No-man's land

Readers respond to an essay by a book club outcast, "Why Do Women Wed?" and "Can Asians Think?"

Published March 29, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Read "Why Do Women Wed?"

The funny thing about the perpetual ranting about men's roles in relationships is that women are generally unwilling to consider the inverse; a "house husband" who takes care of the children and the household.

As someone who has worked for a living since moving out at 17, I would be more than happy to focus on the domestic scene whilst working on my various hobbies.

The women I've encountered find this notion distasteful; indeed, I'm less of a man for even suggesting it.

The bottom line is that while I may be expected to "fully participate" in domestic life, I'm also required to not be the primary caregiver for children, and if I don't have a job outside the home, I'm a complete loser.

Women tend to be attracted to men who have decent assets and a strong career; we only get this way by focusing on it to the exclusion of other things.

-- Ethan Fremen

Your article mentions day care for children as a possible solution for the inequality in marriage. Coming from Europe, I can say that in practice this kind of social arrangement has its problems as well.

Here in Finland, we have free (and very good) education available for everyone. Therefore, it would be stupid not to get a university degree. From this it follows that everyone who has specialized in something for years also feels obliged to apply this hard-earned knowledge in practice. Work is usually quite demanding. Luckily, our society provides day care for every child, and mothers can put the children in day care and work as much as they like. This is the rule in Finland, and mothers at home are a tiny minority.

"Housewife" is not a respected occupation in today's Finland. It is considered old-fashioned, unequal, even lazy, suitable for less educated women. An equal woman is out there, working with men, kicking ass. And has to be. You can kiss a career goodbye if you decide to stay at home for several years.

Worse, it is not even attainable. When families are young, the parents save money to pay for their house and car (both expensive in Finland) and "cannot afford" to have one of them stay at home. Even well-educated people don't earn enough money to do that. We want to have it all: children, two careers, houses, cars. Our day-care system supports this kind of lifestyle by providing an excuse for it, encouraging work outside the home.

Children are dragged from their homes early in the morning when the parents go to work. Domestic help is too expensive for young families. Paying for it would take the whole income of one of the spouses. It belongs to a different era. Calling someone a servant would probably be considered an insult if someone would even dare to do that.

While parents are out there earning money, the children (from less than one year of age) are taken care of by overworked day-care personnel in big groups. Tired parents spend little time with their children per day. Many parents lose contact with their children, and problems arise. Of course, many parents also have a terribly bad conscience about it, but that doesn't help anyone.

Tired and miserable people make poor spouses. They cannot help each other and together carry the burden. This situation is much worse than with just one parent working on his or her career.

We have somehow silently agreed that the family is less important than work. After all, work is where we equal women and men spend our time and energy. The family gets what is left over of it. Day care does give us the ability to work, but does it support the family?

-- Lumi Koivunen

I enjoyed this review very much, as I think it effectively refracted Maushart's views through the author's own. One is struck by the implicit suggestion that upon marriage men somehow change, in a way that is portrayed as almost duplicitous. I especially enjoyed the note by Marlowe that a woman looks for a man whose financial and job status is greater than her own. This seems to be true. I also enjoyed the anecdote about the friend who continued to date the man after three bad dates. Both beg a deeper explanation and exploration of why.

As a man with less than enthralling job prospects (I'm a writer), I have seen a curious disconnect between what women say they want and what they actually pursue. While allowing that personal experience is just that, it seems the proclaimed interest in egalitarian relationships isn't necessarily pursued by "enlightened" women in the dating world, who seem disproportionately enmeshed in traditional visions of men as constant, bold and assured providers. They express shock when these men turn out to be emotionally aloof, domineering, self-centered and unwilling to help around the house.

Much time has been spent by feminist theorists in the past 40 years deconstructing traditional roles and male oligarchy. While this has resulted in women taking a welcomed greater role in their own happiness, sometimes it seems the mote is in thine eyes. As Maushart suggests she was "blinded by love," one wonders is it more accurate to suggest she was blinkered by expectations out-of-step with what she really wanted. Too often, it seems, women have changed how they want to be treated and viewed by men, without modifying their expectations of male behavior, abandoning the more deferential, emotional, fraught, and less-well heeled as too milquetoast, chasing instead the stolid, '50s-cinematic stereotype of maleness.

There is no corollary "male" movement (unless you count retro-nostalgics like Bly or the Promise Keepers) to champion and express new male roles, so it seems we must be satisfied to be cast as the brutish source of feminine subjugation and dissatisfaction. Rather than bury us with epithets, caveat emptor.

-- Chris Parker

What both Ann Marlowe and Susan Maushart (and many others who write on the subject of relationships and marriage) fail to address in these vents proffered to the public as analysis is that the standards that men fail to meet are set by women.

Although this is a pretty sweeping generalization, I'm sure most would agree that what constitutes a clean house to the average man differs significantly from what would to the average woman. As would the degree of urgency in doing household tasks at any given moment. As would what qualifies as the appropriate amount of emotional support. My anecdotal observations of relationships, from my own upbringing and beyond, are dramatically different from Ms. Maushart's -- the emotional support and validation many women seem to require from their significant other has struck me as almost exasperatingly insatiable, but then, this would be as measured by a male standard.

If many women -- and perhaps men -- find marriage to be such a disillusioning experience, it might be less an issue of standards (read: expectations) not being met than an issue of the way those standards are dogmatically defined both within the home and in acrimonious pop-psychology tomes. One could certainly trot out the usual salves of compromise and communication, of course, but as long as immature people couple and breed and attempt to fruitlessly exert control over self-willed objects that fall outside their reach, wouldn't you think the passive-aggressive power struggle would continue unabated, with both sides enjoying growth only in their resentment? Compromise, communication and happy marriages all exhaled in the same pipe dream.

Bottom line: Maybe marriage is a lousy idea after all. Poor kids.

-- David Josephs

Ann Marlowe's otherwise perceptive and important critique of marriage was marred by her sneering prejudice against traditional "women's work" and those who do it. I was shocked to read: "For many of us women who grew up in traditional marriages, what we saw of our mothers' lives poisoned our ability to give them the honor they deserved as our parents." Does Marlowe also dishonor day-care workers, schoolteachers and short-order cooks? I honor all these people when they do their jobs well, and I honor my mother, who had the demanding and important job of raising six kids in a small house on a limited budget.

Unquestionably, American wives often suffer a soul-poisoning loss of status when they give up paying work outside the home, but that isn't always because they're pining for the office. Even women who are fulfilled by their jobs as full-time mothers and housewives can be hurt, both emotionally and practically, by the kind of disrespect that Marlowe's article exemplifies. If their husbands understood and honored the work these women did all day, maybe they'd treat their wives more as equal partners in the marriage, not as servants. Or maybe not; Marlowe admitted that even women with bigger incomes than their husbands do more housework. Women's huge educational and professional strides have brought many real benefits, but more equitable, happier marriages are not one of them. I don't know why men continue to take advantage of their wives, and I'm loath to guess. Let's not give them any excuses of the "if she only worked like I do ... " variety.

-- Beth Gallagher

Read "Can Asians Think?"

Kishore Mahbubani proclaims: "Human rights is another wonderful human achievement. I don't want to be tortured. I don't want to have my nails pulled out."

Considering that Mahbubani represents Singapore, a country whose government routinely punishes criminals by slicing deep into their unanesthetized nervous tissue with a bamboo cane, this sentiment is ironic to say the least.

-- Tom Johnson

It's so much fun to read Suzy Hansen's review of "Can Asians Think?" because her views as a journalist are so clearly revealed in the form of her questions. She assumes that the brazen attitude of the Western free press is due to that press being the most powerful in the world, but not due to the implicit Western assumption that the world's countries are the playgrounds of those free press agents. You don't have to see Americans in the East to visit this assumption; just catch Americans in Europe!

-- Lily Ng

The opinions of Singaporean ambassador to the United Nations Kishore Mahbubani belabor the obvious. Of course, changes all over the world are inevitable. He probably forgets that there is such a thing as acculturation. Once contact between peoples take place, changes in their lives cannot but occur. Can the Stone Age man prevent himself from using iron implements once he learns about them from other people he had social intercourse with? Once Asians learned about the nuclear weapons of the West, they thought of owning nuclear weapons themselves.

-- Gras Reyes

I am a Chinese-American professor of theoretical physics at the University of California. When I described what I read this morning on Salon to a Jewish colleague, he responded, "Regardless of the book's content, can you imagine what kind of reaction a book with the title 'Can Jews Think?' would produce?" I think that his point is well taken, and I would like to invite the editors of Salon to imagine what the reaction would be like.

As an author myself, I can understand Kishore Mahbubani's desire to enrich himself with a sensationalist title, but the truth is that for every person who reads the book and finds the content quite thoughtful and reasonable (as I think I would on the basis of the interview published in Salon), there are a hundred who would see the title in a bookstore and instantly supply the negative answer in their mind or at least chuckle along the lines of, "They can't, and I've always thought so."

-- A. Zee

Read "Confessions of a Book Club Outcast"

I feel a kindred spirit with Peter Flax after reading about his experiences trying to find a book club in an all-women's world. I have been trying for months to find a local writing circle, but every one that I find in my community is women's only. I am a feminist. My writing isn't misogynistic, and this isn't a veiled attempt to find a date. I obsessively follow the WNBA and have taught women's studies at a Big 10 university, for God's sake. But I, along with so many of my brothers, am being locked out of an entire arena because of our chromosomes. All we men are asking for is a level playing field and a chance to be accepted for who we are, not our gender. Don't we all deserve that?

-- Matt Holsapple

Thanks for running Peter Flax's article about being a book club reject. I belong to an all-women club, and I was just today feeling guilty about excluding guys, and then wondering if I ought to feel guilty. I still haven't resolved that issue, but I was interested to get a man's perspective on it.

-- Christine U'Ren

Milton Berle is dead. Long live Milton Berle. Peter, just shave your legs and face very well, then powder where your beard might come through. Go in drag. Just say a prayer to Uncle Miltie and if you are not outed, it's a miracle and Berle can be canonized.

-- Gorden Russell

There's a very easy answer to Peter Flax's dilemma: He should start his own book club.

Here's how you do it: Invite some people to your house. Ideally they should be people with whom you think you'd like to discuss books. (I suggest a mixed-gender group, but of course it depends on your circle of acquaintances.) Explain that you're inviting them to found a new book club. At the first meeting, discuss what type of books you'd like to read, and what your ground rules for discussing and choosing books will be. Have a potluck dinner. Pick a book to read and a time and place to meet next time.

It isn't that hard, and it's not at all mysterious. And it employs a very important principle of social dynamics, which I learned in third grade: When rejected by a group you want to join, pretend you don't care and found your own group.

-- Janet Lafler

Peter Flax would be welcome to join my "co-ed" book club, if only he lived in San Francisco. We purposely started a mixed book club to bring a variety of viewpoints to our discussions. Who would want to belong to a group of all the same gender, not to mention race, religion or sexual orientation? Why not bring in as many viewpoints as possible? Believe me, it's a lot more interesting to hear a debate over a book then to hear the same reaction repeated by every member of the group. So, to all those women who aren't letting men into your group, take a chance and spice things up a bit. It's worth it.

-- Shannon Sharpe

Please tell Mr. Flax that he need not suffer any longer. He is formally invited to join our online book group here.

Most of the members who post are women, so he should find it simultaneously cerebral and inviting. We just read that most girlie of novels, "Pride and Prejudice," and "The Corrections" is next up. I'm sure the men would appreciate another charge of testosterone.

-- Shannon Bloomstran

I was initially amused but ultimately a little offended by Peter Flax's article. I realize that it was a bit tongue and cheek and the aim was, as far as I can tell, for the author to show the himself as a nice guy, and apparently, a bit of a tool.

First off, I guess I resent the implication that men who read, with the exception of Mr. Flax, all have their noses buried in the latest Tom Clancy/John Grisham pseudo-lit when our attention can be pried away from the latest issue of Maxim. It is true that when American men do actually read, they read crap. Unfortunately, this sad fact is true of most American women as well. Poor taste is not gender specific, Pete. Whatever.

My second issue is Flax's complaint that no book club will have him. Boo freaking hoo, Pete. Here's a thought. Start your own club. I realize that it's not as attractive an idea as whining and moaning in order to show how unappreciated you are, but give it a shot.

Finally, I have to get up on my hind legs regarding the disparaging tone Mr. Flax uses in regards to both "The Silmarilion" and "The Sopranos." Granted, Tolkien's book is not necessarily high art, but it is a work of staggering linguistic complexity and scope. It's no Barbara Kingsolver novel, but nobody's perfect. As far as "The Sopranos" goes, it is some of the best writing to come down the pike in a while. Good taste is one thing, snobbery is another.

-- Phill Arensberg

I belong to an all-women San Francisco fan group. We meet sporadically, for wine, food, conversation and chocolate. When we meet in each other's houses, the rule is "no boyfriends till the pub closes." This usually means four or five hours of good all-women conversation (by the way, I don't dig Ally McBeal, either) and then the boyfriends show. Suddenly, the dynamic of the group changes. It's as noticeable as a light turning off.

Now it's possible that if there was a man who was just part of the group, who was sitting there all along taking part in the conversation in a normal way, he wouldn't change the dynamics of the group. But in my experience of both women-only and mixed discussion groups, the two are different. And given how pleasant it is to get together with just women and talk in a normal way, why risk spoiling it by introducing a man? He may know how to behave himself -- but he might not. My advice to Peter Flax? Start your own book club. Invite all your female friends. Make chocolate cake. It's folly trying to break into an all-women group -- the act of doing so convinces them you won't know how to behave if you're let in. But you can easily start your own mixed group, which will have a different dynamic. (Only, my experience of mixed groups is that the men tend to talk about 90 percent of the time and mostly the women don't talk at all. But with a weather eye out for such problems, I'm sure you can handle it.)

-- Jane Carnall

By Letters to the Editor

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