There’s been a lot of chatter lately about The Problem With Men. Several books have been published that focus on the declining fortunes of American males — notably Richard Reeves’s “Of Boys and Men” and Senator Josh Hawley’s “Manhood.” As summarized by my colleagues on their new podcast, “Matter of Opinion”: Men are less likely to graduate from college now, they’re lonely, they’re more likely to die “deaths of despair,” grapple with alcohol and drug abuse, and they’re participating less in the labor market.
These are all serious problems, and I certainly think it’s fair to say that there are deep societal issues that are plaguing men, specifically. But, as Lydia Polgreen points out toward the end of the podcast, things aren’t going all that well for many American girls and women, either.
Particularly for women without college degrees — who are still the majority of adult women — the future frequently isn’t golden. While Black and Hispanic women still earn less than their white and Asian American counterparts, overall, according to Pew Research, “the pay gap between college-educated women and men is not any narrower than the one between women and men who do not have a college degree.”
While white, Hispanic and Asian American women still outlive their Black and Native American counterparts, overall, the mortality trends appear to be going in the wrong direction most starkly for non-college-educated white women. In 2012, The Times reported, researchers found that “the steepest declines” in life expectancy “were for white women without a high school diploma.” In 2019, Republicans on the Senate’s Joint Economic Committee released a report that found that “the suicide rate for middle-aged non-Hispanic white women has approached its all-time high.” In 2020, the economist Anne Case, co-author of the book “Deaths of Despair,” put it bluntly:
It is hard to exaggerate the role that deaths of despair have played in increasing women’s mortality rates. In 1992, white women ages forty-five to fifty-four without a bachelor’s degree were three times more likely to die of heart disease than from a death of despair. Now they are thirty percent more likely to die from drugs, alcohol or suicide. Beneath these deaths we document increases in pain, in mental distress and social isolation for those without a four-year college degree.
An excellent new book by Monica Potts, “The Forgotten Girls: A Memoir of Friendship and Lost Promise in Rural America,” humanizes these bleak statistics. Potts, who grew up in Clinton, Ark., traces the divergent paths of herself and her childhood best friend, Darci. The children of working-class white parents in this small Southern town, they started out together as book-loving, straight-A students.
But by the end of high school, their fates had already split: Potts got scholarships to attend Bryn Mawr and went on to establish a career in journalism, while Darci languished in their hometown, with spotty employment. Darci struggled with domestic abuse and substance abuse, and her mother ended up raising her two children.
When I spoke to Potts earlier this week, she said part of her motivation for writing the book was that the conversation about who is struggling in America had been very focused on men. For all the advances we’ve made for girls and women, Potts said, “There are a lot of communities around the country where women are still really expected to take a back seat for men,” and they’re expected to rely on men. There’s also a permissive attitude toward boys that girls don’t benefit from. “Boys could get by with anything,” one of Potts’s childhood friends tells her, “but girls were held to a higher standard.”
In “The Forgotten Girls,” Potts, who graduated from high school in 1998, describes schoolmates as young as 14 having babies, and one who got married at 15. (She had to cross the state line into Missouri, where at the time it was legal to marry at that age.) Though Potts said getting married at 15 was an outlier, it was not unusual for girls to get married and start having children in their later teens. Theirs was a conservative Christian, and judgmental, culture, Potts writes, that frowned on premarital sex even though it was as common as anywhere else in America. “As if they were living in the Victorian era,” the girls in Clinton “assumed that because they’d gone all the way with someone, they had to marry him.” Many of these young marriages didn’t work out well.
At the heart of Potts’s book is the question: Why was she able to build a thriving, financially stable life and career for herself, when so many of her counterparts, who came from the same background, weren’t? After all, Potts had a horrible family tragedy occur just weeks before she left for college, and could have easily been diverted from her path up and out. She told me she thinks that her mother, who lived in Chicago in her 20s before returning to Arkansas, and hadn’t wanted to come back, was an influence. “The whole time she was raising us, it was all about how she didn’t want us to be satisfied in life in Clinton,” she said. But her mother’s propulsion came at a cost; Potts says she missed out on relishing some joys of her hometown culture, and its natural beauty, because she was so focused on leaving.
Potts did ultimately return to Clinton, where she now lives with her partner. And after years of struggling, Darci is now sober and doing well, she says. But Potts is careful to note that there’s a dearth of opportunity in towns like hers. “The kinds of jobs available and the kinds of opportunities available are just slim,” she said. The takeaway is that problems for girls and women in some parts of America are as sticky and complicated as the problems for boys and men: They’re cultural, they’re economic, and they’re entrenched.
“The Forgotten Girls,” isn’t particularly prescriptive, which I appreciated because often the proposed solutions underplay the scale of the problems — there’s no silver bullet fix, as much as we’d like there to be one. In her book, Potts quotes Tyler Watts, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at Columbia Teachers College, who studies educational policies aimed at underserved communities, and he sums up the gravity of the issues at hand: “All of the things that are leading someone to be disadvantaged are complex, and they’re sometimes multigenerational, and they’re embedded in both the culture and the environment and personal behavior. In order to come up with a solution to it, we probably have to find an intervention that is proportionate to the problem.”
The one thing Potts said she’d like to see for kids in places like Clinton is the ability to be connected to opportunities beyond their hometowns and their monocultures. The activities and communities tended to center on sports and church, Potts told me, and there’s so much to the world beyond that. In the book, she described a lucky break she had as a high school student, attending a summer program at Barnard, which she believes opened her eyes. She wants to see more children from backgrounds like hers having access to that kind of gateway.
Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.
My 3-year-old was throwing a tantrum over not wanting to go to day care. After a few minutes of rebellion, I reminded him we don’t have other family close by (we are immigrants), so we need to help each other out, and could he at least try? He stopped his tantrum, looked at me, said, “OK mommy,” and ran to the door to head out. He makes my day, everyday.
— Marcia Okabayashi, Texas
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