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.
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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.
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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.
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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?