By ROSIE BOYCOTT
Once upon a time it used to be relatively simple to be a man: your role, as indeed it was my father's role, was to look after your wife and children, provide for them, make major decisions around the house and bring home the bacon.
When I was young and my father was temporarily unemployed after leaving the Army in the Fifties, there was no question that my mother might step into the breach and go out to work. We just went short of money.
I remember my father being depressed and angry during this brief period; later, when we talked about such issues, he told me that much of his unhappiness stemmed from feeling that he was letting down his family.
Thankfully, for him (and for us), the situation was soon resolved and Dad was able to reassert his sense of order and masculinity; he went out to work, Mum stayed at home, he dealt with the bills, Mum dealt with the cooking. It was all very ordered.
Nothing is so straightforward any more. My mother needed my father to keep a roof over her head and food on the table for her children.
Women don't need that now.
Last week, a survey revealed that 39 per cent of women who work full-time believe they earn more than their men.
The word "believe" is important here; work, this last bastion, where men still hold on to the reins of power, is now so fraught with tension and drama that people are unwilling to go on the record about actual earnings.
Translated into numbers, that means 1.8 million women in full-time work across the country now earn more than their partners.
These figures are both important and potentially critical: they indicate a very real change sweeping through the professional ranks of twentysomething men and women.
The one area where men continued to rule the roost - the workplace - where they consistently out-earned women and claimed the lion's share of places at the boardroom table, even that apparently secure male domain has been turned on its head.
So what exactly do women need men for these days?
Evidently, they don't need them to pay bills, to put up shelves, to fix the car, mow the lawn or provide a socially acceptable set-up in which to rear children.
Remember, a munificent benefits system means that single women, with or without children, no longer need a man to provide for them - the state has taken on that role.
Since the Divorce Act of 1969, which made it possible for women to leave a marriage, keep the kids and receive alimony, an increasing number of women are choosing to bring up children alone.
Even the provision of sperm is now something that women can sort out alone, without actually having sex with a man. The internet now boasts several companies which will deliver fertile semen through the mail.
My father's generation defined their wives: nowadays, the role has completely reversed and men are defined by women. As a result, their definition of themselves has faltered and society has been cruel towards their attempts to redefine themselves.
And yet, when the women's movement started in Britain, we all believed it would mean a liberation for men as well as for women.
What could be worse, we argued, than - like most men - working every day from when you left education till you retired at 65, solely financially responsible for your wife and kids, long office hours denying you the chance to spend meaningful time with your children.
That life was as much of a prison as being a full-time wife and mother.
When I co-founded the magazine Spare Rib in 1972, the lot of women was very distant from today's reality.
In those days, a woman couldn't get a mortgage without her husband's or her father's signature. Universities were predominantly for men, as were medical schools and colleges of law.
Women were still meant to be their father's daughters until they became their husband's wives.
But if we started out hoping to bring an improvement to the lives of men as well as women, by the time the Seventies came round, the idea of the women's movement being of possible benefit to men had withered on the vine.
Women's rights became just too urgent and too immediate, and though everyone knew that whenever women change there must be a reciprocal change for men, it was somehow assumed it would all work itself out in the great melting pot of life.
To ensure that women did better at school, committees were formed and studies undertaken and the style of teaching changed.
Thus, in recent years, it has no longer been just the single, terrifying three- hour exam that determined your success, a winner-takes-all mentality generally thought to be more applicable to the male brain.
Continual assessment worked better for women, who, it is thought, respond better to a more considered approach to work.
Meanwhile, the nature of the workplace itself changed. As Western countries shifted from land-based to factory-based and then to knowledge-based economies, so the need for brawn and physical strength diminished.
Physically, men no longer have any advantage over women in professional life; their place has now been taken by machines, and the multitasking skills of human interaction which women do better at are precisely those prized by employers.
So what are men to do? While we applaud a woman who takes on a man's world and succeeds, woe betide a man who strays too far into women's territory.
A man who keeps house, brings up the children and does the shopping is more likely to be considered a weedy loser than an individual who has made a considered stance.
Working at home, we all believe, is something men do only because they've been fired or can't get a good enough job to allow them to afford childcare.
In short, men are being squeezed at every turn. Somewhere along the line towards the liberation of women we have stripped them of all their primary functions and made them miserable.
Their subservient position starts in school. Girls have now overtaken boys in public exams to such an extent that educators now question whether the system hasn't swung too far in their favour by using continuous assessment in preference to one-off exams.
Then there is the fact that the whole notion of learning a trade has been abolished in favour of purely academic studies.
Jobs which give satisfaction, especially for poorer white males - who are now the worst-performing group in our education system - have become almost impossible to come by.
Women, meanwhile, are groomed relentlessly to succeed. How did we get into such a predicament? No feminist I ever knew wanted to see a world in which men were beaten by women: a world in which one dominant group was just replaced by another.
Our problem is, I think, largely to do with the fact that our ideas of success are still derived from making money and being top-dog in the office.
Sadly, women's liberation, which ought to have made it easy for both sexes to choose their roles in life, has actually managed to denigrate the role of motherhood and caring.
So when men dip into our pond, we see them as failures, not as individuals who might have made a skilful and necessary adaptation to a new set of rules.
As long as society continues to rate making money so far above running the home, both men and women will think they have failed if they do not succeed in the workplace.
We are already seeing the consequences of this erosion of men's social position. Our jails are overflowing, predominantly with young men who've lost their way. Male suicide rates are up. Alcoholism rates are up. Not only are boys doing less well at school, they're also dropping out with greater frequency than girls.
While their traditional role in society is being ripped from them, young men are losing the social compass which once came naturally. Women now demand that their men not only succeed in business and maintain a fat bank balance: now they're expected to be emotional, open, caring-and-sharing types, too. That may be fine for some, but for others it is clearly not.
The current crop of teenage men's magazines - most of which are openly hostile to women, regarding them as nothing more than sex objects - seem to me to be a confused cry for help.
Unable to find a place in this new world order, the magazines are taking their readers back to a time when men did rule the roost and women were merely chattels. Their message is angry: a brutal and simple-minded response of many men to the alienation they feel from mainstream society.
For many men, the realisation that twentysomething women now outearn them will only add to their bitterness.
Money, the talisman around which all our ideas of success and failure revolve, causes more marital discord than any other issue: studies at Arkansas State University by Randall Kesslering, who examined 112,740 women, show that for every £10,000 a wife's earnings rise relative to the family's overall income, the chances of marital break-up rise by 1pc.
So who's driving those divorces? Disappointed women who can't bear to be married to a weaker man, or men who cannot abide being in thrall to a more powerful woman? No doubt we will know in time.
The truth is that women - from a position of being able to do very little some 30-odd years ago - can now, literally, do it all.
Even many books for toddlers, with the exception of titles like Bob The Builder and Postman Pat, no longer have men in them.
But the fact is that if women choose to have a baby on their own or walk out on their marriage, the state is there to pick up the pieces. Of course, children's books reflect this.
Everyone needs to feel they have a purpose in life, to be challenged and to be useful. Society has bent over backwards to liberate women and to give them equal opportunities - from taking out a mortgage to a woman's legal right to terminate a pregnancy.
But the agenda of women's rights was based on the premise that you can fix equality for women with no reference at all to men.
And so, in the process, we have unwittingly undermined men, making their role very hard to define. Because ultimately if women can look after themselves, we are forced to ask the question: "What are men for?"
We need, urgently, to start reassessing our priorities. We need to start to rate homemaking as highly as money-making. We need to stop believing - erroneously - that happiness derives solely from money. We need to learn to respect and value the crucial role that parents (women and men) play in their children's upbringing.
As someone who has watched the position of women change so dramatically, I cannot help but be thrilled to see just how well we have done. But our success must never be at the expense of men and their own sense of fulfilment. Otherwise, it will not be any sort of success at all. via
Sunday, December 10, 2006
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