The empathy gap for those hardworking, white middle-class “men on top?”

This essay strikes me as jaw-droppingly weird and pretty stupid.  Susan Jacoby:

WHEN I dream about my father, as I do even though he has been dead for more than a quarter of a century, I always wake up when I hear the crunch of tires rolling over rock salt — an unmistakable sound evoking the winters of my Michigan childhood in the 1950s and early ’60s. Dad, an accountant, would pull his car out of our icy driveway and head for his office long before first light. This was tax season, and he could keep his business and our family financially afloat only by working 80-hour weeks.

You won’t find Bob Jacoby or his unglamorous middle-class, middle-income contemporaries in “Mad Men,” the AMC series beginning its sixth season on Sunday. If we are to believe the message of popular culture, the last men on top — who came of age during World War II or in the decade after it — ran the show at work, at home and in bed.

.       .       .       .       .       .

Nearly all institutional power for 20 years after the war was indeed wielded by the war generation (and eventually by younger men born during the Depression). Yet a vast majority of men possessed limited power that could vanish swiftly if they committed the ultimate sin of failing to bring home a paycheck. 

.       .       .       .       .       .

My dad worked so hard that he wouldn’t have had time for routine adultery even if he had the desire. Furthermore, my supposedly powerless mother would have spotted any unexplained expenditure of more than $20 — not enough to rent a decent hotel room even in 1960 in Lansing, Mich. Some husbands certainly did exercise tight control over money, but the basic middle-class covenant of the time ceded power to women over everything domestic, including the family budget.

The cost of that covenant to women — the suppression of worldly opportunity — has been thoroughly told. The cost to men — in terms of stress, time lost with the families they were trying so hard to support and lack of freedom to pursue personal interests — has not been nearly as well documented.

Men charged with total financial responsibility for their families obviously had even more reason to worry than men do today in tough times. Growing up in Michigan, I had friends whose fathers were laid off from jobs in a variety of businesses whenever auto sales faltered.

.       .       .       .       .       .

So it is difficult to understand why social commentators cannot muster up more empathy for the older generation of men, who had no backup if something went wrong at work.

I am as hooked as anyone else on the cocktails and clothes, the sexual drama and office politics of “Mad Men.” But I would like to see just one scene in which a man is gulping coffee at 4:30 on a February morning. Perhaps he is also scanning a book on the kitchen counter, because he knows he will be too tired to read by the time he gets home around 10 o’clock. This man warms up his car and heads for work, while his wife and children sleep soundly under the covers.

Seriously–read the whole thing!  Who exactly needs to feel “more empathy for the older generation of (middle-class, white) men?”  I wonder.  Is she angry with AMC, or Matt Weiner, or historians, or just the American public at large for not fully appreciating her father’s life?

It’s nice that Jacoby appreciates the work her father did on his family’s behalf.  I’m sure tax season was a busy time for him, but do we really need to direct special historical attention and empathy to the middle-class accountants of the 1950s and 1960s just because their unglamorous lives haven’t been on the teevee since–I don’t know–My Three Sons was in its original run?  Are white middle-class men’s lives truly overlooked by historians?  On what does she base her claim that “the basic middle-class covenant of the time ceded power to women over everything domestic, including the family budget?”

Jacoby’s argument appears to be little more than “my dad’s life wasn’t glamorous!  He was a good guy!  Lay off, you feminists and brown and black people–not all white men were the oppressor class.”  Uh, OK.  When did this become about Bob Jacoby, anyway?  (I got this reaction a few times as a grad student and junior faculty member writing about men and masculinity.  Middle-aged and older men, men old enough to be my father, really didn’t like my feminist analysis of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century masculinity and family life.  I always wanted to point out that I’m writing about families 300-400 years ago–I’m not talking about your marriages!”  Yet some men always took great umbrage when I pointed to the real, historical facts of masculine power.  Somehow, I suppose, it was important for me to consider their feelings as well as my historical evidence.)

But whose power was it in the first place (allegedly) to cede to the reigning housewife?  Jacoby is right to say that men married to spouses who didn’t work for wages are more economically vulnerable than those who are married to an income earner, but whose decision was it to restrict women’s paid employment options?  Was it the women, or was it middle-class middle-managers and accountants like Bob Jacoby, who until the civil rights and women’s movements were exactly the kind of people in positions of power and who continued discriminatory hiring practices?  I’m just sayin’.

So long as we’re using our own families in order to generalize about the 1950s and 60s, what about my white grandmother who worked for more than twenty years as a receptionist because she was widowed at age 38  in 1953 and left to raise two little girls?  (She was lucky, as black women with only a high school education were not permitted to work in an office except as janitors on the night shift.)  What about that advice from her sister-frenemy, who told her to get remarried as soon as possible because she was “too stupid” to raise the children by herself?  (She remarried, but only 20 years later, after her daughters were grown.)  What about that guy who took her out on a date and tried to rape her?  What about the wages she earned that were so low that they couldn’t afford a fourth pork chop when grandpa came to dinner on Sunday?  What about the “glamorous” staycations she took because they couldn’t afford to travel and her children were just glad to have her home for a full week?  My grandmother needs no one’s empathy at this point, much less the “pity” that the unfortunate headline to Jacoby’s article calls for.  But she sure as $hit could have used laws like Title IX, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, just for starters.

Ah, well.  Maybe Jacoby is just cashing in on what all feminists realize, sooner or later:  it gets you more attention and it pays much better to write on behalf of poor, oppressed, overlooked, and tragically unempathized-with menfolk than to write on behalf of women like a typical feminist.  It’s so much more rewarding to be an antifeminist “feminist!”  Camille Paglia was a pioneer antifeminist “feminist.”  Katie Roiphe knows her way around the block, as does Rebecca Walker.  (Just read a few of the comments on the article–unlike most of the essays by women published in the New York Times, there’s no condescention or anger, just warm hugs and cookies from men who truly appreciate her enlightened analysis.)

What do you think?

34 thoughts on “The empathy gap for those hardworking, white middle-class “men on top?”

  1. I think your analysis is spot on. The broad socioeconomic picture is that the post-war white d00d middle-class was built through a massive transfer of capital and labor value from women and non-whites to the white d00ds. Just because there were richer white d00ds making fortunes off the white-collar labor of the middle-class white d00ds doesn’t mean that the middle-class white d00ds were oppressed by virtue of their middle-class white d00ditude.


  2. But historians do talk about how the cold war conformity harmed men, and how they revolted from it! I’d start with Barbara Ehrenreich, _The Hearts of Men_. And William Whyte (_Organization Man_) and David Riesman (_Lonely Crowd_) lamented at great length about the plight of middle class white men. I always try to get my students to understand how the “breadwinner ethic” was harmful not only to women, but also to men. The divorce rate soared in the early 1970s not because of feminism, but largely because men were escaping the restraints of “traditional” marriage. Do some freaking homework Susan Jacoby.


  3. Thanks, Widgeon–I knew some of you who know the scholarly literature in this period would have more ideas & thoughts on this. (Did any of you see this before my blog post? Is Susan Jacoby just trying to cash in on the coincidence of the premiere of Mad Men tonight?)


  4. When I read that piece this morning, my first thought was, “but Mad Men isn’t about a middle-class accountant in Michigan, so why should it reflect that experience?” It’s like complaining that The Cosby Show didn’t represent a black family with a father who was a mechanic and a mother who was a secretary in Tuscaloosa. Or like when students write a paper about a novel that criticizes it based on the characters it *should* have included, or the ending it *should* have had (according to them and based on no evidence and based on no actual relevance to the text at hand).

    So not only is this piece bad history (as you eloquently explain) but also it’s bad textual criticism.

    And as for the “nobody talks about the *pressure* on teh menz if they were to lose their job with a family to support!” claim… um, at least they had a pretty good chance of getting another job! What about the pressure on wives who were not in the paid workforce if their husbands lost their jobs or just left the family when times got tough? My own grandmother, a stay at home mom with *seven* children – including an infant – was left by my grandfather in 1966/7, with pretty much nothing. She ultimately found work in a factory, but seriously? I’m a hell of a lot more sympathetic to the plight of women in that time period than I am to the plight of those poor middle-class white men with families to support on their single paycheck, because the fact of the matter is that they had the option of leaving with their single paycheck and they could be *just fine* doing so.


  5. I like that she’s irritated that “the vast majority of men possessed limited power,” as if all men should automatically possess unlimited power. Of course, no one, but no one, really possesses unlimited power. Not even men. Nor should anyone.

    Jacoby needs to realize that most everyone is one paycheck away from difficulty, at best, and at worst, already even closer to disaster.

    And most of us don’t make the mistake of thinking that television is supposed to represent real life.


  6. As a single woman, I wouldn’t mind going back to the days when one wage earner could support a middle-class household, but of course only if that household-supporting wage were available to women as well as men. I’m deeply suspicious that a good part of the much-vaunted productivity gains of the latter part of the twentieth century actually result from many two-adult pairs doing what would have been, in the 1950s, three jobs (two in the paid workplace, one at home, with the female half of heterosexual couples often holding down considerably more than the equivalent of 1.5 jobs). In fact, one doesn’t have to be single to have this wish; these days, households that are dependent on two wage earners are fast becoming as vulnerable as those that were dependent on one in the ’50s.

    But if I have to make a choice, I’d still take the present situation over the one in the ’50s, or earlier. My great-grandmother was widowed c. 1900, and it took until her son came of age 10+ years later for anyone in her household to have the vote, let alone earn a professional wage. And yes, if she and her kids had been black, they would have been even worse off.

    I also suspect that the working-age white (and perhaps black) men of the 1950s had enough memory of the Great Depression to think that having a decent-paying job, however taxing, was something to be grateful for. One of my grandfathers, an architect who’d come from a working-class family and gotten his certification through a combination of night school and apprenticeship, spent much of the 1930s (or his mid-30s to mid-40s — what should have been the beginning of the peak of his professional career, especially after the relatively slow start required by his self-financed education) out of work, and then working for the WPA. By the time WWII rolled around and many of the younger men were off to war, he considered it not only a patriotic duty but an opportunity to work two jobs. And he continued working until the age of 80, partly out of preference, but partly also, I suspect, because he still felt the need to catch up financially. It will be interesting to see how both men and women who have lost and struggled to replace jobs, or have struggled to find first jobs, in the last few years view work. I hope they won’t go so far in the direction of being appreciative that employers can make unreasonable demands. It also seems likely that the recession may have cemented an attitude that was already becoming well-established, and is a major change from the 1950s: workers have increasingly little loyalty to companies (and with good reason, since companies do little to nothing to cultivate and reward workers who make a career at a single company).

    So, yes, Jacoby’s view seems more than a bit myopic, both in terms of ignoring white male privilege, and of failing to understand some of the historical roots of the white male anxieties to which she alludes. It also loses sight of the fact that, in this system, if a man lost economic power, his wife lost any lesser economic power she derived from his wages at the same time. And if she did find a way to support the family (or just to earn some additional money that wasn’t subject to *his* surveillance, in a day when a woman having her own bank account would have been rare, if not legally impossible), she had to minimize her contribution so as to preserve his ego. That hardly seems like a good use of anybody’s time and energy.


  7. Similar to the sentiment in this NYT article that appeared today:

    My favorite quote being this:

    “After decades of “history from below,” focusing on women, minorities and other marginalized people seizing their destiny, a new generation of scholars is increasingly turning to what, strangely, risked becoming the most marginalized group of all: the bosses, bankers and brokers who run the economy.”

    In other words, after briefly turning our attention away from privileged white men, we can go back to writing the history that *really* matters.


  8. So I had a graduate student who wrote a great dissertation about the intellectual history of the suburbs. He found that nearly all the sociological and popular culture criticism of the suburbs was about the plight of white men. For movies start with “Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” and multiply by the dozens. The fact that African Americans and in many cases Jews couldn’t buy houses in the suburbs, not discussed. Women’s inability to get mortgages or credit cards, no problem. Dr. Crazy and Historiann’s grandmothers, invisible.


  9. I read in her bio that Susan Jacoby is an outspoken advocate of reason. I find that hard to reconcile with giving the entire socioeconomic structure of the country a pass in favor of scoring some cheap antifeminist points. She may only mean reason with regard to separation of church and state, a topic on which she has also written. It’s a dumb article but I would speculate that mostly Susan Jacoby is interested in selling books and thus in writing attention-generating newspaper articles, no matter how dumb they might be.


  10. Where to begin. It’s just “why doesn’t popular culture provide any representations of my family”. I don’t get it. Anyone who thinks that TV bears any relationship to ordinary life is, well — I guess they need their head examined.

    My mother tried to watch Mad Men, and found it too painful; it reminded her of just how awful it was in the late 50s/ early 60s, and how badly women were treated. (My mother was not a happy 1950s housewife, and she always worked, but freelance, from home.) Furthermore, if there are TV shows about the life of a divorced woman with three children whose husband failed to pay child support, I’ve missed them.


  11. What’s the point to argue with article we don’t like?

    Isn’t critiquing arguments and interpretations presented by others part of the academic gig? (Isn’t it also just something that people tend to do?) I know academics who claim to be “pure academics” above the fray and only interested in the “pursuit of knowledge.” How arrogant is that? I guess if you are on the payroll of the Medici then you engage only the Medici but I–along with most modern scholars–am on the payroll of the public.

    This comes up in the sciences, whenever there are connections with public policy: evolution, global warming, stem cells, genetic modification, etc. The public discourse is full of real data, fake data, conflicting interpretations of data, and so on. I’ve done a bit of debunking of global-warming denialist material and I admire my colleagues who do more. How is the non-specialist supposed to understand such issues if the scholarly side is missing from the discourse?


  12. @truffula: Actually, to that point, I’m not sure how much the scholarly side is doing for the discourse. Not that scholarly people don’t have the facts on their side, but how much are people able to engage with them. I think where lisa and koshembos have a point is that reason, the much touted weapon with which academics and logically-minded people attack misinformation, is a really poor tool with which to get the larger public on board. The reason to which a scholarly specialist appeals is only available to her within the context of her field, ie reason is highly contextual, it is not objective (which is how I see most scholars deploy their arguments). Feelings, non-logical belief systems, etc., are still useful and used by a large part of the generalist population and its incumbent on the reasonable people to recognize the climate within which they communicate, and not to condescend to those who don’t buy into their own logical worldview.

    Disclaimer: I am an undergraduate English major, admittedly uninitiated into the conversations that go on at the higher end of academia, but I speak to the perception I have of the arguments against global-warming denialist material in mass media outlets. My interest in the matter is as a person who wishes to write novels (and will be in his wildest fantasies a philologist). I read fantasy, sci-fi, romance, etc., genres that tend to stick to tropes that rarely challenge the powers that be. But I am being educated in my writing by MFA graduates. The whole artiste vs. sellout debate. I am interested in how a voice attuned to the sociopolitical super- and sub-structures can gain a larger audience.


  13. I was going to report on what ej reported on; the Times’s front-paging of the “news” that “Capitalism is back” in the academic history avant-garde. The article is more nuanced than the headlines fronting it, but it’s still not entirely clear from the account whether the author is suggesting this is a revanchist counterattack on the new social history, or some kind of an extension of the latter, tinged with the new takes on “culture.”

    I think it’s more of the latter, as the scholars cited and profiled span a fairly wide range of philosophical viewpoints. I once went in a late-night tramp across Beijing with one of them, in search of an American donut shop, before we settled for a Bavarian bakery. And Historiann, you’ve sat at the seminar table with another. Still, the salving comment from a practitioner that “I like to call it ‘history from below, all he way to the top” doesn’t offer that much hope of inclusion. And one gets very little sense from the distribution of practitioners cited or subjects mentioned that women will be much more, if that, than a saving remnant. There’s also no sense at all given that historians have been talking about the vaunted “transition to capitalism” and the penetration of the marketplace into everything, almost since before the New Deal, it seems.

    So, plus ca change, it would appear. My father did pretty much the same kinds of things that Jacoby’s did, with very little appearance of craving any cultural acknowledgment. And then my mother returned to the salaried workforce after a fifteen-year hiatus to drag me back from the jaws of juvenile academic catastrophe into which I had mindlessly wandered. I get the sense that Jacoby was mostly trying to repay those kinds of familial debts, but couching the subject in terms of a generational and culture-wide cri de coeur really detracts from that intention, if such it was.


  14. Feelings, non-logical belief systems, etc., are still useful and used by a large part of the generalist population

    Right. It’s a sort of reverse-Tin Man operation. When they handed over my PhD, they took away my heart.

    It has been my (considerable) experience that if I treat my audience with respect and employ good teaching practice, I can explain pretty much anything to any audience, using appropriate terminology. This does require me to understand who my audience is, consider ahead of time what their issues might be, and if the venue allows it, adjust according to our interaction as we go forward together. Again, good teaching practice. FWIW, I have never found violent imagery (weapon, attack) to be particularly useful in thinking about teaching or communication with any audience.


  15. @truffula: No, I didn’t mean to suggest you, or any academic, is heartless 😛

    What I did say was that the historical underpinnings of academia are logic or reason-based, and that this bias is one that remains under-deconstructed. Logic and reason, no less than previous methods of knowing, are deployed according to the feelings, limited information, and biases that any human being has. Which concern you’ve addressed with your sharing of your experience. Thank you for taking the time to reply.


  16. under-deconstructed

    IMHO, this is a good place to start on the real work. I would assert that the “post normal” deconstruction of science has of late–in the U.S. at least–been a weirdly effective stealth tool of anti-regulation issue advocates. Dark waters in which it pays to know the lanternfish from the lancefish.


  17. The full essay doesn’t seem to me to be an attack on feminism or historians – it acknowledges that the gender discrimination of the time was one of the main causes of the problems faced by male breadwinners. To me, it seems to be making two basic points – 1. Being part of a relatively privileged group (middle class white man of the 50s and 60s) does not necessarily make a person’s life easy or privileged in the usual sense of the word, and 2. Even in the days before outsourcing, increasing income disparity, and the decline of the middle class, being part of the middle class could be difficult and precarious.

    Those seem to me to be the basic arguments of the original article. It wouldn’t even have occurred to me that it was an attack on feminism if I hadn’t seen that here.


  18. I don’t think Jacoby missed all of the academic work that Widegon cited above on 20th C masculinity & the middle class because it wasn’t comprehensible to her. I believe she “missed” it because 1) it’s easy and lucrative to sell essays lamenting teh poor, overlooked menz, and 2) it’s much easier to do that by inventing a caricature of criticism of the 1950s and 1960s that focuses unfairly or unreasonably by people who were in fact disenfranchised and/or economically disadvantaged.

    As Bardiac pointed out, way upthread: lamenting Bob Jacoby’s “limited power” is a really weird complaint, as though all white middle-class men should expect UNlimited power as their due? Wev.

    Finally, Susan asks where was the show about the divorced mother of three who has to make do without child support or alimony: the only show I can think of was One Day at a Time, with Bonnie Franklin, Valerie Bertinelli, and Mackenzie Phillips is the closest that network TV ever came to dramatizing that kind of family. (I don’t know about child support, but the actual father was totally out of the picture IIRC, which is why they had Schneider, their apartment super, serving as the surrogate father-figure in the show.)


  19. Actually, the two-income family is more economically vulnerable than the traditional breadwinner/homemaker family, as is persuasively presented in Elizabeth Warren’s book, “The Two-Income Trap.” The gist of it is that if the breadwinner lost his job, the auxiliary homemaker was available to help the family get through by picking up some work until the breadwinner was employed again. It worked this way in my grandparents’ blue-collar household. As things stand now, most households are already utilizing all their earning power just to stay afloat in normal circumstances.


  20. Question for the academics: I’ve often wondered whether there’s a connection between the rise of second-wave feminism and the rise of economic inequality. Did women become more interested in paid employment outside the home (because women have always worked, just not always for wages) as a response to the beginning of the wage slide, or was it the other way around? Or is there no connection at all?

    As someone who grew up in the 1970s and came of age in the 1980s, it often feels to me like the cultural climate responded to the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement by basically saying, “If you’re going to make us share the goodies, we’ll make sure there aren’t as many goodies to go around, so all the groups will fight each other for a share of the diminished goody pool instead of fighting for more goodies for everyone. And by the way, we’ll elevate a few oustanding members of the disadvantaged groups here and there, to trick people into thinking this is all based on merit.”


  21. Linden– your timing doesn’t work out. Economic inequality lessened under Johnson and Nixon as women’s rights moved up.

    Economic inequality has a LOT to do with government regulations and views towards inequality and towards business. Not so much to do with women and minorities except to the extent that the pro-women and pro-minority policies decrease economic inequality (and tend to feed and educate kids).

    Additionally, prior to women’s rights, plenty of married women were working, they were just poor and lower middle class women. Married women weren’t working at the beginning of the 20th century because of marriage bars (laws) keeping them out of the labor force. (My great grandma got around that by being a divorcee/widow.)

    The one spouse doing market work picture is only a tiny blip in the history of work.

    Claudia Goldin has a fantastic book called Understanding the Gender Gap that traces the history of women and work in the US.


  22. As someone who left the humanities precisely because of the inanities presented in both this blog post and the comments that followed it, I ask the following question rhetorically: do contemporary academics in the humanities ever get tired of using the same boring categories of analysis (race, class, gender, sexual identity, subculture) and the same boring analytical frameworks (mainly drawn from irrelevant French literary criticism) to reach the same tired, patently political conclusions (capitalism = bad, whitey = bad, bourgeois values = bad, marginal peoples = good, marginal socialists = amazing, language = enslaving, knowledge = problematic, meaning = meaningless)?

    Cuz, y’know, 1990 called and wants its dogma back.


  23. Oh look! Jen Bob is visiting from Lawyers, Guns and Money now that ze gets all its posts redacted into “I am a very bad person” even though it posts under various pseudonyms.


  24. For 20thC UK history, Frank Mort has done some really interesting work on his own father, who was one of these precarious lower-middle-class types. He thinks about both the opportunities for power (as a man who was quite abusive of his family) and constraint (as someone middle-class but precarious).

    Frank Mort (1999) Social and Symbolic Fathers and Sons in Postwar Britain, Journal of British Studies, 38(3), pp. 353-384.

    On the whole ‘women manage the budget’ issue, there is a huge literature on the impact on this on familial power relationships. Much of it points out that it was in families without considerable (or any) excess income that women were given this ‘privilege’ and that it was a ‘privilege’ that came with considerable stress, as it moved the responsibility for shortfall onto women as managers, rather than men as earners. So, seeing it as a symbol of power is actually problematic or at very least speaks to a much more complex power relationship. Moreover, as Historiann points out, it didn’t change women’s social position or opportunity any.


  25. That makes me think of a financial literacy project I used to work with. Nearly all of our participants were recent Mexican immigrants. Though all the adults in the family were supposed to attend the classes, usually the men would send the women to do it, because they had the traditional arrangement of the men making the money and doling it out to the women to spend. When the women came back from the classes and starting asking the men how much money they made and where it was going so they could implement a family budget, boy did that get sticky.


  26. “The one spouse doing market work picture is only a tiny blip in the history of work.”

    I wish people would realize this. And I have a question for historians. People always tell me my family is unusual but they do not feel unusual, they just feel middle class. Is this normal at all?

    Grandmother 1: BA German UC Berkeley December 1912, teacher; stopped working to raise family, went back when widowed.

    Grandmother 2: BFA Painting Pratt Institute June 1914, teacher, artist, decorator; worked part-time while children were young; went back full time when widowed.

    Great-aunt 1: Graduated Glendale High School 1900, family crisis prevented college (to make up for which she left money for me to go to college), went to work as secretary, rose high in Social Security administration, good career.

    Great-aunt 2: Degree UC Berkeley around the time Grandmother 1 got hers; worked as elementary school teacher during college and then became public librarian; long career at this.

    Great-aunt 3: Degree nutrition University of Illinois-Urbana during World War I, was nutritionist at hospitals / for industry, long career.

    I could go on. People keep telling me this is not normal and I even had a psychotherapist tell me that it was pathological that women had been “allowed” or had “taken” so much power in my family by having these educations and careers. But their friends were the same way. Is it really true that the whole group was so unusual? I am speaking at the grandmother level, so that means 4 families not previously related to each other. ???? Must know.


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