Barbara Ehrenreich | Critical Review by Carol Tavris

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of Barbara Ehrenreich.
This section contains 1,600 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Carol Tavris

Critical Review by Carol Tavris

SOURCE: "Who Started This?," in The New York Times Book Review, June 5, 1983, pp. 12, 31, 32.

In the following review of The Hearts of Men, Tavris finds Ehrenreich's analysis of male/female role dynamics insightful, but criticizes her conclusions about cause and effect.

Over the past two decades we've heard many criticisms of the housewife's lot, mostly from women, and counterattacking complaints about the breadwinner trap, mostly from men. Now Barbara Ehrenreich offers a provocative new argument: Male complaints about their restrictions and responsibilities, and their grievances about women, did not follow the women's movement; they preceded it. Indeed, Miss Ehrenreich says, men's weakening commitment to their wives and children gave rise to both feminism and antifeminism. Women, faced with the unpredictability of male commitment and the insecurity of the family wage system—which pays more to men than to women on the crumbling assumption that men support their families—had two choices. They could struggle for economic self-sufficiency (the direction of feminism), or they could try to bind men more tightly to them (the direction of anti-feminism).

Miss Ehrenreich draws these conclusions from her study of "the ideology that shaped the breadwinner ethic" and the collapse of that ideology in the last 30 years. In the 1950's, she shows, the same ideology that was directing women to become steady wage spenders, docile wives and willing mothers was directing men to become steady wage earners, docile husbands and willing providers. According to the dominant ideology, men who resisted were not being "mature," responsible or heterosexual; they were failures as men and red-blooded Americans.

Over the years, as Miss Ehrenreich wittily demonstrates, the culture shifted to an ideology that celebrates "irresponsibility, self-indulgence, and an isolationist detachment from the claims of others"—in the name, of course, of independence, personal growth, physical health and emotional liberation. Our medical and psychological experts provided a scientific rationale for the new ideology with dizzying speed. The advicemongers of the 50's are easy targets of ridicule, but Miss Ehrenreich reminds us that today's experts are no less biased, even when their judgments are "buried under the weary rubric of 'changing sex rules.'"

Miss Ehrenreich does not consider the cultural shift a phenomenon to which men succumbed passively but the product of an active protest, a "male revolt" against maturity and responsibility in general and against women in particular. If the rebels were not always organized and conscious of their goals, she maintains, they were united in their rejection of the breadwinner philosophy.

The author begins her argument with a discussion of some "early rebels": the Gray Flannel Dissidents of the 50's, for whom "conformity" was a code word for male discontent with the demands of careers; the purveyors of Playboy magazine, for whom "sexual freedom" was code for discontent with the demands of marriage; and the Beats, who resented the demands of both work and marriage. Miss Ehrenreich is at her best here. Playboy (whose very name, she observes, "defied the convention of hard-won maturity") was not the voice of the sexual revolution, which accelerated in the 60's; it was the voice of the male rebellion, which had begun in the 50's. "The magazine's real message was not eroticism, but escape … from the bondage of breadwinning. Sex—or Hefner's Pepsi-clean version of it—was there to legitimize what was truly subversive about Playboy. In every issue, every month, there was a Playmate to prove that a playboy didn't have to be a husband to be a man."

By the 60's, Miss Ehrenreich says, the male revolt had begun to pick up support from physicians who maintained that the male role was unhealthy and from psychologists who maintained that it made men rigid, up-tight and cranky. By the 70's the men's liberation movement—which Miss Ehrenreich by and large considers "the old male revolt in new disguise"—transformed male self-interest into a spiritually and politically correct way to behave.

Miss Ehrenreich concludes that men have won their revolt—and won it at the expense of women. Men have abandoned the breadwinner role while retaining their misogyny; they want women to remain submissive and nurturing while also becoming financially self-supporting. "The responsibilities that men gave up," Miss Ehrenreich says, "have come increasingly to rest with us." Feminism and antifeminism among women represent efforts to assume, or hand back, those responsibilities.

The Hearts of Men is a pleasure to read, entertaining and imaginative. It reminds us that sex roles do not apply to one sex only; that women have not been the only sex to chafe under the narrow restrictions of their "proper" place; that many men and women have been locked in a sad little dance in which each partner is doing different steps. For every wife who accuses her husband of wielding patriarchal power there is a husband who accuses his wife of parasitic pushiness. To listen to the grievances of one sex and not the complementary grievances of the other is to hear the sound of one hand slapping.

But Miss Ehrenreich's analysis falters in its confusion of causes and effects. She continually implies a sequence (first came concerted pressures upon men to conform, then male protest, then scientific legitimation of male protest) when her own evidence shows simultaneity. In the same decade that psychiatrists were lauding maturity and responsibility, there appeared Playboy, The Lonely Crowd (David Riesman's textbook for the gray flannel set), the Gestalt guru Fritz Peris and public worries about the male mortality rate. Conversely, as late as 1975, textbooks were still describing the "pathology" of men who couldn't or wouldn't choose a job and a mate. And the media she cites as pressuring men to conform in the 50's were simultaneously scaring them with the idea that too much conformity kills.

Further, to suggest that feminism came after the male revolt is to mix what people say with what they do. If rebellion is defined as what people do, then keep in mind that in 1953, the year Playboy began, 26 percent of all married women were working—far more, I suspect, than the number of men who, regardless of what they were reading, quit their jobs or remained bachelors.

In arguing that male protest preceded female protest, Miss Ehrenreich succumbs to an unhelpful, unanswerable "Who started this?" spiral. She is hampered by her decision to concentrate on only the last 30 years—an extremely lively 30 years, to be sure. But she has described one inch of a 10-foot trajectory, thereby losing sight of the antecedents of the breadwinner role, the housewife role and the disintegration of both. As the sociologist Jessie Bernard observed, the male role of "good provider" emerged about 150 years ago and ended in 1980, when the Census Bureau stopped assuming that a man was "head of household."

In addition, by looking into the hearts of men and not into their social worlds, Miss Ehrenreich cannot account for the change in male ideology (except in terms of "male self-interest"). One profound reason for the change, as obvious and as invisible as the purloined letter, has been identified in a recent book by the social psychologists Marcia Guttentag and Paul F. Secord: the greater ratio of marriageable women to marriageable men in virtually all age brackets since World War II. This imbalance alone has given men a leverage in mate selection and shifted the emotional power in relationships to men (they can always get another wife, while wives must compromise or lose), and, as Miss Guttentag and Mr. Secord document, the divorce rate and male "irresponsibility" increase in most cultures in which such imbalance exists. Conversely, when women are scarce, men tend to value romance, marriage and commitment.

Because Miss Ehrenreich doesn't have an explanation for the changes she documents so well, her point of view and conclusions shift. She pokes as much fun at the psychiatric model of maturity and responsibility of the 50's as she does at the human potential movement of the 70's, but later she laments the abandonment of the ethic of responsibility; she does not discuss how her notions of responsibility differ from the psychiatrists' (if they do). She lampoons the unverified assertion that working women are dying of heart attacks in unprecedented numbers (they aren't), but she is ambivalent about whether some aspects of the male role are hazardous to men's health or whether men simply use medical worries as an excuse for selfishness.

As she herself says, she is not sure whether the male revolt is a childish flight from responsibility, an accommodation to consumer culture or a libertarian movement for social change; in any case, she correctly adds, the consequences for women have been the same. But the book would have benefited from an effort to disentangle these three elements. More than that, it would have moved us from description to diagnosis.

Diagnosis matters if men and women are to travel beyond blaming. As it is, Miss Ehrenreich shrinks from the gloomy conclusions of her own account—that men will continue to pursue their own economic and psychological self-interest and women will have to fend for themselves and their children. Perhaps, she suggests wistfully, "the male revolt can be seen as a blow against a system of social control which operates to make men unquestioning and obedient employees. If men are not strapped into the role of breadwinners, perhaps they will be less compliant as assemblers of nuclear weapons, producers of toxic wastes, or as white-collar operatives of the remote and unaccountable corporations."

This sounds like the early feminist vision of women entering the worlds of government and business and transforming them into arenas of warmth and nurturance. Still, this lively book will do much to get men back into the conversation.

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This section contains 1,600 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Carol Tavris