On Her Terms

This week fans – and alumi – of higher ed are fixated on gendered education. A Monday New York Times article describes the academic and social implications of a gender shift on college campuses, painting college women as hapless creatures subject to social subjugation by their outnumbered male peers.

Candid quotes from UNC students make college women seem like victims of circumstance, helpless to resist the whims of the boys they want to date. While it’s tempting to accept the NYT perspective as a frightening step backwards for strong femininity, we should focus on the facts: Women outnumber men in college.

This transition from what women expect from higher education presents an opportunity to learn social lessons – in both romantic and platonic relationships – that our mothers may have skipped.

Resist the temptation, upon reading some of these painful quotes, to ask: What are these women thinking? Ask instead: What did the New York Times hope to accomplish when they chose this angle?

We’ve come full circle, it seems.

Only a generation ago the oaf Homer Simpson came to represent the real American male. Where in the ‘80’s popular media still touted the “real man” head of a household, Homer Simpson illustrates an urge to poke fun at that idea in light of women’s more universally-celebrated position of household control.

Finally women have established a public position so secure that the notoriously-progressive New York Times is comfortable applying that “Homer Simpson” urge to college ladies.

Don’t panic paternally on behalf of what the NYT paints as hapless young things living — as one UNC student put it — “on men’s terms.”  Instead, rejoice in women’s presence on college campuses.  Be thrilled that young ladies’ exposure to strengthening (if painful) opportunities to build both female friendships and confidence-building decisive ability in those critical college years may well tamp this generation’s divorce rates later on.

Academically, the article goes so far as to intimate that universities have begun a cautious trend towards “affirmative action for boys.” This seems ridiculous for a split second until you hear how the NYT quotes 18-22 year old co-eds describing the social scene:

“A lot of my friends will meet someone and go home for the night and just hope for the best the next morning,” Ms. Lynch said. “They’ll text them and say: ‘I had a great time. Want to hang out next week?’ And they don’t respond.”

Even worse, “Girls feel pressured to do more than they’re comfortable with, to lock it down,” Ms. Lynch said.

Wow. So – according to the Times – who are these boys worth adopting this helpless attitude? Well, the ones with the Y chromosomes, of course.

As for a man’s cheating, “that’s a thing that girls let slide, because you have to,” said Emily Kennard, a junior at North Carolina. “If you don’t let it slide, you don’t have a boyfriend.

The NYT’s perspective reads hauntingly like the arguments a chauvinist makes to defend his position that evolutionarily — in the wild — men control the dating scene. Though more broadly it’s clear that we are not in the wild at all. Instead, we’re making a civilized choice to invest in ourselves, moving in one direction (education) at the expense of another (mating).

Indeed, just last month the same paper ran an article indicating that men prefer better educated women. Oh noes, ladies, we’re living our lives “on men’s terms” after all! Evidently even educating ourselves may prove merely a mating tactic:

An analysis of census data to be released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center found that she and countless women like her are victims of a role reversal that is profoundly affecting the pool of potential marriage partners.

“Men now are increasingly likely to marry wives with more education and income than they have, and the reverse is true for women,” said Paul Fucito, spokesman for the Pew Center. “In recent decades, with the rise of well-paid working wives, the economic gains of marriage have been a greater benefit for men.”

The analysis examines Americans 30 to 44 years old, the first generation in which more women than men have college degrees. Women’s earnings have been increasing faster than men’s since the 1970s.

In other words, women can finally have it all. We can invest at once in our ability to stay independent later on, while simultaneously gaining traction with potential mates.

Frustrating then that this week’s article paints college ladies to sound painfully insecure:

Rachel Sasser, a senior history major at the table, said that before she and her boyfriend started dating, he had “hooked up with a least five of my friends in my sorority — that I know of.”

The article’s author frames this last quote as an example of “storied relationship histories.” Well sure, but what about trusting your boyfriend to give the whole story? What about trusting your friends?

In fact, all of this perpetuates the NYT’s own buried lede, which is: Why not sell papers the old-fashioned way, by playing up the insecurities in empowerment, rather than focusing on the positive?

Indeed, even the author admits that not all women fall into these marginal categories broadly represented for the sake of creating controversy:

Many women eagerly hit the library on Saturday night. And most would prefer to go out with friends, rather than date a campus brute.

There’s an enormous gap between your average frat boy and a “campus brute.” But even this line suggests less about the reality college women face and more about the stylized slant the NYT prefers, implying that we should be concerned about the lengths to which these tender young things must go to score a date.

In fact, for all of this talk about progress it seems that those old brutish gender roles remain entirely intact. According to a recent article in the Journal of Human Capital, if men didn’t have the burden of impressing women in this brave new world (ostensibly by proving sustainable earning capability), their choices would tend much more towards the “blue collar”:

This paper examines the extent to which human capital and career decisions are affected by their potential returns in the marriage market. Although schooling and career decisions often are made before getting married, these decisions are likely to affect the future chances of receiving a marriage offer, the type of offer, and the probability of getting divorced. Therefore, I estimate a forward‐looking model of the marriage and career decisions of young men between the ages of 16 and 39. The results show that if there were no returns to career choices in the marriage market, men would tend to work less, study less, and choose blue‐collar jobs over white‐collar jobs. These findings suggest that the existing literature underestimates the true returns to human capital investments by ignoring their returns in the marriage market.

There you have it, folks. Young women would rather indulge intellectual curiosity – or establish human capital – by attending college, even at the expense of their love lives.   And men?  Men just want to play with trucks, and would prefer to marry high-earning wives who permit that.

We’ve come to dominate, ladies!  Yet — I’d thought somehow it would be sweeter than this.

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