The Gender Wars: Movements aplenty, but to what purpose?

February 23, 1994|By ALICE STEINBACH

This may not be a popular observation but I'm going to make it anyway: It's time for both the Women's Movement and the Men's Movement to step back and take a long, hard look at the State of the Gender Revolution.

What needs to be asked is this: Are we headed in the right direction?

There is no question that over the last three decades many positive societal changes have occurred as a result of, first, the Women's Movement and, second, the response of well-intentioned men to the Women's Movement.

But over the last few years, the substantive issues that underlie the Gender Revolution often seem obscured by what has come to be known as the Gender Wars. Not unlike the bickering and name-calling that go on in grade school, the Gender Wars often consist of over-generalized ("All men are scum") and irrational ("All feminists are lesbians") charges and countercharges.

But as puerile as such skirmishes are, they use up a lot of energy; energy that could and should be harnessed in the service of creating an environment that supports both sexes.

Perhaps it is time for men and women to make peace, not war.

And perhaps it is time to replace gender narcissism -- with its self-absorbed emphasis on the individual -- with a more community-oriented gender maturity.

This means, among other things, calling a moratorium on books and articles that trivialize the real problems facing men and women. Such as the current Time cover article, which features a photo of a pig's head superimposed on a man's body. Written by Lance Morrow, it poses the question: "Are Men Really That Bad?"

Excuse me, but haven't I read this article before? Say, about a thousand times? Sarcastic, defensive, filled with self-perpetuating half-truths about "men and women at one another's throats," the article is all heat and no light.

Of course, the most notorious example of such trivial blathering on and on about a phony issue had to do with women. Remember the Newsweek cover article a few years back, the one that declared that single, college-educated women beyond the age of 35 had a better chance of being killed by terrorists than of marrying?

It spawned hundreds of follow-up articles and came perilously close to becoming the Creature That Swallowed The Point of the Women's Movement. Until, that is, Susan Faludi debunked the "man shortage" study in her best seller, "Backlash." Turns out, there was none.

But the attention given this kind of drivel can obscure gender issues critical to our country's future. Now, for instance, we learn it is not the single woman who represents a serious societal problem -- it is the unattached man.

"Every society must be wary of the unattached male, for he is universally the cause of numerous social ills," writes Rutgers University professor of sociology David Popenoe in "Values and Public Policy." "The good society is heavily dependent on men being attached to a strong moral order centered on families, both to discipline their sexual behavior and to reduce their competitive aggression."

Dr. Popenoe's assessment of the "unattached male," it should be pointed out, is not a criticism of single men but of society's changed attitude toward marriage. Since the mid-1960s, he says, the institution of marriage has been in serious decline, with serious consequences for the larger society.

"Marriage is an extremely important civilizing institution for men," says Dr. Popenoe. "It's very important for them to be attached to a woman on a long-term basis and to be attached to children . . . It means the men are working toward a social purpose rather than just wandering around freely doing their own thing."

But with more young men than ever before living "outside of marriage and outside of fathering concerns," fewer of them are working toward that social purpose. It could account partly, he says, for the rising crime rate.

And the decline of the American family.

It's a situation, says Dr. Popenoe, that suggests something has gone awry in the Gender Revolution: "I'm very much for the original gender revolution which brought women into public office and curtailed the authoritarian power of men in the family and other institutions. But what's being overlooked is what's happened to the family in the last 30 years," he says.

The question now is: What will happen to the family in the next 30 years? The answer depends on whether the New Woman and the New Man can leave behind their adolescence and become adults.

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