Critiquing “The Masculine Mystique”

This article in the current Atlantic is worth a read. Author Stephen Marche’s point is that progressive men who have embraced gender equity and who, like their professional wives, scramble in the gerbil run of “work-life” balance are strangely silent in public discourse about how to achieve such balance. It’s strange, Marche says, because these men are most definitely not silent in the private realm of family decision-making.

And this “mystique” is damaging because, “When men aren’t part of the discussion about balancing work and life, outdated assumptions about fatherhood are allowed to go unchallenged and, far more important, key realities about the relationship between work and family are elided. The central conflict of domestic life right now is not men versus women, mothers versus fathers. It is family versus money.”

There’s a lot of truth to this. And Marche is certainly right that “the solution is establishing social supports that allow families to function.”

I mean, it’s great to hear a man proclaim that day care “is the thing that enabled me to build a new career for myself. Day care is not theoretical liberation. It is the real deal, for women and men alike.” Right on. By raising his voice, Marche will encourage other men to do the same. And he is right to say that progressive men bear the responsibility for their own silence (in contrast to MRAs and antifeminists of other stripes, who are not silent).

So far so good. Marche seems to have a good handle on some of the economic issues that working families face.

But his misunderstanding – and it is a dangerous one – of the complex intertwinings of gender and class emerges from what appears to be a strange wish to subordinate gender issues to economics. The result is a fair bit of confusion about both.

I can agree when Marche decries Lean In as a “capitalist fantasy” because it clings to the myth of pluck, the ideal that “hard work and talent alone can take you to the top,” against all contrary evidence on the ground. But his critique of Sandberg and others (like Anne Marie Slaughter’s article on work-life balance) as being part of a “plutocratic wave of feminism” is much more problematic. Marche asks, “do we want women emulating the egomania of the corporate male?”

In an ideal world, the answer to this question is obviously no. But in the world we have, it’s yes.

To understand why, consider another question that has already been settled: Do we really want women risking death and psychological trauma by serving in the armed forces just so they can have the same opportunities as men? I think few would disagree that women in the military have done at least something to advance women’s equality.

See, if women have equal access to crazy corporate power, then yup, you’re gonna get plutocractic feminism too, just like we’ll end up with some unfortunate women given that women now experience the trauma of warfare. And so on. That’s what equal opportunity looks like.

Attacking “plutocratic feminism” is a poor way to go after patriarchal values. Far better to go straight for those values, not women’s desire for capitalist triumph with a cherry on top. No, we should not exempt powerful women as we question societal values, but it seems a tad bit insincere to go after those values by attacking the feminism supporting them.

Perhaps Marche has written courageous articles critiquing male CEOs?

Then we have statements like, “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.”

Really? Marche should chat with some working-class women. I’ll bet they could name more than a few ways their male counterparts hold power in their communities.

And it is dead wrong to declare that “whether or not the load is being shared 50-50 doesn’t matter if the load is still unbearable.” I’m thinking that people stuck with the greater share might disagree.

Perhaps most problematic is the notion that “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.”

Well, economic realities certainly do influence gender attitudes. After the Second World War, many middle-class women were pushed out of their jobs because these families could prosper without women working outside the home, and the husbands wanted the jobs. And stagnating wages, which began in the 1980s and have continued since, might well have fueled the idea that women can and should have careers.

But gender attitudes have profoundly affected economic reality. Just ask Lily Ledbetter.

Marche should read books like Lynn Povich’s The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace. He would learn that it was precisely gender attitudes, not economics (the women were already working), that held women back in journalism. And in this case, women took the daunting step of challenging those attitudes in long and bitter legal struggles not because they necessarily needed more money but because they wanted to develop their full potential.

And here I cannot resist pointing out the lack of parity in journalism today, particularly regarding feature articles – including the very issue in which Marche’s article appears.

This discounting of political and social movements amounts to a stunning disregard for how progress and oppression actually happen. Because if we believe that gender attitudes depend only on economic reality, we imply that women have little power to improve gender attitudes as a matter not simply of economic but social justice.

And if gender attitudes simply depended on economics, progressive men might not suffer from a “masculine mystique” at all. It is fair to ask how “hollow” patriarchy can be if it still “keeps women from power and confounds male identity.”

Sadly, patriarchy is not doomed just because it’s expensive. Certain ideologies are very stupid. They keep on keeping on even though they’re expensive because they serve other interests. Destroying women’s right to reproductive freedom is perhaps the single most expensive patriarchal oppression ever. And yet, as the middle class shrinks at what seems like an exponential rate, reproductive rights have lost major ground in the past three decades. The last year alone has been alarming.

“The Masculine Mystique,” of course, alludes to Betty Friedan’s manifesto, which unfortunately ignored working-class women as Friedan advised their middle-class counterparts, among other things, to simply hire some help.

Marche does something of the opposite: Instead of ignoring economic reality, he simplifies it at the expense of the very real force of gender attitudes – attitudes that persist because they so often defy, not merely depend on, economics.

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6 thoughts on “Critiquing “The Masculine Mystique”

  1. I read the article by Marche, and I agree I did feel like he was simplifying the women’s movement in favor of making into only a matter of economics and class. This was a great critique of an interesting article.

  2. Why is it necessary for men, who believe in and practice gender equality, to go about in public explaining how they achieve it? Is it not enough to set an example, and hopefully people will learn, that it is indeed the better way? And even if they go about explaining their stand in public, will people be interested in listening to them? And, how did these men develop a progressive mindset? Is it because someone went ahead and explained it in public, or is it because of the values inculcated in them by their parents?

    • Well, in Marche’s case he’s actually saying that gender inequality is not really the problem; he believes the problem is one of class. While I agree with part of what he says, I think he misrepresents women’s history and the current reality of gender politics.

      With regard to your questions, I think public discourse about gender equality is useful, in part because there is still so much resistance to equality. Sadly, too many people actively resist positive examples for many different reasons. So I think speech and action are necessary. There will always be people who don’t listen, but even if only a few do, that’s worth it, I think.

      The question of how people develop a progressive mindset is really interesting. I certainly don’t claim to know the answer, but I think there are many different paths. No question that values instilled by parents are powerful, but maybe public discourse can be just as powerful, precisely because it implies and invites communal participation, a voice beyond the individual, private realm. What do you think?

      • I have been thinking a LOT about your post, and here’s what I feel….Even though, I come from a culture which on one hand worships goddesses, and on the other hand thinks nothing of beating up or ill-treating women( in short, never on the same plane), I have been lucky to have been brought up in an environment, where treatment was always equal for me and my elder sister( though I always allege that my sister got better treatment! 🙂 ). It was practiced, rather than being preached. So, for me, I feel its really a shame that we say that its “progressive thinking” to treat people ( not just women) fairly..shouldn’t it be “normal thinking”? Regarding your point that public discourse is just as important, again I can take examples from within my family. My father always practiced it, and I somehow behave similarly( I hope!) but never go about preaching it, whereas my mom is more vocal, and much woe awaits anyone who says something derogatory about women in her presence! But, I must say, that I agree with you, that it is important to be vocal…because, if there are even ten people in your social circle who look up to you, or admire you, they might be positively influenced to follow your act. They might do it initially just to join the bandwagon, but, maybe the leap of faith may lead to a change in beliefs too! Worth a shot, I agree. 🙂

      • Absolutely it should be normal thinking, and maybe one day it will be, especially if more people follow your example! Thanks for your wise thoughts.

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