The End of Men? Not in Alabama

Hanna Rosin, in her recent book The End of Men, says that sociologists have described the collapse of the manufacturing-based white working class but have missed how that event has had different effects on men and women:

In fact, the most distinctive change is probably the emergence of an American matriarchy, where the younger men especially are unmoored, and closer than at any other time in history to being obsolete.

This is from the chapter that was excerpted in the The New York Times Magazine. In it, she describes Alexander City, Ala.—a small town devastated by the vanishing manufacturing sector—and Auburn, Ala., the nearby success story. These towns are two sides of the End of Men—and her description of them is basically fiction.

In this fantasy, Alexander City has a “new domestic reality: the woman paying the mortgage, the woman driving to work.” Rosin writes:

‘I was born in the South, where the men take care of the women,’ [Charles Gettys, a laid off textile manager] said. “Suddenly, it’s us who are relying on the women. Suddenly, we got the women in control.’ This year, Alexander City had its first female mayor.

That last sentence is Rosin giving us the context. That spooky feeling of women encroaching, taking over: A female mayor. To help her illustrate this drama, I checked the composition of the city council for Alexander City and confirmed it. There is also a woman on the council:

But, in fact, Mayor Barbara Young does not fit the mold of the leading edge of rising women as described by Rosin. Instead, she seems more like the old-fashioned female politician: a retired school principal and widow of a judge, she is the mother of two politicians, Circuit Judge Tom Young and council member Bill Young [second from right], the latter of whom, despite a 1990s federal felony conviction, is himself  running for mayor this year.

Anyway, this collapse of man is not just limited to politics, according to Rosin. “Wherever I went in town,” she writes, “I met couples like the Gettyses, where the husband was stuck in place and the wife was moving ahead.”

She highlights another couple that fits that description, the young, unmarried Shannon and Troy. She works part-time at Walmart, studies nursing at community college and works as an exotic dancer to feed their young son. Troy sleeps till 11, except for the four days last month when he did a little work. You can tell when he’s awake because cigarette smoke starts coming out from under the door of his room in their trailer. And Troy is not the only deadbeat, unemployed man in town: According to Rosin, when he does the family’s shopping, all he sees are “aisles and aisles of dudes” at the store.

To check out this male vacuum for myself, I took a ride down the information superhighway to the American Community Survey’s 2006-2010 file. Given Rosin’s description of Troy as the typical Alexander City deadbeat, I was surprised to learn that 77 percent of Alexander City’s 20-something men are employed, compared with only 53 percent of women. In fact, the employment rate is higher for men at all ages, and the employed labor force is 53 percent male.

Alexander City is a poor place, there’s no doubt about that, and men’s earnings are especially low. More than 40 percent of men who work full-time earn less than $30,000 annually, compared with 24 percent nationally. And there are, in fact, more women than men with jobs in the $30,000-$50,000 earnings range. But look at the top of Alexander City: 70 percent of the people earning more than $75,000 are men. Overall, men’s full-time annual median earnings are about $5,000 more than women’s.

Rosin quotes the local Southern Baptist leader, who’s also beating the “matriarchy” drum. “The real issue here is not the end of men, but the disappearance of manhood.” Literally. That probably explains why there’s also one woman among city government’s department heads:

What does that one woman do? She is in charge of the city’s Senior Nutrition program. And so it begins: the matriarchy’s pedicured toe creeps a little further up the ladder.

Meanwhile, down the road is the success story: Auburn, “the one city [in eastern Alabama] that got it right.” The secret?

Auburn has become the region’s one economic powerhouse by turning itself into a town dominated by women.

Wow–dominated by women. A strong claim. What’s the evidence? Well, Rosin starts with the thing about young women earning more than young men (without even mentioning that only includes never-married, childless, full-time workers). In fact, Auburn is a “perfect reflection of the modern, feminized economy: a combination of university, service, government jobs, with a small share of manufacturing.”

She launches into an anecdote about a woman who “works in the female-dominated economic development department” (that department is actually directed by a man) and her “three best girlfriends … a consultant, a lawyer and an engineer.”

That should be enough evidence to support the “dominated by women” claim, right? But, to bring it home, she asks, “Does any place still belong to the men?” So she goes to a manufacturing plant, but even that has recently “tipped to 55 percent women.” (The city’s manufacturing industry employees are actually 32 percent female, says the Census.)

To see if “any place still belonged to the men” Rosin might have checked the Mayor and City Council…

…or the city government’s department heads…

…or, because it’s a university town, the university’s top administration and board of trustees:

I wouldn’t go so far as to say married couples in Auburn “belong to the men.” But a lot of their income does. As I showed previously, among married couples in Lee County, Alabama (home of Auburn), those with women who earn none of the family income outnumber the reverse by 32-to-1:

If Rosin really wanted to see what male domination looks like, she could have checked the five-year American Community Survey’s data and found out:

  • The city’s workforce is 54 percent male.
  • Women on average earn 71 percent of what men earn.
  • 70 percent of the people in management occupations are men.
  • Male managers earn an average 36 percent more than female managers.

Women are very sneaky, concealing their domination like that.

But seriously, I do believe there is an important and interesting story to tell about what happens to gender and families when economic fortunes decline asymmetrically by gender. I’d love to read that book.


Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, where his research concerns inequality and families. He is at work on a family sociology textbook, and he writes the Family Inequality blog.