This year, as the American election rolled out its endless spin cycles of bluster and recrimination, the political scene repeatedly brought news of a “war on women” being waged in Washington. To the dismay of voters on both sides of the aisle, politicians and pundits displayed remarkable levels of vitriol towards women — from Todd Akin’s now-infamous comments about “legitimate rape” to the recent wave of anti-choice laws under consideration in legislatures across America. What are engaged women to make of this development? Does it signal a country-wide reversion to pre-feminist values, a permanent regression in the fortunes of women and their place in society?
The End of Men: and the Rise of Women (Riverhead Books, $27.95) by Hannah Rosin is a thoughtful, nuanced portrayal of the changed and changing status of women in contemporary societies around the world. Rosin catalogues a quiet — yet irreversible — revolution in women’s roles and fortunes. Drawing on a range of sources, from the academic to the anecdotal, she paints a compelling portrait of a world in which women have adapted to suit a rapidly changing environment. At the heart of her thesis is the notion of the “Plastic Woman”: over the course of the twentieth century, women have performed “superhuman feats of flexibility,” going from “barely working at all to working only until [they] got married and then working with children, even babies” in just a few decades. From Alabama to Korea to Sweden, women have become the driving force of local and national economies. This has had consequences ranging from women’s astonishing takeover of the profession of pharmacy — while 8% of pharmacists were women in 1960, the number is close to 60% today — to the meteoric rise of women in the Korean workforce.
The counterpart to the “Plastic Woman” Rosin writes about is the “Cardboard Man”; compared to women, men have shown a comparative inability to adapt to changing times. In Rosin’s canny analysis, men are “stuck”; while women display “Napoleonic” appetites, “gobbl[ing] up new territory” in the social and economic spheres, men remain tied to a shrinking set of options, unable — or unwilling — to expand into roles demarcated as feminine. This has resulted in a radical change in the domestic sphere, as women, especially in the middle and lower classes, opt to “marry down” or eschew marriage entirely in the absence of acceptable matrimonial prospects. Rosin examines these phenomena with a lens that veers from intimate portraits of individual women to analysis of a broad range of statistics, but her steady, eloquent prose renders The End of Men a consistently fascinating read.
Unlike feminist writers of a previous era, such as Betty Friedan and Shulamith Firestone, Rosin does not prescribe a plan of action for women. Rather, The End of Men catalogues the vast array of changes that have already taken place, not at the behest of any particular ideology, but rather as the result of economic necessity and circumstantial change. Although these changes were enabled by the achievements of feminism, the women Rosin interviews are pragmatic and level-headed, accepting their new prominence as a matter of fact rather than a triumphant achievement. Indeed, the behavioral changes Rosin does prescribe are primarily directed towards men: the world has changed, ineluctably, and she urges men to accept their roles as equal, even interchangeable, partners with women — a reality which has already arrived.
Rosin’s book stands in stark contrast to Don’t Say I Do! Why Women Should Stay Single by Orna Gadish (New Horizon Press; $14.95), a book as boldly prescriptive as its title indicates. If Rosin views the men she portrays with a certain sympathy, albeit tempered by frustration, Gadish simply wants nothing to do with them — and counsels other women to adopt the same attitudes. Despite its timely, eye-catching title — as Gadish repeats ad nauseam throughout the book, marriage is at an all-time low in the U.S., and singledom is becoming increasingly mainstream — the book is something of a screed, supported by erratic research. Gadish cites such dubious sources as MSN Money and WebMD with distressing regularity, often quoting whole blocs of such articles. The book offers up a heavy dose of conventional wisdom with regard to men and women (“men are more physical, so [women] have to work hard to get men to feel emotions as well”), combined with a near-manically cheerful attitude towards single living (“women who choose a single lifestyle can experience all the benefits of a well-lived and authentic life while remaining genuine and true to themselves”). Ultimately, the text makes a staggering array of broad generalizations about the fate of women as a whole; Gadish’s attempt to counterbalance these with the use of anecdotes from anonymous women falls flat, as the voices of these women are utterly indistinguishable from the author’s. While the book does offer some potentially useful practical advice, particularly to newly single and divorced women, the book’s overall repetitiveness renders it a frustrating read. Gadish’s ultimate message to women, however, is deeply positive: “There are really no limits on what you can achieve” outside the bounds of marriage, she declares.
Combined, the two books make for a heady cocktail: limitless achievement, both potential and actual, seem to await the female reader today, in contrast to her male counterparts. Although this year may have seen a rise in misogynist commentary, and even legislation, Gadish and Rosin affirm that it’s a reactionary flash in the pan in a changed world — one in which women are freer, and more ascendant, than ever before.
Talia Lavin is a recent college graduate spending her Fulbright scholarship year in Ukraine, where she is studying the literary history of the region.