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The Battle of the Sexes
There is almost an implicit social rule today that you are only allowed to advocate for men if you justify it by talking about how it will benefit women and children. (Or, alternatively, if it’s a woman who is doing the advocating).
The classic example of this in the Christian context is a minister saying that he wants to reach men because if the father comes to church, the wife and kids usually follow, whereas there’s a much lower probability of the entire family coming to church if it’s the mother who is converted.
I’m not saying this is per se wrong (although the claim itself seems to ultimately trace back to only one study from Switzerland), but it does in a sense treat men as an instrumental good rather than an end in and of themselves. The man is valuable here because he enables the church to reach the people it really wants to get.
So I try to be careful not to fall into the trap of saying that it’s good to build up men because it’s good for women. (This is harder to do than you think). But I do think it’s important that while we build men up, we should not tear women down. Because men and women do have a key stake in each other’s thriving.
There’s a quip often attributed to Henry Kissinger that, “Nobody will ever win the battle of the sexes. There’s too much fraternizing with the enemy.”
There’s a lot of truth in that. The vast majority of people are heterosexual and would like to be in a relationship or marriage with someone of the opposite sex. Because there are roughly equal numbers of men and women, this means that to the extent that one gender struggles, the other gender’s relational prospects are compromised.
The classic example of this, and one you see directly cited by women in publications like Christianity Today, is how the fact that women now earn about 60% of college degrees vs. 40% for men makes it more difficult for college educated women to find a man to marry. The female skewed gender ratio in the church only adds to this difficulty.
Or think about the “incel” (involuntarily celibate) phenomenon of men who do not have any romantic interest from women. These men and their subculture get little sympathy from most people. But whatever you think of them, every man who fails relationally means a woman who is likewise going to lose out. (This principle is also one reason women usually don’t benefit from divorce over the long term to the extent they imagine they will).
The same is true the other direction. When women run into problems or experience failures in life, this has a negative effect on men’s relational prospects.
This is why I always say I want to see women thrive and soar in life. It’s good for them. And it’s good for men and children too.
Unfortunately, as the “battle of the sexes” phraseology suggests, relations between men and women are often framed as a zero-sum game. The reality is that getting things right for each gender or on intersexual dynamics is a positive sum game where both parties benefit.
Undoubtedly there are some areas where imbalances need to be corrected. Pastors too often blame men for everything that goes wrong in marriages. Women initiate around 70% of all divorces, for example. We can debate why, but the statistic itself is invisible in the Evangelical world. I don’t think I have ever seen a pastor acknowledge this basic reality. Women certainly should be held account for the wrongs that they do which they often are not in the church today.
Fortunately, most things don’t involve redistributing blame or costs. Yet a lot of the discourse in the manosphere and other men’s online spaces tends towards the bitter and negative when it comes to women. Some of them almost relish women’s sufferings, viewing them as getting their comeuppance for their feminist life choices and rhetoric.
As with the incels, however, the joke’s on men too. Every woman who misses the runway to marriage and children, for example, means a man who is going to end up in the same basic boat. If today’s American woman really does end up as “damaged goods” as they claim, what does that mean for men’s relational prospects? Perhaps people should be careful what they wish for.
Today’s Troubles for Women
While our society is culturally and legally feminist and saturated with feminist messaging, a lot is going badly for women today.
- It’s widely said that about 25% of women are on psychotropic medications. That might be an exaggeration, but a September 2020 report from the CDC says that 17.7% of women (vs. only 8.4% of men) are on anti-depressants alone. This does reach about a quarter of the population for women over the age of 60.
- Women’s happiness has been in decline despite feminist-inspired changes in society since 1970. A 2009 NBER paper titled “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” observed that although objective measures of women’s well-being had improved in the previous 35 years, “measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men. The paradox of women’s declining relative well-being is found across various datasets, measures of subjective well-being, and is pervasive across demographic groups and industrialized countries. Relative declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness in which women in the 1970s typically reported higher subjective well-being than did men. These declines have continued and a new gender gap is emerging — one with higher subjective well-being for men.”
- Women’s completed fertility (the number of children they actually have) is significantly lower than their desired fertility, which may be a result of later ages of marriage. We certainly see plenty of media about egg freezing and becoming a single mother by choice, which are in line with this.
- In my experience, older (40+) single women are far unhappier than they let on publicly. Their lives tend to diverge from those of their friends who married, and they end up in a singles ghetto of sorts. Other than very low-quality spam type messages on online dating sites, many of them no longer receive any attention from men and are rarely if ever asked out on dates. The many calls for churches to abandon the “idolatry of the family” and better support singles is indicative of the impoverished relational life facing many older singles. This is compounded by the fact that this is the age when most people plateau professionally and come face to face with the limits of what they are going to achieve in their career. It’s a double-whammy.
- The out of wedlock birth rate is 40%, and many women who had their children while married end up as single mothers after a divorce. This rate fortunately seems to have stabilized somewhat, but statistically, single parenthood is extremely negative for both the parents themselves (who are more likely to experience poverty) and their children. Harvard economist Raj Chetty found that the top geographic predictor of poor upward economic mobility was the share of single mother households.
- Although there are some false or exaggerated accusations, many women have genuinely experienced abuse. Various forms of low-level street harassment are commonplace.
- All of the negative trends in the economy for those who are not in the top 20% income levels affect women as well as men. You can read Robert Putnam’s book Our Kids for a look at the realities of this stark gap.
All you have to do is read the many articles written by women with a variety of complaints to see that they have a lot of dissatisfactions. Whether or not you agree with the specifics of their complaints or proposed solutions, the unhappiness and anger that comes through in these pieces seem genuine to me. I don’t get the sense that this is merely a grift in the vast majority of cases.
The causes of all of these negative indicators, as with negative indicators for men, are complex. But I don’t think it’s any secret that while today’s world is amazing in many ways, the degree of difficulty dial on finding durable relational success has been turned up a lot, for example.
And while the previous life scripts were confining and had their problems, today’s life scripts and propaganda have their own negative side. For example, women today are presented with two major alternative life scripts, the “lean in” career track and the mommy track. Each of them comes with downsides for a large number of women.
The Lean-In Track
The lean in, you go girl, you can have it all track focused on career accomplishment works well for some women. But its satisfactions are less than you might think for most. (That goes for men too, by the way, who have always had an ambivalent relationship to wage labor).
For one thing, it’s mostly professional or creative labor that’s fun and enables people to develop and deploy intellectual talents. But less than half the population has a college degree, even among younger age groups. The reality of “career” for the median American woman is probably something like a single mom working as a cashier or nursing home assistant while she juggles day care and kids’ activities alone. It’s hardly the glamorous city life portrayed on TV.
Even in the professional world, many of the daily activities of the average worker are inane. There’s a reason there have been so many cultural products making fun of office life, which can be soul crushing in many cases. I can’t tell you how many doctors or lawyers I know who don’t want their children following into their profession. You hear similar complaints about the trends in academia, journalism, etc.
Almost by definition, the female voices you hear from the media are those who made it as one of the handful of people who are able to have truly creative careers at a high level. Even then, I’m struck by how unhappy many of them seem to be. I follow some female Christian writers online, and a very high percentage of them (probably around two-thirds to three-fourths), have mentioned being in therapy at some point. I’m pro-therapy, but it’s not good that they ended up where they needed it despite high level professional success.
Women are bombarded by messages encouraging them to take on impossible tasks; no one can “have it all,” and trade-offs and sacrifices are part of the human condition. Eventually, the costs and downsides of choices, ones we perhaps didn’t even know about, end up being realized. In the case of today’s women, that can mean not getting married or having children when that was something they really wanted because they were encouraged (or even subsidized by self-interested employers) to prioritize other things like career success.
Also, like the proverbial airbrushed models on the magazine covers, these messages set idealized expectations that life is highly unlikely to fulfill. This is a recipe for women ending up feeling as though they fell short in life even when they may objectively be very high achievers.
In short, while the lean in track works well for some, it has a lot of landmines women have to navigate around.
The Mommy Track
The other basic path our society offers women, the stay-at-home mom track, also works well for many women. But not for many others, for reasons of temperament, inclination, etc.
Women rapidly took up birth control when available, showing that even back in the day they were not necessarily reveling in large families. Domestic life offered little opportunity for highly intelligent or more ambitious women to develop and utilize all of their talents. This is probably even more true today when, unlike in the past, women are not relied upon as the constructors and maintainers of community social life in the way that they were in the 1950s. And once children are school aged, unless she home schools, the stay-at-home mom is often under-employed at home. You often see them start small home-based sales businesses to stay busy, for example.
While women were oriented towards children and domestic life historically, there has been a fundamental shift in the nature of this work in industrial society (See Masc #26). Home making in industrial society is radically different in character from that of pre-industrial society, even if some of the tasks – child rearing, cooking, etc. – are nominally the same.
This is incredibly difficult for us to relate to. The radical social critic Ivan Illich called articulating the difference between these types of labor in pre-industrial and industrial society “the most difficult part” of his research.
Let’s start with an easier to understand difference: pre-industrial poverty vs. industrial poverty. In the pre-industrial era, large numbers of people had an essentially subsistence existence. While we wouldn’t relish experiencing their hardships, however, we often look back admiringly at the nobility of the precarious existence of homesteaders, for example. The enduring popularity of the Little House series of books attests to this.
There’s little ennobling about industrial era poverty, however. While pre-industrial subsistence farmers were poor, they had a great deal of autonomy and agency over their lives. In contrast, the industrial poor are essentially treated as superfluous humans, not needed for the functioning of society and totally dependent on handouts for survival. Industrial poverty is thus doubly degrading.
There’s a similar distinction with domestic labor in the household. In the pre-industrial era, this labor was directly productive, an integral part of the household based economic system. In today’s world, domestic labor is an appendage to the supposedly “real economy” of the market sector, or what Illich termed “shadow work” in his book of the same time. He writes:
Again, Illich is a radical, but he’s on to something here. This change in the nature of labor in the domestic sphere also helps explain the latent dissatisfaction of some women and the sense that their work is second rate.
Manosphere readers love to mock the childless “wine aunt,” but social media is likewise full of plenty of stay-at-home moms talking about drinking wine to help get through the day. That should tell us something.
Build Men Up, Don’t Tear Women Down
Again, the problems men and women face in this world are complex and defy easy answers. But I do believe the best track to flourishing for most men is marriage with children. I suspect most men explicitly want this as well, or will at some future date as they pass through the arc of life.
The bigger the pool of women who are happy and thriving, who don’t have depression and aren’t carrying around scar tissue or trauma from the past, who are developing and using their talents – the bigger that pool, the easier finding at happy, durable marriage will be. And yes, that’s true the other direction too.
So we should hope that women also do better in this world, and avoid zero-sum thinking on gender.
Even when it comes to men, those of you who have been readers for a while know that I try to avoid giving out too much direct advice telling people what to do and not do. Even the best of advice today is no guarantee. So if that’s my policy for men, that goes doubly for women. I do often notice women whose life choices and trajectory are likely leading to a place they probably don’t want to go. But it’s not my place to tell them how to live their lives. It probably needs to be other women identifying solutions delivering the realtalk.
Alas, that’s not very common today, especially in the Christian world. I have never seen a Christian version of Lori Gottlieb’s famous “Marry Him!” article from the Atlantic, for example. Forget the specific recommendation in this case and think about the bigger genre of someone who is 40ish and not where she wants to be warning younger women not to make her mistakes. My impression is that there’s a dearth of this kind of writing out there by women for women in the Christian world.
As I always say, it’s a free country. I fully support the right of women to choose they life path they want. And I want it to work out for them.
Men get the same rights, too. We’re under no obligation to change our approach to life in order to accommodate women’s preferences or to backstop them if things don’t go the way that they want. We can set our own direction and have our own standards. I will not be a personal 1:1 friend of a woman, for example. Like women, men have the right to say No.
But we shouldn’t find ourselves de facto hoping for bad things to happen to people whose choices we disagree with. I think the Gates Foundation has too much influence over public policy, but that doesn’t make Bill and Melinda Gates’ divorce any less of a tragedy I wish weren’t happening.
In short, recognizing that we need to build up men shouldn’t blind us to the challenges women face today, and we should recognize our shared fate both in the household and society. The flourishing of both men and women is in everyone’s best interest.
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The Fall of the WASP Establishment
Part of my mission at the Masculinist is to equip Christians to live in today’s world that is so much different from even a decade or two ago. That means educating you about social and cultural dynamics that are either seldom discussed or presented in incomplete or misleading ways.
For example, why is it that men no longer behave like gentlemen? Why are fair play and following the rules in decline in our society? Why are political norms so badly eroded? How do we explain the decline in trust in institutions and the rise of conspiracy theories? What accounts for the electoral success of a charismatic populist like Trump?
Believe it not, one man, sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, had a lot of very insightful things to say on all of these topics. To some extent he even predicted them decades ago. Baltzell, the person who popularized the term “WASP” for White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, was America’s foremost scholar of the American upper class. He saw after World War II that the Protestant establishment was in trouble, in part because of WASP failures to assimilate non-Protestants and to take up leadership roles in society.
But unlike most people, Baltzell thought America needed an upper-class establishment, and that it’s loss would create many of the negative social dynamics we are experiencing right now.
I wrote a major feature article at American Affairs that is an introduction and retrospective on Baltzell’s work. I strongly encourage you to read it. Not only it is key in understanding social changes in America since the 1960s, it covers a lot of material very few of you have probably encountered before.
If you read First Things magazine, you may have seen R. R. Reno several times in recent months refer to Geoffrey Kabaservice’s book The Guardians, which also dealt with the WASP elite. Kabaservice called my article “the most serious and the most interesting treatment of Baltzell’s ideas that there has been in decades.”
Here are some excerpts from my article:
In their day, the WASPs were a culture-setting class for America, meaning that many of their moral and behavioral codes were normative, or at least aspirational, for all classes. In addition, because WASPs themselves held a substantial number of key elite positions in the era of the Protestant establishment, this allowed them to enforce les règles du jeu and to ensure that not just the letter of the law but also the unwritten rules and norms were followed by all. As Schneiderman put it,
But an establishment was also something of a contradiction in America. The idea of hereditary upper-class leadership was at odds with the country’s egalitarian and democratic aspirations—even if, without it, a successful, healthy democracy was not possible in Baltzell’s view. The country needed to live within that tension to succeed, perhaps even to survive as a society. Baltzell wrote, “No nation can long endure without both the liberal democratic and the authoritative aristocratic processes.” Only a genuinely aristocratic upper class, one that both served the nation through leadership and was open to new men of merit, was capable of sustaining this tension. Such a class could bring needed balance and prevent “the atomization of society, fostered by the fanatic forces of egalitarian individualism,” which he saw as “the greatest threat to political freedom in our time.”
Balztell also foresaw other touchstones of our contemporary era. The election of Donald Trump would not have surprised him. In the absence of an establishment, an atomized population falls easily under the spell of a charismatic populist. He wrote, “The absence of class authority inevitably leads to the rule of charismatic men on horsebacks, with their legions of personal followers.” The centrality of personal charisma, usually manifested through the mastery of TV and other media, has become part of our political landscape. But Trump represents a step beyond even this. He may be the first national figure in which his voters were followers of him personally, rather than of the standard bearer for a party or platform. There’s a good chance he won’t be the last such figure.
Baltzell would also have predicted our current elites’ increasing reliance on thinly disguised raw power to enforce their self-interested preferences, precisely because they do not meet his definition of an upper-class establishment. He observed, “Viable civilizations, are, almost literally, clothed in authority; and when the emperor’s clothes are removed his only recourse is the exercise of naked power.” When the legitimized, institutionalized authority of the establishment disappears, coercion is what remains. “Authority—a hated word in education, in politics, and in all areas of social life—has been more or less replaced by naked power veiled in manipulation and deceit if not downright fraud.”
And there is less ability for the people to resist that coercion in our atomized era. The upper-class establishment was an intermediary institution that could check or resist the power of corporations, the state, or a would-be Caesar. Baltzell argued, “A powerful, wealthy, yet declassed elite may be one of the greatest threats to freedom in modern American society.”
Please do read the whole thing.
I also discussed the article as a guest of Kabaservice on his Vital Center podcast at the Niskanen Center. It was a great conversation on this topic, which is available in audio and in transcript format. Here’s an excerpt from our discussion:
So, in essence, an establishment occurs when there is heavy overlap between the elite and the upper class. And he [Baltzell] thought this was actually a very good thing and a very important thing, because he felt that this allowed the upper class’s code of conduct, the code of manners that they had in the upper class, to essentially put a moral box around the behavior of the elite. And if you didn’t have this upper-class kind of domination of the elites, then you would have what he might call a declassed elite, where it’s just a collection of individuals sort of atomized from each other, and they have no shared moral codes, no shared rules of the road, rules of the game. And it would create a lot of negative outcomes for the leadership of society if there were not some agreed-upon gentleman’s code that these people were all living under.
I was really struck by Kingman Brewster [the main character in The Guardians], eleventh generation from the Mayflower that his family had been in leadership. Or I think about Charles Francis Adams IV, who died in 1999. And essentially the Adams family, which had been like 200 years of service to the country — these ancient lineages of our land have essentially gone extinct, if you will, from the standpoint of public leadership. So I don’t know that it’s ever possible to resurrect something. There is a — I don’t know the right word — primordial authority that comes from having those deep, longstanding, multi-generational roots in a place. I think that is one of the things that contributed to people’s willingness to come along. And that is now gone, that continuity of leadership in America. That organic upper-class, from the founding of the country to the 1950s, is now extinct. And there are still WASPs around; I guess they still publish the Social Register. But whatever it looks like in the future, it’s not going to look like what it looked like in the past.
What a drag it is getting old
“Kids are different today, ” I hear every mother say
Mother needs something today to calm her down
And though she’s not really ill, there’s a little yellow pill
She goes running for the shelter of her mother’s little helper
And it helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day
“Things are different today, ” I hear every mother say
Cooking fresh food for her husband’s just a drag
So she buys an instant cake, and she burns a frozen steak
And goes running for the shelter of her mother’s little helper
And two help her on her way, get her through her busy day
Doctor, please, some more of these
Outside the door, she took four more
- The Rolling Stones, “Mother’s Little Helper” (1966)