Feminism Must Include Empathy for Working-Class Men

Elite feminism at times substitutes a culture of contempt for a culture of care. If we are truly devoted to gender equality, we must ditch the assumption that all men enjoy similar privilege.

We must be able to hold two truths in our mind: that a small handful of elite men are in nearly complete control of society, and that the vast majority of men are flailing. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

Whether it’s Proud Boys storming the Capitol or Shamed Men penning public apologies for egregious sexual misconduct, men aren’t always making it easy to rush to their defense. Nevertheless, two recent books by unlikely bedfellows, the first by feminist critic and essayist Jessa Crispin and the second by liberal political commentator Richard Reeves, do just that — looking beyond the ways in which men cause trouble to observe that they’re in trouble.

From the outset, Crispin’s My Three Dads: Patriarchy on the Great Plains and Reeves’s Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It promise to have little in common. Crispin is an American feminist firebrand with a literary sensibility, while Reeves is a self-described “worried wonk” who left a career advising Britain’s Liberal Democrats to work for the Brookings Institution. But they share a conviction that men — not just traditional masculinity, but real living men — are in crisis, and they both observe that this crisis is especially acute among working-class men.

In professional elite circles, it can be hard to perceive this crisis, let alone muster the energy to care. After all, women are still struggling to break the glass ceiling in almost every professional field, and, as the #MeToo movement demonstrated, untold men with power have gone to great lengths to abuse it for personal gratification. People primarily socialize within their own class, and consequently the class-privileged women who set the agenda for mainstream feminism are disinclined to look beyond these gender inequalities in the upper echelons. When they think abstractly about the vastly larger demographic of men without elite educations and economic advantage, their minds may turn to crude culture-war archetypes. For professional women weaned on liberal media, working-class white men in particular are likely to conjure images of spittle-spewing conspiracists and chest-thumping Trumpers — hardly sympathetic figures.

Crispin and Reeves insist on sympathy anyway. While both authors make clear their own feminist principles, they refuse to ignore the ways that cultural and economic trends are converging to create a crisis for working-class men, which they posit is everyone’s problem.

Based on both Crispin’s personal experience and qualitative evidence culled from research, My Three Dads is one-third memoir about the reality and aftermath of growing up in small-town Kansas and two-thirds social commentary on the manifestations of American patriarchy, especially in the Midwest and “flyover country,” with its “version of masculinity that is all emotional constipation yet still strangely captivating . . . masculinity that makes you think that love is a thing to be earned through sacrifice and improved performance.”

Interrogating this construct, Crispin’s book is defiantly antinostalgia and keenly suspicious of any sentimentality toward paternal authority. The patriarchal nuclear family is harmful not just to women and children, Crispin claims, but to men as well — who, lacking even the rudimentary socializing structures available to women and children, too often end up atomized and alienated in hermetic domestic hellscapes. “Despite centuries of women arguing we should have other ways of structuring our families, our cities, our love lives, our houses,” she writes, “we always end up back at the family sealed off in a home.” With the enduring pressure to head the household and declining opportunities to do so, men are increasingly lonely and aimless, often depressed, and sometimes violent.

Many observers, approaching this problem, recommend that men build male community. But to Crispin, men fraternizing en masse is hardly an obvious solution. Among other problems, not all communities are created equal; a basketball or bowling league is a vastly different thing than a right-wing militia. “The idea of community is not enough,” she contends. It’s “too floppy . . . too nostalgic. . . . What we need is society.”

The burdens of the current system, Crispin argues, fall heavily on the shoulders of working-class men because they lack the emotional and monetary resources to sew patches where the social fabric has become threadbare — “from a school system that creates good little workers and not humans with a rich internal world, to a competition-based romantic life, to a medical system that tells us any inability to function in a sick world is pathology and that behavior must be contained via medication and a diagnosis.”

A compassionate contrarian, Crispin’s concern for men extends beyond the bounds of innocence. Her book is an exercise in what I’d like to call “provocative empathy,” intentionally disturbing our conventional sense of who is vulnerable. In an evocative and impressionistic rumination on white working-class masculinity, pain, and violence, Crispin alights on topics as hazardous as Guns N’ Roses front man Axl Rose’s sexual assault allegations and Timothy McVeigh’s domestic terror campaign. She weaves her reflections on the origins of their violence with personal memoir. “Had I had it a little rougher,” she writes speculatively, “had I been socialized as a boy and encouraged to express pain outward as anger and violence rather than inward as feminine self-harm and depression, I could have ended up as the abuser rather than the abused.”

Where elite liberals increasingly see working-class and poor white men as intrinsically maladaptive, Crispin takes pains to interrogate the capitalist patriarchal culture that conflates breadwinning with masculinity yet denies huge swaths of working-age men the means to earn any bread. That society is our shared creation, and the men who fall through its cracks — and attempt to break their own fall with desperate turns to antisocial behavior, from drugs to violence to right-wing extremism — are our issue. “Every one of us who built and supports and chooses a system that creates . . . haunted, angry men — we owe it to them to keep them alive, to hold their bodies, to take care,” writes Crispin. They are “our responsibility,” including feminists’, not least because men’s violence often harms women.

In Of Boys and Men, Reeves comes at the question of troubled men from quite a different angle, less as a cultural critic than as a Beltway think tank researcher. Though he does not share Crispin’s anti-capitalist impulse, Reeves continually grounds his analysis in the disconnect between social mores and economic realities.

While Reeves shares some of Crispin’s skepticism — if not her scorn — of the nuclear family model, he believes that the model at least worked as a “social institution” offering men stability (if admittedly at the expense of women’s autonomy). Pointing out that four out of five Americans with a high school education or less believe that being able to “support a family financially” is required to be a good father or husband, Reeves makes a strong case that “the very men least able to be traditional breadwinners are the most likely to be judged by their breadwinning potential.” On this cultural front, the answer for Reeves is not to restore the retrograde provider model, but to instead expand the scope of what it means to be a father and a man. “Just as women have largely broken free of the old, narrow model of motherhood, so men need to escape the confines of the breadwinner model of fatherhood,” writes Reeves. He calls for a “reinvention of fatherhood based on a more direct relationship to children.”

More broadly, for Reeves, modern cultural ideas and economic realities have combined to create a void of meaning. He explores how the decline of the traditional provider role has left many men, especially at the bottom economic rungs, scrambling to find purpose. “Most men are not part of the elite,” Reeves emphasizes, “and even fewer boys are destined to take their place.” For them, a sense of belonging in society is hard to come by — which can partly explain why a greater percentage of men than women are struggling in school, dropping out of the work force, and resorting to suicide.

By the numbers, the picture for the vast majority of men is indeed bleak, even when accounting for the relative weight of male privilege. When almost a fourth of boys are diagnosed with a “developmental disability,” it’s hard not to at least entertain the question of whether our educational system is mistreating boys, instead of merely clocking an inherent deficiency within half the student body. When men are three times more likely to submit to “deaths of despair,” something is deeply awry.

As Reeves points out, for every one hundred women who achieve a bachelor’s degree, seventy-four are awarded to men. A man with only a high school degree now makes 14 percent less than he did in 1979. And fewer men than women earn that degree in the first place: in 2018, “88 percent of girls graduated from high school on time . . . compared to 82 percent of boys.” The gap widens when it comes to low-income schools, where the average graduation rate is 80 percent overall. During the pandemic, the “2020 decline in college enrollment was seven times greater for male than for female students.” Seven times.

Given that this massive disparity was not at all reflected in the numbers at my elite research university, it gave me serious pause. To what extent am I just not seeing men suffer because of my current class status? Would these numbers surprise me were I still in touch with my working-class childhood friends? If my own father had remained a letter carrier rather than climbing the ranks of more remunerative white-collar positions? What does the invisibility of this disparity in my own social and professional circles tell us about the blindness of elite feminism to the broader trends at play in the relationship between the sexes, and the culture of contempt that comes to stand in for a culture of care?

Crispin eschews offering concrete policy solutions, while Reeves’s are characteristically wonky: “redshirting” boys to start kindergarten a year later than girls, for example, or incentivizing men to pursue “HEAL” jobs in the fields of health, education, administration, and literacy, just as women have been nudged to enter STEM.

What Reeves and Crispin have in common, however, is their provocative empathy, a refusal to simply pathologize masculinity and wash their hands of the issue. “My hope is that . . . we can come to a shared recognition that many of our boys and men are in real trouble, not of their own making, and need our help,” writes Reeves — echoing Crispin’s call “to hold their bodies, to take care.” Attributing “male malaise” to “deep structural challenges” rather than a “mass psychological breakdown,” Reeves critiques the pathologization of masculinity as counterproductive to the goal of helping men take care of both themselves and others.

In light of these enormous disparities, simply labeling masculinity, or men in general, as “toxic” is not a productive course of action. If we care at all about gender equality, we must ditch the assumption that all men enjoy similar privilege. We must be able to hold two truths in our mind: that a small handful of elite men are in nearly complete control of society, and that the vast majority of men are flailing. Gender equality isn’t zero-sum, and empathy shouldn’t be either.