The Breakfast Table

Women’s Gain, Men’s Gain

Dear Cathy,

Having now read the Harper’s article, I understand better the burden of your question when you asked me whether as a man I feel “in decline.” And I’d like now to answer more seriously. The truth is that I don’t feel in decline; I actually feel, although it sounds funny to say it, liberated. And my own liberation has much to do with the liberation of women in the last 30 or so years. Let me explain by once again indulging in the putatively “soft” and “feminine” rhetorical strategy of personal anecdote.

I have spent the better part of the last decade as a graduate student in English and American literature. As I’m sure you know, this is financially and professionally a very dubious undertaking. As a teaching assistant one gets paid next to nothing for doing a great deal of work, and even once one gets the degree, the prospects of getting a job are rather slim, even for people coming from prestigious schools. And even if one gets a job, the pay, compared with that of similarly highly trained professionals, is negligible.

I nonetheless chose this path and have stuck to it because I sincerely love the work of reading and writing, and because teaching is not only inherently enjoyable but, I think, socially worthwhile and important. For all the many frustrations and disappointments I have had in academia, I still feel grateful for the opportunity to have pursued my education to the highest level, and I think I have given myself a chance at least to work out a truly fulfilling (if not very remunerative) career. I simply could not have done any of this within a traditional marriage structure in which I was expected to support a wife and children. Indeed, I don’t think I could have done it without the considerable financial (and emotional) support of my girlfriend/now wife throughout these years.

Like many young women these days, my wife has never assumed that a husband would or should support her; she fully expects to have her own career and to have children. Thus at the same time as I was pursuing my training as an academic, she pursued hers as an M.D., and it was only by putting off having children and combining her salary as a resident with mine as a teaching assistant that we have been able to make things work. If I had been expected to be the sole breadwinner and we had pursued the traditional course of quick marriage and children, I could never have done what I really wished to do. Her liberation, in other words, has contributed decisively to my own. Sure, my ego is bruised occasionally when I realize that she will probably always make more money than I will and that she will also have more social prestige. But I also realize that her freedom and competence has helped make it possible for me to do things I never dreamed I could. And I’m a man after all. I’m tough. I can take a few hits.

So, that’s a rather long way of saying that I agreed with Ehrenreich almost every step of the way. I find Tiger’s notion of “decline” exaggerated, a little hyped, and narrow. I really see no reason why women’s long-awaited gains must equal men’s loss. I think its a win-win situation.

I hope that doesn’t defuse conversation too much. I’m still thinking about school choice, so I’ll send this along in time for you to respond.