In 1976, I was living in an apartment in Montclair, New Jersey. One night around 10:30, the doorbell rang. It was my friend Susan and her husband Harold standing apart at the door. Susan was holding a woolen winter coat. “We have a problem that maybe you can help us solve.”
“What is it?” I was in my nightgown, tired, but ready to help.
There was a moment of silence as each waited for the other to speak, then Susan stepped forth. “A button came off of Harold’s coat, and he wants me to sew it on. I told him no and we’ve been arguing all night, so I wonder if you would be willing to sew it on.” At that moment, I knew we were in trouble. My mother had suffered from what Betty Friedan, in her book The Feminine Mystique, characterized as “the problem that has no name,” described as “a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning” and I did not want to step into the footsteps of my mother, whose profession until late in life was “housewife,” but that night, I was angry, maybe even furious. The way to resolve this was not to bring the button problem to yet another woman, one who presumably retained enough of the habit of servitude to accomplish the task. Susan was no skilled seamstress, but we had both been taught the basics of sewing in middle school, and she could have sewn on the button and discussed the allocation of tasks later, or she could have taught Harold how to sew on a button, assuming he was willing to learn. In thinking back on this episode, I still do not share Susan’s punitive attitude, but I have to acknowledge that my own marital compromises were not any more effective in maintaining mutual dignity than Susan’s.
Guided by role models such as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Meade, Amelia Earhart, and many more, women were fashioning new lives for themselves in those years. They were descendants of Abigail Adams, who begged her husband (unsuccessfully) to “remember the laidies,” suffragettes, Margaret Sanger, Harriet Tubman, and women out West who ran for Congress. In order to be successful and financially independent, women sacrificed precious time with their children and told their husbands to make their own dinner. They marched and organized; they stepped alone into areas that put them and still put them in danger of humiliation and even assault. Goaded by anger, determination, and the talent they knew they had, women have now become firefighters, soldiers, politicians, judges, and doctors. If times hadn’t changed, they would all still be shlepping the vacuum cleaner up three flights of stairs and cooking three meals a day. With these accomplishments behind us, it’s time to step back and look around.
In his book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What To Do About It ” Richard V. Reeves writes, “…life has not always been rosy for men in traditional families. There is a certain desolation to a life that is designed for you.” While women were shlepping the vacuum cleaner, men, too, were put in tailor-made roles as provider, shoveler of snow, mower of lawn, player of golf. Many of them were satisfied in that role. Within the living memory of many men still alive in 1976, a man could beat or kill his wife with few repercussions, had complete control of his wife’s money, including her family inheritance, and social mores dictated that all jobs from sanitation worker to president of the United States were performed by men. Until the early 20th century, they chose the political representatives who made the laws. In 1976, conditions had become more equitable, but men still enjoyed great favor at the moment when Harold refused to sew on the button or to learn how to sew on a button.
Many years later, after two divorces, at a moment when internet dating was in its infancy, I emailed, spoke with, and met dozens of men. They fell into three categories: those who had flexed their minds and their schedules to accommodate women’s changed attitudes, occupations, and schedules, those who retained without question the expectations and habits they’d had in high school, and those who thought that they had changed but really hadn’t. The third type was the most common. They called themselves feminists, supported their wives’ professional ambitions, but you wouldn’t find them chasing dust bunnies under the couch or clearing the rotting leftovers out of the refrigerator.
The changes women wanted and needed were achieved without deep consultation with their male counterparts. Women have uncorked their ambitions and are sailing past men in education, influence, and earning power, and men’s mental and physical health has been affected. Reeves’s book makes many suggestions for improving the lot of American boys and men: have boys start school later than girls because their bodies and brains mature more slowly; change the workplace so that men are expected and allowed to be caregivers for their families; provide funding for men to go into the HEAL (Health, Education, Administration, and Literacy) professions in the same way that there is funding for women to go into the STEM fields, adjust various laws to accommodate dads equally with moms, and so on. These are policies to be achieved by legislation, charitable organizations, and employers, but inner reflection is also required. In the end, men and their partners have to fix this themselves.
With apologies to the many, many men who have thought this through, men have watched as women changed everything without realizing that they would have to change, too. The author Katherine Anne Porter said it was difficult being a writer while married because “Somebody has to do the dishes.” We have used paper plates, resorted to takeout, and fueled the establishment of more restaurants than ever. We have Roombas to seek out the dust bunnies. But who is going to sew on the button? The experiment is now over. The decisions and changes that we have skirted must be faced. When the laws are made the policies enacted, men will still have to risk suspicion or ridicule as elementary school teachers or waiters at the diner the way women risked humiliation and assault as they entered co-ed institutions like the police station and Ivy League schools. Men will have to be nurses and tolerate the stares and the questions, the way women did when they entered the firehouse or Army barracks.
And there is more work for women to do. I asked my qi gong teacher why he thought there were predominantly women in his classes, and he said, “It’s just the season of the feminine.”
With a sterling record of accomplishment, women can now afford to put aside their triumphalism. It seems to me that wherever I go, the men are not fully represented: the choir, university classes, church committees, the pickleball court. As one man said, “People have to make places into places where men want to be. Which would mean a little less of the ‘divine feminine’ in yoga class.” If we are all to feel comfortable in our cultural skins, we have to figure out how to figure out who will wash the dishes.