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Story pick: I am woman, hear me leave you in the dust

Not that human society is a contest or anything, but women are winning. What was for years characterized as a struggle for equality is quickly and quietly turning into a rout as women assume a position of economic dominance in the post-brute-strength world. Earlier this year, women became a majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. More women get college degrees and the historic birth preference for boy babies has been erased, even in some of Asia's most traditional societies. Hanna Rosin, writing in this month's Atlantic magazine, exhaustively catalogs the data and the drama behind one of the most astonishing role reversals in human demographic history.

Man has been the dominant sex since, well, the dawn of mankind. But for the first time in human history, that is changing—and with shocking speed ... Over several centuries, South Korea, for instance, constructed one of the most rigid patriarchal societies in the world. Many wives who failed to produce male heirs were abused and treated as domestic servants; some families prayed to spirits to kill off girl children. Then, in the 1970s and ’80s, the government embraced an industrial revolution and encouraged women to enter the labor force. Women moved to the city and went to college. They advanced rapidly, from industrial jobs to clerical jobs to professional work. The traditional order began to crumble soon after. In 1990, the country’s laws were revised so that women could keep custody of their children after a divorce and inherit property ... As recently as 1985, about half of all women in a national survey said they “must have a son.” That percentage fell slowly until 1991 and then plummeted to just over 15 percent by 2003. Male preference in South Korea “is over,” says Monica Das Gupta, a demographer and Asia expert at the World Bank.

In chronicling the rise of the weaker sex, Rosin, a much-missed former Washington Post reporter, zooms nimbly between the macro effects on countries that have opened their economies to women ("those societies that take advantage of the talents of all their adults, not just half of them, have pulled away from the rest") to the micro agonies of men left behind. Nowhere has the shift been more painful than among working class men, Rosin reports sympathetically, with support groups sprouting along the Rust Belt to help one-time breadwinners cope.

“They make it like I’m just sitting around,” he said, “but I’m not.” As proof of his efforts, he took out a new commercial driver’s permit and a bartending license, and then threw them down on the ground like jokers, for all the use they’d been. His daughter’s mother had a $50,000-a-year job and was getting her master’s degree in social work. He’d just signed up for food stamps, which is just about the only social-welfare program a man can easily access. Recently she’d seen him waiting at the bus stop. “Looked me in the eye,” he recalled, “and just drove on by.”

Dude, that hurts.

By Steve Hendrix  | July 13, 2010; 8:29 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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