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'Are Men Necessary?'

Times columnist Maureen Dowd raises ruckus with new book

Dowd
Maureen Dowd is best known for her twice-weekly New York Times column.

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(CNN) -- If Maureen Dowd was trying to cause controversy, she's done a good job.

Her new book, "Are Men Necessary?" (Putnam), compiles a number of her New York Times columns and new thoughts on that oldest of conflicts: the battle of the sexes.

In the book she wonders about the state of feminism, the value in pursuing a mate, the belief that smart women get left home on Saturday nights and whether women's magazines have given up thoughtful articles for beauty tips and empty sexuality.

She's obviously hit a nerve. An excerpt from the book that appeared in the October 30 New York Times Magazine was, for a time, the newspaper's most e-mailed article. On Sunday, the magazine printed 20 lettersexternal link about the piece -- six or seven times more than it ran for any of the other articles in the Dowd issue.

And those letters were passionate.

"Will someone please marry Maureen Dowd?" asked one letter writer. "She has managed to spin her inability to find a suitable mate into a national crisis."

"I sadly concur with Dowd's observations about today's young women and their feminist predecessors," wrote another.

"Maureen Dowd isn't looking at the whole picture," observed a third. "I know plenty of men who are not afraid of 'the perfume of female power.' "

"The entire article is your basic baby-boomer whine that the boomer girls didn't get everything they wanted," sneered another writer. The correspondent extended her dislike to the 53-year-old Dowd's use of the word "girl" in describing herself and her peers.

Dowd seems a bit surprised about the book's reaction -- particularly from those peers.

"I thought that men would be scared of the book, but it's women," she told Soledad O'Brien and Miles O'Brien on CNN's "American Morning" last week.

Combining politics and gender

Dowd is no stranger to upsetting perceptions -- or stereotypes. With her cutting, caustic writing style, she was one of President Clinton's severest critics during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and has been -- if anything -- even more scathing regarding the Bush White House.

She even managed to combine politics and gender in her November 5 column: "I've said it before and I'll say it again," she began. "Men are simply not biologically suited to hold higher office. The Bush administration has proved that once and for all," she continued, before firing darts at former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown, President Bush and the "Mean Girls cabal headed by Dick Cheney, Rummy and the Rummy aide Douglas Feith."

"Are Men Necessary?" (the title is a twist on E.B. White and James Thurber's 1929 work, "Is Sex Necessary?") starts with a question of genetics, Dowd told CNN.

"There's a body of evidence now that the Y chromosome is rotting at such a fast rate that it will go out of business in about 100,000 years," she said on "American Morning."

"So now that women don't need men to reproduce and refinance, the question is, will we keep you around? And the answer is," she added puckishly, "you know we need you in the way we need ice cream, you'll be more ornamental." (A Times book reviewer has noted that other research indicates the Y chromosome has stabilized.)

But Dowd also wonders where feminism has led.

"Just as there were excesses at the beginning -- the early feminists [tried] to rule out a lot of the sexuality and frivolity and, you know, they demonized Barbie and Cosmo girl in high heels and shopping and a lot of the fun stuff women like -- at the end, you know, they are equally sort of into conformity, but completely the opposite way," she told CNN's Anderson Cooper.

"The beginning was about not being a sex object, and now women are turning themselves into self-actualizing sex kittens and looking for their inner slut, and even tweens are wearing T-shirts that say, 'My Dad Thinks I'm a Virgin' and 'You Looked Hotter Online.' "

Men afraid of female power?

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Despite -- or perhaps because -- of the multiplicity of female identities, Dowd observes that, decaying Y chromosome or not, men appear afraid of female power. At the least, she suggests, they may be afraid of her and her intelligent peers. (Dowd quotes a friend, Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani, crying, "Now I'll never get a date!" after winning the Pulitzer.)

Some reviewers have questioned Dowd's theory.

"As Dowd would have it, men simply find her intelligence, her status, her wit too daunting," wrote Katie Roiphe in Slateexternal link. "But is it possible that there is something else at play? ... [A New York magazine] piece ... describes the wide variety of men Dowd has been involved with, ranging from movie stars, to important editors, to creators of television dramas. ... One imagines that her intelligence, her sharpness, her sarcasm may even have interested these men. Could there possibly be another reason that the attractive, successful Dowd has not settled down?"

Dowd said the issue isn't so black or white.

"[The book] isn't at all pessimistic about the chances of strong, successful women," she said. "The only point I make is that ... at the dawn of feminism, we assumed that having a high-power career and having, you know, snappy banter would be things that would fascinate men. And a lot of times I think it's turned out that men find those things draining and oftentimes would rather be with a woman who is in awe of them."

Despite her wonder, Dowd said she is also amused at the reaction the book has provoked.

"I've created this international kind of sensation. I'm getting calls at midnight from British reporters," she told the "American Morning" hosts. "I think a lot of these people haven't actually read it. It's a breezy, fun book that has a lot of morsels that men and women can talk about and debate."

And as for controversy?

"As a columnist that's my job. Pat Oliphant, the political cartoonist, calls it 'stirring up the beast,' " she said. "So if we can have a national conversation, that's good."

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