I'm showing my age again, but I can remember, just barely, when we had the war between men and women. Not a war, but the war: eternal and (of course) metaphorical, a fight without massed ranks of infantry or elaborate flanking maneuvers or formal parleys among belligerents. The opening salvo dated to the Garden of Eden, and a truce wasn’t expected until Gabriel or whoever sounded the trumpet’s final wail.
The phrase war between men and women was meant in a lighthearted way, mostly. It described an ineradicable truth of human life, plain to everyone but best spoken of indirectly. It is this: The two halves of our otherwise terrific species aren’t really suited to each other, even though the replenishing of our kind depends on their close, to say no more, association. The unavoidable pickle—the tension between the incompatibility of man and woman and the urgent need for man and woman to get along and then some—has traditionally been understood as comic. To view it otherwise is too grim a prospect. And besides, we have reasoned, it’s just the way things are, so what the hell.
Great artists from Aristophanes to Shakespeare, from Molière to Ira Gershwin, understood the war this way. The humorist James Thurber summed it up in a series of drawings explicitly titled “The War Between Men and Women.” Each piece illustrated a signal event in the ongoing struggle: “The Fight in the Grocery Store,” the “Capture of Three Physics Professors,” the “Surrender of Three Blondes,” and so on.
“It’s all in good fun,” Thurber seemed to be saying, “I hope.”
Thurber’s series was first published in 1934, in the backwash of what progressive historians call First Wave Feminism—the feminism of Susan B. Anthony and suffragettes and temperance advocates and other assorted crabby grannies in bonnets and high collars. Roughly two generations later Second Wave Feminism rolled in to make sure everyone knew that relations between the sexes were no laughing matter. (The summary joke from this unhappy period: Q. How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? A. That’s not funny!) Second Wave Feminism was the feminism of grim Gloria Steinem and scary Germaine Greer and no bras.
I don’t know if we’re in the post-Second Wave or pre-Third Wave period of feminism, but war talk is once again in the air, spoken with the same clenched-jaw severity that made Second Wave feminism so excruciating. Except nowadays, instead of a war between men and women, women (some of them, anyway) talk about a war on women and (some) men talk about a war on men. This bifurcation of the ancient war is in keeping with our galloping individualism and self-absorption. We interpret a mutual antagonism as a one-sided assault on me and mine.
The war on men is the particular concern of the newest incarnation of the “men’s movement.” Older readers may remember the earlier men’s movement, from the 1990s. It was invented and led by such aging hippies as the poet Robert Bly and the author Sam Keen. The former LBJ hatchet man Bill Moyers filmed a documentary with Bly called A Gathering of Men, which served as the movement’s manifesto and ran like a tape loop on PBS. The movement made for easy trend stories in the newsmagazines and newspaper lifestyle sections because it was so eccentric. Feminism was pushing women into traditionally male domains, was the theme; and men were escaping out the other side, lost in confusion about their roles as husbands, fathers, and cogs in the postindustrial machine.
The confusion took strange forms. In the Moyers-Bly version, men were trying to recapture their true natures. They did this by gathering in forests, removing crucial articles of clothing, adorning their hair with feathers, and beating drums in an attempt to stimulate orgiastic dancing. It often worked, and the dancing wasn’t pretty. The trappings were heavily indebted to New Age spirituality, American Indian-division, and the purpose was meant to be therapeutic—it was a rare Gathering of Men in which some burly fellow didn’t burst into tears.
After a year or two the men’s movement went the way of all trend stories and vaporized. The new men’s movement that has recently emerged is far less suited to lighthearted features on the evening news—even if there were still such a thing as “the evening news.” The feathers are gone and so are the drums. At the heart of the new movement is a loosely defined notion of “men’s rights,” which have become casualties in the newly discovered war on men. This spring, a manifesto of the new movement was published, to much praise. Men on Strike is the work of Dr. Helen Smith, a psychologist from Tennessee. She writes a popular blog, called Dr. Helen, on the conservative website pjmedia.com. If the old men’s movement got men crying, the new one hopes to get them complaining.
Men on Strike relies heavily on material accumulated through Dr. Helen’s blog, which has gained a large following of men drawn to her daily briefs in their defense. The book has the energy, the hit-and-run tone, of a blog. She knows how to marshal an argument quickly and drive it home with what the marketers of breakfast cereals used to call vim. Her premise is that the tables have turned in the U.S.A.: Nowadays, she and her followers assert, men are more likely than women to be victims of systematic discrimination, in school or the workplace, owing to developments in divorce and family law, sexual harassment guidelines, school curriculums—indeed, in every area of social life where considerations of sex come into play.
This is a lot of ground to cover, and Dr. Helen manages to do it in under 200 pages. Her book is a “call to action,” she says, and it’s the place to start for any reader curious about the 21st-century men’s movement and the nascent cause of men’s rights.
For all its range, there are signs that Men on Strike was written in haste and rushed into print by her publisher. Dr. Helen has a weakness for mixed metaphors; in one notable sentence we confront an Army of Davids gathering steam to turn a tide that has been brewing for more than 40 years. Several points are made more than once—more than once a page, in some cases. Her roundhouse exaggerations (“Our society tells men they are worthless perverts who reek of male privilege while simultaneously castrating them should they act in a manly manner”) lose their rhetorical oomph after a while. And sometimes the vividness of her imagery runs away from her, as when she refers to “men who must swallow their manhood.” Oh yuck.
Surely the condition of American men is not so perilous that we couldn’t have waited a few days while a copy editor looked the book over. But maybe I’m wrong about this. Maybe we can’t wait. Dr. Helen’s tone is alternately sarcastic, disgusted, pitiless, and huffy, but never less than urgent. This is war! “[O]ur society is at war with men and men know it full well.” And according to Dr. Helen, an increasing number of these reluctant combatants are responding by going AWOL—from marriage and fatherhood, from the workplace, and from educational institutions. The percentage of unmarried men has tripled among some demographic cohorts, for those with college educations and those without. Labor participation rates for men are falling: In 1967, nearly 97 percent of men with no more than a high school education had a job, Dr. Helen says, citing figures from the Brookings Institution. Now the number is 76 percent. Among all working-age men, only 66 percent work full time—down from 80 percent 40 years ago. College admissions counselors across the country despair over the lack of male applicants. About 60 percent of college applicants each year are female—a ratio carried over into the student bodies of more and more schools.
So there’s evidence that a significant percentage of men are shying away from the social institutions that historically have required male participation for success, for both their own flourishing and that of the institutions themselves. For Dr. Helen, the reasons are straightforward. A right-leaning libertarian, she is a believer in homo economicus. The general retreat of men from their traditional responsibilities, she reasons, reflects a rational calculation of costs and benefits. When men go on strike, she says, they “are acting rationally in response to the lack of incentives today’s society offers them to be responsible fathers, husbands and providers.”
Take the institution of marriage. “Research shows,” she writes, that men who live with their girlfriends are happier than married men. Why? Because men who don’t get married enjoy “perks”—her word—that their married brethren don’t. Among the perks: “Research shows” (she says again) that single women are thinner than married women, making them more desirable. Cohabiting women have lower expectations for the men they live with; they ask for less in the way of material and emotional support, which lessens the stress that can make marriage such a pressure cooker for men. And when the time comes to part company, as it so often does these days, unmarried men duck away with greater ease. There are no ravenous divorce lawyers circling in sharknado mode, no sticky procedures to disentangle family property, and, usually, no kids who will have to be Solomonically cut in half when the relationship ends. Much more than marriage, cohabitation is a turnkey operation: no muss, no fuss.
“The discrepancy between the life of the freer, single man and the life of the less respected, less free life [sic] of the married man is at the heart of why so many men have gone on strike.” The traditional division of labor that made marriage such an attractive deal for men—king of the castle and so on—has been disarranged, vastly increasing men’s obligations (laundry! dishwashing! diapers!) without any compensating increase in comfort or convenience. Indeed, the risks involved in marriage have surged for men, she says. Child custody and divorce laws are rigged against husbands and fathers, and courts have a general tendency to side with wives and mothers. A man’s entire paternal and financial future is up for grabs if he and his wife divorce.
Dr. Helen quotes one of her young readers on the subject of marriage: “At least 7 out of 10 guys I talk to tell me that it is one of the worst mistakes that they ever made. . . . One married guy told me that I could get the same effect by selling my house, giving all my money away and having someone castrate me. This is really starting to unnerve me . . . ”
Unnerve is certainly too mild a word for any situation involving castration, in my opinion, but no one can doubt the pessimism with which Dr. Helen’s informants assess their prospects. On campus they confront the increasingly fashionable anti-fraternity movement and sexual harassment guidelines that criminalize the most innocuous flirtation. Similar rules govern the “feminized” workplace, where middle-management positions are more likely to be occupied by women. “I haven’t had a man for a boss in over 17 years,” a man who holds a staff position in a law firm glumly tells Dr. Helen. “Women managers tend to hire more women,” he adds, leaving men behind.
“Maybe when there are no more men working, people will start to notice,” Dr. Helen writes, failing to keep her sarcasm in check. “Until then, they will continue to discuss the ‘war on women’ until there are no men anywhere.”
Dr. Helen acknowledges that her method of gathering all this gloomy testimony is not rigorous, scientifically. In addition to posting questions on her blog and then waiting for answers to roll in from her readers, she has haunted bars and gyms, interviewing the tipsy and the sweaty about their hopes and disappointments. She has queried her way through the distant quarter of the Internet known as the “manosphere,” an informal constellation of sites and chat rooms devoted to video games, sports, science fiction, libertarian politics, and pornography of varying degrees of loathsomeness. Statistically such temperature-readings are worthless, of course, and while she thinks the anonymity of the web encourages candor from her respondents, it may very well do the opposite, inviting exaggeration and aimless bitching. How does one weigh the credibility of a source known only as Chateau Heartiste or Afkbrad or Oso Pardo or Armageddon Rex or (my favorite) Richard Ricardo? Somebody’s got some ’splainin’ to do.
Yet we can only conclude that Dr. Helen is illuminating some part of American manhood, and the sight is—well, unnerving. Her men are an unhappy lot, nursing their gripes and resentments. “I’m on strike and have been for years now,” writes “Bob.” “Women are so full of hatred and disdain for me.” Some who have managed to secure a relationship with a woman have come away angry. “Personally,” says one, “I hate the idea that a woman can stop anything and everything I care about doing, just by making my life a living hell until I concede to her demands”—especially, he adds, his girlfriend’s demand that he “be the man.”
All across America, Dr. Helen writes, men are being told they must “provide for women and their families with nary a whimper,” and they’re not going to take it anymore.
In Dr. Helen’s manifesto, men appear exclusively as victims. This unexpected view brings readers to places they might not have visited before—or even known existed—including to a field that men’s activists call “men’s reproductive rights.” The phrase “reproductive rights” was brought to us by Second Wave Feminists decades ago, as a euphemism for the ability of a woman to obtain a legal abortion. It was posted as a kind of No Trespassing Sign around an area that was thought to be particularly vulnerable to male intervention. Now, it turns out, men are sexually vulnerable too.
“Yes,” Dr. Helen tells us, “men and boys can be raped or coerced into sex by women, though many people think otherwise.”
You’d have to count me among the latter—among those who think otherwise, I mean, not among those who say they’ve been raped. She cites three examples of the sexual exploitation of men by women. All three might have been lifted from the letters section of an old issue of Penthouse. In one case a 15-year-old boy had sex with a woman in her 30s, making her technically guilty of statutory rape and now a fantasy figure for 15-year-old boys everywhere. In another, a young man passed out at a friend’s house after a party and awoke to find himself on the living room floor, naked. So far, so normal, you say. But then another partygoer claimed to have had sex with him while he was unconscious. She got pregnant and demanded child support. Dr. Helen’s third anecdote tells of a young male victim visiting his parents at the hospital, where a predatory nurse offered to perform oral sex if he agreed to wear a condom. Later the nurse volunteered to throw away the condom—nurses are trained to be tidy—but instead used it to impregnate herself. Even the editors of Penthouse never thought of that.
Men’s reproductive rights are also violated, we’re told, by something called paternity fraud. Here again the women outfox their men. In paternity fraud, judges or other legal authorities force men to help rear children that a wife or girlfriend (or nurse) has led them to believe, erroneously, are theirs. How many men are in this uncomfortable position? The practice, Dr. Helen says, “is so rampant that it is hard to get an exact count.” She notes that the organization Father and Families puts the figure at tens of thousands; Men’s Health magazine says it’s “more than a million.” Whatever. She asks her blog readers what they would do if a judge forced them to support a child that wasn’t theirs. The bitterness and recriminations flow: “I wouldn’t resort to violence, but I’d do a heck of a frame job to make sure she ended up in jail. . . . I would feel like running away to a south sea island where I could never have to see any of them again. . . . I would be tempted to tell [the judge] to put me in jail right now because I simply would not pay.”
“These are good and appropriate responses,” Dr. Helen writes, “because they are the fuel that will cause men to act on their own behalf to change the laws.”
The final chapter of her manifesto offers an “action plan” for men to fight back. The plan ranges from the personal to the political. First, she says, when men are stereo-typed as dolts or wimps on TV or in the movies, “stop laughing.” (How many men’s activists does it take to change a light bulb?) She also has ideas for new laws. One would require paternity tests for all newborns and their alleged fathers. Some might consider this an invasion of privacy, she admits, but: “Given how few rights men have and how important paternity rights are, maybe it is not a bad idea.”
So there you have it, everything a movement needs: questionable statistics, a scattering of inconclusive anecdotes, a steady harvest of victims, and a program for political agitation. The movement even has a ready-made martyr. Thomas Ball became an icon of men’s rights advocates when he set himself on fire on the steps of a New Hampshire courthouse after an unfavorable ruling in a custody case. Among his last words were “I’m done being bullied for being a man.” Dr. Helen is scandalized that the national press didn’t give space to Ball’s suicide. “Apparently,” she complains, “our society cares so little about men that those who kill themselves are hardly news.”
You don’t need a long look to see that the men’s movement Dr. Helen hopes to advance is a mirror image of the movement it’s reacting to. This is why it’s disconcerting to see the men’s movement taken up as a conservative cause. In its ideological DNA is the same heedless individualism that bred Second Wave feminists, who likewise reduced every human interaction to a confrontation of legally enforceable “rights.” Gender warriors think alike, no matter which army they’re in.
Like 1970s feminists, Dr. Helen and her comrades place the blame for injustice squarely on the fuzziest possible malefactor—not specific individuals or even discrete groups, but vague entities like “society,” “the media,” “the culture,” “today’s PC climate,” and of course “the environment”: the working environment, the current environment, the college environment . . . all of them hostile, all of them subjecting men to unbidden terrors.
To these dimensionless clouds of ill will the gender warrior attributes stupendous powers. The environment or society or the culture or the climate is responsible for how we see ourselves, whether we choose to marry, what kind of jobs we’re offered or interested in, the number of children we have or whether we have them at all. Second Wave feminists saw the American woman the same way, as a creature gone limp, a hopeless chump subject to endless manipulation. Like those earlier gender warriors, Dr. Helen thinks the root problem is that society—you know, society—doesn’t treat the objects of her pity as “autonomous beings.” Personal autonomy is her lodestar. The movement’s ideal is a person stripped of all responsibilities and constraints except those he freely chooses for himself. The ancient view that we are embedded in obligations that are not of our own choosing and which should not be quickly discarded—and which are finally the source of life’s richness and deepest rewards—is as foreign to her as it was to the theorists of feminism.
Going “on strike” is thus the way the American man, that pathetic loser, rallies from his victimization to become the autonomous being that men’s rights activists dream of. Another term for it is “going Galt.” Dr. Helen didn’t coin the term but she has done much to popularize it. With its hard “g”s back to back, going Galt has a manly sound to it—not surprisingly, since it is taken from the work of one of the manliest writers of the 20th century, Ayn Rand. John Galt is the hero of Rand’s preposterous novel Atlas Shrugged. The book tells of a generation of entrepreneurs and industrialists (the Prime Movers, she calls them) beset by unnecessary government regulation and clawing social demands from “moral cannibals.” They rebel by going underground, abandoning their businesses to the parasites. Chaos ensues. (Take that, society!)
A number of Dr. Helen’s readers have gone Galt. The term pops up often in the manosphere, which is itself a logical destination for young men when they lose themselves in Rand’s fantasy. Even discounting for her usual exaggeration, Dr. Helen is right about the dismal options facing uneducated young men in the economy the Great Recession left behind. Ayn Rand offers an off-the-shelf explanation for the future as it must present itself to a footloose 20-year-old. “I’m going Galt” sounds much nobler—manlier—than “I’m sleeping in my mom’s garage while I collect disability checks for my ADHD and try to avoid her bipolar boyfriend.” Randianism contains not only a coherent economics but a pre-fab metaphysics too. It’s at once self-aggrandizing and self-pitying, a rationale for failure if or when it comes—a quick way out for a boy who has been provided with no other means to make sense of the world.
Of course, there are alternatives—other dreams for young men to place themselves in. Whether they’re plausible, given the condition of American manhood, is a good question. In one of those pleasing coincidences that long-winded book reviewers can only wish for, the publication of Men on Strike coincided with the release of The Art of Manliness Collection, a two-book set packaged in a souvenir cigar box with a stack of coasters adorned with inspirational quotes for aspiring men. (“The courage we desire and prize is not the courage to die decently but to live manfully”—Thomas Carlyle.)
The first of the two books, The Art of Manliness, is an etiquette guide, an advice book, and a how-to manual, all in one. The reader is taken step by step through skills that have been swamped in the Second Wave: homey talents such as how to tie a four-in-hand and write a thank-you note, and more rarefied skills such as how to treat a snakebite, light a fire without matches, save a drowning person, and “accept criticism without coming off like a cad.” The second volume in the collection, Manvotionals, is a commonplace book of “timeless advice on living the 7 manly virtues,” with selections from Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt, Xenophon, Epictetus, and more Victorian moralists than you can shake a shillelagh at. The word chivalry is used often, without a hint of a smirk.
Like Men on Strike, the two manliness books are concerned with the state of American manhood. And like Men on Strike, they contain lots of material drawn from a website (in this case, artofmanliness.com). And there the similarity ends. In her book about men Dr. Helen uses the word manly twice, once in ironic quote marks. The irony would be lost on the authors of The Art of Manliness, a husband and wife team from Tulsa, Oklahoma, called Brett and Kate McKay. If the ideal for the men’s movement is the autonomous man, vigorously asserting his rights in order to free himself from any constraint placed on him by someone else, the McKays’ ideal is the man who knows how to respond well to the expectations and inhibitions that come with being a father or husband, a son or brother or friend.
The Art of Manliness, in other words, stands as an implicit rebuke to the men’s movement. Its response to the Second Wave is not to ape it but to ignore it, in favor of a timeless view of the relationship between the sexes. While Dr. Helen’s men go Galt, these men head in the opposite direction. They settle into the deeper loam that lies beneath often inconvenient and uncomfortable social arrangements to the place where honor, devotion, and even sanctity can grow. Manliness, the McKays say, requires an awareness of reciprocity—the knowledge that “both genders are capable of and should strive for virtuous, human excellence.” For that matter, only such women and men—confident, knowing, patient, courteous, and moved always by fellow feeling—could call a halt to the war on women and to the war on men, and return to the much more enjoyable, and much less dangerous, war between men and women.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.