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Issue 51

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Issue 51, October 2000

The trouble with men

    What has really changed?
    Men and the family
    Gender and class

This summer's news that, for the first time ever, female pupils recorded better A-level exam results than boys, brought another round of media commentary about the 'crisis of the male'. ELEANOR DONNE reviews two recent books which examine the state of gender relations today.

Sacred Cows: Is Feminism relevant to the New Millennium?
By Ros Coward, Harper & Collins, 1999, £6.99

Stiffed: The Betrayal of Modern Man
By Susan Faludi, Chattow & Windus, 1999, £15

'UNLESS MEN CHANGE, the collective evidence seems to suggest that they could become economically, socially and biologically redundant'. So wrote the social commentator, Dave Cohen, in The Guardian a few years back. Cohen gave a particularly apocalyptic version of a subject which has preoccupied sociologists, commentators and politicians during the 1990s - the crisis of the male.

In the 'popular press' discussions have usually taken quite a lurid turn, from boys out of control at the school to the thirteen-year-old fathers; from street gangs to drug rackets, with no attempt to examine whether such phenomena are new, or why they are happening. At the same time, the media carries equally simplistic 'scare stories' about men falsely accused of rape or being sexually harassed by women, implying that men have lost rights, that society favours women, and that this is 'political correctness gone mad'.


Two feminist writers, Rosalind Coward in Britain and Susan Faludi in the US, have recently made a more sober contribution to the debate concerning gender relations and the crisis of masculinity. 'Is Feminism relevant to the New Millennium?' asks Coward in the subtitle of her new book, Sacred Cows.

Coward questions whether the feminism which she herself once espoused is capable of engaging with the reality of social change. She attempts to put forward a more nuanced interpretation of the 'gender war' ideology which has viewed all men as oppressors and all women as oppressed.

Faludi's book emerged out of six years of visiting and interviewing the men of 'Middle America': skilled workers facing redundancy, divorce and financial insecurity; men who have been violent to their wives or partners; Vietnam veterans. It was to have been a 'follow up' to her earlier book, Backlash. Published in 1992, Backlash argued that men and the patriarchal establishment had tried to undermine the progress of women in the 1980s and urged feminists to 'hold the line' against attempts to turn the clock back. During the writing of this new book, however, her agenda changed. She began to see the male 'subjects' as victims of economic changes which had destroyed their jobs and their hopes for the future. Like Coward she challenges 'old feminist' orthodoxy.

Whilst sexist attitudes and some resentment of women's progression are evident from the men, she concludes that it is difficult to see such men as the beneficiaries of a patriarchal system, indeed the holders of power. So, are men facing a crisis of identity? And how far have gender relations really changed?


top     What has really changed?

THE REALITY IS that the whole of society is in crisis, and that this manifests itself in different ways for different sections of society because of the traditional roles that have been assigned to them. The onward march of 'neo-liberal' capitalism over the past two decades has resulted in social 'meltdown', an increasing gap between rich and poor, and the social exclusion of huge numbers from a society based on rampant competition. The capitalist triumphalism, which followed the collapse of Stalinism, has turned sour, leading to something of an ideological crisis. No matter how hard the line is peddled that the economy is healthy, there is a rising sense even amongst the 'haves' that something is not quite right. Material success is theirs, but they are beginning to ask 'is this it?'

Part of this searching has been by men, who are feeling a sense of loss for what they once had, or what their fathers and grandfathers had - unquestioned authority within the family. But the position for all men is not the same, anymore than it is for women. It is possible to say that women in general have come a long way in terms of attitudes and consciousness since the 1970s. But the 'genderquake' does not look quite so empowering to a woman working a zero-hour contract at Tescos as it might to one of the 'new breed' of women solicitors.

Working-class men, in particular, have been dealt a series of blows by economic changes over the last 20 years. In Britain, three million full-time jobs have been lost permanently since the late 1970s. These were mostly high-paid, skilled jobs in manufacturing industry, in highly unionised workplaces: 'men's jobs'. The workers had experienced lay-offs and short time before, but during the 1980s whole industries were put out of production permanently. Men described themselves as on the scrap heap, like the discarded plant machinery they used to operate. Many were highly skilled in jobs particular to one industry and found the chances of getting another job with equal pay and status almost nil. The ex-miners who found work following the pit closures took an average drop in wages of 30%. In some areas where one industry had dominated, male unemployment has reached 90%. The sons and grandsons of these ex-miners and ship builders who would have expected to follow their fathers into a job for life have little to look forward to in employment terms.


Of course, redundancy was not and still is not the preserve of male workers. Massive cuts in state spending have led to job losses in the public sector, which affected women equally, or even disproportionately. However, because these jobs were usually semi-skilled or unskilled and low paid, the women were more interchangeable as employees and could find part-time office work or cleaning work, similarly low paid, elsewhere. Coward argues that men are particularly hard hit by redundancy because so much of their identity as a man and as a member of society comes from their job, rather than as a parent or husband/partner. Consequently, the loss of a job results in a reduction not just in economic power, but social status and power within the family.

Whilst economic changes and the effect on 'men's jobs' during the 1980s and 1990s have been universally negative, the effect on women - even working-class women - has not been so clear cut. The dramatic rise in numbers of women in work, albeit mostly in part-time, low-paid work, has been significant in raising their confidence and expectations. This confidence is especially true of middle-class girls, but many working-class girls also have expectations outside marriage and motherhood of a good job and financial independence. The relative status of boys and girls has changed since the 1970s when grammar schools 'fixed' the 11-plus to ensure that more boys were admitted than girls. In ever-greater numbers, girls are choosing to stay on at school and go to university. (In the 1970s a quarter of graduates were women, now they make up half.) Childless women graduates under 30 years old now earn on average the same as men of the same age. Young working-class boys and men do not appear to have the same confidence about their future.


top     Men and the family

IN ADDITION TO the 'feminisation' of the workforce - and linked to it - the biggest social change in the last 20 years or so has been the rise in divorce. One-in-three marriages now end in divorce, around 70% at the instigation of the wives. As women have achieved a measure of financial independence from men through work and the benefits system, they no longer feel so constrained to stay in marriages that are violent or simply unhappy. Divorce no longer carries the social stigma that it once did and no longer means financial destitution, although getting by on income support is not far off.

Oliver James, the clinical psychologist who wrote Britain on the Couch, says that there has been an unprecedented rise in what he calls 'gender rancour' since the 1950s. Animosity between the sexes leading to divorce has increased, he argues, due to higher expectations from marriage, perhaps especially from women who won't 'put up with' as much now, insecurity and resentment by men of their partners working, uncertainty over gender roles causing 'role strain', and the general pressures of life under advanced capitalism.

Divorce, and the perceived unequal treatment of men in terms of child contact and residence (custody), has been the main impetus behind various men's groups in Britain, such as Families Need Fathers, which also campaigned against the Child Support Act, and the UK Men's Movement. The UK Men's Movement is tiny and reactionary, and mostly indulges in legal challenges to the Equal Opportunities Commission. Neither group has any mass base of support.


The nearest thing to a 'men's movement' in response to their actual and perceived grievances has been the Promise Keepers in the United States. This is a right-wing Christian movement founded by Bill McCartney - evangelist, former football coach, well-known opponent of women's right to choose, and virulent homophobic. In 1995 it had 280,000 members. Two years later 700,000 attended a rally in Washington. Its members make a pledge of physical and spiritual purity, to be faithful to their wives and lead their families with 'godly masculinity'. The reward for this is to be the restoration of their authority over the family. One of the favourite gospel quotes at the Promise Keepers' rallies is that of St Paul: 'Wives, submit to your husbands'.

The link to Christianity is probably the reason for the fairly wide base of support for this movement. Religion is still big in many parts of the US, and fills the vacuum of political thought. Faludi attended a Promise Keepers rally whilst researching her book and talked to some of the participants. They did not seem to her to be overtly reactionary like the leaders. But they certainly felt 'stiffed' - not just by changing gender roles, but by changes in their economic and social position. In a way it is capitalism that has broken its promise to them. They fought its wars and were its bolster against the communist 'threat'. In return, it seems, all that the market economy can offer them is insecurity and debt.

While right-wing commentators like the former Guardian journalist, Melanie Philips, argue that society, or more precisely women, should give men back their role as breadwinner, these reactionary ideas have only minority support. It is generally recognised that the economic and social changes of the last 20-30 years cannot be easily reversed. Nor would the capitalist class want to do so. Women's cheap labour in the workforce is too important a source of profits for that to happen.


The New Labour government has recently turned its attention to the crisis facing young men, in particular. But just as crime, truancy, drug addiction and other social problems are re-defined as 'family' problems, so young men become the 'problem' themselves. Some Labour MPs have even gone so far as to echo the theories of Charles Murray, the American sociologist who argues that 'young men are essentially barbarians who are civilised by marriage'. The problem supposedly lies in the inherent traits of masculinity which are going unchecked and, of course, the refusal of young women to marry and 'tame' their men.

Socio-biology - using biological explanations for behavioural patterns or problems - is becoming ever more respectable, particularly using, or rather misusing, the 'new science' of genetics. The biological argument in relation to women has been to some extent turned on its head, and we are now told that women's inherent abilities to communicate and nurture, make them better managers. Men's 'natural' aggression and drive becomes a problem when it is not harnessed to hard manual work or the 'cut-and-thrust' of the sales team, but is acted out through stealing cars and alcohol-fuelled violence.

Coward, in Sacred Cows, admits that feminism's critique of masculinity has been grist to the mill of the biological argument. The chant at the Greenham Common Peace Camp was 'take the toys from the boys', as if war and nuclear escalation are caused by inherent male aggression. If women were in charge, the argument went, there would be no fighting because they were nurturers and naturally peaceful. Quite where Margaret Thatcher, prime minister at the time, fitted into this theory, was never clear.


top     Gender and class

JOURNALISTS ALWAYS THINK they have discovered a new phenomenon when they venture into working-class areas, whether it be to 'investigate' lone parents or truanting kids. But the ruling class and their middle-class apologists have always displayed a fear and hatred of the working class, their 'lack of morality' and, in the case of men, their violence and lack of control. This latest obsession with the male 'underclass' recalls the Victorian and Edwardian reformers, including early feminists, who were part of a general movement to find a new respectable model of masculinity.

The 'barbarians' of that time ceased to be a problem when a suitable role for them was found - as cannon fodder in the first world war. Even in peacetime, the army has traditionally been a place for working-class men facing unemployment. However, this route has been closed for the majority as the need for 'bodies of men' has been reduced by high-tech weaponry.

Cohen says that men must change. But if the old roles are not appropriate any more, then it is not clear what they are to be replaced with. This is particularly marked in discussions about fatherhood. Again, young working-class men especially are criticised for being 'sperm donors', whose involvement with their children stereotypically ends at conception. But this government and the opinion formers around it continue to view fathers as having a predominantly economic role, as providers. This is clear from their continuation of the disastrous Child Support Agency which enforces 'responsibility' through maintenance payments. There can be no financial benefit to the state of compulsory deductions of maintenance from an unemployed man's job seekers' allowance, as the costs of administration probably outweighs the gain. But it sends an ideological message to absent fathers, as well as Daily Mail readers: 'You're not getting away with it'.


In fact, all statistics show that in the home male and female roles remain largely unchanged. Women continue to shoulder the burden of the majority of the housework and childcare, even when both partners work full time, or the woman works and the man is unemployed.

New Labour's New Deal scheme to cut the unemployment figures is about forcing young men to lower their expectations in terms of wages and hours, to take the sort of jobs that women do. It also has strong overtones of discipline - getting the men back in line and cutting off the possibility of 'opting out'. Ironically, since the introduction of benefit sanctions, thousands of young men have 'disappeared' from the system altogether.

For Coward, feminism is incapable of even recognising the changes that have taken place in gender relations, let alone offering a solution. In fact, she argues, a simplistic analysis which sees men as always being advantaged and women as disadvantaged can make things worse. She tries to strike a balance between 'post-feminist' ideas, which see social changes affecting men and women as evidence that equality is just around the corner, and 'old feminism', which dismisses such changes as superficial and insignificant. It would be more precise, she argues, to view men as 'vulnerable oppressors' and women as 'potent victims'. By concentrating on men, however, she does appear to minimise the problems that women still face. Her statement, for example, that the economy is in many ways 'gender blind', would seem somewhat exaggerated for the thousands of women segregated in low-paid 'female' jobs.


There have been many strands of opinion within feminism, but the broad conclusion of the majority - including Coward - was that the struggle for women's liberation was about wresting power off the patriarchy - the structured dominance of men in society. Logically, then, they concluded that the struggle was principally one of women against men.

Male dominance, explains Coward, is not now the most significant unfairness. Inequality and poverty are equally, if not more, important. Faludi, too, concludes that, after all, men are the 'subjects of their world, not just its authors', and that men are not the 'enemy'.

It is interesting that both attempt to place gender within the context of the wider inequalities and power relations in society. Coward explains, rightly, that society does not have 'simple gender lines'. But, of course, while she once thought it did, Marxists have always explained that this has never been the case. Along with women, the vast majority of men lost control over their lives with the development of societies based on class.

Not all men are equally powerful. Nor are all women equally oppressed. Gender and class arose together and are inextricably linked. The 'gender landscape' is not static but in a constant process of change. The needs of capitalism, which continues to rely on the family unit and the unpaid labour of women within it, places limitations on just how far those changes can go.

Both Rosalind Coward and Susan Faludi conclude their books by saying that we have to begin to look further than the question of the relative power of men and women in society, towards how to develop a human society. Faludi says that 'Men and women are at a historically opportune moment where they hold the keys to each other's liberation'.


But liberation from what, to what? This is where things get very abstract indeed. The struggle for equality and even more so for the true liberation of women and men must involve the overthrow of the current economic and social system, and the removal of exploitation based on class. The struggle for gender equality and the struggle for socialism not only can be combined, but are inescapably combined. The very process of this struggle, from strikes at individual workplaces to the united movement of working-class and many middle-class women and men, will change attitudes and gender relations. But only a new society will provide the opportunity to develop a new 'gender landscape' on our terms.

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