Yes, I've folded up my masculine mystique, honey

The Sunday Times of London
February 24, 2013
By Stephanie Coontz

Males are in trouble at school and at work: not because women are on the rise but because they cling to a myth of manhood.

Fifty years ago last week, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, igniting an impassioned debate over her claim that millions of housewives were desperately unhappy, suffering from "the problem that has no name".

Women did seem to be floundering in the 1950s and early 1960s. Doctors puzzled over an epidemic of "housewife's fatigue" and numerous American women dropped out of university. Newsweek magazine reported that US women were gripped with a malaise that was "deep, pervasive and impervious" to any known remedy — although many psychiatrists were sure that tranquillisers could help. In Europe, too, observers worried whether women could settle back into domesticity after the Second World War.

According to conventional wisdom, women were suffering because they were being "masculinised" by the pressures of the postwar world. Female students, as one prominent educator put it, were being forced to study a male curriculum rather than topics that would be of interest and use to them, such as "the theory and preparation of a Basque paella". An expanding economy was pulling women into the world of work and eroding their traditional feminine roles. The cure, most psychiatrists agreed, was for women to reject masculine activities and values and embrace their "feminine destiny".

Friedan had a different analysis. She argued that the problems facing women in the postwar world were caused by too much adherence to the norms of femininity and too little recognition that "women are people too". Women, Friedan claimed, had been ensnared by an insidious "feminine mystique" that promised them security, comfort and indulgence in return for accepting their "womanly" dependence and abandoning any aspirations beyond the home.

In Friedan's view, the feminine mystique offered short-term and superficial privileges at a high cost. In the long run it damaged women's health and wellbeing, prevented them from adapting to a changing world and ultimately made them less successful as wives and mothers. She urged women to develop an identity based on their individual talents and desires rather than on stereotypes about what it meant to be a "real" woman.

In the half century since publication of The Feminine Mystique, women have expanded tremendously the range of options and self-images available to them, successfully moving into new roles in public and private life. Today it is males who are floundering.

In America and Britain there is talk of a "boy crisis" in schools. Real wages have fallen more for men than for women. Traditional masculine occupations are eroding but men hesitate to enter many of the fastest-growing occupations in today's economy. Males are now less likely than females to apply to university and, if they enter, less likely to graduate.

Attempts to explain these contemporary problems are often the mirror image of 1960s claims about women. Many experts today blame men's troubles on the weakening of their traditional gender identity. Boys, they complain, are being forced to "act like girls" in school. Adult males have been stripped of their role as family providers and protectors. Society must find new ways to validate masculinity.

In fact, most of the problems men are experiencing today stem from the flip side of the 20th-century feminine mystique — a pervasive masculine mystique that pressures boys and men to conform to a gender stereotype and prevents them from exploring the full range of their individual capabilities.

The masculine mystique promises men success, power and admiration from others if they embrace their supposedly natural competitive drives and reject all forms of dependence. Just as the feminine mystique made women ashamed when they harboured feelings or desires that were supposedly "masculine", the masculine mystique makes men ashamed to admit to any feelings or desires that are thought to be "feminine".

Trying to live up to the precepts of the masculine mystique has always exacted a heavy price on males, especially in childhood. For girls, the feminine mystique was not rigorously enforced until puberty. A girl who enjoyed "boy things" such as sports and climbing trees was affectionately called a "tomboy". At the same time she was allowed to cry and was excused for failing ("that's way too hard for a little girl"; "I'll do it for you, honey").

Girls had such leeway precisely because they were never expected to compete for public success or to wield power over others.

By contrast, the masculine mystique demands an early and complete rejection of all activities and values traditionally associated with females. Boys who cross gender boundaries are derided as wusses, sissies, metrosexuals, called "wet" or written off as "mummy's boys". Training people to exercise power can be a brutal business, as many upper-class British men can testify from their own family and boarding school experiences.

Boys are held to higher standards of stoicism than girls and receive harsher treatment when they do not compete successfully. Throughout their lives men face constant pressure to demonstrate their masculinity to others.

Mad Men's Betty Draper epitomises the surrendered housewife driven to despair Despite the personal costs exacted by adherence to the masculine mystique, for most of the 20th century "acting like a man" was a good recipe for success because it conferred what RW Connell, the sociologist, has called a "patriarchal dividend", giving males preference over females in almost every area.

Boys did not need to abide by "girlie" rules, such as obeying teachers and studying hard, because discriminatory wages ensured that the average male who got through school — or even those who dropped out — earned more than the average female university graduate working comparable hours.
Nor did men have much need for negotiating skills. In most countries husbands had the final say in household and financial decisions. The television series Mad Men depicts how men's bad behaviour towards wives, mistresses, secretaries and female co-workers carried few penalties and many rewards. Everyone assumed that women would put up with such behaviour.

Today, however, conforming to the masculine mystique bestows fewer rewards and more penalties. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, notes in her forthcoming book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, that while the compliance and docility fostered by remnants of the feminine mystique still hold women back from top leadership positions in business and politics, those same traits do get rewarded in school. And in a world where educational achievement increasingly outweighs gender in the job market, that at least gets women in the door.

By contrast, adhering to the masculine mystique increasingly closes doors for boys and men. In a book to be published next month, the sociologists Thomas DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann demonstrate that most of the academic disadvantages of boys in education flow not from a "feminised" learning environment, as is often claimed, but from a masculinised peer culture that encourages disruptive behaviour and disengagement from school.

As Debbie Epstein, the British researcher, puts it, "real boys" are not supposed to study. "The work you do here is girls' work," one boy told an educational ethnographer. "It's not real work."

Reviewing studies from Europe and America, DiPrete and Buchmann report that trying to cater to the masculine mystique does not improve the academic performance of boys. In fact, the more the traditional gender distinctions are blurred, the better boys and girls do. Those boys who participate in music, art, drama and foreign languages have a higher attachment to school than the boys who reject such activities as "girlie".
The masculine mystique also contributes to the gender gap in university entry and completion rates. Just as the feminine mystique once encouraged women to neglect self-development in the hope that "some day my prince will come", the masculine mystique encourages men to pin their hopes on the return of that "patriarchal dividend".

One study of seven European countries, including Britain, found that although parents still favour sons in inheritance, they are more likely to fund education for daughters, largely, I suspect, because they reckon their sons will make it under their own steam.

Many of the short-term privileges that still exist for men come with serious long-term costs. A study of gender differences in American university drop-out rates, published this month in Gender & Society, found that one reason why men have higher drop-out rates than women is they are less willing to take on the high levels of debt that are increasingly needed to graduate.

In part this may be due to the pressure men feel to become breadwinners. But it is also partly because the average male university drop- out earns as much in his entry-level salary as the newly minted male graduate. By midlife, however, male university graduates can earn on average £13,100 more a year.

The costs that the masculine mystique imposes are not just monetary. Kristen Springer, a medical sociologist, found that the greater a man's investment in his male-provider image, the more his health and wellbeing are threatened if his wife earns more than he does. This is a serious health risk, given that today almost 38% of UK wives outearn their husbands.

While the masculine mystique may seem sexy in the movies, men who subscribe to it at home have less successful relationships than those who have moved beyond it. Wendy Sigle-Rushton, a researcher at the London School of Economics, examined 3,500 married couples in Britain and found that the higher a husband's participation in housework and childcare, the lower the incidence of divorce.

Research in America indicates that marriages where men and women are flexible in their gender roles tend to have the highest marital quality. Over the course of a marriage, husbands who become less invested in their masculine identity also report becoming happier.

As women did in the 1960s, men today are finding their traditional gender roles and values are becoming obstacles to their personal success and that they need to forge a new set of self-images and skills. It was not easy for women to defy the long-standing internal and external pressures demanding that we constantly prove our femininity. But our biggest gains came once we stopped feeling compelled to "act like a lady".

Now it is men's turn. They need to liberate themselves from the personal and societal pressure constantly to prove their masculinity. Men's lives will improve greatly when they assimilate the lesson that Friedan drove home to women half a century ago: act like a person, not a gender stereotype.

Stephanie Coontz teaches family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and co-chairs the Council on Contemporary Families. Her most recent book is A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (BasicBooks).

Facebook Image You Tube Image