Finished #reading The Last Men on Top, by Susan Jacoby.
This is a “Kindle Single” I bought ages ago but hadn’t got round to reading. It consists of three essays previously published by Jacoby looking at what she calls “the grateful generation”: the generation of men born between 1910 and 1935, the last generation of men to reach maturity before the arrival of “second-wave” feminism; the men depicted (and simultaneously glorified and demonised) in Mad Men.
Essentially, Jacoby’s argument is that the old pre-feminist order, in which (at least for those in the middle class) the expectation was that the man would work as sole breadwinner and the woman would stay at home raising the children, was damaging for men as well as women. This is her father’s generation, and in the first two essays Jacoby depicts how unenviable her father’s life “on top” was - though equally how crushing things were for her mother, forced to abandon her career when she became pregnant, spending years drinking too much in the afternoons out of sheer boredom. A further essay, “Phallocrats”, highlights the damage caused to many relationships by the mutual ignorance of men and women of the “grateful generation” about sex, especially female sexuality.
Jacoby is not romanticising the era of the “last men on top”: there was an undoubted bonus to being born a white man, and many men exploited this at the expense of the women around them. But, she argues in a closing reflection, this was also the generation that started to put their daughters, as well as their sons, through university, and to give young women jobs that would have been as solely for men at the start of their own careers. I suppose her position can be summed up as: “don’t hate the player, hate the game.”
When you are always supposed to be the one on top, there is never any time for rest. It is no denial of feminism, or of the wrongs that women endured, to look back in sympathy at the imperfect efforts made by men of another generation to cope with unsettling change in what were supposed to be the best years of their lives. Let us now take a moment to praise these not-so-famous men, who tried, as best they could, to meet the future instead of to stubbornly keep their gazes focused on the past.