So the lead article in the NY Times today is about the fact that the majority of births in this country to women under 30 are now to unmarried mothers. I can’t say I’m surprised, but the more I thought about this article, and the accompanying story discussing the dynamic at work in an Ohio town, the angrier I became.
Here’s the fact, folks, unmarried mothers didn’t get that way themselves. And yet in the headlines of both of these articles, the men are missing. In the second story referenced above, it is “Young Mothers” for whom marriage has a fading allure and in the first it is “Women under 30” who are described as having children out of wedlock. Where are the men? Where is the responsibility on their part?
I’ve heard and read a lot about the “mancession” and the “crisis of boys” in education, and I don’t want to be insensitive to that, but I’m sick of the argument that men of a certain generation (let’s call it under 35) are systematically oppressed because a generation of women have been emasculating them. For those unfamiliar with the “War Against Boys” theory, most vocally advocated by Christina Hoff Summers at the turn of this century, the argument goes that males are now more likely than females to fail classes, get punished in school, or drop out, and they are less likely to complete college degrees at all levels except the Ph.D. (where they are roughly at parity with women). The reason for this is purportedly that we have created an educational system that is hostile to men, focused on female achievement. This argument has been surprisingly persistent, despite being largely debunked by studies showing that the difference between the sexes disappears when we control for things like race and income-related factors. (A study by the AAUW reported this finding based on a study of 40 years worth of data on educational achievement.) Likewise, the much-touted “mancession” is now being followed by a “he-covery” (*GAG*), with men making more progress than women in getting new jobs and getting jobs in a range of fields once dominated by women. This article cautions that long-term employment rates for men will continue to suffer if male degree completion rates continue to drop, but I think that’s a fairly obvious statement.
All of this ties into the “unwed mothers” phenomenon. A common theme among women interviewed in the NYT pieces is that they not only view husbands as unnecessary, but they also see them as burdensome and untrustworthy. What we have isn’t a generation of unwed mothers, we have a generation of deadbeat men. In the past, when women failed to obtain higher education it was because they were openly discriminated against, drummed out of school when they got married or pregnant, and they were given a low priority for admission to programs in the first place. Now, when men fail to finish higher education, it’s not for any of those reasons. Some men, because of race or class, start off at a disadvantage, but many men don’t finish or don’t go to college in the first place because they just don’t want to do the work. Even among those men that I see in my classroom and in my graduate program, the males are also overall less likely than females to be involved in extracurricular activities, service projects, to volunteer for committees, or basically to do anything they aren’t forced to do. Then, when these same guys can’t get jobs, I hear them complaining that “it only went to her because she had a vagina.” Right. A vagina, a string of grants and scholarships, multiple publications, and a page full of demonstrated service credentials. Try again, guys.
The same attitude, I think, has spread to marriage. Men don’t want to do it unless they feel they absolutely have to. Maybe I’m biased by my history of crappy relationships, but it’s telling to me that none of the men I’ve dated long-term have as-of-yet gone on to marry. Two of them are now in their mid-30s, one is still in his twenties. All of them told me at some point they wanted to have kids, but none of them wanted to start having kids “for a while,” because it would cramp their lifestyle. A few years ago, a male friend who proposed to his girlfriend for her birthday very romantically informed me that it was because, “I’ve given her a lot of gifts over the years, and the only other thing I could think of to give her was a ring.” Hmm. So who’s really the problem here?
I can relate to the women of Ohio. I look around me and I see in my peer group that even among the women I know who are my age and married, none of them fit the traditional marriage mold–almost all of the women are at parity with their spouses or have “married down” either in terms income or educational level. The New York Times also kindly informed me just last week that if I ever want to marry, I should expect to marry down. No shit. You know how many well-traveled, marathon-running, Ph.D.-holding men I’ve met in my life? I could count them on less than one hand. I don’t expect to meet my “equal,” but I do expect to meet a man who can take care of himself, and who has some ambition in life. Those men are few and far between and mostly are already taken. Maybe it’s true that women these days are guilty of thinking they can take charge of life on their own, but I think the men of today are equally guilty of thinking they can take charge of life when they’re 40, and until then they’re willing to skate by on the bare minimum of effort.