Suzanne Venker’s recent article The War on Men sparked an uproar among feminists. But Venker’s ideas and upcoming book How to Choose a Husband (And Make Peace with Marriage) come as no surprise to me. Nor am I surprised by the responses Venker received for suggesting women’s angry attitudes, fueled by militant feminism, contribute to the trend of young men rejecting marriage.
Venker references stats from the Pew Research Center that show, among other things, an increase in the percentage of women ages 18 to 34 who say marriage is one of their highest priorities and a simultaneous decrease in the percentage of men ages 18 to 34 espousing that value. This is a significant change since 1997 when young men and women were statistically equal on this measure. The result? A shortage of “marriageable men.”
How strange that feminists should find the concept of a “war on men” untenable when they so readily accept a “war on women.” I was in college in 1991 when Susan Faludi’s book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women was published. Have you seen this book? It’s five inches thick. I carried the first edition tome around like a Bible and poured over every incident of resistance against women’s liberation Faludi reported.
It was around that same time I caused a stir in my creative writing class. I’d written a poem describing an observation about weddings: all the single women reach for the bouquet when it’s thrown. No matter what we might say about love and men and marriage, no matter what other paths we might choose, the truth comes out when those flowers are tossed. We all want love. We all reach for it.
An older classmate glared from across the writing circle. She lit into me about how not all women want to get married. Marriage is oppressive. Fish and a bicycle. ERA. The Feminine Mystique. I sat quietly through her tirade and thought to myself, “Okay, but given the choice, who doesn’t want a loving marriage? Deep down, most of us want to catch that bouquet!”
Eight years after Backlash, Faludi published Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, arguing men are also in the cultural crosshairs. Then in 2008, Beyoncé confirmed my suspicions about marriage with her song Single Ladies. Its fast and furious chorus demands nothing short of a proposal: “If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it.”
Now the Pew Research Center presents hard data. Women still want to get married. Men used to, but these days not so much. Maybe Venker is on to something. Ladies, maybe we’re scaring men away or at the very least sending them mixed messages.
Turn on the television or go to the movies and you’ll see “marriageable men” portrayed as either bumbling idiots or deplorable villains. Read columnists like Maureen Dowd rail against the “white male patriarchy” as if the past 40 years never happened. Walk through Target like I did this past summer and read the words emblazoned on girls’ t-shirts. “My Skills Make Boys Run” oozes cattiness, yet we expect these boys to someday meet our daughters at the marriage altar. Why would young men commit to marriage when the culture says women don’t even like them very much? Besides, sisters are doing it for themselves. According to Pew, women make up almost half the workforce and more women hold college degrees than men. The New York Times reports more than half of births to American women younger than age 30 occur outside marriage, with the glaring exception of college educated women who most often marry before having children. The NYT calls this difference a “new class divide” where marriage is a luxury afforded to the more educated. Sadly, a third of families headed by single mothers are in poverty, and they are four times more likely than married-couple families to be poor. That doesn’t sound like progress to me; that sounds like fallout from years of trashing the traditional family structure that protected many women and children across the socioeconomic spectrum.
You don’t have to be a feminist to believe women (and men) should be respected in real life and in the media. They should be free to pursue their education, dreams, and talents. They should be able to vote, own property, raise their children as they see fit, and leave abusive relationships. They should be paid equally for the same work. Yes, we still have to close the gap on that last one, but change is happening. According to Pew, among young workers ages 16 to 34 women’s earnings are now more than 90% of men’s.
Just as Venker recognizes a subculture of men who say they will never marry because “women aren’t women anymore,” I fear there is a subculture of women who will never quit fighting “the man.” The war has no end for them, regardless of how many victories are won. But women conquering oppression by oppressing men isn’t a solution. Many women (and men) want to be married. We are tired of fighting. We want equality, however we know equal doesn’t necessarily mean same—and that’s okay. There’s a lot of give and take between women and men, especially in healthy marriages. As Venker might say, it’s time we make peace with that.