War of the Genders

“Male Studies” is knocking at the gender door, asking to come on campus. So far, the door remains locked but the pounding is becoming louder. 

The new field is a natural reaction to what has been the gender status quo within academia for decades.    

In the 1970s, Women’s Studies emerged on American campuses to promote research into and discussion of women’s issues and history. Currently, close to 700 institutions offer women’s or gender studies courses, according to the National Women’s Studies Association. Men’s Studies wasn’t far behind; it is typically taught as a corollary to Women’s Studies because men’s liberation is viewed as a necessary and logical consequence of feminism.

Overwhelmingly, both disciplines adhere to a specific form of feminism that was labeled “gender feminism” by Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men. As Sommers observed, “somewhere along the line, conventional masculinity became politically incorrect. In some circles, it’s treated as a pathology in need of a cure.”

A foundational premise of gender feminism (and thus a premise of Men’s Studies) is that male culture or “the patriarchy” oppresses women through institutions such as the free market and through dynamics such as the social construction of gender identity. Gender is considered to be a social creation, not a biological one, and traditional masculinity is seen as inherently abusive to women.

Men’s Studies programs generally focus upon the “social construction of maleness” within a patriarchal society and issues of “male privilege.” In other words, they embrace gender feminism’s complaints—but from a male perspective.

Now striding onto campus is a new development: Male Studies—a backlash against gender feminist theory and against the impact of gender policies upon male students. 

Lionel Tiger, an emeritus anthropology professor at Rutgers University, is a driving force. He argues that the biological differences between “male and female organisms” are inherent and significant. Moreover, he contends there is an “enormous relation” between biology and behavior. In short, Male Studies start with the premise that gender is biologically based even if manifestations of it are deeply influenced by culture.

Tiger further argues that Men’s Studies are “wholly owned” by gender feminism, leaving males either without representation on campus or with a faux voice that denigrates rather than champions them.

He contends that the impact of denying “maleness” has academically devastated young men in two basic ways.

First, males are now underrepresented on campuses. A 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Education found that 583,000 women were awarded associate degrees compared to 319,000 men. Approximately one million women received bachelor’s degrees compared to 700,000 men. From those data, Dennis Gouws, an associate professor at Springfield College, Massachusetts, concluded, “our education system is not supporting boys and men sufficiently, often with tragic consequences. Suicide attempts and completion rates [of suicide] among secondary- and tertiary-aged boys and men in the United States far outstrip those of girls and women.” (All of that is true, but it is hard to see how the institution of “Male Studies” programs changes any of the underlying trends.)

Second, males are academically devastated either by being excluded from curricula or by being included in a derogatory fashion. Thus the Foundation for Male Studies’ mission statement calls for “the creation of comprehensive programs and curricula at major research universities” to “address the gap in scholarship and scientific research that exists between the study of males and females.”

The foundation was created in 2010 with the goal of establishing an academic department with a tenured chair devoted to male studies. The foundation announced its presence on April 7, 2010, at a consortium held at Wagner College on Staten Island, N.Y. The assembled scholars included Sommers, Tiger and Gouws as well Miles Groth of Wagner College and Katherine Young from McGill University. Broadcasting to five continents, psychiatrist and author Edward Stephens opened the consortium by stating,

“Today, we are raising two major questions: First, what are the ethics of devoting 90 percent of academic resources to one gender? Second, what are the unintended consequences of the failure of our academic institutions to consider the twenty-first century needs of males?”

Coverage of the event by The New York Times mentioned that Groth, Tiger, and Stephens “all seem at great pains not to say anything critical about feminism or women’s studies.” Tiger insists, “I don’t think male studies has emerged from acrimony.”

But acrimony seems inevitable. For one thing, claiming that Women’s Studies receives undue resources and power is a de facto argument for redistributing resources and power away from women. Thus, campus feminists accuse Male Studies of attempting to re-establish patriarchy within academia.

The most vocal opposition, however, comes those involved in Men’s Studies; they view the foundation’s critique as a personal and political attack. For example, in refusing invitations to speak from the foundation, Robert Heasley, president of the American Men’s Studies Association, has called Male Studies “an affront” to his discipline. He also called it a “left wing/right wing” conflict in which Male Studies is taking “kind of a Glenn Beck approach.”

Whatever the truth of the politics, Male Studies is not going away quietly or soon.  A second conference is scheduled for April 6 the New York Academy of Medicine.  An academic journal is in the offing: Male Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal will be launched in 2011.

All of this is rather amusing, but will introducing yet another layer of gender analysis into academia do anything to advance knowledge? Or is Male Studies, like Women’s and Men’s Studies before it, an attempt to turn political complaints and agendas into scholarly disciplines? If the latter, then the success of Male Studies on campus is likely to result in the professorial equivalent of food fights.