche found his life upended by the hollow patriarchy the afternoon that Toronto Life magazine offered his wife, Sarah Fulford, the job of editor in chief. The couple had to decide if he would leave his tenure-track job at City College in New York in order for the family to move to Canada. The larger salary, free health care and quality public education waiting in Toronto made the decision a “no-brainer.” Fulford became the family’s primary breadwinner, and Marche became their son’s primary caretaker (their daughter was born after they moved to Canada).
“The central conflict of domestic life…is not mothers against fathers, or even conflicting ideas of motherhood or gender. It is the family against money.”
The Cost of Patriarchy
The days are gone when mom stayed home and dad worked from nine to five, provided for the household, played golf on weekends and patted the kids on the head before they went to bed. Today, 43% of women make the household decisions and 31% collaborate on decisions with their male partners. The idea of a “head of household” is yesterday’s news. But the image of patriarchy persists – and at a cost.
The contribution women make to today’s economy is essential for society’s growth and prosperity. Closing the gender gap in employment increases per capita incomes and bolsters the middle class. Countries in which women contribute to the workforce are more stable, wealthy and peaceful than their patriarchal counterparts. In an effort to build Japan’s economy, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe initiated programs to increase female representation on corporate boards and to provide day care. Support for job opportunities for women indicates that a society is modern. Countries that suppress women in the name of ideology or tradition suffer the economic consequences that come with such gender-based politics.
“Anything boys can do, girls can do. Anything girls can do, boys can do. And yet every bit of culture, every inflection of voice, no matter how minor, remains gendered.”
Marche’s friends reacted along generational lines to his new role as primary caregiver. Boomers considered him the “woman” in the family. People his age were less judgmental, and many fellow fathers had partners who earned more than they did. Marche experienced what it felt like to be the “addendum” and to rely on someone else financially. Working women expect to need to balance the demands of home and work life, but framing this as a feminist issue and excluding men does families a disservice. Caring for the kids isn’t women’s or men’s work; it’s the parental unit’s responsibility. Balancing the demands of work with home life is a problem for both genders.
“The equality of women is spiritually and practically a flourishing of human potential.”
The issue of money has a stronger impact on family decisions than negotiations over gender roles. The high cost of making ends meet increases the burden of these demands. Accessible, affordable childcare and paid parental leave can relieve some of this pressure. Labeling family issues as women’s issues relegates them to causes that belong to a “special interest.” Advocating for family rights is a more powerful platform.
Weeks after the birth of Marche and Fulford’s baby daughter, Marche’s father passed away unexpectedly. With the slow dissolution of traditional markers of manhood, Marche realized that, to him, becoming a father and losing a father marked the remaining transitions to being a man.
“The family has changed and is changing further, while at work patriarchy remains intact and functional, surviving as a kind of lazy hangover, like daylight savings time.”
The restructuring of families due to economic pressure heralds a new, more involved fatherhood. Dads today spend three times as much time with their children as fathers did in 1965. The number of stay-at-home dads grew from 10% in 1989 to 16% in 2012. While men value fatherhood more than ever, rates of fatherlessness are rising. The number of American families without fathers is growing, from 10.3% in 1970 to 24.6% in 2013. This increase in absentee fathers multiplies every social problem for their offspring, including the likelihood of ending up in jail, committing suicide or dropping out of high school. A father’s presence in the household has a positive effect.
“The new fatherhood is a huge gain for men, the chance for a whole new range of pleasures and agonies, a fuller version of our humanity, a deeper intimacy.”
The cultural stereotype of fathers – like the cartoon character Homer Simpson – is the bungling, useless guy who needs his wife’s guiding hand to navigate family life. Slowly, this stereotype is evolving. The 2015 Super Bowl was dubbed the “Daddy Bowl” because so many ads showed images of modern fatherhood. Advertisers understand that today’s dads are passionate about parenting. Assumptions about what a family looks like are changing and now feature several new models. While family values remain strong, societal expectations now accommodate gay marriage. Support for gay marriage hovered around 55% in 2014, up from 27% 18 years earlier.
The hollow image of patriarchy is cultural and is reflected in movies, television, fashion, language and writing. The feminist movement removed the limits on women’s potential and made way for equality between the genders, but many elements of society are still seen as either feminine or masculine and people still measure themselves against these markers. Society hasn’t redefined its image of women. The media comment on the feminist revolution but adopt few of its ideals. Standards of beauty have hardly changed since the mid-1960s. Movie star Gwyneth Paltrow is a newer version of Grace Kelly, and George Clooney is this generation’s Cary Grant.
“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 unbearable.”
Debates surrounding representations of female beauty – exemplified in Naomi Wolf’s 1990s The Beauty Myth – have progressed, in many modern societies, into supporting an individual woman’s “feminism of choice.” Today, most women can take any path without judgment. They can bear several children or none; they can pair up with men or other women. They can wear short skirts or a hijab, cook and clean for their families, devote themselves to a career, or any combination thereof. Assuming traditional female roles or casting them away is their choice. This “third-wave feminism” celebrates freedom without clearly defining a philosophy or boundaries. Men, however, still must address old ways of thinking about what it means to be and act like a man.
“We want for our children the chance to be fully human in all the impossibility that entails.”
A new “brocabulary” featuring words like “bromance,” has sprung up, but it only serves to compartmentalize and belittle male relationships. Society allows women to form mature friendships in ways it doesn’t grant to men. If you are male, you usually have to become a man by yourself, and it’s a lonely journey. Men need human connections, and forming authentic male friendships is essential to being a well-rounded human being.
When men feel threatened, they retreat into the most overt forms of machismo. Leniency toward defining what is and what is not acceptable manly behavior is just beginning to emerge as the lines between masculine and feminine blur.
“Housework is a stumbling block in the comedy of society at large as much as in the comedy of personal life. The subject has always been a hiccup in the grand rhetoric of women’s liberation.”
The Fulcrum of Consent
Progressive forces such as the gay rights and the feminist movement advocate for open-mindedness and tolerance. Today’s morality hinges on the concept of consent: Sexual acts between consenting adults are generally acceptable. This reverence for consent contributes to healthier, less guilt-ridden sex lives. Teens are waiting longer to have sex, as marked by declining rates of teen pregnancies. Yet once young adults start to have sex, they engage more frequently and explore more openly than members of previous generations.
“When a man and a woman fall into bed together, they might have each other; when one of them makes the bed, they have a relationship.”
The proliferation of Internet porn is a fact of the times. Porn sites receive more traffic than Hulu, CNN and ESPN. Even this has an upside: Economist Todd Kendall’s state-by-state study found that a “10 percentage point increase in Internet access is associated with a decline in reported rape victimization of around 7.3%.” While he didn’t link porn directly to lower incidence of rape, web access doesn’t “correspond” to any other declining crime rates. “Kendall suggests pornography is a ‘substitute’ for rape.”
“Culture of Outrage”
Sorting out feelings toward gender role rearrangement is a “messy,” fraught process. People often retreat into moralism or outrage. Rather than research and debate complex gender issues, people tend to respond to them with emotion. Without exception, feminist scholars, bloggers and commentators have suffered personal attacks, calls for their rape and murder, and other threats. Productive debate cannot thrive in a “culture of outrage”; effective discourse demands thoughtfulness, empathy and compassion.
“Sex is beautiful and dangerous, babies are born, fathers die, children are worries, but the housework is waiting always.”
Boys Will Be Boys
Marche and Fulford’s son is boyishly true to stereotype. He leaves a trail of mud as he runs through the house. As a toddler, he became obsessed with trucks. In contrast, their daughter started playing with dolls at 18 months old. The challenge for all parents is to give children permission to act as per their nature without being confined by outdated ideas. A meta-study concluded, “differences between men and women are not essential but exist along a spectrum.” The ability to provide equal opportunities while accepting the realities of differences requires thoughtful consideration. Parents must let boys be boys and let girls be girls without accepting patriarchy’s notion of women being less than men.
Except for housework, contemporary women are achieving financial, social and political equality. But women still do the lion’s share of housework. Working women try to compensate for time spent on their careers by performing more household chores. New family models are emerging and family dynamics are changing. Gender equality enables both men and women to realize their potential and achieve greater intimacy.