Raising Boys in an Age of “Gender Battles”

If more men publicly called out their female partners as true intellectual equals, it would set an important example for our sons.

A father and son walking together.
It’s a tough time to be a parent.

It’s a tough time to be a parent. For one thing, how do we explain to our kids—we each have two teenage sons—why so many men in America seem to think it is OK to treat women badly? Perhaps more pointedly, how to explain why so many men who treat women badly get away with it? Indeed, the one who “joked” about grabbing women by their genitals is elected president. A man who physically terrorized two of his now-ex wives is protected by the White House, then vocally defended by the president. In this public culture, with “incels” emboldened to threaten and harass women because girls reject them sexually, and Jordan Peterson drawing legions of worshippers for claiming that women must endure “enforced monogamy” to mollify angry men, it’s easy to believe that we are all doomed to have to take sides in a gender battle to the death.

Fortunately, that narrative is belied every day by reality on the ground. All over the country, there are men who support and admire women for their accomplishments outside the home, and men who are co-parenting with their wives, girlfriends, and exes. (The amount of time men spend with their children has increased over the decades, although women still devote more hours in this sphere.) And this is not just a “liberal elite” or blue state phenomenon. Working class fathers actually spend more time with their kids than do professional men, as Joan Williams of the Hastings College of Law Center for Worklife Law and her colleagues have found. If we aren’t yet in a golden age of co-parenting, we are moving in that direction, even if in many cases for economic reasons that create their own stresses. But it remains true that men are often still afraid to admit to their family obligations at work.

The corollary to the relative silence about men who nurture, love, read bedtime stories, and endure recorder recitals is how rare it is to see a man publicly and unambivalently brag about his wife’s professional accomplishments. In the public sphere, we hear men brag about their wives’ beauty or express gratitude for their wives’ dedication to home and family. We sometimes see fathers beaming with pride over their daughters’ accomplishments or grown sons thanking their single mothers for earning a living while parenting solo. But a man’s authentic expression of admiration and regard for his wife’s career or intellect, along with an acknowledgment, implicit or explicit, of his own family commitments, still seems painfully rare in the public discourse.

This is why we were so struck when, on the very same day last month, we each heard just that. Chris Hayes spoke about how much the insights of his wife, Cardozo Law professor Kate Shaw, enrich and inform his own reporting and commentary on the Constitution and the law, and he invited her on his podcast so that the rest of us could learn from her. That same week, the author Michael Chabon, speaking at the 92nd Street Y, noted how much he always learned about both writing and parenting from his wife, the writer, Ayelet Waldman. Each man described his wife’s intelligence and professional accomplishments with enormous pride and admiration. Each man voiced his commitment to a family partnership. Neither man suggested or implied that his own career was made possible by his wife’s taking care of the home and family so he did not have to. In fact, they both suggested that their own careers were enriched by their partner’s professional work.

We’re not trying to idealize or, alternatively, to denigrate anyone’s relationship. Every relationship is different, and none is perfect, and we have been reminded in recent months that some of the most publicly feminist men in America can be abusers in secret. People make all kinds of arrangements within their families, and intimate relationships, over the course of years, will shift and stretch and change. But one question that listening to Hayes and Chabon raised for us was this: What do our children—all our children—see as the model for male-female relationships? Are they taking their cues from the Hollywood men who perform happy marriages while behaving like predators? Are they starting to think about finding a life partner whose primary defining asset is that she will submit to enforced monogamy, Jordan Peterson–style, even if she doesn’t wish to?

Fortunately, what happens in the home matters. (There is evidence, for example, that when fathers regularly do housework, their daughters are more likely to feel free to ambitiously pursue careers.) And our sons have grown up watching their parents support and admire each other, both professionally and in the home. They have seen their moms and dads prioritize their partners’ careers and ambitions. But it stands to reason that what they, and other kids, are absorbing from public life matters too.

And that may be particularly true right now, when success of any kind is portrayed by politicians and in the media as a zero-sum game between opposing groups: Either you believe that sexual harassment is a problem in many workplaces or you think political correctness has gone too far. Either you believe that white privilege and institutionalized racism exist or you care about the white working class. Put this kind of zero-sum thinking together with the widespread discussion of mistreatment of women at the hands of men and you have a toxic recipe for how men and women relate to each other, from the workplace to the public square to the most intimate family relationships. If our children are internalizing the message that female success is the cause of male failure, and male violence and male backlash, we are all in monstrous trouble.

Perhaps, this is one way in which the record number of female candidates running for office could have an impact separate and apart from their electoral success. Suddenly, images of husbands cheering on their wives are much more common. Consider this picture from Amy McGrath’s election night party, when she won the Democratic primary in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District, with her husband, retired Navy officer Erik Henderson, grinning and applauding.* Consider too the blockbuster new documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which depicts not only Justice Ginsburg’s steely resolve and legal brilliance, but also a love story about a man who admired and advanced his wife’s career—in a generation when that truly was rare. And it’s obviously also worth noting how the legions of single parents and same-sex families have been—and continue to be—remarkable role models and pioneers for rethinking gender roles and family responsibilities. Our kids are watching these families and learning that no one gender is born to subordinate success to the other.

So for Father’s Day, we have some final thoughts. We want to urge more men to do what so rarely happens in public, to hold up their female partners as true equals and inspirations. We want to encourage all men to make a point of modeling and celebrating gender parity and mutual regard, at work, at family gatherings, in the community. This would be a remarkable Father’s Day gift to your children and your wives. (We know, it’s supposed to be the other way around.) And finally, we want to express our enormous gratitude to our own husbands: our sons’ fathers, whose genuine partnership and unflagging respect makes our own work better and our own lives richer. It shouldn’t be controversial or even startling, but somehow it feels necessary to point out in America, in 2018, that these fathers are showing their sons every day that cheering on the women in their lives is simply what smart and confident men do.

Correction, June 18, 2018: This article originally misidentified congressional candidate Amy McGrath as Sally McGrath.