One day last September, there were two back-to-back events in adjacent rooms at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. "Beyond the 'Gender Wars,'" a symposium organized by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), was followed by a rejoinder from the Independent Women's Forum (IWF), "The XY Files: The Truth Is Out There...About the Differences Between Boys and Girls." Each event largely followed a predictable script. On the AAUW side, there was verbiage about "gender, race, and class" and hand-wringing about the "conservative backlash"; despite an occasional nod to innate sex differences, "gender equity" was pointedly defined as "equal outcomes." On the IWF side, there were affirmations of vive la différence and warnings about the perils of trying to engineer androgyny; despite some acknowledgment that there are not only differences between the sexes but much overlap, the old-fashioned wisdom about men and women was treated as timeless truth. And yet both discussions shared one major theme: the suddenly hot issue of boys-to be more specific, boys as the victimized sex in American education and culture.
Just a few years ago, of course, girls were the ones whose victimization by sexist schools and a male-dominated society was proclaimed on the front pages of newspapers and lamented in editorials, thanks largely to widely publicized reports released by the AAUW in the early 1990s. It was probably only a matter of time before somebody asked, "But what about boys?" By the end of the decade, headlines like "How Boys Lost Out to Girl Power" began to crop up in the media, and boys-in-crisis books began to hit the shelves.
But as the two National Press Club panels underscored, two contrasting arguments are being made on behalf of boys. In one room, there was sympathy for boys who yearn to be gentle, nurturing, and openly emotional but live in a society that labels such qualities "sissy"; in the other, there was sympathy for boys who want only to be boys but live in a society that labels their natural qualities aggressive and patriarchal. Harvard psychiatrist William Pollack, author of the 1999 bestseller Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood, believes boys are suffering because our culture traps them in the rigid codes of traditional manhood. American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, author of the controversial new volume The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men, believes boys are suffering because our culture seeks to "feminize" them and devalues manhood. (Guess which of them spoke on which panel.) One camp wants to reform masculinity, the other to restore it; one seeks to rescue boys from patriarchy, the other from feminism.
Both sides, however, agree that something is rotten in the state of boyhood. Real Boys opens with the assertion that boys, including many who seem to be doing fine, are "in serious trouble" and "in a desperate crisis." Pollack and other gender reformers paint the typical American boy as an emotional cripple, if not a walking time bomb ready to explode into a school massacre. The shooters of Littleton and Jonesboro, Pollack has said, are merely "the tip of the iceberg."
In The War Against Boys, Sommers persuasively challenges this hysteria, noting that it's ludicrous to generalize from a few sociopaths to "millions of healthy male children" who manage to get through high school without gunning down a single person. (She fails to mention that some people in the pro-manhood camp have been just as eager to use homicidal boys as symbols of a male crisis: A couple of years ago in Commentary, Midge Decter wrote that "raging schoolyard murder" is what happens when boys are deprived of "manly instruction" and honorable ways to assert their masculinity.) Sommers argues that most children, male and female, are in fairly good psychological health and in no need of "fixing."
Yet Sommers herself refers to boys as "the gender at risk," and her book is hardly free of alarmism, from the title to an opening that rivals Pollack's: "It's a bad time to be a boy in America."
The most tangible and effectively documented cause of concern is male academic underachievement:
* Girls make up 57 percent of straight-A students; boys make up 57 percent of high school dropouts.
* In 1998, 48 percent of girls but only 40 percent of boys graduating from high school had completed the courses in English, social studies, science, math, and foreign languages recommended as a minimum by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. (In 1987 there was no such gender gap, though only 18 percent of students met these requirements.) According to the National Center for Education Statistics, high school girls now outnumber boys in upper-level courses in algebra, chemistry, and biology; physics is the only subject in which males are still a majority.
* On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in 1996, 17-year-old girls, on average, outscored boys by 14 points in reading and 17 points in writing (on a scale of 0 to 500). While boys did better on the math and science tests, it was by margins of five and eight points, respectively.
* Women account for 56 percent of college enrollment in America. This is not due simply, as some feminists claim, to older women going back to school; among 1997 high school graduates, 64 percent of boys and 70 percent of girls went on to college. Female college freshmen are also more likely than men to get a degree in four years.
These differences do not cut across all racial and social lines. The gender gap in higher education has reached truly startling proportions among blacks. From 1977 to 1997, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded annually rose by 30 percent for black men but by 77 percent for black women; among 1996-97 college graduates, black women outnumbered men almost 2 to 1. The "man shortage" among college-educated blacks, which has contributed to tensions over interracial dating, is singled out as a "cause for concern" in the Urban League's recent report The State of Black America 1999.
Among non-Hispanic whites, women now receive 55 percent of bachelor's degrees. Feminists are correct when they say this imbalance is partly due to older women going back to school after growing up in an era when girls were expected to pursue the "MRS degree." In 1998, according to the Census Bureau, 48 percent of white college students under 35 were male. But for blacks and Hispanics, a female-to-male ratio of about 3 to 2 persists even when older students are excluded.
For middle-class girls and boys, college is now as much of a given as a high school diploma. Girls from working-class and poor families, on the other hand, are significantly more likely to go to college than boys. There are complex reasons for this. About one-tenth of women in college are training for the health professions, "feminine" jobs similar in status to predominantly male skilled trades that don't require college studies. (Interestingly, female registered nurses and therapists now outearn male mechanics and construction workers.) There is also a theory that, in the new economy, a certificate from a high-tech company's training program may be worth more than a college degree, and that it's mostly young men who skip college to pursue such options. But this explanation, appealing to many feminists, remains speculative. No one knows how many people actually do this; generally, for men or women, the lack of a college degree is still a serious handicap in the marketplace.