For men who think that feminism is a threat to the male sex, this book will open eyes and minds in the same way abolition liberated white slave-owners from their barbaric addiction to controlling other human beings against their will. And for women who see feminism as a threat to families, this book will either help relieve them of their ignorance of history, or only further convince them that a woman can have no other meaningful purpose than to bear and rear children.
This book addresses the disconnect between traditional gender roles and reality that has been building up steadily since the industrial revolution. The trend toward industrialization came to a head during WWI and especially WWII when many women worked in factories to produce munitions used by their husbands to kill. As the sudden return of men from great carnage sparked the baby boom, the notion of the "housewife" came to describe women's return to domesticity aided with a new arsenal of household gadgets and appliances. Betty Friedan wrote "The Feminine Mystique", in response to the vacuousness of this newly created paradigm of the suburban housewife paradise. Her book pointed out the absurdity of the domestic female role when modern conveniences had rendered them obsolete. Even childrearing was becoming usurped from the domain of women by the increasing institutionalization of public schools as day care centers.
A quarter century after Betty Friedan's landmark book, Barbara Ehrenreich finally gave men the same insight into how their roles have become outmoded in response to historical changes. If the feminist protest was against viewing females as mere baby-factories, this book critiques the socialization of men into being either breadwinners, or soldiers willing to sacrifice their lives in war. In a purely economic sense - with the vanishing of agriculture, women had ceased to contribute to the finances of the family as men competed in an increasingly specialized labor force. For the first time in history, in 1950's America, women had become purely concerned with reproduction thus forcing men to be even more focused on production, at the expense of leisure time. The blandness of this female domestic tranquility was matched by the sense of "pseudo" power men had over their wives as "kept" women. This books shows that the other side of the coin of feminist rage over female oppression was no picnic for men either.
Men were oppressed in an opposite but equally intolerable way. Taken to its logical extreme, the male gender role had become equivalent to greed. No other instinct could better serve a man in a world where male success was defined purely in financial terms. More so than ever, men were encouraged to be workaholic machines, denying their emotions. In this context, any sensitivity or weakness in a man was tantamount to a betrayal of his family in his role as provider. But in "The Hearts of Men", there was a longing for something deeper than the accumulation of wealth as expressed by the beat writers and 1960's counterculture. As long as a woman's place remained at home, marriage and family increasingly appeared to be a death sentence of hard labor. They rejected this heart attack-inducing life of the breadwinner. The elevation of sex and free love for its own sake in the 1960's was in part a reaction against this prostitution-like relation between the sexes whereby the husband had to pay for the privilege of having a "housewife".
This book rightly takes some of the blame for the breakdown of the family off the shoulders of feminism, and perhaps suggests that some of the blame should go to the insensitivity of American wage labor capitalism toward the personal lives of employees, in the relentless pursuit of profit over people. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in gender, history, and yes - family values.