That gagging sound you heard last week when Ann Romney bellowed in her best Oprah voice, "I love you, womennnnnn!"? That was me.
And not because I don't love women; I do. And not because I don't believe that Ann Romney loves women; I'm sure she does. It's because, at best, this sentiment is utterly beside the point. At worst, it's a cynical, calculated, transparent attempt to chip away at the current and sizable gender gap among voters.
My thoughts crystallized this weekend, while reading an adaptation from Hanna Rosin's forthcoming book, The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, which ran in Sunday's New York Times magazine. The piece -- and Rosin's book, which grew out of a much dissected article that ran in The Atlantic two years ago -- focuses on several real-life families in Alexander City, Alabama, families who now rely on mom to bring home the bacon, a circumstance which leaves everyone puzzling over the reversal of roles. This change of fortune comes thanks to a confluence of factors including the disappearance of good-paying work in the manufacturing sector (jobs traditionally held by men) and the fact that the economy has changed, as have the types of jobs that are available and the skills that are needed in order to land them:
These days that usually requires going to college or getting some job retraining, which women are generally more willing to do. Two-thirds of the students at the local community college are women, which is fairly typical of the gender breakdown in community colleges throughout the country.
These shifts represent a reality that bumps with the worldview there, informed by both Southern tradition and the Evangelical church. Rosin writes of a conversation with Reuben Prater, currently out of work:
Reuben has a college degree and doesn't seem especially preoccupied with machismo, so I asked him why, given how many different kinds of jobs he has held, he couldn't train for one of the jobs that he knew was available: something related to schools, nursing or retail, for example. One reason was obvious -- those jobs don't pay as much as he was accustomed to making -- but he said there was another. 'We're in the South,' he told me. 'A man needs a strong, macho job. He's not going to be a schoolteacher or a legal secretary or some beauty-shop queen. He's got to be a man.' I asked several businesswomen in Alexander City if they would hire a man to be a secretary or a receptionist or a nurse, and many of them just laughed.
All of which makes me chuckle a bit, when one considers this:
'An important long-term issue is that men are not doing as well as women in keeping up with the demands of the local economy,' says Michael Greenstone, an economist at M.I.T. and director of the Hamilton Project, which has done some of the most significant research on men and unemployment. 'It's a first-order mystery for social scientists, why women have more clearly heard the message that the economy has changed and men have such a hard time hearing it or responding.'
Why shouldn't they have a hard time? We're talking about nothing short of a wholesale redefinition of what it is to be a man. Or a woman. We're talking about nothing short of a wholesale redefinition of what's valued. For centuries, to be a man was to hold power and make money, finding a woman to fill the role of "helpmate" along his ascent. Given this, I'd say it's not mysterious at all that men are having a hard time hearing the message that things are changing.
Who wants to hear that their status is in jeopardy, their power no longer assured? Who wouldn't find themselves at a loss?
As women, we're taking on new challenges because we can. To earn a paycheck was not something expected of us as women; it's something we've had to fight for the right to do.
And it's not just the middle-aged men who have careers and lives to look back upon as they wonder what changed who are idling. Even young men seem resistant to what's really going on. One family profiled in Rosin's piece exemplifies it all: Rob Pridgen, whose job had recently been phased out, lives with his wife Connie, a high school teacher, and her grown daughter Abby, who found Rob's explanation of "man-as-provider" laughable:
At this point... Abby, who was then 19, piped up with her own perspective on the Southern code of chivalry, which she said sounded like nonsense to her, given how the boys she knew actually behaved -- hanging out in the parking lot, doing God knows what, or going home and playing video games instead of bothering to apply for college...
[Another] afternoon, while Rob sat nearby, Connie and Abby were mulling over a passage from Proverbs that is sometimes read at church for Mother's Day and that had come up in a Bible study group.
The passage describes the 'wife of noble character' who works with the wool and the flax, brings the food from afar, 'gets up while it is still dark,' buys a field, plants a vineyard and turns a profit. 'Her lamp does not go out at night' because she's still sewing clothes for the poor and generally being industrious while everyone else sleeps. Her husband, meanwhile, 'is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.'
Traditionally, this passage has been viewed as an elaboration of the proper roles of husband and wife. The husband sits in the dominant, protective role, watching his wife's efforts on behalf of the family and taking pride. But in a town in which many men aren't working steadily anymore, the words have taken on new meaning. There are people who have noticed that the passage never mentions what the husband is doing or what role he's playing in providing food for his family, tilling the fields or turning a profit. And what's dawning on Connie these last few months became obvious to Abby and Rob as she read the passage out loud. That noble wife is working from dawn to dusk. And the husband?
'Sounds like he's sitting around with his buddies shooting the breeze, talking about the ballgame and eating potato chips,' Rob said.
Abby wasn't surprised. Around Alex City, she said it seemed that it was the girls who were full of energy and eager to see the world. Her own brother, Alex, who was 17, seemed to want to stay in town forever and raise his family here. But Abby was enrolled in Southern Union State Community College, attending on a show-choir scholarship. Her plan was to go there for a year, as many girls in Alex City do, to save money, and then head to Auburn University.
Women are important to Republicans only in as much as a vote is a vote. But women are increasingly important to this economy, not to mention to the financial support of the typical family and household -- we are, in so many ways, patently integral to the success of our society. And the outdated structures and policies we're left with -- and some are fighting fervently to preserve -- are relics of a bygone era, useless as typewriters or VCRs. To refuse to recognize the changing times is the worst kind of denial -- one that breeds backward-looking policies and irrelevant debate. Our society and our economy need us. To truly value women would be to prioritize policies that help working mothers: health care for everyone and reproductive rights. To patronize women by saying "we love you," or "your job has always been harder," is useless when it's paired with a refusal to acknowledge who today's women actually are and what they actually do. Because it's not just women who depend on it.
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