Andrew Hacker
Andrew Hacker; drawing by David Levine

Andrew Hacker’s Mismatch is a compendium of statistics from a variety of official sources like the US Bureau of the Census, the National Center for Health Statistics, even the FBI, that support his observation that the ancient gap between men and women is growing ever wider. Although many novels or poems could serve in one way or another to illustrate such a gap, and most of us have a sense of it, Mismatch provides documentation with statistics of increasing divorces, salary differences, workplace changes, decreasing rates of childbearing, rising numbers of homosexual households, etc., which taken together find more divorce, more single parenting, and many other measures of the decline of the family, arising because of diverging male and female expectations. Our grandparents stayed together because they had fewer choices and had to be realistic about what these were. “Wives and husbands grew accustomed to each other, largely by developing domestic routines. Romance, conversation, and mutually satisfying sex were seldom expected or experienced for long, if at all.” Marriages centered on the family, and anyway people were likely to be too tired to worry about delicate questions of psychic and sexual harmony.

Today fewer “brides and grooms are less embarking on a journey together, than on a trip with two separate itineraries and destinations,” because women have upped the ante. “What is new is that women are more likely to leave a marriage when they fail to get what they want.” “What is [also] new is that all too many men are unwilling or unable to become the kinds of husbands modern women want.” Presumably modern women want husbands who will express their feelings and pitch in with the kids. What do men want? Can we find the “road map” to resolve these different expectations? Do we want to?

The first question is whether the gap is a good or bad thing, a beneficial evolution or evidence of social collapse. Hacker’s own implicit assumption seems to be that it is more bad than good, though he tactfully conceals his point of view under an equable and accepting tone that seems to leave the answer open. He acknowledges that his discussion may have “an antediluvian ring” and may seem to ignore the strides men have made in becoming “more responsive and mature in their relations with women,” “nor should anything said here be taken to mean [women are] insipid or imprudent,” but “the more crucial reality is that the shifts that are occurring are making it harder for members of the two sexes to adapt to one another,” with consequences for them and for children.

The pattern of social change in America is most clearly demonstrated as it affects the family. Today there are fewer marriages, and fewer American adults are becoming parents—about double the number of non-parents in 1970. More parents are single parents; in 2001, 33.4 percent of all births were to unmarried women, as opposed to one in twenty in 1960.

Overall, of the children that do get produced, around 40 percent of them do not live with both biological parents, whereas in 1970, 83 percent of children lived with both biological parents. Women are more successful at work and more financially independent than before. With or without motherhood, they are opting for professions and careers. At present 57 percent of BAs, 43 percent of doctors, 49 percent of Ph.D.s, 46 percent of lawyers, and 69 percent of veterinarians are women. Women are approaching equal pay, and on other measures begin to have a kind of financial and intellectual independence not formerly available to them.

Meantime, Western women busy in the workplace are reluctant or unable to do some of the household things they used to, and men (mostly) refuse to or can’t pick up the slack in childcare and housework. After media images of newly concerned, involved fathers demanding custody of their children etc., it surprises to learn the opposite is true, that men are feeling “less compelled to accept parental duties once assigned to their sex.” In turn, “women are more assured about taking over these obligations themselves.” Given the shortage of “reliable men,” women are finding “that a viable family can be sustained without a male presence,” and either are initiating divorce or not bothering with marriage, hence the breakdown or gap.

It may be that husbands have always been unsatisfactory—much female lore suggests they have long been jealous, miserly, and violent:

We loveth no man that taketh kep or charge
where that we goon

said even the much-married Wife of Bath. Nor do we love him who takes “the keyes of thy cheste awey fro” us, or who insists that

if we make us gaye
With clothyng, and with precious array
That it is in peril of oure chastity

a common masculine assumption today as then. What is new is that women now have more options for single motherhood and financial independence, and are less willing than before to string along with a dullard or a brute. And if there are fewer submissive women, Hacker observes, “not enough men have yet shown that they are willing or able to live with a self-possessed partner.”


He attributes this to the continuing fragility of the male ego, and the tendency of women to sense and despise men’s sexual insecurities. Because the number of children he sires doesn’t define manliness anymore, “a man’s masculinity now depends on how his partner rates his performance.” (Susan Faludi in Stiffed * writes sympathetically about many other economic and hierarchical factors that contribute to male insecurities.) But in Hacker’s example, while women found Bill Clinton attractive and manly, “some men, notably impeachment prosecutors like Kenneth Starr and Henry Hyde, may have wished to bring down a Casanova whose exploits they secretly envied.” Women could see that Clinton’s “enemies were driven by their own sexual insecurities.” Masculinity is shaky, hence men’s emotional defense of gun ownership and of authority figures like cops, and, of course, their resentment of independent women.

Undoubtedly we live in a time when women, certainly in the Western democracies, tend to have a larger sense than before of their personal destiny, and wish no longer to be defined by their biological functions alone. How much of this is American, or Western European, and how much temporary and how much new is hard to know, but it seems clear that in becoming, or hoping to become, more than just wives and childbearers, women are struggling against conservative forces (churches, counselors, legislators) who want them to believe that these roles are desirable, sufficient, and possibly God-ordained, and that to exceed them threatens a woman’s own happiness, the fate of her children, and the stability of society. Hacker quotes as typical such sages of the 1960s as Joseph Rheingold of Harvard, who insisted in 1964 that women “want first and foremost to be womanly companions of men and to be mothers,” and Bruno Bettelheim, who said the following year that the good life and a secure world demand that women “enter upon motherhood with a sense of fulfillment and altruistic sentiment.”

Hacker points out that the idea that women’s lives are primarily governed by instinctual forces prompting them to motherhood—the idea that biology is destiny—is still unproven, and science has not decided on the roles of nature and nurture in determining female consciousness. He adds that “interestingly, this kind of anatomical determinism was never applied to men.” In any case, he notes that “incantations to be ‘womanly companions of men’ are seldom heard today. And this is not simply because they are embarrassing. Rather, we now are less sure of our knowledge in this sphere….” (Here he overlooks patriarchal Mormons and conservative Christian sects like the Baptists, who recently affirmed that husbands rule over the family.)

To a woman it does not seem odd to think of herself as a unique person, an individual with habits and attributes, and, as it happens, with the ability to bear children. Modern American women, at least, also have an expectation of a kind of autonomous moral and intellectual sentience independent of biology. But Hacker has found that the thought of women as independent goes on bothering men, who seem to think of them as a category, and their place seems to be debated on and on, a point of discourse and discord in much of the world. This is more easily seen in other societies—Afghanistan, say, or Bangladesh, but examples can be found in our own in any day’s newspaper—take the recent ungentlemanly remarks by Vijay Singh, a golfer from Fiji, about Annika Sorenstam, the Swedish woman golfer who was invited to enter a prestigious American men’s golf tournament that he indignantly withdrew from. Behind his protest resound the cries of burning widows and brides murdered for their dowries. There have been recent bombings of Afghani schools that have opened to girls, and reports of “honor” killing by their families of women raped in Iraq, and so on, outrages whose wearying ubiquity almost defy any hopes of reform.

Few would disagree that women in most parts of the world are at a disadvantage when compared to men, prisoners of societies where men have made up the rules, and in many places their situation is very dire. As the recent work of the Indian economist Amartya Sen has shown, there are a hundred million women too few in the world, the result, among other things, of women’s subordination: illiteracy, selective abortion, female infanticide, and child-rearing and nutritional practices that favor males.

Far from being new, the opposition of the rights and well-being of women to those of men is a central theme of many ongoing political and religious debates in the world. Biology gives a few examples in nature—a few birds, a few tribes, where males and females collaborate—but not many. At bottom, the dispute over women’s place appears to be something as simple as men’s innate desire to control the means of production (women’s reproductive capacity), as Marx would have said; and/or a labor issue, a question of economics disguised as religious doctrine or conclusions about the innate and instinctual—as are many matters of social convenience.


History has shown that the question of who is to do the work is often disguised as some aspect of natural law, and always passionately defended as an aspect of eternal verity by those whom it advantages. When women have questioned a conception of themselves that coincidentally puts them into the category of low-paid domestics, men invoke religious or political priorities. Most religions have at their core a role for women, always imposed by a male hierarchy, as submissive wives and mothers—beliefs so central to doctrine that religious orthodoxy, say in Islam, but also in conservative Christianity and Judaism, appears to have as much concern with controlling women as it does with the number of times a day you pray or the nature of the Trinity.

It is easy to understand the physical and economic realities behind men’s wish to control women as an aspect of class struggle—men against women. No one especially wants to scrub floors. It is harder to understand what the psychological problem for men is. How deep is their fear of and need to dominate women, how deeply internalized their sense of entitlement? For instance, is there a connection between men’s need to dictate what women wear (as in Islamic societies) and, say, male sexual performance? Are these conditions imposed by the male psyche, the way birds can’t mate with a female who has the wrong plumage? Professor Hacker hints at something like this when he observes that social conditions seem to prompt the pattern of sexual fantasies, so that the psyche and sexual performance are bound up together: “Maintaining power and control also explain why so many men are absorbed with being gratified orally, which features frequently in pornography.”

Professor Hacker is a bit hard on the male psyche, depicting men as pathetic creatures in SUVs wistfully wearing cowboy boots “as if to affirm that they would be at home on a range,” indulging “fantasies of forsaking suburban roads for untamed canyons and arroyos,” owning guns to affirm “that they will protect their home or other premises from intruders intent on robbery or worse,” even when “most of the people who own guns live in regions where such intrusions are rare,” and dreaming of scattering their genes with an “endless array of partners.” In this “model of manhood,” men’s need to control women seems in part the need to serve their own fantasies.

Surely these particularly American fantasies ought to or will evolve? The reader may think of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, a compendium of male sexual fears and fantasies in the context of a dream, which seem to some outdated because it uses a nineteenth-century European psychic archetype as described by Schnitzler, a contemporary of Freud. It was Jung who reassured us that the imagery in literature changes with time, and metaphors get worn out or mutate; perhaps sexual fantasy too mutates, but the furnishing of men’s sexual imagination seems not to be mutating very fast. The role of custom is huge too, though customs can change. How shocking to learn (from Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times) that behind those starving babies in scenes of African famine lies a system of feeding wherein many mothers and children eat after the fathers, who often are quite well nourished, taking the meat and substance for themselves. People never like to change their customs, but is it possible that well-meaning Sudanese fathers, once they understood the relative caloric needs of a large and a tiny person, and other facts of nutrition, might consent to feed the children first?

When it comes to trying to puzzle a way out of the dilemma of the diverging sexes, Professor Hacker seems to assume that marriage when it works is basically a beneficial arrangement, especially for children, when there are any, and an institution worth saving. His pessimistic account, though, may tempt one to disagree. He uses the word “liberal,” in a tone of faint disapproval, to describe research that “single parenting is [not] harmful to children.” One would like to see the details of such research, but, anyway, that he sees as “liberal” such conclusions as that society must “accept the irreversibility of the high levels of nonmarriage” suggests that he doesn’t really hear or doesn’t quite believe what modern women seem to be saying about marriage, even when their messages are full of contradictions.

Scientific or statistical objectivity may barely conceal his wistful note of preference for the way things used to be. For instance, though the increasing frequency of homosexual households might seem to suggest that heterosexual marriage isn’t working out for a segment of the population, Hacker hopes that, just as women are less constrained than men about demonstrative affection with members of their own sex, so “if straight men also allowed themselves to behave this way with other men, it might be that fewer of them would feel compelled to conclude that they are solely homosexual.” (Of course this theory tends to ignore whatever biological determinants influence homosexuality.)

He seems to believe that things could be done to save marriage. Straight men need to be more demonstrative, and both men and women need to be realistic about who they can expect to attract—he calls this the “Marty” problem—when men who rank, in attractiveness, “two or three” on a scale of ten “consider themselves superior to women who have the same rankings they do…. So they confine their approaches to women who are seen as more attractive. However, those women are apt to have better options, so…” men are left without partners.

He has a few other proposals for narrowing the gap between the sexes, but, alas, he fails to find any radical solutions to the basic questions of who does the childcare and housework. More technology, more mechanized ways of doing housework, have not proved to be the boon society had hoped for. Nor are successive waves of imported underclass domestic workers a satisfactory solution. (He does not mention the European traditions of well-organized, nationally overseen preschools.) One thing is certain, that a domestic career, making quilts and putting up jam, is not as admired and essential as it was in our grandmothers’ day. Most of us can remember very happy women of that generation, valued among supportive and admiring husbands and peers. But, because they are less necessary, domestic pursuits no longer have the intrinsic interest and rewards to suffice for intelligent and educated people, as many of today’s career women, remembering their unhappy, status-deprived mothers—the women Betty Friedan wrote so perspicaciously about—can attest. World events can drive psychological change and find women yearning once again for pride of place in the kitchen; but this can’t be counted on.

Hacker infers from the flourishing porn industry that perhaps the source of many marital problems is to be found in the bedroom: “Central to pornographic plots is that the women seemingly enjoy doing whatever the men want, all the while praising their potency and prowess.” Which brings us to the subject of fellatio. Hacker has only a few hints to narrow the male– female gap, some of which may startle: “Now for a consideration that may seem tangential. Yet it conveys a lot about something men want—and apparently aren’t getting—from their marriages.” Men “want to imagine themselves entangled with a partner who is with them solely for the sex and nothing else…. Even in these liberated times, there are still things [men] feel uneasy asking [wives] to do. For example, much of pornography is devoted to showing women arousing men orally….”

Hacker doesn’t say so, but one implication here is that if women would just be a little nicer about this, things would go better for marriage the way Bettelheim advised altruism from women when it comes to motherhood. This may strike some less as a recipe for marital harmony than as the very paradigm of the problem or gap itself: if women would just do what these needy men want, though there’s not much in it for them (viz. the plot of Deep Throat), everything will be fine, according to men. But on the evidence of this book one-sided concessions are just what women seem to be tired of making.

Would women’s sexual altruism bring men back to fatherhood? Would they help with the dishes? Doubtful; no evidence suggests that the more often or imaginatively men get sex, the better they treat women, and some evidence suggests the opposite. For instance, Hacker agrees with earlier studies that rape is a hate crime, a desire to “undermine” women. Here it would be interesting to examine rape rates in other societies and how they correlate with social customs and religion—a high rate of rape in, say, Pakistan and a low rate in Sweden would suggest that rape is more frequent where the status of women is lower and social regulation is directed at keeping them in their place.

Some of Hacker’s discussion of female sexuality rests on generalizations that may strike the reader as too broad—“in most marriages, he loves her less than she loves him, largely because loving itself commands less of his life.” Surely, if true, this is the very reason women are trying to get lives of their own?

On the other hand, who knows? Misunderstandings can get weird between men and women—one has only to look at a society like Saudi Arabia’s, which strictly segregates men and women on the assumption that rape or illegal intercourse will be the inevitable outcome of a man and woman merely being alone together, an assumption that in part assures that this is the case, for Saudis. Such comparatives don’t fall within the scope of Hacker’s book, but it often could be useful to look at other societies for information and solutions, something American sociology is never apt to do.

Hacker seems on the whole to be more sympathetic to women than to men. He seems locked into a set of discouraging assumptions about men that may no longer, or maybe were never true: “It remains to be seen whether manhood can survive continuing victories by women, whether in long-distance racing or admission to selective colleges.” Surely this observation is based on a defective definition of manhood, as in his doleful example of the college-educated wife and blue-collar husband:

But it is important to her that they watch The Golden Bowl together, kindled by her hope that afterward they will exchange their thoughts about it. In her view they’ve not been sharing enough of their lives, and she feels she’s owed his willingness to join in an activity of her choosing…. The college gap is accentuating a cultural divide. (Even women who major in, say, accounting, are affected by the liberal arts ambiance of a campus.)

Or look at the visitors in an art museum…. On weekends, when there are more couples, many of the men seem to be there under duress, glancing furtively at their watches…. Doubtless this was ever so. What is different today is that women want more from their mates….

I should hope. Of course many men do like Henry James and museums, and there even are whole countries that have a “liberal arts ambiance” enjoyed by men. Hacker’s harsh view of doltish American males, if it is not unfair, suggests that the remedy for the growing gap lies in broadening our definition of manliness, to promote the idea that more cultivated, more interesting minds are manly. If men can’t see this, small wonder women will give up on them, of course excepting the ones who are prepared to help with the dishes.

This Issue

October 23, 2003