BOOKS | A progressive author calls for a “pro-social masculinity”
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“What is your book about?” is the question authors hear most often after mentioning their current project. For past projects, such as his biography of John Stuart Mill, Richard Reeves learned to temper his enthusiasm before his interlocutor’s eyes glazed over. But he barely had to mention Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What To Do About It (Brookings Institution Press 2022) before meeting a barrage of anxious questions.
“I found that many people are really worried about boys and men, including the ones in their own life,” he writes. Husbands who lost their jobs, teenage sons struggling in school, feckless fiancés who lack ambition—“even the staunchest feminists I spoke with seemed more concerned about their sons than their daughters.”
As his book documents in the early chapters, men have fallen behind in education and earning potential. They are less likely to form stable families and more likely to commit suicide. They feel lost in a culture that calls them “toxic.” What’s to be done? “We need a pro-social masculinity for a post-feminist world.”
Reeves writes from a progressive point of view yet calls out both sides of the argument. The right seems hostile to the progress of women, offering only a return to traditional roles. But the left is blind to the problems of men, downplaying the dramatic social change that has deprived them of their purpose as breadwinners and protectors.
Reeves acknowledges some important realities. Women are more secure in their role, as it is largely defined by biology. The role of men, on the other hand, is more socially determined, and in a shifting society they find themselves adrift. No less a revered anthropologist than Margaret Mead noted that men’s behavior, “being learned, is fragile.” But organizations like the American Psychological Association label typically masculine qualities like stoicism and competitiveness as “on the whole, harmful.”
“It is a bad idea to send a signal to half the population that there is something intrinsically wrong with them,” Reeves wryly observes. But when not directly blamed, men and boys are ignored. In 2021 the White House Gender Policy Council issued a “National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality.” The policy directs government agencies to take specific steps to expand opportunities and benefits to women, while failing to recognize that men are at greater risk of being unemployed, undereducated, and uninsured.
Unlike many liberals, Reeves acknowledges that the pay gap remaining between men and women owes less to discrimination and more to women taking time off for their families. In other ways his progressivism raises unanswered questions. He overlooks the higher tax burdens and divorce rates that push many mothers to become wage earners. He doesn’t see marriage as essential to parenthood. He barely mentions transgenderism and ignores the challenge it poses to understanding manhood and womanhood.
Still, many of his recommendations make sense. These include starting boys a year later in school than girls, recruiting more male teachers in elementary education, and restoring technical and vocational education (as “men are more attracted to things, women to people”). Directing men toward HEAL jobs (Health, Education, Administration, and Literacy) may be a tougher sell, as these professions are more focused on people than things.
When it comes to encouraging fatherhood, Reeves leans heavily on government policy: mandating equal paid leave for both parents; joint custody (even for unmarried dads); and part-time, flex-time, and remote work.
A conservative can doubt the effectiveness of some of these ideas and still welcome the conversation. For Reeves is correct about this: We desperately need a “pro-social masculinity”—that is, productive and procreative—for the modern world.
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