The Patriarchy Is Dead

Feminists, accept it.

Kirsten Gillibrand, Claire McCaskill, Tammy Baldwin.

It’s true that women don’t fill half of all congressional seats. But that shouldn’t stop us from realizing how revolutionary it is to have powerful women like Kirsten Gillibrand, Claire McCaskill, and Tammy Baldwin in Congress.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Reuters (3).

This story is adapted from a new epilogue to The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, out this month in paperback.

You would think that a book called The End of Men would be, prima facie, an insult to men. But one of the great surprises I’ve had while speaking about the book over the last year is how little resistance I have gotten from the aggrieved sex. Yes, I’ve been to a forum or two where dude-bros from the men’s rights movement accuse me of destroying American manhood. But most of the resistance to the idea that men have ceased to be the dominant sex has come from women—not from working-class women, who seem to find what I’m describing painfully familiar, if not totally obvious, but from women in the college, professional class.

There comes a point in nearly every book event I’ve done when a little feminist revolt stirs inside the crowd. I can feel it coming when an audience saves its whole-hearted applause for the first moment I mention a sin committed against the women of America—say, our appalling lack of paid maternity leave (which is appalling!). Or when a questioner quotes to me in a triumphant tone statistics about the tiny percentage of female CEOs, as if I had never heard them before.

“Let’s call it what it is: THE PATRIARCHY.” This was a comment from a young woman at an event I was moderating on Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Though Slaughter and I have many points of agreement, we tend to draw a different crowd, or mood. Women come to hear her when they feel like they’ve hit a wall, and need to commiserate. They want to vent about their frustrations, not hear how they’ve prevailed. 

“Can you say that word? PATRIARCHY?” This woman was not gunning for a laugh; she was dead serious, and pretty angry. She looked to be 30 or so, and from the way she spoke seemed well-educated—the type of woman I portray in the book as benefiting from the new era of female dominance, when women are better prepared for the current economy and have more independence to choose their life path.

As the woman spoke, I started to think of my own Slaughter moment, when, after the birth of my first child, I decided to work four days a week, a capitulation that sank me into a terrible depression. (If only Sheryl Sandberg had been around then to tell me to “Lean in!”) I tried to figure out who, in the series of events that led up to that decision, had played the role of the patriarch. My husband? He couldn’t care less how many days I work. My employer? Relatively benevolent and supportive— willing to let me work four days or five, willing to let me leave early. I suppose the patriarchy was lurking somewhere in my subconscious, tricking me into believing that it was more my duty to stay home with our new baby than my husband’s. But I didn’t see it as a “duty.” I wanted to stay home with her, and I also wanted to work like a fiend. It was complicated and confusing, a combination of my personal choices, the realities of a deadline-driven newsroom, and the lack of a broader infrastructure to support working parents—certainly too complicated to pin on a single enemy.

I said some version of this out loud from the stage, partly because I was looking for sympathy, and partly because I wanted to convey that the “patriarchy” was not a fixed monolith we could never get around but something shifting and changing and open to analysis. But that confessional approach only brought more ire. “Lucky for you that you have the luxury to agonize about your choices,” the young woman said. “What about the woman who picks up your trash after you leave at 5?”

This is when I knew I was dealing with some irrational attachment to the concept of unfair. For my book I’d interviewed plenty of women who might find themselves picking up the trash, likely as a second job after a full day of school or another job, or both, because their husbands—or, more likely, the fathers of their children—were out of work. My young interrogator might be annoyed to learn that many of those women who pick up the trash yearn to bring back at least some aspects of the patriarchy. They generally appreciate their new economic independence and feel pride at holding their families together, at working and studying and doing things on their own, but sometimes they long to have a man around who would pay the bills and take care of them and make a life for them in which they could work less. And they want the men in their lives to be happy. It’s elite feminists like my questioner and me who cling to the dreaded patriarchy just as he is walking out of our lives.

A few months after my book came out, sociologist Stephanie Coontz published an editorial in the New York Times that was headlined “The Myth of Male Decline,” which summarized many of the responses to my book in order to support her argument that the end of men was nowhere in sight. Many of the points made by Coontz and other members of what Liza Mundy, author of The Richer Sex, calls the academic “Fempire” are true, in a selective sort of way that elides other truths. I notice they often choose the statistics that make women look the most beleaguered.

For example, one figure that both Mundy and I cite in our books, and that has provoked much angry dissent, is how many wives earn more money than their husbands. We all agree that the proportion of female breadwinners leapt from only 4 percent in 1970 to nearly 30 percent in 2010. Coontz, however, discounts this gain by arguing that when we look at all married couples, not just dual-earner couples, the numbers look much weaker because some wives don’t work at all. This is a fair point. But if we are going to add on extra data samples, then I offer another, more relevant one: the growing number of single mothers. The United States is undergoing an explosion not of full-time stay-at-home mothers but of single mothers who are often, for better or worse, the main breadwinners for their families by default. We recently passed the threshold, for example, at which more than half of all births to mothers under 30 were to single mothers. I’m not sure this counts as feminist progress, but it does count as a profound shift in the traditional power dynamics of the American family.

Coontz also makes the broader point that women, even college-educated women, continue to flock to less prestigious jobs. She points out that woman are even more concentrated now than they were before in the professions of legal secretary or “managers of medicine and health occupations.” We can call the pattern of women’s jobs by its old, disparaging name, “gender segregation,” and insist on seeing it as a choice that is imposed on them. But we can also see it through a new paradigm—as Coontz in her own work has so successfully encouraged us to do vis-à-vis marriage—that acknowledges women as agents making intelligent decisions about what jobs are available in this economy. Maybe women are choosing health occupations because the health care field is booming, not because they are blindly walking—or being led—into a female ghetto.

What surprised me most about Coontz’s piece was not its content but the collective sigh of relief it seemed to generate. “Marry me, Stephanie Coontz,” tweeted the immensely talented and successful journalist Irin Carmon. “Stephanie Coontz is a national treasure and I wish her work were required reading for everyone in the world,” blogged Jill Filipovic, a lawyer and writer on Feministe, who went on to explain how all this “women are dominating … stuff” is not quite true. The women who seemed to be reveling in Coontz’s insistence that reports of the end of men (and the rise of women) have been greatly exaggerated were by and large young and ambitious, and as far as I could tell hadn’t been held back all that much in their careers by “the patriarchy.” Many of them are in positions of influence, widely published and widely read; if they sniff out misogyny, I have no doubt they will gleefully skewer the responsible sexist in one of many available online outlets, and get results.  These are exactly the types of woman I portray in the book as benefiting from the new age of female dominance. Why should they feel reassured to be told that men are still on top, that the old order had not been shaken? 

The 2012 elections inspired a similar reactionary response in some quarters. A record number of women were elected to Congress, and women were critical to Obama’s re-election, particularly single women.* And yet soon after the election, the New York Times published as its lead op-ed a study by two academics showing that women would not truly reach parity or be in a position to pass women-friendly policies until they controlled half of all congressional seats. This seems true enough, if a little obvious. But it entirely missed the revolutionary shift the moment marked. There was a group marginalized in the election: white men. They voted en masse for Mitt Romney, and lost.

This bean counting and monitoring—an outdated compulsion to keep your guard up, because sexism lurks everywhere—has found new life online, where feminist websites (including our own) and the Twitter police are always on the lookout for the next slight.

Sometimes the critical eye is useful, such as this week when outrage over sexist and racists tweets got Business Insider exec Pax Dickinson pushed out. (Though this is not a sign of THE PATRIARCHY—this is relatively easy victory.) Sometimes it’s just petty, like when Jennifer Weiner recently complained about a critic calling her “strident.”  As a form of blogging or tweeting, pointing fingers is endlessly satisfying. But as a form of political expression, it’s pretty hollow and out of tune with reality.

This strain of feminism assumes an exquisite vulnerability, an image of women as “creatures too ‘tender’ for the abrasiveness of daily life,” as Joan Didion put it in her 1972 essay “The Women’s Movement.” (Is this why we now put “trigger warnings” on stories that mention rape or sexual harassment?) Maybe now we pay such close attention to words like “strident” because they are all we have, the only way to access the outrage of darker days. If so, we should treasure them as tokens of how far we’ve come. After all, if the most obnoxious members of the patriarchy can be brought down by a few tweets, how powerful can they really be?

In the early days of the feminist movement, every small victory was celebrated. There was exultation, liberation, a sense of joy at women’s progress that seems largely absent today. Somehow the mood of the movement has shifted into reverse: The closer women get to real power, the more they cling to the idea that they are powerless. To rejoice about feminist victories these days counts as betrayal.

A month after my book came out, I was invited to an academic conference dedicated largely to rebutting the claims I had made in it. The participants came from many fields—law, sociology, anthropology—but were people who had spent their careers exploring social inequality. This issue is probably the most important one the United States and a number of other countries face, ever more so as the gap between rich and poor expands. But as I sat through the conference, I realized that the study of inequality has an occupational hazard: After decades of looking for certain patterns, they may become all you can see. The phenomenon reminds me of the famous study in which researchers asked subjects viewing a video clip to count how many times basketball players wearing a certain color shirt passed a ball. A giant gorilla walked across the screen in the course of the video, but many subjects failed to see it, so focused were they on the patterns they’d been instructed to watch. 

I understand that the big picture is not always reflected in women’s daily experience of life. Maybe a woman has an overbearing husband or a retrograde boss or just a lingering problem that has no name. But as a collective, it sometimes feels that women  look too closely at the spot right in front of us. This is a moment, unprecedented in history—and also pretty confusing—when young women who work how they want and have sex how they want may also quilt and can fruits. When working-class women who quietly leave the only steady paycheck on the kitchen table every week may still believe that a man is the God-ordained head of the household. So I want to tell these women who are seeing only oppression: Look around.

Correction, Sept. 12, 2013: This article originally stated that women hold one-third of U.S. congressional seats. Women actually hold 18.3 percent of congressional seats. (Return.)