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Reviving the feminist mystique

page two

Who speaks for feminism?

While many egalitarian-minded men and women share Hirshman's sense of urgency about the scarcity of women in corporate and political leadership, it's legitmate to question whether the author's standpoint in Get To Work is more authentically feminist than other feminist positions, including the proposition that woman's right to self-determination extends to the right to decide which relationships and activities give her life meaning. At a minimum, Hirshman has an unconventional understanding of the ideological grounding and conflicts of second wave feminism. In her version of events, Betty Friedan was the one true radical of the women's movement -- and things were going just fine until Gloria Steinem derailed the whole affair by mass-marketing feminism as a human rights issue. Originally, Hirshman writes

[F]eminism was defined by the campaign for rights and opportunities, because women had very few of either, and very few choices… and Friedan was the trumpeter, calling women to choose something different for themselves. …In those decades, women were finding ways to choose paths that increased their power and status in society. But the feminist movement couldn't hold on to this important goal -- and this was its critical failure.

Feminist historians might be surprised to learn this, because primary sources from the women's liberation movement provide a raft of influential theoretical writings by anti-establishment, anti-racist, anti-elitist feminists who defected from the male-dominated New Left in the mid-1960s. These young activists were not interested in making minor adjustments to the patriarchy and rejected the fledgling NOW and Friedan as too mainstream (the actual term they used was "bourgeois," although there was more crossover between NOW and women's liberation groups than is often thought). Radical feminists were not especially unified in their approach, and infighting among women's liberation groups is legendary. But all agreed that women's emancipation would require a complete restructuring of the social order. If radical feminists had succeeded in their bid for social transformation, women today would be eating the rich, not trying to emulate them. We'd also have universal health care and wages for housework.

On the other hand, radical feminists were not afraid to ostracize women if they failed to live up to the collective ideal. Some of the most capable leaders and communicators of the women's liberation movement were openly scorned for being personally ambitious or status-seeking, making politically incorrect remarks in public, and coming out as bisexual instead of lesbian. Nor were radical feminists reluctant to put pressure on men, or to classify all men as oppressors of women. "We reject the idea that women consent to or are to blame for their oppression," reads the Redstockings' 1969 Manifesto. "Women's submission is not the result of brainwashing, stupidity, or mental illness but of continual, daily pressures from men. We do not need to change ourselves, but to change men."2

Hirshman, however, is convinced feminism lost its radical edge when it "expanded to embrace every oppressed group" -- and it's clear from her directives that she believes the only oppressed group that really counts is women of the ruling class. "If the women's movement wanted to make a difference in the lives of women, it would focus on one issue that it could win and which could form a base for a whole new movement" (italics in original). Hirshman's pick? An all-out campaign to eliminate the tax penalty on secondary earners in married couples. That this enterprise would do little to improve the economic status and work opportunities of unmarried women, single mothers, poor women, and women in same sex couples is apparently of no consequence. Feminism, Hirshman declares, must "return to its roots in the value of a flourishing life of women:"

Organized feminism should say: …We think the educated middle-class women who were always the core of the feminist movement should seek and keep the interesting, well-paid jobs that middle-class men have. We think they should not marry and have babies unless they have a clear bargain with the men involved that the men will pull half the weight of the household all the time.

So forget about lobbying for paid leave and part-time parity, closing the wage gap, and challenging workplace discrimination against men and women with family responsibilities. "If feminists really wanted to help you," Hirshman contends

NOW would produce a survey of the most common job opportunities for people with college degrees, along with the average life time earnings from each job category and the characteristics such jobs require… The survey would ask young women to select what they are best suited for and give guidance on the appropriate course of study.

And once that's taken care of, Hirshman recommends that feminists give Latina moms a good talking to, because demographers suspect an increase in the Hispanic population and the family-centric culture of Latino communities has contributed to a decline in the number of mothers who return to the paid workforce within 12 months of giving birth. "It is meaningful if feminism failed to convert new immigrants to a pre-existing norm of women working… If feminism is not affecting Hispanic mothering patterns, those are data we need to have." Or perhaps the rest of us have something valuable to learn from Latina mothers, since compared to other women living in marginalized communities, their babies have exceptionally low rates of infant mortality.

Hirshman is badly out of touch -- not only with the core values and objectives of leading feminist organizations, but in her overestimation of the influence of feminist ideology on women's behavior, now and in the past. She also misjudges the complacency of the average feminist, complaining that as long as feminists tolerate women who demonize day care and "believe that you should give up everything but the food in your mouths to stay home," groups like NOW might as well stop fighting for equal pay and such. It could be that feminists are already aware that the strategy of imposing values on other women is unproductive and likely to breed resentment -- quarreling over whose feminism is the most feminist feminism has forever bogged the movement down. Feminists also recognize that for centuries, women have had other people telling them how they ought to fulfill their obligations to society and what a fully-flourishing life for women looks like, and have reached the point where they believe they have the right to figure it out for themselves.

In any case, the only women likely to be swayed by anything feminists have to say are those who consider themselves feminists. By all accounts, this population is dwindling and does not necessarily include the women Hirshman intends to reform. In a 2001 survey, only 9 percent of a nationally-representative sample of women had a "completely positive response" to the word "feminist," and 55 percent had a "mostly positive" response (which makes my little feminist heart go pitty-pat). However, only 21 percent acknowledged that "being a feminist" was a "very important" aspect of their identity (whereas women were most likely to report that "being a mother" was a core part of their identity). African-American women (39 percent), Hispanic women (35 percent) and women who had not attended college compared to those who had (24 versus 17 percent) were more likely to say that being a feminist was important to their identity. The same survey found that women favoring a revival of the women's movement (63 percent) feel it's more important to "change the way society treats women" (39 percent) than to "change the way women feel about themselves" (24 percent) or "change the way women and men relate to each other" (17 percent). A small fraction (8 percent) agreed the main focus of the women's movement should be "changing the way women relate to one another," which I guess could include some women telling other women to buck up and "get to work."3 These survey results are generally compatible with the findings of a 2004 study of data collected in two major U.S. population surveys, which found that between 25 and 30 percent of women born between 1946 and 1978 describe themselves as feminists. Women with lower family incomes and more education, and who were politically liberal and less religious were more likely to identify with feminism. 4

Having one-in-four American women in the feminist camp is nothing to sneeze at, although some of us are getting a bit long in the tooth. But these reports suggest the vast majority of American women might be more than a little resistant to feminists bossing them about their work and family arrangements, and a sizable minority is already indifferent or hostile to the aims of the organized women's movement. Will browbeating upper-middle-class women to comply with unpopular feminist dogma push the women's movement to the next stage? It's possible. But I doubt it.

In The Second Stage (1981), Betty Friedan suggested the next leap forward for feminism was to affirm reproductive differences between men and women, build bridges with traditional women's organizations and faith groups to obtain parental leave and child care for all, and "get off the pornography kick and face the real obscenity of poverty." Although Friedan was roundly criticized by movement ideologues for her views, she was concerned that encouraging women to adapt to male-defined models of status and success had backfired, and ventured that women who attained positions power and influence might start acting more like men -- that is, more interested in protecting their own gains than in helping other women. The feminine mystique, Friedan feared, had given way to a "feminist mystique," the myth that women could simply step out of the gender roles previously prescribed for them and achieve equality by taking on the gender roles previously reserved for men. Friedan was not alone in her misgivings; as she quotes from a 1980 commentary by Ellen Goodman,

Throughout the 1970s we argued about what kind of equality we wanted. Did we want equal access to the system or the power to change it? Can you change the system only by becoming part of it? Once you are in it, does it change you instead? ...We discovered that it is easier to fit in than restructure. When the "male" standard is regarded as the "higher" standard, the one with the most tangible rewards, it is easier for women to reach "up" than to convince men of the virtues of simultaneously reaching "down."...It is simpler to dress for success than to change the definition of success...

Betty Friedan knew something else. She realized the rapid advances secured by second wave activists were only possible because even before she gave voice to the problem that had no name, "the feminine mystique was obsolete:"

We had to fight for our equal opportunity to participate in the larger work and decisions of society and the equality in the family that such participation entails and requires. This was the essence of the women's movement -- the first stage. It happened, not because I or any other feminist witch somehow seduced otherwise happy housewives by our words, but because of evolutionary necessity. Women could no longer live out an eighty-year life span as childbearers, wives and mothers alone.

how should we measure women's progress?

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