Coontz also makes the broader point that women, even college-educated women, continue to flock to less prestigious jobs. She points out that woman are even more concentrated now than they were before in the professions of legal secretary or “managers of medicine and health occupations.” We can call the pattern of women’s jobs by its old, disparaging name, “gender segregation,” and insist on seeing it as a choice that is imposed on them. But we can also see it through a new paradigm—as Coontz in her own work has so successfully encouraged us to do vis-à-vis marriage—that acknowledges women as agents making intelligent decisions about what jobs are available in this economy. Maybe women are choosing health occupations because the health care field is booming, not because they are blindly walking—or being led—into a female ghetto.
What surprised me most about Coontz’s piece was not its content but the collective sigh of relief it seemed to generate. “Marry me, Stephanie Coontz,” tweeted the immensely talented and successful journalist Irin Carmon. “Stephanie Coontz is a national treasure and I wish her work were required reading for everyone in the world,” blogged Jill Filipovic, a lawyer and writer on Feministe, who went on to explain how all this “women are dominating … stuff” is not quite true. The women who seemed to be reveling in Coontz’s insistence that reports of the end of men (and the rise of women) have been greatly exaggerated were by and large young and ambitious, and as far as I could tell hadn’t been held back all that much in their careers by “the patriarchy.” Many of them are in positions of influence, widely published and widely read; if they sniff out misogyny, I have no doubt they will gleefully skewer the responsible sexist in one of many available online outlets, and get results. These are exactly the types of woman I portray in the book as benefiting from the new age of female dominance. Why should they feel reassured to be told that men are still on top, that the old order had not been shaken?
The 2012 elections inspired a similar reactionary response in some quarters. A record number of women were elected to Congress, and women were critical to Obama’s re-election, particularly single women.* And yet soon after the election, the New York Times published as its lead op-ed a study by two academics showing that women would not truly reach parity or be in a position to pass women-friendly policies until they controlled half of all congressional seats. This seems true enough, if a little obvious. But it entirely missed the revolutionary shift the moment marked. There was a group marginalized in the election: white men. They voted en masse for Mitt Romney, and lost.
This bean counting and monitoring—an outdated compulsion to keep your guard up, because sexism lurks everywhere—has found new life online, where feminist websites (including our own) and the Twitter police are always on the lookout for the next slight.
Sometimes the critical eye is useful, such as this week when outrage over sexist and racists tweets got Business Insider exec Pax Dickinson pushed out. (Though this is not a sign of THE PATRIARCHY—this is relatively easy victory.) Sometimes it’s just petty, like when Jennifer Weiner recently complained about a critic calling her “strident.” As a form of blogging or tweeting, pointing fingers is endlessly satisfying. But as a form of political expression, it’s pretty hollow and out of tune with reality.
This strain of feminism assumes an exquisite vulnerability, an image of women as “creatures too ‘tender’ for the abrasiveness of daily life,” as Joan Didion put it in her 1972 essay “The Women’s Movement.” (Is this why we now put “trigger warnings” on stories that mention rape or sexual harassment?) Maybe now we pay such close attention to words like “strident” because they are all we have, the only way to access the outrage of darker days. If so, we should treasure them as tokens of how far we’ve come. After all, if the most obnoxious members of the patriarchy can be brought down by a few tweets, how powerful can they really be?
In the early days of the feminist movement, every small victory was celebrated. There was exultation, liberation, a sense of joy at women’s progress that seems largely absent today. Somehow the mood of the movement has shifted into reverse: The closer women get to real power, the more they cling to the idea that they are powerless. To rejoice about feminist victories these days counts as betrayal.
A month after my book came out, I was invited to an academic conference dedicated largely to rebutting the claims I had made in it. The participants came from many fields—law, sociology, anthropology—but were people who had spent their careers exploring social inequality. This issue is probably the most important one the United States and a number of other countries face, ever more so as the gap between rich and poor expands. But as I sat through the conference, I realized that the study of inequality has an occupational hazard: After decades of looking for certain patterns, they may become all you can see. The phenomenon reminds me of the famous study in which researchers asked subjects viewing a video clip to count how many times basketball players wearing a certain color shirt passed a ball. A giant gorilla walked across the screen in the course of the video, but many subjects failed to see it, so focused were they on the patterns they’d been instructed to watch.
I understand that the big picture is not always reflected in women’s daily experience of life. Maybe a woman has an overbearing husband or a retrograde boss or just a lingering problem that has no name. But as a collective, it sometimes feels that women look too closely at the spot right in front of us. This is a moment, unprecedented in history—and also pretty confusing—when young women who work how they want and have sex how they want may also quilt and can fruits. When working-class women who quietly leave the only steady paycheck on the kitchen table every week may still believe that a man is the God-ordained head of the household. So I want to tell these women who are seeing only oppression: Look around.
Correction, Sept. 12, 2013: This article originally stated that women hold one-third of U.S. congressional seats. Women actually hold 18.3 percent of congressional seats. (Return.)