The Feminists Left Behind: Gender Relations After Hillary Clinton

On November 5, 2016, the New York Times carried an article titled The Men Feminists Left Behind, by Jill Filipovic. The article was written in anticipation of what pollsters said was a probable Hillary Clinton victory in the American presidential election on November 8.

Now that we are experiencing the morning after — now that Hillary has actually not been elected — the Filipovic article looks a little different. This post discusses some of that article’s many clueless remarks, in connection with a separate post on the key reason for Clinton’s defeat.

The purpose of this discussion is not to find fault with feminism per se. There are multiple varieties of feminist thought. The focus here is upon the sort of feminism that, to some, is not really feminism at all, but rather a betrayal or rejection of what is best and most loved about the feminine spirit.

Critique

Filipovic begins by saying that Americans may be about to elect their first female president. Then she says this:

What this [presidential election] campaign has shown us is that while feminism has transformed American culture, our politics and the lives of women, men haven’t evolved nearly as rapidly. Women changed. Too many men didn’t.

So let’s have a little fun with that. Let’s play, How many logical errors can you spot? Perhaps the most obvious one: Filipovic says that American culture has changed, but men haven’t. This implies that men are not part of American culture. The more intelligible statement would be that the lives of many women have changed, while the lives of many men haven’t. But the latter part would be false. The lives of men have changed a great deal. Much of what was familiar to men in the 1960s, before feminism took root, was very different from what is familiar to men now.

But at least she’s right about one thing: women changed. In 2016, millions of them voted for Donald Trump, where the women of 1968 probably wouldn’t have. And certainly feminism has transformed American politics — partly by making many of us sick of the gender wars of the 1980s and 1990s, when people like Filipovic had so much fun attacking men.

Fortunately, as the Trump vote shows, that era is passing. Ordinary people have known this for some time, and now the experts are belatedly embarrassed into catching up. The man-hating mentality is outdated, and Filipovic shows why. Consider these words from her article:

[T]here are more ways to be a woman than ever before. It’s no longer unusual to meet a female lawyer or engineer. No one bats an eye if we cut our hair short, wear pants, pay with a credit card in our own name, win on the soccer field, or buy our own home.

Men haven’t gained nearly as much flexibility. The world has changed around them, but many have stayed stuck in the past. While women have steadily made their way into traditionally male domains, men have not crossed the other way. Men do more at home than they used to, but women still do much more — on an average day, 67 percent of men do some housework compared with 85 percent of women. Male identity remains tied up in dominance and earning potential, and when those things flag, it seems men either give up or get angry.

Now, I could swear that I spent years trying to get a PhD in the overwhelmingly female field of social work, but was prevented from graduating precisely because I questioned the kind of gender discrimination that Filipovic claims to dislike. But never mind me. What happens if we take seriously her pretense of a straight-up, apples-for-apples comparison of men against women? Here, I’ll flip her words into male terms, like this:

[T]here are more ways to be a man than ever before. It’s no longer unusual to see a male ballerina or prostitute. No one bats an eye if we grow our hair long, wear dresses, expect our wives to pay the bills, or get carried across the threshold on wedding day.

Women haven’t gained nearly as much flexibility. The world has changed around them, but many have stayed stuck in the past. While men have steadily made their way into traditionally female domains like housekeeping and raising children, women have not crossed the other way. Women do more in science and warfare than they used to, but men still do much more. Female identity remains tied up in mothering and homemaking, and when those things flag, it seems women cry and get depressed.

A couple of thoughts about that flip. First, compassionate people tend to understand that it is bad form to ridicule people for experiencing adverse mental health outcomes. We wouldn’t do it to women, who are more likely to be diagnosed with depression than men; likewise, Filipovic should not belittle men if, as she claims, they “give up or get angry.” Not that we know whether that really is how they respond; she cites no research in support of such a claim.

Second, this society does not generally agree with her advice that men should adopt “more fluid gender roles that allow individuals to do what they’re good at instead of what’s socially prescribed.” There is no sign that most women hope men will become less masculine, or that most men wish to do so. Besides, the point of feminism was not that women should ignore “what’s socially prescribed”; it was to change social expectations of women, so that they would not have to fight public opinion to become lawyers or engineers. If we want men to feel equally welcome going into traditionally female professions, then we will have to change what is socially prescribed for them too. I say, we, women as well as men, notwithstanding Filipovic’s cop-out claim that feminists “have enough to do without being tasked with improving the lot of often-misogynistic men.” It’s a poor sort of feminism that would see itself as a license to seek discriminatory advantages for women at men’s expense. Men and women will be living together on this Earth until further notice. A responsible search for the right balance for women entails a search for what’s right for men as well.

A woman who wants to work in a given field, and has the ability to do the work, should be free to do it. But it is an odd concept of feminism that would strive to make women more like men, by pushing, coaxing, bribing, or otherwise drawing them into traditionally male careers that don’t generally interest them. Such a feminism seems to reject women’s own self-determination as to who they are and what they want to be.

Perhaps that mentality explains why Filipovic considers herself entitled to tell men, too, what they should want to be. She appears to believe that men must change themselves if they wish to be as successful as women have been. Such a belief sounds vaguely positive: change can improve things. But how, exactly, did women change? The core premise, expressed by Filipovic herself, is that men held the money and the power, and women demanded their share. That worked once, but it won’t work again. There is no third gender that men can turn to, in similar spirit, to demand their share. The only people we have are women and men, and a few in between. If men are to follow the path women have taken, their only option is to claw back some of what women have gained. No doubt there are individual cases where that would be appropriate. But it is surely not what Filipovic would advocate. In short, it makes no sense to urge that men should follow the path taken by women.

What Filipovic seems to mean is that men should adapt to a changing society by moving into traditionally female careers, just as women have migrated into traditionally male careers. But for someone of Filipovic’s intelligence, it appears disingenuous to profess uncertainty as to why men are not making that transition en masse. Surely she could think of a few reasons, if she put her mind to it.

We could start with social aggression. If Filipovic is as knowledgeable about gender relations as she seems to believe, then surely she has become aware of what can happen to men who do enter traditionally female careers. We could think, for example, of the suspicions and accusations that can be directed toward a male elementary school teacher — the witch hunt for signs that he might be a pervert, against whom self-righteous women can gang up and enjoy some shared hatred. Or we could think of the social aggression — the direct attacks, the countless little disparagements, the backstabbing, the silent treatment — that women inflict upon men who dare to enter overwhelmingly female academic and workplace environments, as I have experienced in one such place after another.

The whole point of moving out of traditionally female jobs is that, often, they don’t pay as well as traditionally male occupations. But if feminism is such a success story, why hasn’t it changed that? Why wouldn’t those millions of predominantly female teachers and social workers have achieved salary levels that would make those jobs more appealing? Filopovic seems to applaud abandoning those women and their jobs, not bringing them along into the bright new feminist future.

Filopovic is also presumably aware that men and women tend to be in a different position, where jobs and income are concerned. Women commonly evaluate potential mates on their earning potential, and often expect men to bear a disproportionate share of expenses within a relationship or household. Almost invariably, though, those women do not accept comparable expectations in return. For instance, in middle age or thereafter, many women find it convenient to stop trying to offer a man the kind of physique that he might have appreciated, back when he was dating young women. And yet, even in the worst of what some called the Great He-cession, circa 2009, those same aging women still expected the man to display the kind of financial prowess that they expected of men when they were young. In other words, if the question is, why do men who could meet the educational requirements for a low-paying career in social work not generally choose that sort of career, the answer is obvious.

The solution offered by Filipovic is that men should simply “make their own move toward gender equality, to break down the stereotypes and fetters of masculinity.” Nice idea. But how, precisely? It would be helpful to have workable suggestions. In the vacuum, let me offer one. How about if we level the playing field, completely eliminating all forms of behavior or treatment that favor women? That would be a nice, concrete starting point, free of dreamy moralizing. Filipovic might lead the way by writing an article in which she would ask women to join her in denouncing unequal female financial expectations of men. She could also call for the repeal of laws and policies against sexual harassment, whose purpose is to give women more protection than I had, in the workplace and academic environments mentioned above. Instead of the gender-discriminatory shield and sword that sexual harassment laws and policies have become, these feminists could reasonably advocate a gender-neutral prohibition against abuse of power against people in positions of weakness. Such a prohibition could still guard against sexual harassment typical of men — but it would also protect men in schools and workplaces against other forms of abuse by women.

In the remarks quoted above, the reader might understand that Filipovic means to be writing about differences between men and women generally. But then it begins to seem that she is thinking particularly of white men. She says, “[T]he ugliness of the Trump campaign is evidence of how white men existing in their own shrinking universe can be a real threat” — implying that it would be best if they were eliminated — and “[T]he norms and views of white male America are now being cast as marginal and, sometimes, delusional.” Here, again, when it comes to verbal abuse, it is much easier to give than to receive. A fairminded individual may have noticed ugliness on Hillary’s side of the aisle too — not only in the words of people like Filipovic, but also in Hillary’s own atypical revelation of what she really thinks: that millions of Trump supporters are “deplorables.” As for Filipovic’s remark about “marginal” and “delusional” white men, the single most profound delusion of this election season was the one in which people like Filipovic were so arrogantly confident that their candidate would win, and that it was now going to be OK to run the steamroller over men. Finally, I don’t know what Filipovic is talking about, in her reference to the white male’s “shrinking universe.” Perhaps she means that someday white Americans will be a minority. That will include white females like herself. And what, exactly, will happen at that point: will the future’s more dominant black or Latina feminists share her coldness and hostility toward men? I doubt it.

So the reader might have thought that Filipovic’s article was moving from general disparagement of men to more specific abuse of white men. But the reader would be mistaken. The “real threat” she sees in white males is that some of them would vote for Donald Trump. She refers to these Trump supporters as “working-class” white men “who feel ignored, disrespected and lost.” Once again, surely we could do without that patronizing reference to mere feelings: by her own admission, many of those working-class men are in fact “struggling” and “dislocated.”

One cannot be surprised that many people would find this sort of feminism repulsive. Even if we don’t blame Wall-Street-friendly Democrats like Hillary Clinton for trade policies in which vast numbers of traditionally male jobs have departed from this country, it would still be inhuman to ridicule people who are experiencing real hardship.

But now the bewildered reader will see that Filipovic is apparently not focused on working-class white men after all. She can’t be. Because she points out that “[T]he median household income of Trump primary voters was about $72,000 a year, $16,000 more than the national median household income.” That’s not working-class. If that’s the nature of the median Trump supporter, what’s the point of her suggestion that men who “want to see their lives improve . . . should take a cue from the great feminist strides women have made”? These guys, making $72K, don’t want to see their lives improve. In her own words, they already have “masculine power.” It looks like she just wanted to toss out a few demeaning remarks about working-class men who are beneath her — who lack her education and have lost even the relatively low-paying jobs they used to have — when what she really disliked was the man, of any type, who would favor Trump. We all would have been farther ahead if she had just said that — because then perhaps the Times would not have wasted our time with all this other befuddled verbiage.

I was gratified, after reading Filipovic’s confused and nonsensical remarks, to review readers’ comments. Many commentators, female as well as male, rejected what they variously characterized as her “condescending” and “angry tirade” typical of “old white women [who] are the prime beneficiaries of a society that did favor whites and . . . who have not changed and feel entitled now.” As one reader put it, “Not a very clear picture here of a road ahead for working class men. Do more housework?”

Reflections

On the eve of an imagined Hillary Clinton victory, Jill Filipovic published, in the New York Times, an article that conveys hostile and belittling attitudes toward men. We are not told where those attitudes are coming from. Filipovic, a youngish woman, does not herself appear to be a second-wave dinosaur, a Baby Boomer who went through hard years of female servitude prior to the emergence of the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and who might understandably cling to that archaic mindset even though so much has changed for women.

Her article claims that feminists have left men behind. Which men, is not clear: she seems to target white men, when many of her remarks could apply to nonwhites as well; she seems to target working-class men, when the median Trump supporter is not that; she seems to target Trump supporters, when her glib advice would be equally applicable to struggling males who supported Clinton. Regardless, she’s right: feminists have left men behind, in the sense that they have sought, and have obtained, the adoption of laws and social expectations that target men unequally. That is a poor concept of feminism. It is not the only one. But it is unfortunate that it has been so dominant for so long.

With so many qualified writers who are eager to get their work published, one might expect that, even in an opinion piece, the New York Times would select authors who would present coherent views supported by research. In this Filipovic piece and others critiqued in this blog and elsewhere, the Times seems to be growing increasingly bigoted — as its own Public Editor seems to have observed. It is regrettable that the Times‘s ideological blinders apparently prevented its editors from noticing how muddled the Filipovic essay is.

If we are lucky, Donald Trump’s election will eventually encourage a more thoughtful engagement with reality, in future feminist musings in the Times. That is, one can hope that those who like to throw firebombs into gender relations will be sidelined, in favor of those who are inclined to treat men as well as women with respect and fairness, and to seek outcomes that will make sense and will work for everyone.

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