The Hearts of Men, by Barbara Ehrenreich

The Hearts of Men

The Hearts of Men is a book of social and political commentary about the changes in gender attitudes and practices that occurred in the era from the 1950s to the present (the present when the book was written that is, which was in the 1980s).

This is early Barbara Ehrenreich. It’s a competent, intelligent book with a little wit here and there, but her later style is even stronger. Books like Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch, and Bright-Sided are at least as intelligently argued, but with better flow, more emotional power, and plenty of laugh out loud passages. Here she’s a good writer; later she loosens up a bit and more fully develops her voice, and becomes an excellent writer.

The mid-to-late twentieth century certainly saw dramatic social changes in gender relations. (An example that stood out to me from the book is a study that revealed that in 1957, 53% of Americans regarded unmarried adults as “sick,” “immoral,” or “neurotic,” whereas by 1976, the percentage who so condemned single people was down a full 20 points to 33%.) Usually this is analyzed from the women’s side in terms of feminism, this period including the heyday of the “women’s lib” movement. But Ehrenreich examines it more from the men’s side, identifying clues in the zeitgeist that men were dissatisfied with (what were taken to be) the traditional gender roles. She argues that if we look at what was being said by, to, and about men in the American culture during these decades, there is plenty of evidence that men have been initiators of or active participants in the ensuing social changes.

In a way, it’s an ironic position for a feminist like Ehrenreich to take. Usually feminists contend that women’s role in history has been underappreciated, and that things are typically seen from the male perspective as if that were some sort of universal or default perspective. Here, though, Ehrenreich is arguing that whereas the most common view is that the recent massive changes in gender roles have come about primarily due to women rising up and “liberating” themselves, with men, consequently, being acted upon more than acting, in fact men—for better or worse—have actively sought to free themselves from their previously socially mandated roles as well.

The “starting point,” as it were, in Ehrenreich’s analysis is a world where there was very strong cultural pressure on men to get married fairly young, to obtain employment lucrative enough to support two adults (the man and a non-working wife) and children, and then to remain in that role of breadwinner for the family until death, or at least retirement. (It’s worth noting right off the bat, as does Ehrenreich, that really such cultural rules were understood as applying to men who “matter,” i.e., white men of the middle class and above working in white collar jobs. People not fitting into this category were either ignored or, where possible, were expected to strive to join this category.)

Men who failed to live up to this paradigm were regarded as immature, irresponsible, selfish, and weak. They were losers. The longer they remained single rather than “settling down,” the more they were suspected of being homosexual. If they sought to escape their obligatory role via divorce, they were subject to social disapproval, and the legal system punished them by requiring them to continue to support their ex-wife and children with alimony and child support (though Ehrenreich asserts that while this was the common belief, in fact alimony and child support were never as generous as purported, and typically were pretty easy to cheat on anyway).

These were social requirements not only mandated by mainstream religion, but encouraged by social science. According to the dominant view in psychology, it was unhealthy for a man to refuse to grow up by not accepting his obligation to head up a family as the breadwinner.

But over the years, in growing numbers men rebelled against this paradigm. To some extent this was indeed a reaction to feminism, as they protested that if women were going to insist on having equal status, including an equal right to work outside the home for the same wages, then there was no longer any justification in requiring men to be the sole breadwinners for the family—you couldn’t very well expect men to earn their money for “us,” while women were free to earn their money for “me.” But the thesis of The Hearts of Men is that there were also plenty of factors pulling men away from their conventional role that predated or operated independently of women’s lib.

One factor was the backlash against the conformity we associate with the 1950s. Even at the time there were many people—including men who had played the game and done everything they were supposed to do to prove their “maturity”—who found the conventional life and its gender roles deadening.

It was also back in the 1950s that Hugh Hefner founded Playboy, and over the course of its first several years developed and expounded the Playboy philosophy. Playboy identified bachelorhood with being a suave sophisticate with the resources to afford the finer things in life and the taste to prefer them. Most importantly it associated said bachelors with incredibly beautiful naked and near-naked women, sending the message that remaining single didn’t imply that one was gay, but instead that one was too thoroughly enjoying heterosexuality to want to settle down.

The beats and then a decade later the hippies and the 1960s counterculture were new versions of rebel nonconformist men who expressed their rebellion in part by declaring their freedom from the traditional male role of marrying, having kids, and providing for the family financially. The beats not uncommonly slept around, and abandoned pregnant wives and girlfriends, or when they did stay with a woman it might well be the woman who had to make enough money to support the family. Hippies were all about doing their own thing, and not many people’s “thing,” it turns out, was working a 9 to 5 job and making enough money to provide a middle class lifestyle for a family.

Meanwhile, psychiatry started having second thoughts about the obligation to show one’s maturity by conforming to conventional gender roles. Stress was discovered, and identified as a killer (of white collar males mostly). What was causing all this stress (for white collar males)? Forcing oneself to live up to the breadwinner ideal. The heart just couldn’t take the stress of the familial obligations men felt compelled to accept. Something had to change.

New movements in psychiatry declared that it was OK for men to relax and throw off some of their conventional burdens, that it was OK for them to pursue what truly made them happy.

It was a bitter pill to swallow when women asked—or demanded—men to give up some of their traditional privileges. But perhaps men wouldn’t have fought it as fiercely as most of them did if they had thought of it in terms of the fact that it was also giving them a freedom that over the course of recent decades more and more of them, in various ways, had realized they craved.

Men may or may not have recognized this, but as Ehrenreich points out, anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly-type women certainly did, and they were sometimes quite explicit about it.

What an incredibly great arrangement we have, they reminded their fellow women. We’ve convinced men that we’re helpless and unable to do things like have jobs or serve in the military, so men work themselves to death to support us while we can spend as much time as we want with our kids and our girlfriends, pursue hobbies, etc. And now the feminists want to blow the whole arrangement up and force us into the workforce and get us drafted into the army, not to mention make everyone use unisex bathrooms.

In the end, Ehrenreich’s case is persuasive—to a degree. As she makes clear, there was a considerable push from men and not just women to renegotiate the gender roles that had seemed so natural and healthy in postwar America. That’s a point worth keeping in mind, that it wasn’t just feminism that opened society up to the possibility of many familial arrangements other than working breadwinner husband and stay-at-home wife.

But it strikes me as the kind of social theory where it’s easy to pick and choose your evidence to support your hypothesis. She is able to identify numerous types of men who were ready for a change—Playboy aficionados, beats, men in a panic over stress destroying their heart, etc.—but someone arguing the other side (that the changes in gender roles really did result almost solely from the women’s liberation movement) could point out that a greater number of men had no such inclination to give up their traditional roles, and even that when push came to shove, plenty of those who on some level did want out of their conventional responsibilities still fought tooth and nail against feminism, not wanting the women to beat them regardless of whether the consequences included changes they themselves wanted.

But in any case, The Hearts of Men is a fine book that raises many points worth thinking about.

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