The Atlantic, America’s oldest continuously published magazine, is also one of its most distinguished, having published everyone from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau to John Updike and Christopher Hitchens. When the magazine was established in 1857, its founding editor, James Russell Lowell, promised that “The Atlantic Monthly will be the organ of no party or clique” and vowed to publish writers of different perspectives. By most counts The Atlantic has succeeded in doing just that. However, as with most establishment, general-interest publications, early contributors were—with some notable exceptions (Edith Wharton, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Emily Dickinson among them)—mostly male. The readership was also mainly male, with male subscribers outnumbering female subscribers by three to two.
Perhaps as a consequence, when it dealt with divisive cultural issues like what used to be known as the “war of the sexes,” the magazine did not seem to be particularly sympathetic to the feminist perspective. Although some women, such as Sandra Tsing Loh and Caitlin Flanagan, wrote about gender, the issues were addressed from a more conservative angle. Many of the articles, like Christina Hoff Sommers’ “The War Against Boys” (which became a controversial book in 2000), approached what many viewed as a triumphant moment for women’s rights in terms of what it meant for men, rather than its significance for women. While her call for empowerment for boys drew praise from conservatives, critics on the left were condemnatory. One of them, Karen Houppert, writing in The Nation, said, “It’s hard to tell whether Christina Hoff Sommers is the darling of the far right or whether she is doing penance for some great sin committed against her conservative brethren.”
A decade later, in July 2010, Hanna Rosin broke the mold. Rosin, who had recently been made an Atlantic senior editor, wrote an article titled “The End of Men” that expressed a very different message and inaugurated an era of major changes in the publication that has positioned The Atlantic at center stage in the national gender debate.
“The End of Men” celebrated a significant turning point: Women had surpassed men in the work force for the first time since World War II. Rosin demonstrated that, unlike Sommers, she was not perturbed by the rapid rise of women in the academy and the workplace. Rosin pointed out that by 2010, women constituted sixty percent of U.S. colleges’ graduating classes, in addition to being a majority of the work force. Rosin did not shy away from bold claims, writing: “American parents are beginning to choose to have girls over boys. As they imagine the pride of watching a child grow and develop and succeed as an adult, it is more often a girl that they see in their mind’s eye.” She backed up her article with a video online in which the Rosin family debated whether men or women are superior, with Rosin and her daughter squaring off against her husband and son.
Few were prepared for the stir that “The End of Men” caused. Of course the title was polemical, but what many commentators seemed to take offense to was Rosin’s glibness in imagining a world where men were slowly disappearing. The article drew enormous attention and attracted the most comments (3,150, to be exact) in the history of The Atlantic’s website. Reactions ranged from the disgruntled male who wrote, “Just because you met with some real bad men in your life doesn’t mean all men are the same round the world. . . . Don’t generalize based on your bitter experiences,” to a woman who wrote: “What about the I hate woman attitude and the inequalities that have been going on since the dawn of human history? Wow, a few decades where we start rising and you’re already threatened. You’re just going to have to accept that you won’t always be top dog anymore.”
The article prompted a debate at New York University, sponsored by Slate, titled “Are Men Finished?”—with Rosin taking the affirmative and Sommers arguing in favor of male longevity. The debate was the culmination of a dispute between Sommers, representing the earlier old-guard understanding of gender in The Atlantic, and Rosin, espousing the views found in the magazine today. The article also resulted in a book of the same name by Rosin, due out later this year.
The Atlantic editorial staff did not treat Rosin’s article as a one-off but rather used it as a starting point for addressing a series of related issues. Garance Franke-Ruta, who is the politics editor of The Atlantic’s website, argues: “It’s actually important also for people to write about how society is organized. We are in the middle of this unresolved social transformation, and if you are interested in thinking about American life and honest about looking at it, you can’t fail to articulate these issues.” Scott Stossel, the magazine’s deputy editor, explains: “Stuff about relations between the genders is always sexy and interesting and important. So anytime somebody stakes out a bold, broad, ambitious position on those issues, it generates a lot of attention. These ideas are at the core of how we live now, and Rosin’s article clearly drew attention and touched a nerve. In retrospect, it was smart and maybe even obvious on our part to do that piece.”
Since “The End of Men,” The Atlantic has published more than a dozen articles that address gender, from “Are Fathers Necessary?” to “The Joy of Not Cooking.” All of them featured, to some degree, comic rabble-rousing aimed at their male readers. Sandra Tsing Loh and Caitlin Flanagan, who had previously written material that sometimes seemed to pander to men, have incorporated Rosinesque language into their more recent articles.
Tsing Loh has shifted perspective from her 2008 article “Should Women Rule?” in which she sheepishly argued: “A clutch of books suggests they can’t rule like men. But there are other ways to run the world.” Now she proudly states that “The Bitch Is Back” in a piece about, of all things, menopause.
Flanagan is far more willing to cast aspersions on men. She writes in an article called “The Glory of Oprah” that Winfrey’s “understanding also accounts for the deep suspicion she arouses in so many men, who as a group tend to be wary of her, if not outright hostile. They’re not wrong to feel this way; she’s onto them. She has survived some of the worst they have to offer.”
Continuing her run of provocative feminist-leaning material, Rosin published “Primetime’s Looming Male Identity Crisis” in The Atlantic and a slew of gender-related articles for “Double X,” a section dedicated to women at Slate, where she also serves as a contributing editor.
Rosin opened the door for women willing to tackle the male establishment, but Kate Bolick barreled through it. Stossel, the assigning editor for Bolick’s article, knew that Rosin had struck a nerve and decided that dating in a post-parochial society, an issue that Rosin had raised, merited its own piece. “We realized,” he said, “that the opportunity for women to marry up is diminishing, which gave rise to a whole story unto itself. We wanted someone who was really smart and could bring a personal perspective, and Bolick was the perfect person to do that.”
In “All the Single Ladies,” published in the November 2011 issue, Bolick wrote that women no longer feel pressure to get married or to have children, and can lead interesting and meaningful lives without those conventions. She evocatively painted a picture of her own journey to this self-discovery. Bolick had always felt that the issue of gender in The Atlantic was packaged in a way that assuaged the fears of men rather than expressing the sensibilities of liberated women. She was impressed by Rosin’s piece and was intrigued by her assignment: “I brought in a lot of aspects of my life and experiences, and it became personal. As a result I decided to focus on the female aspect in the story, and I don’t really put as much emphasis on the male.”
Like Rosin, Bolick received her share of hate mail. “It was the most responded-to article of 2011 and the overwhelming initial response was from men and extremely negative,” she says. But young women in their twenties and thirties were relieved to finally see their experiences articulated, and Bolick received a flood of emails and letters of congratulations from women across the globe. “It was so gratifying and exciting. I feel like when we talk about women and men, it’s generally so polemic and unique. There isn’t a conversation that men and women can participate in that allows them to think about how they should live their lives. People in their twenties and thirties are looking at a different economic landscape than their parents, and it was comforting to know that this spoke to them.” The surge in roaring feminist-inclined articles in The Atlantic has not gone unnoticed. Jeffrey Goldberg, in his monthly humor column—“What’s Your Problem?”—commented on how he survives work at a magazine that has become so hostile to men. “I take active countermeasures to protect myself against the rampant feminization of The Atlantic,” he wrote. “For instance, I eat only what I kill, except for sandwiches from Potbelly, which are killed by someone else . . . and I [use] actual prophylaxis, in the form of a full-body condom I wear to protect myself from the effects of airborne estrogen.”
In the “Double X” section of Slate, Jessica Grose expressed displeasure with the fact that Atlantic articles written by women seemed to deal primarily with women’s issues. She pointed to the mystifying statistic that in the past twelve years only twelve covers have featured articles written by women, and of those only half didn’t relate to female concerns.
Norman Mailer, who was constantly accused of sexism, once said, “What’s the use in being a writer if you can’t irritate a great many people?” That point is not lost on The Atlantic’s editors, whose new fixation on addressing the gender debate is certain both to offend and incite their readers. Since Rosin tackled a major national trend from a feminist point of view, other women now feel that they can finally articulate social issues from their perspective in the magazine. “I think there has been a lot of late that’s interesting to do with relationships and the sexes,” says Stossel. “It’s naturally lent itself to having more women writers. We don’t just want women writing about women’s issues and men writing about foreign policy. Our goal is writing about issues that matter and are interesting to a wide array of readers. It just so happens that right now gender is something that is at the heart of the national conversation, and so we are addressing it.”
The rise of feminist-leaning articles has coincided with a female hiring surge at The Atlantic and a slow crawl up the editorial masthead by women at the magazine. Jennifer Barnett was brought in as the new managing editor in the summer of 2011, and Kate Julian, who previously ran Slate’s “Double X” section, was hired this February as a senior editor. Over at the magazine’s website, which now is responsible for more than half of the advertising revenue, many of the more high-profile jobs are now held by women. Both the politics senior editor, Garance Franke-Ruta, and the business senior editor, Megan McArdle, are female. According to Stossel, “It’s by design that we’ve sought out more female editors and a positive sea change. The gender breakdown will continue to improve.”
As The Atlantic has become a more reliable venue for informed female voices, the male readership has, counterintuitively, increased, rising from fifty-seven percent in 2009 to sixty percent in 2011. Website traffic has also increased, and unlike many floundering publications, The Atlantic has posted revenue gains for twelve consecutive quarters, with the advertising revenue jumping nineteen percent since the “The End of Men.” It seems that women now have the platform to be provocative and discuss what editors feared were only women’s issues, and male readers will not only continue to subscribe but will devour the content and respond to it.
The Atlantic’s focus on issues of gender has perhaps opened the door for a new business model. It might turn out that the best way to attract men is to feature articles sympathetic to feminist views. If the success of Rosin’s “The End of Men” proves anything, it’s that women and their issues should be more prevalent in the magazine world in order to help attract readership and increase loyalty.
In an article published in the February 1859 issue of The Atlantic Monthly (in 2007 it dropped “Monthly” from its title), a male writer imagined a world in which women had overtaken men. In “Ought Women Not to Learn the Alphabet, ” he wrote: “ ‘Earth waits for her queen’ was a favorite motto of Margaret Fuller’s; but it would be more correct to say that the queen has waited for her earth, till it could be smoothed and prepared for her occupancy. Now Cinderella may begin to think of putting on her royal robes.” It took a century and a half for Rosin to pick up on his message, but it appears that she may be the queen the unknown writer mused about in 1859. The end of men may not happen in the near future, but at The Atlantic, at least, it looks as if women are finally welcome to express their opinions.
Stossel jokes that The Atlantic will not “become Vogue in the next few years,” but clearly he sees the issue of gender as pivotal. “We want to allow for Flanagan, Tsing Loh, Rosin, Bolick and [Lori] Gottlieb to have a running debate and conversation amongst themselves in The Atlantic over the issue of gender, and we hope that it will help to broaden our audience and make them even more active.” And men appear to be listening. If nothing else, the recent success of The Atlantic may be influential enough to finally remind other publications to showcase female writers who have been ignored and held back for far too long. Virginia Woolf once wrote that “For most of history, anonymous was a woman.” To its credit, over the last few years The Atlantic has been insistent on trying to change that, and it’s profiting handsomely from it.