Jennifer Niesslein

Boys Versus Girls?

I was recently surprised to hear that women are taking over the country. I'm not talking about a specific woman, like Hillary Clinton, whose recent publicity led conservative pundits to declare that she's eyeing the presidency for 2004 or 2008. I'm talking about regular, non-celebrity women without $8 million book deals. All of us.

In its cover story last month, "She Works, He Doesn't," Newsweek identified what it calls a trend -- in which female "Alpha Earners" bring home the bacon while the men (often reluctantly) stay home to prepare "badly cooked dinners." Meanwhile, Business Week tells us, in "The New Gender Gap," that the ladies are taking over high schools, colleges, graduate school programs -- seemingly to the detriment of boys (whom they dub "the new second sex.") Perhaps we should have seen this coming when we were told, a few years ago, that pink was the new black.

In these stories, I hear echoes of the drum that cultural conservatives have been banging for at least a decade now. America is being feminized. Men are cowed by big scary feminists who, for example, want to play in golf tournaments. There is a distinctly giddy note in the reports that the queen of housekeeping, Martha Stewart, has been indicted on grand jury charges. MSNBC's new talk show host Michael Savage opined, "Today in America we have a 'she-ocracy' where a minority of feminist zealots rule the culture." Far righters Phyllis Schlafly and James Dobson recently accused feminists of declaring a war on boys. In other words, women have wrested the power from men; feminists are tenting their fingers and cackling, "Yes! Our evil plan to destroy men has finally worked!"

But the thing is, although it makes for compelling copy and an easy fight -- the boys versus the girls, which sex has the economic or educational cooties -- it's not really true. And if your eyes are trained on The Battle of the Sexes, then you can't see the other, more complex battles being waged, lost, or flat-out ignored. The real war isn't Mars versus Venus, but smaller, less sexy conflicts where the enemy can be hard to find. It's easy to point the finger at women executives who pay for their own Land Rovers, thankyouverymuch; more complex to get into the governmental and corporate decisions that have whittled away at traditionally male blue-collar jobs. Easy to dismiss ex-wives as whiners, money-grubbers; more difficult to explain the legalities and economics that punish caregivers and children in our judicial system. Poverty, law, NAFTA -- they just don't inspire the same sort of hot-and-botheredness as the more titillating gender wars.

Certainly, each sex has its own gender-specific battles. We should be troubled that boys, who are generally more fidgety, are diagnosed so frequently with ADHD and put on psychotropic drugs. We should be concerned that men and boys of color are our culture's bogeymen. We should be concerned that boys don't have the essay-writing skills or grades that land girls in college.

At the same time, we should be concerned that while women earn about half of all law degrees, only 16 percent become law partners. That, despite the education under our belts, women are still the ones expected to make the choice: career or children? We should be very troubled that caregivers -- mostly women, but some fathers as well -- face poverty in old age as a direct result of doing unpaid work. (Perhaps:"The Battle Against a Hard-Core Capitalist System That Economically Punishes Caregivers and Refuses to Acknowledge Unpaid Labor"?)

Given the incredible gender-related changes our country has experienced over the past 30 years, it's no real surprise that the Battle of the Sexes still goes on in the minds of many people. Some issues -- like larger numbers of women gaining careers but stumbling when they hit motherhood -- grew out of these cultural changes. Some -- like the upsurge of boys on Ritalin -- have not.

At the heart of all Battle of the Sexes stories, though, is the question of who's entitled to what. Good enough. It can get tricky, negotiating one's way through who gets which resources and who gains and who loses and whether an investment in, say, boys' wrestling (or girls' lacrosse) will ultimately benefit us all. You can come at these issues from a thousand directions: what's fair, what's ideal, what the market wants, and on and on. But when I hear that women and girls, heady with new power, are the sole reason that men and boys aren't getting what they need (proper education, a spot in college, a good job), I get that icky feeling. The one that says someone thinks he's entitled to more than I, based on gender alone.

This has the effect of inappropriately injecting gender politics where they don't belong. One recent article opened with an anecdote about a rare occurrence: a boy being elected president of his junior class. According to the article, the boy "swiftly instructed his all-female slate that they were his cabinet and that he was going to be calling all the shots." So the girls impeached him. The writer called this "emblematic of a stunning gender reversal in American education." Really? To me, it sounds like a simple lesson in why you shouldn't be a jerk.

Jennifer Niesslein is co-editor of Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers.

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