Monday, August 21, 2017
Book Review: 'The Richer Sex' by Liza Mundy
This is a wide-ranging book, anecdotes supported by statistics. Mundy, to her credit, interviewed very broadly, and cites anecdotes from Hispanic, black, middle-class and professional class families. Although the anecdotes she draws from these different demographics show differing degrees of acceptance of the woman as the dominant earner, she does not allow ethnic considerations to affect her overall thesis. She does, however, say that African American women probably presage the condition of all American women in two decades' time.
Mundy opens with an anecdote about Mister Mom. It can work. She then transitions into the telling of the demographic trends, which are certainly undeniable. In the 1970s only a very small percentage of women outearned their husbands. She says the figure is now 40% and rising. Mundy credits this to women's grit and the tearing down of discriminatory practices. Whatever the cause, she appears correct in her observation.
Mundy is correct to observe that men do not react well when women outperform them. "Men know that women are an overmatch for them, and therefore they choose the weakest and the most ignorant [as spouses]" she quotes. But then she goes on to say that the statistics show that men are actually spending more time doing housework as women increase their work time. Then she reverses to claim that many men want to marry women who outearn them, in order to devote their time to hobbies leisure and children. She quotes Gary Becker again, saying that "when culture runs up against economic trends, the economic trends usually win out."
Mundy asks, can women do this? Do they want a laid-back guy? Much of the evidence says no. She says men have three options: resist, give up and stop trying; or accept things as they are and try to develop a more perfect union. Mundy calls this door number three. Behind this door, the future she claims is bright. She says earning power gives women bargaining power to get what they need from their men.
She predicts a world in which men are attracted to high earning, dynamic, successful women, and these women will increasingly accept men in a supporting role. She envisions a flowering of romance, as both sexes are relieved of traditional gender roles. Women will marry younger men. She says "men in Western nations will opt for mail-order brides, or move and settle in less developed countries with a wife who will take care of them - and their money." As a guy who lives in Ukraine with a loving, devoted and thrifty wife, I'll say that this myth is what many American women fervently want to believe. Many of the attractions are more basic. We like women who appreciate traditional values, piety and family. Most men also prefer women who act like ladies, don't curse, care about their appearance, and let the guy feel like he's in charge even if both know better.
She predicts women will look for men who are good at sex and also good at washing the dishes. Is that what women really want? And by the way, good luck! She also predicts that men in the "marriageable pool" will not be looking to extend their promiscuous days, but will belonging to settle down. She says, without footnote, that studies indicate that men may have a greater desire than women for family life. However, the pool of Americans who are married will continue to shrink. I agree with this. But I as, what's in marriage for the guy? It's OK if he really wants kids, but otherwise, why bother? Traditional wisdom says that nobody works harder for his money than the man who marries for it. It is still true.
Chapter 2: The Bargain
"It would be hard to overstate the historic nature of women's economic ascendancy." She quotes Virginia Woolf's assessment of women's situation in England, a rather short history of female emancipation since the Enlightenment. She sets up an artificial battle between Marx and Darwin, Marx stressing women's labor and man's sense of ownership, and Darwin stressing that it was a good deal for the perpetuation of the species unit provided women more protection than men.
However, women increasingly entered the workforce during the Depression and World War II. Men were out of work or off to the Army. She doesn't say it, but the changing nature of work favored this as well. There was more and more brain work to be done, as machines displaced brawn. Mundy riffs on the way women have always traded on their looks in order to marry up. She says that this is a theme of evolutionary psychology. True, and this fact is not going away anytime soon. She has read the literature. Women have traditionally wanted to be protected and cared for and to have children. What has changed is that feminism has diminished men's ability to fill their traditional roles, as women take over all but childbearing.
I invite Mundy to also read Sarah Blaffer Hrdy on "Mother Nature." It isn't titled "Daddy Nature" for very good reasons, which I think Mundy would as soon overlook. Women have evolved to elicit support from men and kinfolk in the vital role of caring for babies. Mundy hypothesizes that men will now simply change the their nature and become nurturing, just like women. In other words, women having taken men's positions, men will turn around and be content to occupy the position in society formerly held by women. There is only slim precedent for this. There are examples of gay men functioning more more or less successfully - all the media certainly tell us they're successful, whatever the truth may be - as parents. There are the couples that Mundy cites, in which the woman is the breadwinner and the man is the nurturing, stay-at-home spouse. Without doubt these have been the exceptions. Of course to any rule there will always be exceptions. I think we should applaud the instances in which this works, saying "good for you." To bet the future of society on these few anecdotes is taking a major risk.
Chapter 3 - The Overtaking
We have arrived: women make up about half the US labor force, and 80% of college-educated women are in the labor force. The decrease in US competitiveness has forced families to depend on two wage earners. However, the number of working age men who are actually in the workforce has fallen because many no longer aspire to work at all.
Women have rapidly replaced men as the dominant presence on campus. She quotes Gary Becker - often - to the effect that women's temperaments are better suited to school than those of men. They are better organized. I add that schools are a female dominated institution, one which does not easily make accommodations for boys' differences in learning styles. Many female teachers just don't understand rambunctious boys as well as docile girls.
Mundy says, correctly, that "boys have not lost the industrial European breadwinning mindset; they want, many of them, to get out into the workforce as soon as they can." Trouble is, the world is not ready to accept them, especially without a college degree.
Mundy is brave to say that the wage gap between men and women is not entirely attributable to discrimination. It has shrunk, and its causes are not known. Discrimination notwithstanding, there are more and more localities and sectors among whom women already earn more than men. She observes that men have simply stopped entering certain sectors such as veterinary medicine because there are so many women. That is counterintuitive; these are high-paying fields. It probably has more to do with general problems of young men getting oriented in life, which she goes into later in a section called "The Opt-Out Revolution - Among Men"
She refers to the fact that just 66% of men 25 to 64 are working, down from 80% in 1970. More and more depend on their wives. This is the reverse Cinderella effect. Mundy claims that men thus have a greater incentive to get married. That seems like a stretch. I observe that men are not strictly economic animals. If they got married only for the sake of income, they wouldn't be happy, and it is hard to believe that their wives would be happy either.
Chapter 4 - New Rules Of Mating
What do women want? Increasingly, they realize that they don't need, and perhaps don't want a man. They no longer have the expectation of marrying up, because there's not much "up" out there.
Mundy muses that we may be returning to a Pleistocene (hunter gatherer) scenario in which women bring in more calories through their gathering and small-scale farming than men through their hunting. Agriculture brought a change that made women subservient, she claims, and education is now making them equal again. I will add, having spent some time among aboriginal and subsistence farming peoples, that traditional societies simply have very different roles for the sexes. And in both, the chest-pounding and communal decision making processes at least overtly belong to men, though everybody concedes that women exercise a lot of power behind the scenes. The differences are not as big as she would make you believe.
What is the future hold? One option she cites is the model that predominates among African-Americans, in which women don't marry at all. Another option is the gay model, who not having to work out gender issues, seem pretty good at sorting out who does what on the basis of interest and ability. The third option is for women to marry down, because they don't have much alternative. In any case, the number of people married in their 20s has fallen from 68% 50 years ago to 26% now.
Mundy is realistic: she writes "When women enter the realm of earnings and prevail, there are bound to be reverberations. How will couples manage the potential for secret competition and overt one-upmanship? Will men give up? Retaliate? Will breadwomen carp and hector? Or will women mourn the freedom and flexibility they once enjoyed? I would say: yes, yes, yes, and yes." Mundy would like to continue to a conclusion that men will rise to the occasion and improve themselves. I don't see much evidence pointing this direction. The best evidence is among university educated. Psychometricians define IQ as the ability to figure things out and adapt. The smartest strata of society will are coping best with women's dominance, but even here there remain significant problems. Men, dammit, still want to be real men. Failing that, they tend to opt out instead of becoming women's puppets. Mundy is puzzled because it doesn't make financial sense.
Chapter 5 - Competition And Undermining.
Mundy starts with an anecdote about a Hispanic American couple driven apart by her superior earning ability. He started flirting with the younger woman and moved on. He just didn't want to be in second place in the marriage. The statistics support this finding. A lot of men are fearful of being in a relationship in which the woman earns more money.
More powerful women are more inclined to cheat. It is no surprise here; not being dependent on her husband, she has less to lose. Economically dependent men also cheat. It doesn't make financial sense, but there it is. Of course! The guy feel superfluous. It may not be financially rational, but emotionally it is extremely rational. Money is pernicious because it is such a ready yardstick. Both members of a couple know the numbers, and it can grate on the man if he is earning less.
Mundy introduces the topic of undermining, one member of a couple working covertly to weaken the other one. She talks about men and women undermining one another in economic terms. In my experience, it happens in other ways as a retaliation. A wife may attempt to wrest power from her husband by undermining his relationship with the children. She may likewise make it difficult for him to travel or to accept responsible roles in the community. Of course, it could be him undermining her just as well.
We return to the theme. "Some men will just give up." "Of course, there is another way to escape the blow to the ego of self comparison: give up altogether... Ceding the field. It's over, babe: You win." Mundy may call it a big mistake, but it is absolutely what happens. A financial mistake it may be, but life is not all about money.
There is a flip side to this. Women's expectation of men are so low that they cannot accept a competent husband. They expect their husband to be easily pushed around. If they get a husband who has a pair, he will want his own way occasionally. Some women who have power in their professional life cannot deal with that.
Chapter 6 Let Go And Lexapro.
Congratulations, Mundy! You understand that women have as much problem with men letting go as the men themselves. It is going to be a wrenching change. Women envy husbands who don't have to work as hard as they do. There is a turnaround in workaholism. Women increasingly use work as an excuse to avoid intimacy.
Part of letting go is allowing men to excel in the kitchen and at housework. A woman has to learn to be appreciative, and to say she is appreciative. More than that, she has to bite her lip if he does it his way instead of hers. Women have taken over men's space; they still find it difficult at times to cede their own space, and leave men someplace to go.
Women now have the same proprietary feeling about the money they earn as men used to. They may become resentful of what men spend. In my experience bicycles are often at the center of it. Husbands of successful women channel their time and money into becoming bicycle experts, and they want the best equipment. Women wonder why, the same question men often ask about granite countertops in the homes of women who don't know beans about cooking.
The hardest role to give up is probably that of mother, and it is correspondingly difficult to watch her husband succeeding in the role she ceded in order to become a success in the workplace. Succeeding in the PTA, the kids' play groups, dealing knowingly with pediatrician: these are roles that women usually envision for themselves. Suppressing the instinct to dictate her opinion can be a difficult thing for the breadwinner.
Chapter 7 Stigma and Female Earning
Even though a role reversal may work within a marriage, family and society take a different view, expecting more traditional gender roles. In-laws can be a problem.
I will add from my own observation that it is more acceptable for a woman not to know about politics, business, and the world around her than it is for a man. The workplace gives a man something to talk about with other men. Being a "Mister mom" closes a man with a professional background off from the society of other men. To avoid that, he had better be pretty good as a stock market investor, real estate investor, academics or in some other pursuit that attracts successful men.
Mundy observes that churches have a good reason to preach traditional gender roles. If they don't, they will die out. People will abandon the religion, and more important, people who abandon traditional gender roles simply not reproduce themselves. The dynamic about which Mundy is reporting, women's increasing power in the workplace, has certainly affected churches as well. Even evangelicals find that there are fewer and fewer men who have the wherewithal to be the traditional breadwinner, the head of household. I note that Mormons are particularly good at this, and that Mormons are increasing in numbers and power. Maybe they know something.
Chapter 8. Sex and the Self Sufficient Girl
Mundy offers the thesis that women love sex just as much as men do. This is absolutely true, with a number of very important preconditions. The guy has to be right, the mood has to be right, the relationship has to be promising, the time of the month has to be good, she can't be frazzled from her demanding job, at the wrong phase of the pregnancy or dealing with a newborn... For guys none of this matters. We are generally ready.
Aside from the physical pleasure, sex is a social statement. For a man to complete the sex act one way or another is an indication of his success as a man. For women, success is attracting the man. They may both come to the culmination seeking physical pleasure, but they get there by different paths.
Mundy advances the Cosmo magazine argument that women desire sex more than men do. This may be somewhat true of single women in their fertile years, and partially true because of what feminism has done to men. No longer the dominant sex, young men are unsure of themselves around women, increasingly hors de combat because they conveniently discover they are homosexual, or they find pornography or paid sex to be a whole lot less hassle. I will concede that there may be a population of women who want sex more than men, but it is an anomaly. To a Darwinist, it is an evolutionary dead-end. If we have to depend on the female libido for the survival of the species, we are doomed.
She reports that house husbands often don't feel like sex. Quite understandable: sex is a way of asserting one's masculinity, and the guy who doesn't feel very masculine won't feel like asserting it. The guy likes the challenge of the seduction. If she is the one who dominates every aspect of the relationship, and she is the one who says that tonight is the night, he just might not feel like it. If he can't do it like a real man, he'd probably rather not do it at all.
Communication is a crucial aspect of sexual intimacy, and open communication works best when men and women have more or less equivalent power within a marriage. A woman who is dominant in earnings has to learn how to prevent that fact from being threatening to her mate.
Chapter 9: Desirable Women
Mundy's thesis is that men will marry up, looking for successful women. Two generations of feminism have given us enough time to test this theory. I would say it hasn't happened. Thilo Sarrazin writes in "Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab" that each successive generation in Germany is one third smaller than the previous, and that university educated women are the least likely of all to be married and have children. The change in men's mindsets that Mundy would like to posit hasn't taken place in that timeframe. It is not taking place in the United States either. Large numbers of university educated women are not getting married, and these are the women who are least likely to want to raise children without the benefit of a husband. Our offspring are fewer and dumber.
She cites historical episodes and women have married down, such as after World War I, during which many of the most desirable men had been killed. She says it is likely to happen again. More than that, women will for man into the partners they want, supporting them as they go to college. This flies in the face of experience. Women have never had a great deal of success changing the man they happen to have married into the partner that they really want. It has happened, and it will happen, but it is hardly something to bet on.
Chapter 10 - The New World of Non-Marriage Choices
If the men are not marriageable, what are the alternatives? Live with them but don't marry them? Live with another woman in a nonsexual relationship? Here Mundy undermines her own thesis, veering dangerously close to the truth. She quotes `"They are very highly prized women in their professions, really good lawyers, really good community leaders, and I've never known any of them to be married," remarked JoAnne.' That was certainly the case with my ex-wife's circle of friends in Bethesda, Maryland. Highly intelligent, capable professional women who had each other's company. They would infrequently date, and never appeared to the vest much hope in romance. They managed complete lives without men, owning their own homes, keeping their own company, and succeeding in their jobs without men. Divorced or married women with children were an oddity on the periphery of their group.
I like to say that if progress depended on us men, we would all still live in caves. Women have historically been the driving force for finding better accommodations, looking to their husbands to provide them with a cozy nest. What is changing is that now the women are providing their own cozy nests, with single women buying twice as many homes as single men. Mundy warns us again that owning a home can drive men away. Of course. It is part of the male gestalt that we want to provide for a woman. If she can provide her own shelter, she doesn't need us.
Mundy hypothesizes that women will travel the world looking for is suitable husbands. This would be a turnaround; American men have been marrying foreign women for generations, finding the domestic offerings offputting for exactly the reasons that Mundy gives. I do not hold out much hope for this hypothesis. Latin American men are born to expect a dominant position in a marriage, and it is hard to envision large numbers of them becoming docile househusbands for women with higher earnings. There are a handful of Western women here in Ukraine; I have yet to see a Ukrainian man who preferred them over their countrywomen. Conversely, a lot of Ukrainian women take quickly to American husbands. Feminism has knocked the rough edges off of us, and taught us how to treat a woman well. We delight in finding foreign women who appreciate the skills American women demanded that we cultivate, but didn't somehow learn to appreciate for themselves.
Chapter Eleven - The View from Abroad
Mundy reports on the marriage situation throughout the rest of the world, that the demographic trends seen in the United States are even more advanced in other countries such as Japan and Western Europe. Whereas she has not commented on the implications her observations have for childbearing in the United States, she remarks that fertility has fallen way below the replacement rate in Asia and Western Europe. Part of the problem, she reports, is exactly what she observes in the United States. She says that men want younger, subservient wives. About Japan, she observes that "For generations, the country adhered to a custom called omiai, in which men and women were introduced informally by a friend or relative or community matchmaker, liberating men from the need to develop real, actual dating skills." In other words, "the flip" has more thoroughly confused things in other societies than even our own.
Japanese and Korean men are increasingly importing Vietnamese, Thai and Filipina wives, whom they regard as simply better marriage material. Not just subservient, but appreciative and family-oriented. Also, sex selection among babies has meant that there are not as many girl babies grown to be potential brides. I live in Ukraine; there is a large business of introducing Ukrainian women to hopeful foreigners from Western Europe, Australia, the US and Canada. I talk to a lot of these guys as they come through Kiev. Most of them are pretty presentable sorts, with decent jobs, who despair of finding a mate in their home countries. They claim that their countrywomen simply do not need men. Mundy's quotes by expatriate American men on the attractions of foreign women are accurate, if not complete. It is more than just money and supposed subservience. Woe betide the man who assumes that traditional women are subservient! He will experience many a rude surprise.
What makes Mundy's book so modern, and so depressing, is that she generally avoids the topic of children. Every society in history has seen children as the purpose of family. Mundy seems to look at financial well-being as the objective of marriage. I am sad to say I believe she is right as far as the developed societies of North America, Asia, and Western Europe are concerned. It is the logical extension of feminism - women are getting what they have always wanted, the opportunity to be independent, financially and intellectually. It is the triumph of individualism. In the bargain they have largely given up their traditional role of having children. A vast attraction of foreign women is that they still believe in family.
Chapter 12 - Our Female Future
Mundy says there is no turning back - we have to expect a world of female breadwinners. In that world there will be happy couples and fulfilled men.
Mundy says that this will take a change in men's image of themselves, one which has already taken place in the Scandinavian countries. Men will have to become more domesticated. Perhaps she is right. The Scandinavian countries are not replacing themselves, but with an average replacement rate of 1.7 (out of the 2.1 required to maintain a population) they are doing a better job than most of the rest of Europe. Maybe we will emulate them, but maybe not. The European Union once fondly hoped that other countries would learn from the Scandinavians and Germany how to manage their budgets. As the euro crisis shows, that has not been the case.
Mundy closes with a number of points of advice for women breadwinners, things to do to avoid driving their men away. All of them common sense, but nonetheless, very wise of her to have put them in print.
And finally, finally she talks about women breadwinners' babies. Children appear to be a total afterthought in the book, answering the question of what families are about in the first place. What she says is pabulum, the observation that men and women will have to raise their children to fit the brave new world she envisions. I am afraid she is right. That is what they need to do. I don't have great confidence that we will be able to do it.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Graham H. Seibert. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.