Book Reviews

Helping Men Thrive

November 8, 2022

Scott Yenor

Washington Fellow

This essay was originally published at Law & Liberty on November 7, 2022.

Richard Reeves wants to crack the door to nature, but he may need to open it wider.

Richard Reeves’s Of Boys and Men catalogs the decline of males in contemporary America. Men struggle in school, in the workplace, and in family relationships. At the root of the problem seems to be a spiritual malaise. Men lack ambition. Men seem demoralized. Men have lost their vitality and strength. How could such bad things happen in a world where we have invented happiness?

The “male malaise” is related to the victory of feminism. In the beginning, men thought of themselves as responsible for the future, as providers and adventurers. As Reeves relates, Adlai Stevenson in 1955 told co-eds at Smith College that a wife should ensure that her husband was “truly purposeful, to keep him whole.” Less than a generation later, Gloria Steinem spoke to Smith College telling the co-eds that marriage was an institution designed for the subjection of women and cultivating a crippling economic dependency. 

For Reeves, society should strive to achieve the economic independence of women, which means ending the expectation that males be providers. This is Reeves the liberal and admirer of Steinem, favoring “gender equality,” “women’s autonomy,” and “gender balance” (as he writes). At the same time, society must be concerned that men do not flounder without purpose. Reeves acknowledges that “arch-conservatives,” like George Gilder, were right to worry about the decline of male purpose after feminism’s victory. 

The fall of men (relative to women) has been obvious for decades. Reeves, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, has the receipts. In schooling, more women have been attending undergraduate studies since 1982. More men drop out of high school. Two-thirds of high school students in the top 10% of the class are girls, while two-thirds of those in the bottom 20% of high school class are boys. Many men have dropped out of the workforce. Women’s earnings have increased, and stay above the earnings of men until women have children. In social life, men lead the way in suicide, drug overdoses, vulnerability to diseases, and declines in life expectancy. I could go on, and Reeves does. There are lots of male losers, way more than there used to be and way more than there are female losers. 

Nature or sex present the grooves within which the social roles of men and women are made and remade. 

This decline in male “agency, aspiration, and motivation” derives from a “whole range of structural challenges,” Reeves argues. Most crucially, old “modes of masculinity” including the provider role are now “obsolete.” He notes that “nothing has yet replaced them.” And no one cares about that problem. 

This problem stresses our partisan ideas of nature. Reeves believes that liberals underplay the importance of nature in human life—thinking society makes all differences between the sexes. Conservatives have the opposite tendency—drawing too straight a line from nature to a social institution. Liberals say that the roles of mother and father are simply social constructs, or that men should just buck up and do better. Conservatives say that women like people and are agreeable, and should therefore raise the kids, while men are competitive and like things, and should therefore be providers. Reeves takes a sensible middle path between these extremes. Nature or sex present the grooves within which the social roles of men and women are made and remade. 

Reeves discusses the groove in which men tend to like things, while women like people. This leads to a male preference for working with things, in jobs like plumbing, HVAC, structural engineering, and car mechanics. Women, in turn, generally prefer jobs where they can serve people, like nursing and elementary education. There is much that society can do to encourage men and women to “gender-bend” on their job choices, but it can also let nature take its course. Which should it do? Reeves defends gender-bending and nature. Many women like things. Many men like people too. Under conditions of freedom, some women enter things-professions and some men enter people-professions. No social roles. No expectations based on sex.

Reeves also touts gender-bending programs to encourage girls to enter STEM fields. The percentage of female engineers now exceeds 20% in some fields, though it was only 8% in 1970. Billions have been spent to encourage women to enter STEM. There are day camps and ad campaigns and scholarships and retention programs. Reeves wants to see society’s effort expanded, because more women (according to one study) want to be engineers than currently are engineers. 

At the same time that women have been moved toward engineering programs, men have left and are leaving K-12 education. Less than a quarter of K-12 teachers are male, a 25% decline since 1980. Only 11% of elementary teachers are male. “It ought to be a source of national shame that only 3% of pre-K and kindergarten teachers are men,” Reeves writes. If current trends continue, according to one researcher Reeves quotes, “8 of 10 teachers will be female.” Men like people too, but fewer are acting like it today than yesterday. Why? It would be interesting to know. 

No improvement will happen unless we honor male provision and cultivate male ambition. Institutions to do so will have to be rebuilt.

Reeves recommends replicating the women in STEM movement to cure the decline in the number of male teachers. Perhaps $1 billion might be used to help promote something like a Men in HEAL professions (health, education, administration, and literacy). Right now, that number is virtually nothing. Why is assistance to men virtually non-existent? It would be interesting to know. 

I’m skeptical about Reeves’s proposal. Money and incentives will not solve the structural, ethical mismatch in our institutions. Our education personnel and performance match the feminine ethos of our institutions. Evidence abounds that many men prefer not to work in institutions where the ethos is overly feminized—i.e., where women predominate in numbers and spirit. Men will be attracted to education when the education system becomes more competitive, missional, patriotic and analytical, and less nurturing, skills-focused, and leftist-ideological. Hillsdale charter schools recruit men into K-12 quite nicely. The feminization of education institutions is part of the problem, but Reeves only offers solutions that consolidate the victories of feminist ideology. “We can help men without hindering women or trying to turn back the clock,” Reeves writes. Our clock seems to be stuck at an anti-male time.

My reading of the situation is somewhat different from his. Like Reeves, I see that rolling back the clock on our institutions is impossible. However, we can try to reinterpret Old Wisdom about the nature of men and women in ways that are applicable for our time. For instance, Reeves wants to hit the gas pedal on women in STEM since women on a survey claim more interest in entering STEM; I say we have done more than enough. He thinks that such surveys reveal nature; I think they reflect socialization and social cues. Reeves does not consider, for instance, that women leave STEM fields at much higher rates than men. I am willing to say we have promoted feminism enough in law and culture. Reeves is not. 

He always seeks to expand the feminist program because, for Reeves, the victory of feminism is not as complete as it might be. He is apologetic when he relates that many women still want a man whom they can respect and who can provide for them. Despite decades where male provision has been stigmatized and female independence celebrated, and despite the growing incompetence of men, Reeves reports that 86% of blacks and two-thirds of whites agree that “bread-winning potential is highly prized in a potential mate.” Much evidence exists to support the idea that women, even after decades of feminist indoctrination, still want to marry up in terms of income. Feminists look at this as a problem to be fixed. So does Reeves. We could double down on the feminist vision and conduct a massive public information campaign encouraging women to marry down! On the other hand, perhaps we should stop struggling against this almost universal preference and go with the grain of nature. Maybe economic independence is not a popular or worthy goal. Maybe it is a complete misunderstanding of why people really work. I would suggest building on this big blind spot in feminism to the encouragement of family life. We should encourage male provision, the desire of a vast majority of men and women, not shun that idea as a vestige of patriarchy.

Some of feminism’s effects are here to stay. Women will work outside the home more than in the past. Ideally, however, women do not work to secure independence, but rather so both husband and wife can contribute resources to the marriage. Both are providers, if males more so. Contraception cannot be uninvented—though its use might wane or wax depending on how society values motherhood. Most women would still like to have children—something that requires adjustments in life. Most still would like a respectable man to love and cherish and to depend on, just as he will depend on her. Marriage will not be as it was in the 1950s, but it can be revived given the failures of feminist ideology. None of this happens without male responsibility and self-respect. None of it will happen unless we honor male provision and cultivate male ambition. Institutions to do so will have to be rebuilt.

Reeves thinks society can have today’s liberal feminism along with the health of men and the family. Reeves thinks we can respect sex differences, create new social roles for men and women and treat all as individuals. I think we must choose between feminist ideals and the health of men (and women) and the family. I think we cannot create social roles for men and women without qualifying our support for individualism. 

Well-wishers of the family should thank Reeves for noticing our concerns. And we should all find ways to build upon the manifest blind spots of feminism to build a culture much friendlier to men and family life.