The Trouble with men?
A Review of: Sacred Cows, by
Ros Coward, Harper & Collins, and The Betrayal of Modern
Man, by Susan Faludi, Chattow & Windus
"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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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