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The New Girl Order

Our big push to give girls the same opportunities as boys has paid off, with a vengeance

Everyone knows why HBO’s Sex and the City is so popular, even in reruns: sex, glamour, and wit. But less noticed is another striking attraction of the series: it has the most highly educated, professional characters of any situation comedy in television history. These strivers, every one a woman, include a lawyer (Harvard J.D.), a journalist, a public relations executive, and an art gallery manager (Smith B.A.). True, Sex and the City is “just a television show,” and a fantastically mythical one at that. It trades in overripe fantasies about the sweetness of female friendship and how many four-hundred-dollar shoes you could enjoy on a journalist’s salary. Nonetheless, it captures what has been a fundamental truth since the 1990s: girls rule.

For the first time ever, and I do mean ever, young women are reaching their twenties with more achievements, more education, more property, and, arguably, more ambition than their male counterparts. Throughout human existence, men had been the ones holding the jobs, the degrees, the money, the power, the independence, and the expectation for action on the public stage. Now men have met their match—in many respects, their superiors. While women of middle age tend to be a rare breed in corporate boardrooms, in the partner offices at law firms, and in the higher echelons of the financial world, their daughters, granddaughters, and younger sisters seem headed for a vastly different future, one in which they might even have to worry about a shortage of eligible males. This is what I call the New Girl Order.

Between 1975 and 2006, the percentage of women with at least a college degree increased from 18.6 to 34.2 percent. Men barely budged: their numbers went from 26.8 percent to 27.9. And women are not just getting their parchment from Podunk U. They have joined, and in many cases taken over, the country’s elite schools. By the class of 2008, they dominated at Harvard; they’ve ruled for years at Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia.

Nor are these prestigious institutions merely being politically correct in welcoming so many female students. Women are taking over because they have the right stuff. According to the College Board, girls make up the bulk of those who take AP exams. And the average SAT-taking girl who graduated from high school in 2007 had a grade point average of 3.40, compared with the average boy’s 3.24. Go to a high school graduation; you’ll notice that when it comes to the class president, the valedictorian, the achievement awards, and honor societies, it’s girls, girls, girls.

Once they are in college, women work harder and outperform men. They spend more time studying and reading than their male counterparts, contribute more to class discussion, and have more frequent communication with faculty, according to Indiana University researchers. And they’ve been storming majors in formerly “male” terrain. The National Center for Education Statistics has observed a disproportionately large increase in the share of degrees in life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering earned by women. Here’s a commonplace observation from a professor at a northeastern university, recounted by the journalist Barbara Dafoe Whitehead: “The men come into class with their backward baseball caps and the ‘word processor ate my homework’ excuses. Meanwhile, the women are checking their day planners and asking for recommendations for law school.”

After they graduate, young women stay on the fast track, as Catalyst, an organization that documents women’s representation in the workplace, has shown. In 1960, women made up 6 percent of doctors and 3 percent of lawyers; today, the numbers are 49 percent and 47 percent, respectively. Some projections have it that they will be 70 percent and 60 percent, respectively, of those populations by 2050. Overall, 139 twenty-five- to twenty-nine-year-old women hold advanced degrees for every 100 men of the same age group. It’s gotten so that in some postgraduate programs, administrators have to scramble for male students. Here’s a familiar sort of story from Ronald Bailey, a science writer for Reason:

A few years back, a friend who teaches in a graduate political science department at a prominent university told me that the women who applied to his school’s program were so much more qualified than the male applicants that if all applicants were selected solely on the basis of academic merit, no men would be admitted to the program. That would be fine with my friend except for the fact that highly qualified women will not attend a program that is all female. Thus this program actually engaged in what amounts to affirmative action for males in order to attract and keep highly qualified female students.

The practical corollary to all this education is that young women are finally earning more than men. Andrew A. Beveridge, a demographer at Queens College, has found that in New York, women between twenty-one and thirty make 117 percent of what their male peers make; in Dallas, the number is 120 percent. And a new market research analysis of two thousand communities has found that unmarried, childless women are out-earning men in 147 out of the 150 largest cities.

How did such a revolution occur? People generally give two related answers: the pill, because it delayed child rearing, and feminism, because it celebrated the idea that women should seek fulfillment through work. But there’s more to the story than that.

Let’s start with the pill. For all of its profound impact, this development was actually the culmination of a long series of inventions that freed women from an existence defined by the reproductive imperative. Consider one moment during the mid-nineteenth century, a period of rapid discovery and change. In the late 1830s, after years of obsessive tinkering and financial hardship, a small businessman by the name of Charles Goodyear discovered that if he added sulfur to India rubber he could increase its strength and flexibility. Goodyear patented the process—known as vulcanization—and it was quickly used to make life preservers, shoes, and shirring for clothing, including fashionable ruffles for men’s shirts. It also became an ideal material for contraceptive devices.

Condoms had been around for centuries, of course, but made of animal intestines and unprocessed rubber, they were of poor quality—easily punctured, brittle in cold weather, and meltable in the summer. Just as significantly, they were expensive. With vulcanization and better manufacturing processes, condoms and diaphragms, or “womb veils” as they were called at the time, became both more reliable and considerably cheaper. By the 1870s, working men and women could go to the pharmacy and pick up a dozen condoms for a dollar or two. The effect on society was dramatic. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, white women who managed to live until menopause had an average of seven children. By 1900, the number had almost been halved: 3.56. Most of that decline came about between 1840 and 1880, the years that cheaper contraception was reaching the mass market, as the historian Janet Farrell Brodie writes in Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth Century America.

And when it comes to technological progress easing the lives of women, better birth control was only the beginning. The economists Stephania Albanesi and Claudia Olivetti describe the severe health risks that accompanied pregnancy and childbirth at the start of the twentieth century: septicemia, toxemia, hemorrhages, and obstructed labor “could lead to prolonged physical disability and, in the extreme, death.” The single, childless woman was affected, too, since she would be expected to help her mother, her aunts, or her sisters—and their children. The plagues only eased once innovations such as antibiotics and blood banks came into wide use.

Meanwhile, science and technology were drastically reducing the burdens of household labor. In 1900, few homes had electricity, and only about a quarter of all households had running water. In this environment, American women did what women—single and married—had always done: cooking, making and cleaning clothes, hauling water, and the like. But by the early twentieth century, these burdens had begun to diminish markedly. First came central heating, relieving families of the need to gather wood and coal. Then there was indoor plumbing—running water and household toilets. And finally electricity, which eventually led to sewing machines, washing machines, refrigerators, electric irons, vacuum cleaners, and, in recent memory, microwaves.

Progress in textile production was another boon. This story goes way back, beginning in the eighteenth century, when prefabricated cloth first came to the marketplace, but it continues into contemporary times. The mid-nineteenth century saw the invention of the sewing machine, and by the later years of that century, relatively inexpensive men’s clothing was available. Ready-made clothing for women came along shortly afterward. And as the twentieth century progressed, discount stores arrived on the scene, with the result that women no longer needed to make their families’ clothes to save money.

The point here is that by the mid-twentieth century, a woman reaching age twenty found herself living in an utterly reshaped habitat, free from sepsis, unplanned children, sewing, bread-baking, arduous trips to the river or well, and the travails of caring for ailing sisters and aunts. Over the past hundred years, women had gradually grown accustomed to the idea that they could plan their lives, and by 1970, with the birth control pill available at a nearby pharmacy, the change in their outlook was just about complete.

The feminism that took root around the same time was in large measure a response to the new reality. Now that it was feasible, women wanted power and independence, including, if they so chose, independence from husbands. And so they did choose. The percentage of women in the labor force, according to the Census Bureau, rose from 33 percent in 1948 to 59 percent in 1995, more or less where it stands today, with the most rapid growth occurring between 1975 and 1985.

Middle-class parents who came of age during this period had bigger plans for their girl children than just a nine-to-five job and a steady income. Starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, these aspirations led to what Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, in her book Why There Are No Good Men Left, calls the Girl Project. Boomer mothers and fathers poured their considerable energies into preparing their daughters for the world that their own generation had created. The girls would be powerful, confident, ambitious, and strong. No more “future wives and mothers” talk. No more relying on husbands as breadwinners. The gung-ho spirit of the Girl Project was captured by the Girl Scouts’ new motto: “It’s a girl’s life. Lead it.”

The Girl Project got its first boost a good decade before today’s young women were born, when in 1972 Congress passed Title IX of the Education Amendments. Title IX outlawed discrimination against girls in any school receiving federal aid, and quickly enough, that was translated into a requirement to equalize school spending on sports for girls and boys. Title IX turned out to be a fantastically successful feat of social engineering. By the mid-1980s, team sports had become as obligatory a part of American girlhood as it had been of American boyhood.

Fathers, especially, were instrumental in translating Title IX into the middle-class lifestyle known as “soccer parenting.” Sports, they realized, promoted the strengths their girls would need to make it in a competitive marketplace: discipline, courage, and a rivalrous spirit. Dan Kindlon, a Harvard psychologist who has written about coaching his daughter’s softball team, describes how at first his athletes “shrieked hysterically” every time the ball came in their direction. Determined to “coach them like men,” he announced that anyone who shrieked would be required to run laps. The noise stopped, and the girls were gradually transformed into eager and tough competitors.

The Girl Project proved amazingly successful. By large margins, young women today say it is very important that they be “economically set” before they consider getting married, according to a report from the University of Virginia. And the psychologist Jean Twenge looked at 165 studies undertaken between 1931 and 1995 and found a steady rise in female assertiveness. During that time, women grew far more likely to value such stereotypically masculine traits as forcefulness, ambition, and self-reliance. In his own study, Kindlon labeled “the new American girl” the alpha girl and discovered her to be “talented, highly motivated, and self-confident.”

Oddly, a lot of experts didn’t notice the emergence of the alpha girl. Throughout the 1990s, academic and pop psychologists warned the public about an epidemic of passivity and low self-esteem among young women. The leader of the pack was Carol Gilligan, coauthor of the 1992 Meeting at the Crossroads, a book that started a revolution in female psychology. Gilligan argued that until they are about seven or eight years old, girls are at ease with themselves and project “authentic voices.” As they grow into adolescence, however, the adult world “silences” them, subjecting them to “the tyranny of the nice and kind.” By 1994, Meeting at the Crossroads had a companion piece in Mary Pipher’s bestselling Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, which describes America’s “girl-destroying” culture. There were many other books in the same vein: Myra and David Sadker’s Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls, Peggy Orenstein’s Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap, Barbara Mackoff’s Growing a Girl: Seven Strategies for Raising a Strong, Spirited Daughter.

Failing to recognize the signs that young women were already on academic and psychological steroids, legislators and policymakers took their cue from the backward-looking experts. Girls needed more attention, more encouragement, and more ambition, they agreed. The year 1994 saw the passage of the Gender Equity in Education Act, which provided extra funds for educators to help girls succeed. College scholarships especially for girls sprouted up everywhere. Meanwhile, textbook companies banned pictures of housewives and nurses from their pages and scanned history for heroic female role models. The project was successful enough that after looking over history textbooks of the time, the education researcher Sandra Stotsky wrote—and not in jest—“Students may end up thinking that the West was settled chiefly by females, most often accompanied by their parents.”

Marketers quickly saw what was happening and gave the new zeitgeist a name. They called it girl power. Here were middle-class parents—in other words, doting mothers and fathers with discretionary income—looking for ways to bolster their daughters’ self-esteem. Here were girls, typically more appearance-conscious than their brothers, who were being encouraged to “express themselves” and to believe, in the words of the title of a popular book, that Girls Know Best. If you’re a marketer, what’s not to love?

Novelty companies started producing T-shirts saying “Girlmogul” or “Supergirl,” as well as “Girls Are A-Mazing” clocks, pillows, jewelry, magnets, journals, and backpacks. Marketing gurus began speaking of a new demographic: the tween. Female tweens were especially appealing to fashion and cosmetics companies who appreciated the commercial possibilities of girl empowerment, including, to many parents’ horror, thongs and other kinds of “stripper wear” for eleven-year-olds. Most companies were more tasteful. The venerable Cleveland-based cosmetics firm Bonne Bell advertised its lip gloss with the words “I know I will succeed” next to a photo of a pretty young thing. The ad included a list with checkmarks next to each item: “I have a brain. I have lip gloss. I have a plan. I have a choice. I can change my mind. I am a girl.”

Also alert to the rise of girl power were television and movie producers. They brought a new kind of girl to the screen: self-confident, independent, smart, mouthy—and a kick-ass fighter. By elementary school, Disney-watching millennials could cast off Cinderella and Snow White in favor of the warrior girls Pocahontas and Mulan. In the mid-1990s, the campy Xena: Warrior Princess became the country’s number-one syndicated show. A few years later, the Cartoon Network introduced The Powerpuff Girls (the creator Craig McCracken originally called it “The Whoop-Ass Girls”), giving kindergarten femmes superpowers; it was a huge hit both on the small screen and in toys and accessories at Toys “R” Us.

The future citizens of the New Girl Order had new grown-up role models on the big screen as well: the sweaty Ripley, played by an Amazon-like Sigourney Weaver, in the Alien movies; muscular Sarah Connor in Terminator; the spit-and-polished Demi Moore in A Few Good Men; and the police detective played by Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs. Meanwhile, the music world generated its own powerful females: the Spice Girls, Madonna, and Alanis Morissette, and, for more indie types, Liz Phair and the Riot Grrrl crowd. Girls’ magazines spoke the language of empowerment, too. They included Sassy, the brainchild of the forcefully hip editor and talk show host Jane Pratt, and YM, a magazine that ran a section called “Girl Zone: Your Guide to Kicking Butt.”

Determined to have their daughters keep their eyes on the prize—the Big Career—some parents banished the word “marriage” from the young millennial vocabulary. Beautiful Bride Barbie? Not in our toy box, thank you very much. Writes one columnist for Britain’s Sunday Times:

No one, not my family or my teachers, ever said, “Oh yes, and by the way you might want to be a wife and mother too.” They were so determined we would follow a new, egalitarian, modern path that the historic ambitions of generations of women—to get married and raise a family—were intentionally airbrushed from their vision of our future.

While some people asked whether girls were cracking under the strain of high expectations, another question was neglected: Where do boys fit into the girl-powered world?

Even clueless boys might have noticed that by the 1990s, America had a favorite child, and the name of that child was Samantha, Megan, or Jessica. Money poured in to bring girls’ science and math scores up to par with boys’; as for boys’ lower reading scores, well, it seemed Americans could live with that. “There’s even a sense,” mused a 2003 BusinessWeek cover story, “that today’s boys are a sort of payback generation—the one that has to compensate for the advantages given to males in the past.”

There was the Women’s College Coalition, which “makes the case for women’s education to the higher education community, to policymakers, to the media, and to the general public,” but no Men’s College Coalition anywhere to be found. Here’s the University of Michigan economist Mark J. Perry after chronicling the college and postcollegiate gender gap: “There are hundreds, if not thousands, of University and College Women’s Centers across the country. . . . A Google search of ‘College Women’s Centers’ finds almost six thousand links on the Web. A Google search of ‘College Men’s Centers’ finds almost no links on the Internet (fewer than ten), and asks the question, Did you mean: ‘College Women’s Centers’?”

The success of young women has come with an air of celebration and entitlement and quite a few assertions of female superiority. “Girls Rule, Boys Drool” say the girls’ T-shirts, posters, and skateboards. Watching television, boys—and men—are frequently reminded of their sex’s genetic stupidity, insensitivity, and general cluelessness. There is Lisa Simpson, smart, studious, and sensitive. And then there is her brother Bart, “an underachiever and proud of it.” On Xena: Warrior Princess, men were portrayed, in the words of one commentator, as “unreconstructed dirt and stubble-covered barbarians with matted hair and really bad teeth who travelled in packs torching everything in their path.” “Testosterone is a great equalizer,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “watcher” tells her. “It turns all men into morons.”

Arguably, this is all in fun. Or you could say that the culture of male privilege is so powerful that it can’t hurt for boys to be pulled down a peg or two. But neither of those points should make anyone sit comfortably with the growing evidence that Americans now like girls better than boys. In a 2009 article in Elle, Ruth Shalit Barrett uncovered a contemporary trauma she calls “Gender Disappointment,” suffered by mothers of sons who desperately want a daughter. And Barrett’s evidence is not merely anecdotal. Seventy-one percent of American families who use MicroSort—a company that claims to be able to sort sperm to increase your chance of getting the gender you want—want a daughter. “The era of wanting a first-born male is gone, not to return,” Barrett quotes the founder, Ronald Ericsson, M.D., as saying. Girls “can do everything a boy can do, plus you can dress them up. It’s almost like, to fit in, you need to have one.”

In the rush to girl power, parents, educators, and policy elites were slow to notice that while girls were getting the attention they needed, boys were evidently not. Throughout their childhood and adolescence, boys are significantly less engaged in school than girls. They read far less, and they are more likely to arrive at school without their books and with incomplete homework, and—outside of sports—to avoid extracurricular activities. While the percentage of women completing college has soared over the past decades, men’s numbers have stalled. Fifty years ago, the proportion of men with college degrees was higher in the United States than anywhere in the world. Today, American men in their twenties and thirties rank only ninth worldwide. Yet as Richard Whitmire, the author of Why Boys Fail, observes, the United States lags behind other developed countries, especially the United Kingdom, in addressing or even acknowledging this boy problem—despite our apparent obsession with educational progress.

Feminists, meanwhile, worry that if we pay more attention to boys we will take our eyes off girls. They observe, correctly if inadequately, that girls continue to lag in the scientific and technical fields that will produce many of the best jobs of the future. At the more extreme end, they might even believe we shouldn’t worry about the boy problem since boys have already had their time in the sun.

But think outside the zero-sum game of current gender politics and it becomes clear that the boy problem is also a girl problem. Surveys tell us that while girls and young women want the careers we’ve prepared them for, they also want to marry and have children. And they want these things a lot. The figures tell us that a growing number of them are going to be disappointed. Among twenty-three-year-olds—people of an age to begin looking for a mate—there are 164 women with a college degree to every 100 men. Perhaps some of them will marry less educated men. But if history is a guide, most will not. Some will decide to become single mothers. That may seem a fine product of liberation, but ironically, given the unliberated laws of space and time, those single mothers will not be competing on an equal footing either with men or with their married peers.

For all its revolutionary potential, the New Girl Order can’t change the fact that the sexes are interdependent. Now it’s up to us to give boys their turn to catch up.

Adapted with permission from Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys, By Kay Hymowitz. Available from Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2011.

Kay Hymowitz, J73, who is the William E. Simon fellow at the Manhattan Institute, writes about American childhood, family, and culture as a contributing editor of City Journal. She has also written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. The current article is adapted from her latest book, Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys (Basic).

  © 2011 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155