Reviving the feminist mystique
Given the various social, demographic, economic, technological, environmental, political and market forces pressuring American families and workers today, is reviving the feminist mystique our best bet? Or is it possible the feminist mystique is already obsolete?
Perhaps it's useful to assess the present situation. I've already mentioned patterns of men's and women's educational attainment, labor force participation and earnings over the last four decades, and trends in women's fertility. And I've highlighted some of the common indicators of equality and wellbeing we use to measure women's progress. But other than historically high rates of families with children in which all adults work for pay, there are other unprecedented trends that might tell us whether reviving the feminist mystique is the right way to go.
Socioeconomic conditions in the U.S. are profoundly different today than they were in the peak years of the women's movement, and the predominant trend is widening income inequality. Income inequality among working Americans today is greater than the gap between the rich and poor in the year preceding the Great Depression. According to a new report from the Center for Economic Policy Research, the level of income inequality in the U.S. is more severe than levels found in all countries in Western Europe, Canada and Australia. Rates of educational attainment for the 25 to 64 year-old population in the U.S. -- including post-secondary education -- are on par with Canada and higher than in some EU countries. But scores on mathematical performance among 15-year olds are among the lowest of all OECD countries included in the study.
Another unique characteristic of U.S. society at the beginning of the twenty-first century is low income mobility -- the ability of low-income households to earn their way into a higher income status -- compared to other affluent societies where labor markets are less flexible. The occupational landscape has also changed dramatically over the last 30 years, with more jobs in the service and health care sector and fewer in agriculture and manufacturing. But according to a recent analysis, in 2004 only one out of every four U.S. workers had a "good" job -- a job that paid at least $16.00/hour with employer-provided health care and retirement benefits. The proportion of U.S. workers with good jobs hasn't changed since 1979, despite the fact the GDP per capita has grown by 60 percent and workers have more education.
Needless to say, whenever widespread social inequalities exist, they hit women, children, and people of color hardest. In fact, the latest Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that more children were living in poverty and more children were living in families where no adult has full-time, year-round employment in 2004 than in 2000. In general, national trends in children's wellbeing are no longer showing the steady improvement seen in the late 1990s.
It can be argued that as lousy as things are, these conditions don't normally affect well-educated middle-class women or their children, and there's a chance things will get better if we can convince more high-potential women to optimize their opportunities for professional advancement. Maybe when women have power, they use it more wisely or more altruistically than men do. So maybe we should follow Linda Hirshman's advice. Let's give married mothers with advanced degrees an incentive to excel in the workforce by reducing the tax penalties on their earnings, and warn bright young women that they will never be Frida Kahlo so don't bother to study art and plan to take work seriously, period. And if you want kids, just have one kid because it won't slow you down as much. If women don't stick to the program, then we (meaning feminists) should come down on them -- and come down hard -- for ruining their lives and tarnishing "every female with the knowledge she is almost certainly not going to be a ruler."
Putting external barriers to women's professional advancement aside, it's not clear to me exactly how this would work. And it certainly wouldn't relieve the pressures on contemporary families caused by income inequality, the growing disconnect between educational attainment and earning potential, the changing landscape of employment opportunities, and the fact that twenty-five years of economic growth has not increased the proportion of good jobs available to U.S. workers. And why do we expect elite women to be more motivated than elite men when it comes to taking on the big, ugly problems of the world, anyway? I may be wrong, but I just can't picture it.
The family policy and economic justice agendas endorsed by organizations like NOW, 9to5, the National Partnership for Women and Families, MomsRising, work-life scholars, progressive economists and social justice research groups are not just a random assortment of programs and benefits to make life less stressful for middle-class moms. These are dead-serious labor, economic and social welfare policies that respond to permanent transformations of social structures and systems of production which have already occurred. But it's much more complicated to explain all that than it is to talk about the mothers' movement and the future of feminism.
It's time to retire the feminist mystique. With social conditions deteriorating at an frightening pace, we can't afford to confine the feminist agenda to getting talented women into high-status jobs. We can't abandon programs to move more women into political and corporate leadership, but we need to redouble our efforts to obtain social, economic and reproductive justice for women, and we need to get cracking. This is no time for a panic attack over high-achieving women wasting their potential for self-fulfillment and full flourishing -- we are in survival mode. The die-hard, old guard feminist mystique can't help us now (and let's get rid of the "choice" mystique while we're at it). We need to find a new way to think and talk about women's rights and women's progress.
In a recent and much talked-about Doonsebury comic strip, a middle-aged social activist converses with the ghost of her mentor about why younger women don't want to be called feminists. "Of course not, dear," the spirit says. "Once a social transformation is largely complete, the language that drove it loses both urgency and meaning." The social transformation that began 40 years ago (or 160 years ago, depending on how far back you care to reach) is still very much a work in progress. But maybe social conditions have changed so much and so rapidly that the concepts and language we use to define the problems and solutions are ready for an overhaul.
I'm not giving up on feminism. I still think it's the best tool we have to articulate the dynamics of gender and power. And that's a useful thing to have on hand, because optimal conditions for women's full equality don't exist yet.
I've never believed the heart and soul of feminism is concerned with conforming to a specific mindset, life plan or lifestyle -- although both supporters and opponents of women's progress advance that claim. Feminism allows us to imagine a world where gender does not determine the rights and opportunities available to men and women or the obligations imposed on them, and where women no longer need to measure their lives against the lives of men to gauge their success. We still have a very long way to go. But I like to think we can get there without pointless regulation of women's behavior, or abolishing the relational family.
Judith Stadtman Tucker
mmo : August 2006