Can feminism survive?

The Devil's Advocate

Hanna Rosin’s compelling book “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women,” published last month, jolted the feminist world by describing a concept alien to most feminists: the possibility that men could be more vulnerable than women.

Rosin sees evidence of this on American university campuses, where women earn about three in five bachelor’s and master’s degrees, a majority of doctorates and about half of all law and medical degrees. This emerging power reversal in higher education is easily observable right here at UC Berkeley, where a majority of entering freshmen have been female for the past 15 years.

Rosin even offers an interesting alternative to the traditional feminist critique of the college hookup culture, which essentially asserts that young women are being exploited by predatory, testosterone-driven frat boys. In fact, Rosin argues, young women take advantage of the hookup culture so they can have fun without holding back their careers. “To put it crudely, now feminist progress is largely dependent on hook-up culture,” she writes.

Rosin sees evidence of a “matriarchy” emerging in the economy at large. Young women outearn young men in virtually all metropolitan areas in the United States, according to a 2010 study Rosin cites. Three-quarters of jobs lost in the Great Recession were held by men, and male participation in the labor force is at an all-time low. And it’s not looking any better for men in the future: 12 of the 15 job categories projected to grow most over the next decade are dominated by women.

The striking cultural and economic transformations Rosin exhaustively and persuasively documents in “The End of Men” get at an important question for feminists: How will feminism retain its credibility in a 21st century where so many elements of the West’s patriarchal legacy have broken down?

Unfortunately, instead of using the book as an opportunity to begin grappling with this question, many feminists chose to scoff at Rosin’s thesis.

Writing in the The Guardian, Cambridge University professor Mary Beard expressed skepticism of Rosin’s statistics (without saying why) and calls Rosin’s narrative “mythical.” In The New York Times, Stephanie Coontz, another feminist scholar, implausibly writes off all the trends outlined in the book as the natural products of the end of formal gender discrimination.

Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, even suggested that the ascent of women and the decline of men represents another form of patriarchal manipulation. Using language that a misogynist man might have used to complain about women a half-century ago, Boushey says women are “letting men off the hook” and that men “sit on their butts while women do it all.” Christina Patterson, a columnist for The Independent, took a similarly aggressive tone, disdainfully rejecting Rosin’s thesis in its entirety and proclaiming that it’s time for women to “stop being nice, stop being modest, stop being victims and fight.”

The feminist response to Rosin’s book suggests that feminism is in trouble. Successful social movements adapt to changing circumstances. But reviewers’ knee-jerk, categorical rejection of Rosin’s argument suggests that feminists cannot shake the old conception of feminism, which posits that women are being systematically exploited by an oppressive patriarchy. If the trends described in “The End of Men” continue — and women come to truly dominate higher education and the professional class — this expansive definition of feminism will become irrelevant.

Feminists still have important work to do. This should be clear to anyone who has paid attention to the Republican Party’s position on reproductive rights. Furthermore, women are still underrepresented at the highest levels of business and government, and a surprising new study showed that women still face subconscious discrimination in science at major universities.

But if feminism cannot redefine itself, its ability to resolve the enduring inequities that affect women will be jeopardized. As men continue their economic decline while women flourish, the old, strident, combative style of feminism will lose its political credibility and its capacity to be a force for positive change.

Feminists should instead embrace the findings of Rosin’s book. They should acknowledge systemic disadvantages faced by men as well as women. While they fight to end bias against women in science, they must also look for ways to stop the precipitous decline in male academic performance. While they try to increase female representation in corporate boardrooms and in Congress, they must find a coherent way to address the forces that are leading record numbers of men to drop out of the workforce.

If feminism is to survive, it must adapt to the changing gender dynamics of the 21st century, not deny them.

Contact Jason Willick at [email protected] or on Twitter: @jawillick.