The Reluctant Feminist


The opening scene in Hanna Rosin’s 2010 Atlantic essay, “The End of Men,” may one day be as iconic as the beginning of Betty Friedan’s 1963 seminal work, “The Feminine Mystique.” Friedan’s book famously opened with a scene of a typical mid-century housewife who “made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, …[and] lay beside her husband at night.” But, Friedan went on, “she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — ‘Is this all?’”

Friedan — like Rosin, a Jewish feminist — helped spark a revolution. Her book is credited with helping to prod unprecedented numbers of women into the workplace. And while on some basic criteria, like pay parity, women still lag behind men, they have now crossed the mark that Friedan probably never envisioned: in 2010, women became a majority of the workforce.

Rosin’s essay, which will come out in expanded book form on Sept. 11, started from this basic fact. The book, “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women” (Riverhead), goes on to describe how the new post-industrial economy increasingly favors women. And like Friedan’s book, Rosin’s Atlantic piece has already sparked a national conversation: Are women really better situated to lead in the new economy? And if so, should men be worried — and should women be worrying, too?

“It’s not just that women are catching up to men” in the new economy, Rosin said in a recent interview at the New York offices of Slate, where she has been a long-time writer. “It’s that in so many ways, women have already surpassed men.”

Rosin’s essay began with an anecdote about a colorful rogue biologist named Ronald Ericcson. In the 1970s, he pioneered a method for couples to improve the odds of producing babies of their desired gender. At the time, Ericcson became a lighting rod in the media, with nearly everyone believing that couples would overwhelming choose to have boys. In Rosin’s essay, she caught up with Ericcson, now in his 70s. And what she found shocked her and Ericcson both: by the late-’90s, couples using his method were choosing girls over boys by a 2-to-1 margin; a more recent method for gender selection had couples opting for girls 75 percent of the time.

In her subsequent research, what Rosin found was that women seem to have a better advantage in today’s economy than men, mainly because they’ve acquired skills, through more education, and they have generic traits — they’re more focused and are better at communicating — that are critical for today’s economy. The facts bear it out: in 2010, for the first time in history, women held the majority of jobs in the United States. Men lost 75 percent of the eight million jobs lost during the Great Recession — and many of those jobs, like construction, will probably only hobble back. The most robust long-term growth in the economy will be in service industries such as healthcare and education — which are dominated by women.

Even at the highest rung of society — in jobs like doctors, lawyers and corporate managers — women have been rising fast, though they still are in the minority. Perhaps the most ominous sign of change, though, is the educational data: for every two men that graduate from college today, three women do; and women are now the majority in medical and law schools.

“Yes, the upper reaches of society are still dominated by men,” she wrote in the essay and repeats in the book. “But given the power of the forces pushing at the economy, this setup feels like the last gasp of a dying age rather than the permanent establishment.”

Rosin, 42, is, perhaps surprisingly, ambivalent about calling herself a feminist. She grew up in fairly traditional home: both her parents were Israelis, and her father was the sole breadwinner in the family before Rosin left for Stanford University. Her parents, Sephardic Jews from modern-day Yemen, moved to Israel in the 1930s, and Rosin was born in Israel. But she moved with her family to Queens when she was 5. Her father, a truck driver in Israel, left for a new job as a taxi driver in New York. Her mother, who didn’t start working until Rosin was at Stanford, became a secretary in the Diamond District. But her mother still works there — another sign that women have so far been more flexible than men in starting their lives over, a point emphasized in Rosin’s book.

“We were a working-class family, so talk about feminism never really came up,” Rosin said. But she grew up surrounded by assertive women — who, if they didn’t work, still had more control in the family than the men. It wasn’t really until college that she was exposed to the intellectual side of feminism: works by Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir, two lodestars for her still.

“I was never part of the [feminist] ‘movement’,” she said. “I didn’t participate in any ‘Take Back the Night’ marches, but I was interested in feminist ideas.”

When asked about the way a Jewish background may have influenced other Jewish feminists — the list is exhaustive, including not only Friedan, but Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Naomi Wolf, Susan Faludi, Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, Emma Goldman, to name a few — she had to stop and think.

“I never really thought about it till you said it, but it is significant, the role Jewish women have played in feminism,” she said. “Maybe there’s something about the outsiderness of being Jewish that makes for a fiery feminist type.”

Perhaps that outsiderness has shaped her work as well: a working-class Jewish girl, born in Israel, who’s pushed her way into America’s elite institutions. After graduating from Stanford (her thesis was on Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”), she began her career in journalism, at The Washington Post. She’s had an impressive career ever since, with staff jobs at The New Republic, The Atlantic, and Slate.

She’s married to David Plotz, an editor at Slate who frequently writes about Jewish topics, and they’re in the same D.C. circle (they live in Washington) with other prominent Jewish journalists, like Jeffrey Goldberg and Franklin Foer, who are all in a Torah-study group together.

“Torah study isn’t for me,” she said, noting that she doesn’t participate in the study group. “But I guess you can say that I’m active in our Conservative synagogue” — where her three children, two boys and a girl, go or will go to Sunday school.

Jewish issues do come up in her work. In 2010, for instance, she wrote a piece for New York magazine about why she chose to circumcise her sons — though after some reservations, given the growing tide of liberal Jewish critics who’ve come out against it.

But she has increasingly gravitated toward women’s issues. In 2009, she kicked up a storm when she wrote a scathing piece against breast feeding, arguing that it was preventing women’s full immersion in the workforce. When she began brainstorming “The End of Men” piece, she founded a women’s site on Slate called “DoubleX.” But Rosin doesn’t describe the site as feminist exactly — “it’s more like the news written from a women’s perspective,” she said.

Part of the problem with calling herself a feminist is that she’s acutely aware that the gospel her essay, and now book, espouses — that women are taking over the economy — may not be entirely a good thing. If it results in men leaving the workforce and not coming back, then the results for society could be catastrophic.

“The book is not like, ‘This is a good thing’ — No! This is not an unqualified good for women at any social level,” Rosin said.

What she’s found is that, already, women who work are not having the men in their lives pick up the domestic responsibilities. Many of the working women are exhausted and, according to many studies, about as happy (or unhappy) as they were before they entered the workforce.

This phenomenon is especially true in working- and middle-class homes — described as those with residents not holding a college degree, or roughly 70 percent of Americans. The result has been the unprecedented rise in single-mother homes, with women seeing men, to quote Rosin, “as just another mouth to feed.” Increasingly, working women are choosing to stay single, or choosing to divorce.

The gender and economic issues Rosin raises, of course, are playing out in the presidential race — mostly, she says, in the fight over the working-class vote.

“Although working-class white men have gravitated to the Republican Party over the last 30 years, you can see President Obama’s efforts to win them back, by portraying Mitt Romney as an alien rich creature who will not look out for their jobs. Obama is trying to appeal to the side of men that knows they need some government assistance in this economy and can’t always go it alone.”

Her book, Rosin says, “is not just about women — it’s a clarion call to men. It’s time for us to expand the role of things men can do” and to get men comfortable with taking on roles once seen as gender-driven — joining PTAs, doing the laundry, taking (or at least asking) for parental leave. Perhaps more importantly, lower down in the economy, men need to start taking on jobs still perceived as feminine — such as nurse, teacher, social worker and homemaker.

“Theoretically, [men] can be anything these days,” Rosin writes in the forthcoming book. “But moving into new roles, and a new phase, requires certain traits: flexibility, hustle, and an expansive sense of identity” — all of which are traits that have proven elusive to men.

Rosin makes clear that she doesn’t want to come across as a biased champion for either gender. She values the critical and analytic perspective more than the polemical one. She sees a hint of her Jewishness in that, too: “With the Jews, the questions are always open, we’re always questioning,” she says, “I love that questioning tradition.”