»  National Review Online

August 28, 2001

  It's a Woman's World


Forty-five years ago the British science-fiction writer John Wyndham published a story titled "Consider Her Ways." (The entire text is on the web.) A woman of that time, Jane Waterleigh, volunteers to test a hallucinogenic drug. She wakes in the body of another woman some generations in the future. That future is a woman's world; all men were killed off by a rogue virus, which also prevented the birth of any more male babies. After a spell of disorder, the women got civilization going again, and erected a society modeled on those of the ants (hence the title, from Proverbs 6.vi). Bloated, obese "mothers" are dedicated full-time to childbearing — it is in the body of one of these monsters that Jane's personality has lodged itself. The "mothers" are attended by midget, sterile "servitors". Society's heavy lifting is done by muscular Amazon types, also sterile, and the whole thing is presided over by a wise "Doctorate" of normal-looking women who can give birth if they wish to. The medical specifics are left unclear, but some sort of parthenogenesis seems to be involved.

Wyndham's purpose was to set a fictional frame for some 1950s-ish arguments about "romance" and the place of women in a consumer society. In years to come, however, he may be hailed as a prophet. While it is foolish to attempt to predict the future in any detail, there are signs that the world we are heading into, with its unprecedented demographic changes and momentous advances in the biological sciences, may be a woman's world. Those qualities we are accustomed to think of as "masculine", that have been brought forward more or less intact from our origins as hunter-gatherers in the Old Stone Age, are now surplus to requirements. Masculinity, as it has been understood from the beginning of our species, is now at last obsolete.

The signs are everywhere. In post-industrial society, men simply do not do very well. As everyone knows, we do not live as long as the other sex. A woman aged 20 can expect to live 6.3 years longer than a man; at 60 the gap is still 5 years. It is less well-known that this is a modern phenomenon; until the early twentieth century, American men lived longer than women. Men are less healthy than women, and get more of most diseases. The culprit here is testosterone, which weakens the body's resistance, and causes it to age more rapidly. Eunuchs have longer life expectancy than other men.

It is notorious that men misbehave much more than women: 90 per cent of U.S. jail inmates are men, as are 90 per cent of murderers and 80 per cent of drunk drivers. Men are also of declining economic importance: male participation in the civilian labor force has dropped from 86 to 75 per cent since 1950, while the female rate has risen from 34 to over 60 per cent.

As western society moves ever closer towards pure meritocracy, it is becoming clear that women are not only healthier and better-behaved than men, but also smarter — or, at least, more willing to be educated. More women than men pass straight from high school to college (this has been true since the early 1970s) and more women than men now earn degrees. In 1996, women were 56 per cent of graduate students, compared with 39 per cent in 1970. The education business is, in fact, being colonized by women at all levels, including the administrative: as at last summer, four of the eight Ivy League colleges has female provosts.

Even more striking results come from England, where single-sex secondary schools are still common and the Department of Education publishes "league tables" of schools nationwide based on results in standard examinations. In the league tables for year 2000, four out of the five top-ranked schools in the "advanced level" exams, taken at age 17 plus, were girls-only schools. The top 20 schools broke down as: 11 girls-only, 6 boys-only, 3 mixed. Preliminary results for 2001 indicate that women have widened the gap.

As men slip further behind in the meritocratic rat-race, the culture sends out more and more signals that traditional masculinity is passé. Peter Whittle reminded us in the Los Angeles Times last February that Clark Gable would, if he had lived, be 100 years old this year. Whittle went on to compare the ideal of masculinity represented by Gable with the one currently on display in our movie houses. You can get the point by noting that Gable arrived on the set of Gone With the Wind two days before his 38th birthday, a milestone that Tom Cruise reached in July 2000, and that Brad Pitt will arrive at this coming December. The difference is, of course, that Gable was unapologetically and unambiguously a man, while Cruise and Pitt are, in their screen personae, essentially boys. The trend line is heading off even further into pretty childishness, too — think of Leonardo DiCaprio. Whittle:

In my interviews with countless fans, it became clear that for teenage girls, the boyish but androgynous look was the one they preferred in their idols — smooth, hairless, lacking traditionally adult, masculine physical attributes, and, by implication, sexually unthreatening.

The bankability of these present-day movie stars also depends in part on their appeal to homosexual men, a large and wealthy constituency with disproportionate influence over all matters of style and taste in our culture.

The modern workplace has also been de-masculinized. I have spent many years working in the offices of big corporations, among the vast clerical middle class of the Information Age. It has often struck me how much more suitable this work is for women than for men — how, in fact, men seem rather out of place among the "tubes and cubes" of the modern office. No masculine values are visible here. The mildness of manners, the endless tiny courtesies, the yielding and compromising, the cheery assertions of labor-room stoicism ("Hangin' in there!") that are necessary to get this kind of work done, leave little outlet for masculine forcefulness. Such outlets as did once exist have been systematically sealed off by the feminists and "sexual harassment" warriors. Was it really only twelve years ago that my mixed-sex office in a big Wall Street trading house celebrated the boss's birthday by bringing in a full-monty stripper to entertain us? Yes, it was. If we did that today, we should be the subject of a 60 Minutes segment.

The more boisterous manifestations of masculinity — physical courage, danger-seeking, the honor principle, belligerence, chivalry, endurance, small-group loyalty — which were once accessible to all men, in episodes of war or exploration if not in everyday life, have now been leached out to the extremes of our society — to small minorities of, at one extreme, super-rich sports and entertainment stars, and at the other, underclass desperadoes. There is no place now for a brilliant misfit like the Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton, whose love of danger and of alien cultures led him to be the first, and quite probably the only, non-Moslem ever to penetrate the holiest sanctuary of Islam, the Ka'aba in Mecca — he even had the audacity to make a surreptitious sketch of the place while he was supposed to be praying. (Burton, by the way, was a holy terror as a boy — would be a sure candidate for heavy Ritalin treatment nowadays.)

Even war, that most quintessential of masculine activities, is probably a thing of the past. For war you need a large supply of young men. With the great demographic collapse of modern times, that supply is drying up. Soft, feminized, over-civilized, under-militarized societies of the past were likely to be jolted back into vigor, or just overrun, by warriors from the wild places. Now there are no more wild places. While one should never be complacent about these things, and it is possible that a starship fleet of unwashed plunderers, cutlasses in their teeth and knives in their boots, is on its way from Alpha Centauri even as I write, the odds are good that the human race ain't gonna study war no more.

Sexual intercourse itself is on the way out. I have written elsewhere about the sudden (historically speaking) ubiquity of fellatio among young people. This is a genuine social phenomenon of our times. Its significance in this context is that fellatio is an act of condescension by a woman towards a man. The subtext, as we say nowadays, is: "I am not willing to engage in sexual congress with you. However, to maintain your affections, and pacify your beastly masculine nature, I will do this." Fellatio is Ritalin for adolescents. What the mostly-female staff of elementary schools are doing to 8-year-old boys, female students are doing to the 16-year-olds, though the meaning of "orally administered" is of course somewhat different in the two cases. Along with the normalizing of homosexuality, we see here another sign that ordinary heterosexual intercourse is losing its market share. Sperm is no longer much in demand for its original purpose.

Males are, in fact, not biologically necessary. Plenty of species manage without them. One family of aquatic organisms, the bdelloid rotifers, seem not to have produced any males for about 30 million years, yet they are thriving. Whiptail lizards in the Arizona desert happily reproduce by parthenogenesis. The shuffling of genes that occurs in heterosexual pairing is useful to our somewhat more complicated species in keeping ahead of diseases and parasites, which base their attack strategies on the commonest genetic patterns of the previous generation. This shuffling can, however, be accomplished by fusing two eggs, instead of a sperm and an egg. Presumably this was the trick performed by the women in John Wyndham's story. There are some small points to be cleared up — the placenta produced in egg-egg unions is unsatisfactory — but these problems can no doubt be mastered. Or mistressed.

There is a movie that has haunted me for years, one of those under-appreciated masterpieces that Hollywood used to turn out from time to time when the accountants were looking the other way. It was titled Lonely Are the Brave (1962). In it, Kirk Douglas — he wrote in 1989 that this was his favorite among all the movies he had made — plays the part of a cowboy who has outlived his time. Escaping from jail, he heads for the hills on horseback pursued by various cops, rangers and soldiers, all riding in jeeps and helicopters. At last man and horse make an absurd, hopeless dash for freedom to a frontier that no longer exists. A truck driven by Carroll O'Connor hits them as they attempt to cross the Interstate.

We of the male sex are in basically the same situation as Kirk Douglas's cowboy, lingering on in a world that has less and less use for us. We may puff and preen and work out for a few more decades, but it will all be empty show. The world that is just over the horizon will be a woman's world. At last, when we and our paleolithic skill set have fallen into complete desuetude, some Caroline O'Connor in a sixteen-wheel rig will come along and put an end to our sorry little performance. It was fun while it lasted — the patriarchy, the wars, the all-night poker games, the seductions — but now the game is up. The male sex is finished. Shall we be missed, I wonder?

Some relevant links here and here.