More than half of American households still have men who are the primary breadwinners. But women are fast catching up and, if trends hold, will surpass men in earning power and leadership roles within a couple of decades. That’s good both for women and for male slackers. But not all males are slackers, at least not yet. And, in any case, all men will probably have adjustments to make. But what adjustments? In advance of “What Happens When Women Rule the World?,” a Zócalo event, we asked several observers of our gender role evolution to weigh in on what the emergence of women as our primary breadwinners will change most about men.
Men Will Have To Find Manliness in Something Besides Money
With the return of Mad Men this month, our obsession with the cool swagger of the show’s male lead, Don Draper, has been revived. Over the past few weeks, the Twitter hashtag #draping has been trending, attaching itself to images of people mimicking Don’s nonchalant masculinity–perfectly captured in his penchant for draping a suited arm over the back of a chair, smoldering cigarette or sweaty Scotch glass in hand.
The draw of the drape is clear: when traditional models of masculinity are outmoded and women become ever more powerful in the offices of Madison Avenue and beyond, nostalgia sets in. But as Liza Mundy suggests in The Richer Sex, the coming cultural shift in which women will become our primary breadwinners will require the evolution of a “new masculinity,” a conception of manliness based not on economic power or a seat at the head of the domestic table but instead upon a more fluid take on gender roles.
For if traditional masculinity can be thought of as a kind of effortlessness–an unconscious assurance of one’s body, one’s worth, one’s place and opportunities in the world–the new masculinity will require a lot more introspection. It will be nervously self-aware; there will be less draping, more hand-wringing. And this is a good thing, because far too often sexist inequality has been born not out of malice but basic ignorance of male privilege.
As women finally attain economic power, men will be forced to detach our masculinity from the money clip and tie ourselves to the mooring of financial and domestic cooperation. This will probably be a shaky transition, but, then again, isn’t the ability to adapt a masculine trait as well?
Men Will Have to Cook the Bacon
In the 1800s, Charles Darwin contemplated the benefits and costs of marrying and not marrying. He made lists in his journal that numbered nearly a dozen entries in both columns, including the memorable observation that a wife would be an “object to be beloved and played with–better than a dog anyhow.”
In the “not marry” column, Darwin imagined he would lament the “loss of conversation of clever men at clubs.” After carefully weighing pro and con, he concluded “Marry, Marry, Marry Q.E.D.” Marriage conferred enormous benefits upon Darwin, as it has and still does for most men. Historically, marriage improves the health, sex life, and even the bank account of the husband. (Think what housekeeping, childcare, and sexual services would cost if a husband had to pay market rate.)
Humans are an unusual mammal in that we have a tendency to sustain pair bonds for extended periods of time. It is thought that females need male help to rear our incredibly dependent young. That males are willing to invest in offspring at all is a rare trait among the mammals (only 10 percent show any male parental care at all). While we often lament “deadbeat dads,” males in our species, as a whole, invest relatively heavily in their offspring. Actual hands-on parental care tends to be highest in situations where males have limited ability to provision females in other ways. For instance, among the Aka “pygmy” people in Africa, males with the lowest status participate the most in childcare.
More broadly, males tend to invest economically in offspring in their households, even when those offspring are stepchildren (where it is interpreted as a mating effort to maintain sexual access to the mother of those children). Male parental investment has historically centered on bringing home resources from wage-earning work, while wives operate in the private domestic sphere of unpaid labor. As women have made gains in education, employment, and pay equity (although there is still shocking disparity in wages paid to men and women for the same job), it has become clear that gender roles are not set in stone. More and more men are taking on domestic roles while their wives earn income to provision the family.
We can predict that men will struggle to keep up with rapid change in expectations of courtship and marriage. Remember the adage “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”? Numerous studies show that females are less and less interested in marriage. Males can be costly. A recent study in academia showed that having a husband lengthened the time it takes women to get tenure in the humanities. To entice women into marriage, males will need to be more and more flexible in what they bring to the table. When a woman brings home the bacon, we can predict that the man will need to cook it.
Dr. Amy Parish is an anthropologist, primatologist, and Darwinian feminist at the University of Southern California, where she teaches a course titled “Love, Marriage, and the Experience of Being a Wife.”
Men Should Get Back in the House
First of all, I don’t think women are emerging as “primary breadwinners” but simply as “breadwinners.” Women still earn less than men for doing the same jobs, and the “glass ceiling” phenomenon remains in place.
That said, it is true that an increasing number of women have entered the paid job market. While some men are willing to accept this change, others continue to resist it, viewing women’s access to the public sphere, a traditionally “masculine” domain, as a threat to male hegemony.
However, men must understand that this change is irreversible. Men should not only accept female access to the public sphere but also promote male participation in the private sphere, which I see as the real “pending subject of feminism.” If they did, men could be doubly successful at work and at home, becoming better partners, parents, and professionals. I see men’s return to the domestic sphere as one of the most important feminist revolutions of the 21st century.
Josep M. Armengol is an associate professor of English at the University of Castilla-La Mancha, Spain, where he is working on a new book on masculinities in African American fiction.
*Photo courtesy of Spirit-Fire.