It’s 2017, and yet women are still fighting for equality. Data suggests it will take until 2152 to close the gender wage gap, but it shouldn’t take a century to get what we want. We want more, and Refinery29 is here to help — because 135 years is too long to wait for what we deserve today.
Here’s how Stephen Marche tells the story of how his life turned upside-down: One day in his early 30s, when he was a recently tenured professor and a new father living in Park Slope, his wife, Sarah Fulford, got a phone call offering her a position as the editor-in-chief at a major magazine. She took it; he quit his job, and they moved to Canada.
Looking back, he says it was a no-brainer. On top of the fact that the gig itself was a big deal — Fulford would be named the first female editor-in-chief of Toronto Life magazine — it also meant a serious salary upgrade. Also, Canada has a lot of cool stuff that America does not, like a nationalised healthcare system and generous family leave laws. Fulford returned to work in an office, and Marche became a stay-at-home dad who wrote while his son napped or spent a few hours at government-mandated daycare — a provision to which Marche credits his career.
“It saved my life,” he said during a phone call in late winter. “It basically allowed me to take some time off and get back to work.”
But in addition to giving Marche a few hours to himself every day, Canada’s family-friendly programs also got him thinking about how policy shapes the state of gender relations in the modern era. He began researching and formulating ideas about about men and women, the result of which became a series of provocative essays on subjects like the hollow promise of the patriarchy, fatherhood after losing your own dad, and what work-life balance really means in the context of current coupledom.
In March of this year, those essays were rolled up — along with more original writing and supplementary footnotes from Fulford — into a book. The Unmade Bed: Men and Women in the 21st Century is an extremely well-researched, self-reflective, insightful, and even sometimes laugh-aloud funny book about the state of gender relations today; the collection could also serve as a sort of field guide for men looking to better understand that subject and think a little bit more about what “gender” really means right now, to themselves personally.
Unfortunately, on the day I phoned Marche, he informed me that — of the 25-odd reporters he’d spoken with about the book — not a single one of them was a man, and that while he’s pitched a column on this same subject over and over again, there’s not a men’s magazine that’s taken the bait yet. Too bad for GQ, Esquire, and Playboy, because, according to Marche, semi-hyperbolic-but-seriously, there are actual lives at stake.
Find out why — and read on for the author’s thoughts about masculine silence, “bullshit” men’s rights activism, and why anyone who thinks they deserve to have it all is on the brink of immorality. We officially think he’s onto something.
You wrote that ignoring gender is actually killing men — can you explain what you mean by that?
"There is a male mortality crisis that’s largely driven by unacknowledged sexism in men, and it’s killing them off — it’s a serious problem, and it’s not just, like, feelings. The Case Deaton report said that white male mortality rates in America have seen the greatest spike since the AIDS crisis. I really believe it has to do with [men] not dealing with their gender shit. Masculinity has been traditionally defined as not talking about things. Women have been dealing with femininity as performance forever, for at least 300 years. But men have not: Masculinity is supposed to be the opposite of that performance, so they end up not thinking about it. And then you, like, become a heroin addict. Or they drink themselves to death or get into car crashes or blow their own head off.”
So you’re saying that men keep it tamped down and that’s hurting them. But also, that decision to maintain that status quo — to not dig into your emotions and express them — becomes a choice, right?
“I mean: Men are not talking, and it’s men’s fault that they’re not talking about it. I just find the way that men talk about gender when they do talk is either, 'I’m a feminist,' which is useless, or the men’s rights bullshit, which is just bullshit. Any examination of data is not going to lead you to the impression that men are suffering from lack of access to power. But they are suffering from something else, and that’s my hope for the book: that it actually gives men a chance to talk about sexism in some third way, that could help them."
Women are talking a lot about family leave policies in America at the moment. What do we have to do to get men to do the same?
“I think it goes back to the question of not having a framework to talk about gender. There’s no way for men to insert parental leave into their desires. I also think, in every other advanced country, making demands of your workplace is not a sign of weakness. In America, a man might think, ‘Well, my employer would hate me if I made a demand for parental leave,' and everywhere else it’s like: ‘Well, that’s just too bad.’ In Germany, France, no one worries about whether their employers will think they’re valuable. Only America, with its extreme form of hyper-capitalism, would that be a worry.
"You have to understand, too, parental leave has been implemented everywhere, not necessarily because it helps men, but because feminists realised that if you make maternity leave the only option, that you inherently hurt women. By doing that, you make them lesser workers. Whereas in Canada, right now, anyone who hires a 25-year-old of either gender knows that someday they might disappear for eight months to a year, so that prejudice against young women of childbearing age doesn’t exist."
It’s also inherent that when family leave extends to both men and women, it’s no longer a women’s issue, it’s everyone’s issue.
“I don’t want to rub salt in the wound but Hillary Clinton would have done all this — she had the correct policies on this stuff, and it would have helped women and families. The tax credit thing: We tried that here, and it doesn’t work... Ivanka Trump’s kind of feminism is the enemy; I really believe it’s feminism only in name."
You’re very transparent in the book about how, when you relocated with your wife and son to Canada, there was also a major financial shift: You became the stay-at-home parent, and your wife became the primary breadwinner. But even as that setup is becoming more normalised, our cultural programming — that a man makes more money than his partner — hasn’t caught up.
“This is the heart of this book: that economics dictates everything, and then ideas catch up, feelings catch up, marriage catches up. There are a couple of things going on here: First of all, that the traditional setup is dying, and it no longer reflects reality. The other this is: What is really on the rise isn’t female breadwinners or male breadwinners, it’s companion marriage, where both parties earn money, both parties take care of the kid. Frankly, in the 21st century, it’s the only way to exist, certainly if you’re going to live in a city.
"In the past, male surgeons used to marry their secretaries. Now, male surgeons marry other surgeons — they want to marry other surgeons because, when you marry another surgeon, not only do you have a woman who is closer to who you are, they’re also bringing in a competitive income. We’re playing cultural catch-up, but the reality is: The trend of women making more money [than men] has been underway for a century — it is totally inevitable, and it doesn’t matter who is in office.
"To put it into perspective: From the period of 1980 to 1992 — the Reagan-Bush years, which have been described as the 'backlash against feminism' era — America saw the most accelerated closing of the pay gap in history. It went from 66 cents to 75 cents across those 12 years, an enormous leap forward. The power that women gained from that — everything flows from that. When women make more money, violence against women declines. When women make more money, misogynist attitudes go down. All these things fall apart, including traditional patriarchal ideas. Men taking care of children more springs from women making more money, and the continuation of that trend is inevitable, which is why I think we should be hopeful even though Donald Trump is in office."
There is a moment you highlight in the book where you essentially say that you realised you were, as you put it, your "wife’s husband." Can you break that down a little bit?
“Sarah was running her own magazine, and the reality is that is a 12-hour-a-day job, and when you’re just starting out you’re meeting everyone powerful in the city.
"So I’m the one with the boy, having pajama parties, like taking care of him when he’s sick, these sorts of things. Leaving my job in New York wasn’t a terribly hard decision — it was common sense, and the modern families I know live by economic decisions. So it’s not like: How manly are you going to feel in the relationship now, Stephen? It doesn’t matter how manly you feel! We’ve got like, $100,000 at stake! That’s all! You can pick up the pieces of your masculinity later!"
But you also allude to the fact that even though it was a common sense move, it was also tough on your relationship, right?
“Oh yeah. Whoever has the money is in a position of power that the other person isn’t. It was very fraught, and I wanted to be as honest as possible about this in the book: It was not pleasurable, to not make any money. We fought about money — a lot. There are no solutions to money and sex; if there were, we would have figured them out already. I’m in as happy a marriage as they come, and I wrote a book about it, and I still don’t understand it. No one understands this shit. Anyone who tells you they do is a fraud who wants to sell you real estate or something."
Did you learn anything new about yourself, or your marriage, while you were writing and reporting The Unmade Bed?
“There’s this moment that I believe every man in the world goes through, where your perspective shifts. Mine was: I’m on the way to a strip club for my brother’s wedding — something no one ever wants to go to because it’s this awful, bizarre ritual of masculine performance — and my wife calls me, furious that one of her bosses at work called her ‘honey.’ She’s the editor-in-chief, and I’m just livid on her behalf; I can’t express my rage about this enough. But then I realise: I’m walking into a club to pay someone $20 to dance on my lap, and it’s like, What is going on? Who is virtuous here? What am I doing? But the thing with having a male libido and wanting equality is like: Welcome to being in a contradictory place. And these contradictions come up all the time. They’re actually the substance of reality."
Let me ask you about the idea of having it all, and if that’s even possible or desirable. Are men concerned with having it all?
“I think it’s crazy to think anyone can have it all — actually, it’s borderline immoral. This is not a world where people have it all. This is a world where a lot of people can barely eat. I don’t mean to be a prick, but the whole idea seems to me an absurd, kind of luxurious question. Who could ever have it all?"
So do we just shove this book in men’s hands and demand they read it?
“Do that. Give it to the men in your life, because the women all know this stuff. The men just don’t.”
The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth About Men and Women in the 21st Century by Stephen Marche (with commentary by his wife, Sarah Fulford) was released on March 7, 2017.