Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide

Maureen Dowd

The conspicuous rise to power of Harriet Miers, President Bush’s latest Supreme Court nominee, could leave any Harvard woman unnerved. If an ambitious female seeks professional success, must she really follow Miers’ path: no husband, no children, and fawning notes to the boss for his birthday?

If Harriet Miers represents the Dilemma of the 21st Century Woman, who better to weigh in on the dilemma than Miers’ most caustic critic, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd? In her new book, “Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide,” Dowd grapples with (and documents) the conflicting demands of work, romance, and family, all against the backdrop of a less-than-hospitable cultural climate. As Dowd writes, “Feminism lasted for a nanosecond, but the backlash has lasted 40 years.”

Dowd writes her second full-length book in much the same style as her columns—part musing, part science, part incisive analysis, with short sentences and her signature biting wit. And like her twice-a-week column, “Are Men Necessary?” is intensely personal. She reveals her own anxiety through casual references to her own dating woes and the advice offered by her mother. The first section of the book is dedicated not to the discussion of whether men are “necessary,” but how women are taught to behave in order to land a man. She offers advice to men who “date down,” while taking perplexed jabs at women eager to “jump off the fast track and shimmy down the aisle.”

Despite the pop-culture bent of the book, Dowd avoids the trap of writing in the tone of a half-baked Cosmopolitan column. She artfully weaves together facts, studies, and thoughts from friends and celebrities. She scathingly mocks women who bow to the cult of plastic surgeons, men who cannot admit to themselves that they are intimidated by powerful women, and anything and everything “retro.” Behind the catty banter and constant references to “The Stepford Wives” and “Sex and the City,” Dowd is posing a more serious sociological question: What is progress? And have we achieved equality only to throw it all away?

Some parts of Dowd’s book might make University President Lawrence H. Summers proud: she accepts that there are innate differences between men and women. Dowd elaborates on the idea that men may not be best-suited for positions of high authority, pointing to “Rummy’s hot flashes” and other Bush administration pettiness as evidence of Y-chromosomal moodiness.

Speaking of the Y chromosome, Dowd smirks, it’s floundering. If modern research is to be trusted, men may soon be as superfluous as an appendix. Dowd uses politics as a lens to examine the evolutionary disadvantages of the Y chromosome, thus getting to the titular topic of her book, even if parenthetically.

Dowd further dives into subjects ranging from the over-prescription of antidepressants to lying politicos to her experience as a reporter and columnist. What is it, she asks, that has brought women back to their pre-feminist roots—or did the feminist movement itself create the current paradigm? How can a modern woman cope with the conflicting demands of biology, social pressure, and ambition? Dowd may not propose any real solutions, but she does lay out the conundrum with panache, pace, and page-turning wit.

Of course, she is most comfortable when talking politics, but it is her writing on dating and the perplexing rules of attraction that feels the most like a glimpse—or a long stare—at Dowd herself, in all her vulnerability. According to Dowd—and her friends—“disturbing the dating ritual leads to chaos.” Men prefer “malleable” women: “If there’s one thing men fear, it’s a woman who uses her critical faculties.” (On the contrary, Summers–as his recent marriage engagement demonstrated–likes smart women, but fears critical Faculties.) Men prefer women who make less money than they do. Men feel threatened when women pay, while women are offended when they are expected to go dutch. Men will flee at the sight of a large paycheck, or a large brain.

It remains to be seen, though, what a man would do if he saw Dowd’s book laid confidently on a woman’s nightstand.

—Staff writer Rebecca D. O’Brien can be reached at robrien@fas.harvard.edu.