Barone: The feminization of America — What will it look like?
Are we witnessing the feminization of America? And if so, is that a good or bad thing, or is it, like so many quiet but ineluctable trends, a combination of the two?
Perceptions of feminization come from some unexpected quarters. The (mostly) free market economist Tyler Cowen sees it as a long-term trend, going back to the suffragist movement a century ago and women’s inclination to prefer the perils of peace to the risks of war. “You might argue that I had the best of both worlds,” he reflects as he nears 60, “namely to grow up in the ‘tougher’ society, but live most of my life in the more feminized society.”
As an academic, he lives in an increasingly feminized environment. “A Generation of American Men Give Up on College” is a front-page Wall Street Journal story this week.
In postwar America, men outnumbered women on campus, with many veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill of Rights. In the post-Vietnam decades, that trend reversed. In the past five years, as higher education enrollments declined by 1.5 million students, men accounted for 71% of the drop. The sexual assault kangaroo courts set up by the Obama administration’s “guidance” probably contributed to this decline.
In the 2020-21 school year, 59% of college students, and 61% in private four-year schools, were women. And women are more likely to graduate as well, with 65% of women matriculating in 2012 getting a degree within six years, as compared to 59% of the smaller number of men.
It seems we’re headed toward a society where women outnumber men by 2 to 1 in higher education, by an even greater proportion among college graduates and even more among holders of postgraduate degrees.
But as contemporary feminists point out, that doesn’t necessarily mean that women are running things. Historically, college graduates have made much more money than non-graduates, but that gap seems to be narrowing. Men still dominate the ranks of billionaires, CEOs, and, by narrowing margins, major politicians.
It seems male and female graduates seek out different career paths. Half of law and medical students these days are women, but women choose less demanding and competitive specialties. Women are hugely dominant in veterinarian, social work and education schools. Professionally, they are large majorities in caring professions such as nursing and in what one might call the “Karen” professions — corporate human resources departments and university diversity, equity and inclusion bureaucracies.
In effect, biology keeps trumping feminism. Despite the claims of biological men who believe they are women, only biological women can give birth and nurse babies. As Charles Murray notes in his 2020 book “Human Diversity,” even women with very high IQs and unlimited career prospects often stay home to care for their infants and young children.
Nor are political causes associated with feminists gaining strength. While American opinion has shifted massively on same-sex marriage, it has remained static on abortion. Most voters favor substantial limitations on abortion. Abortions per capita peaked way back in 1980, and the actual number of abortions has been declining since 1990, even as the nation’s population has risen 33%.
As conservative radio talk show host Erick Erickson points out, Democrats’ reconciliation package is geared toward feminist ideas of what women want: subsidized day care and preschool, paid family leave, more money for public schools and free community college. It recalls “The Life of Julia,” the 2012 Barack Obama ad showing a female cartoon character going to preschool, getting free birth control and low-interest student loans, and ultimately receiving Medicare and Social Security without any spouse or partner except government.
But “the trendline research that’s out there right now, across the board,” Erickson writes, “shows moms aren’t going back to work.” That may be one reason why many jobs have gone unfilled, even in states which cut off the Biden Democrats’ supplemental $300 unemployment subsidies. Mothers seem to be turning to home-schooling as enrollments in public schools, shuttered last year by teacher unions, are not rebounding.
Erickson speculates that “particularly in married households, (women) can survive on one income or can do something from home. Many have started Etsy shops or gotten into crafts and can sell stuff online and supplement the family income.” And they can save the money they used to spend on work clothing or commuting.
I take Erickson’s comments as speculation rather than as hard trends. But he raises the possibility that the feminization of America will not produce a society along the lines that either feminists or their cultural critics expect. And that may render some of our caustic arguments increasingly beside the point.
Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.