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Caryl Rivers

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The Atlantic's Woman Problem

Posted: 01/19/2012 12:40 pm

When will the Atlantic finally deal with its women problem?

The venerable magazine regularly publishes thoughtful reporting and analysis about the Middle East, U.S. politics, the future of China, the global economy, climate change -- on and on. It's only when the publication gazes on the 50 percent of the population that is not male that it wanders off into Cloud cuckoo land.

If the proverbial Man from Mars knew about women only from reading the Atlantic, he would believe that their hormones go completely haywire at a certain age, making them unstable, unreliable creatures (The Bitch is Back) /and at the same time they are on the verge of taking over all the power in society, leading to The End of Men. They are selfish careerists destroying their children, or they have decided they really can have it all and are disdaining marriage. Or, they use other women's resentment of men to succeed.
In the December issue, the magazine suggests that the most successful female entrepreneur on the planet gained her wealth and fame by bonding with women over the cruelties and insensitivities of men.

Caitlin Flanagan writes that Oprah Winfrey, more than any other broadcaster ever, understands the ways in which men can hurt women. Men "tend to be wary of her, if not outright hostile. She's onto them."

Indeed, Oprah has spoken of her own history of abuse, and has promoted women who write about such issues, including Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. But if she's a "manogynist," she is an amazingly forgiving one. Are Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz wary of Oprah? Probably not, since she's made them superstars. She's made two movies from Mitch Albom's books. Oprah evangelizes for empowerment for everyone, not only women. She created a travel show for her new channel featuring a young man with cerebral palsy. Flanagan sees Oprah through an absurdly reductionist lens, but then, that's how she views much of the world.

Many women I know -- and not a few men -- scratch their heads over the Atlantic's fascination with Flanagan. She represents a very tiny sliver of American womanhood today. She is the wife of a very wealthy executive who can afford hot and cold running nannies, and repeatedly attacks working women as self-centered careerists who are destroying their children. She never mentions the mountain of reliable evidence that finds kids of working mothers as emotionally healthy as children of at-home mothers. (See Ellen Galinsky's "Ask the Children.")

Flanagan advocates for a very retro style of marriage. She believes husbands should be in charge and women accommodating. Indeed, wisps of Mirabel Morgan cling to her. (Remember Total Woman?) But Flanagan would never be so déclassé as to greet her husband at the door clad only in Saran Wrap, as Morgan suggests. She does, however, seem to find men who care for children a real turn off. She admits she would feel "a distinct lack of erotic feeling" if her husband interrupted his Saturday tennis game to help out with the children. (Most women I know would have the opposite reaction. They'd toss hubby on the couch for a quickie just for the suggestion.) At times, Flanagan morphs into some eerie clone of Martha Stewart, about whom she writes, rhapsodizing over artifacts from an earlier era. She says, "No woman with a beating heart and an ounce of femininity" can resist such domestic ephemera as a freshly laundered fluffy white towel or the sight of "A child's lawn pinafore draped across a painted rocking chair."

Has anybody since Edith Wharton ever even seen a lawn pinafore? Flanagan would have made a great Victorian, but the statistical odds are that she would have been one of the maids, not the lady of the house. Would she enjoy both the fluffy towel and the lawn pinafore so much if she was the one who had to iron them?" Sometimes I think Flanagan is simply writing satire and one of these days she will break into a cackle and say, "Got Ya!" But I guess that is not going to happen.

If Caitlin Flanagan represents one half of the universe of women in Atlantic's vision, the other half is occupied by Sandra Tsing Loh. And no odder odd couple could be found. Tsing Loh is a caustic, often very funny cultural critic and playwright who casts a cold eye on our current situations -- personal and political. But in 2009 she wrote a piece that was as atypical of American women as is Flanagan's Victoriana. She has decided that smart, fortyish women like her are so capable and competent in all realms of life that they don't need husbands. As Tsing Loh (who has jettisoned hers) writes, "I can pay the bills, I can refinance the house at the best reasonable rates" and, she adds, take care of all the children's needs as well. She can do it all. Alone. So why not? There are always guys out there for sex.

But how many accomplished -- and yes, feminist -- women share that view? None that I know. Women who are successful are not just busting their buttons to discard their husbands. In fact, research finds that women who earn more than their husbands have marriages just as stable as women who earn less.

Another article that the Atlantic featured by Tsing Loh, in October 2011, was called "The Bitch is Back." She had (or is having) a really, really rotten menopause, causing her to behave badly and to often despise most of those closest to her. As usual, she can be sharp and funny, but what is the message when a magazine that rarely writes about women publishes an article showing a woman In full-blown hormonal rage? (Oh My God, we knew it, they really do go crazy at midlife!)

If this piece had appeared in say, Redbook, it would have received little notice. But since it appeared in a major policy publication, it did get attention. The influential columnist David Brooks of the New York Times named it to his list of ten best magazine articles of the year. But it was the only one written by a woman. In 2011 women did wonderful journalism about Iraq, Afghanistan, the Arab spring, politics and science. But why was the only one that made the "best list" about female hormonal rage?

The leitmotif of much of what the Atlantic publishes about women is that female gains are dangerous -- to children, to families, to marriages, to themselves, and to men. The "End of Men" was a 2010 cover article written by Hanna Rosen, the premise of which was that because women now outnumber men on college campuses, they will move into the jobs that lead to power in society and replace men as the power elite.

There seems scant evidence for this proposition. Women have been at near parity with men in colleges for decades; shouldn't the End of Men be well under way by now? But the gender pay gap has barely budged. And men are hardly fleeing colleges. The numbers of men who are attending college is steadily rising, even though women's upward curve is steeper. Also, who goes to which colleges is also relevant here. Much of the increase of women is accounted for by older women and by minority women, especially African Americans. This is good news, but these women are probably not on a straight upward trek to join the power elite. Even high-scoring women may not be on a fast track. Getting top grades in college does not automatically open doors for women. A Sloan foundation study "Women Lead in College but not in the Workforce" found that women's earnings have not kept up with their gains in educational attainment. If you are female, you may be the valedictorian, but you probably won't keep up in money and prestige with your top-level male classmate.

Will this narrative ever change in the Atlantic? I hope so. One day I would like to pick up the magazine and see a well-reported article about American women that's without the "What the hell are they up to now?" brand of alarm.

But I am not holding my breath.

Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the co-author, with Rosalind C. Barnett, senior scientist at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center of "The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About our Children." (Columbia University Press.)