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Reviving the feminist mystique

On Linda Hirshman's "Get To Work"

Review and commentary by Judith Stadtman Tucker

August 2006

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I warned five years ago that if the women's movement didn't move into a second stage and take on the problems of restructuring work and home, a new generation would be vulnerable to backlash. But the movement has not moved into that needed second stage, so the women struggling with these new problems view them as purely personal, not political, and no longer look to the movement for solutions.

-- Betty Friedan,
"How to Get the Women's Movement Moving Again," 1985


Unless you've been living off the grid lately, you've probably noticed Linda Hirshman basking in the glow of the same high-intensity media spotlight that recently illuminated the likes of Caitlin Flanagan, Judith Warner and Leslie Morgan Steiner. And although she rarely misses an opportunity to infuriate conservative stalwarts and the public intellectuals of the blogosphere, perhaps the best course of action is to stay calm and let Hirshman savor her fifteen minutes of notoriety in peace.

Because when all is said and done, Hirshman's little red book about "the problem that stays the same" will not restart the gender revolution (even the allusion to Chairman Mao will be lost on some readers). Get To Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World (Viking, June 2006) will not inspire women to shatter the glass ceiling at home or anywhere else, nor will it persuade at-home mothers to reorient their thinking about the virtues of work versus the value of family. Feminist organizers won't abandon their egalitarian principles to embrace radical elitism as a political strategy -- and in any case, Hirshman's grand plan to reform feminism is unlikely to restore the flagging vitality of the women's movement. In time, Hirshman's newfound celebrity as a contrarian and troublemaker will fade.

Although Get To Work won't be remembered as a great or groundbreaking book, Hirshman's position on what constitutes a flourishing life and uncompromising prescription for female conduct raise a number of provocative questions. Namely, how do societal conditions influence our understanding of gender roles and the moral imperatives of collective and private life? Do cultural pressures and prohibitions change undesirable behaviors -- and if so, who makes the rules? Does the manipulation of individual behavior accelerate social transformation, or not? How should we measure women's progress? And above all, who speaks for feminism?

The small picture

Get To Work is a modest expansion of Hirshman's 2005 essay, "Homeward Bound" (The American Prospect, December 2005). Since I've summarized the reaction to "Homeward Bound" in a previous (and, thanks to Hirshman, now infamous) commentary and discussed the author's idealization of Betty Friedan in a later essay, I won't revisit those topics here. I will add, however, that the potency of Hirshman's original argument suffers from lightweight treatment in its new incarnation. If Get To Work has any remaining shock value for those familiar with Hirshman's essay and interviews, it's probably related to the astonishingly poor quality of the text. Hirshman's would-be manifesto is badly organized, badly written and badly edited; the author's casual approach to research and citation might be suitable for pop culture ephemera, but it doesn't satisfy the criteria for rigorous inquiry. Whatever judgments Hirshman's detractors have about the substance of her argument, as a piece of writing "Homeward Bound" was skillfully executed and intellectually sound.1 By comparison, Get To Work is underdeveloped and disappointing, and leaves the impression that Hirshman does not take her own ideas seriously.

Even so, it's intriguing to watch Hirshman hone her theory of female flourishing, particularly her strategy for limiting the field of possibilities. The central argument of Get To Work is this: According to the teachings of Plato and other giants of Western philosophy on the nature of moral action and the content of a virtuous life, high-potential women who prioritize child-rearing over public achievement are selling themselves short and doing more harm than good to the society. Feminists, Hirshman contends, must overcome reservations about making value judgments when women settle for lesser lives and mobilize their forces to quash the "opt out revolution" without further ado.

It's notable that Hirshman's prescription for the advancement of women hangs on her appraisal of current proposals for collective solutions as dreamy and impractical ("The promises of reduced hours and government day care," she concludes, "…are just cruel diversions from what can be done now") With public policy off the table, the author can indulge her elitism (by Hirshman estimation, women armed with good breeding and superb educational qualifications simply need to lose their innocence and get with the capitalist program, but precisely how this will free other women to lead lives of dignity and prosperity is a bit vague). It also gives her free rein to lump her liberal opponents -- whom she characterizes as haplessly disconnected from the joys of work -- with family values conservatives who want to isolate women in the home.

By dismissing her critics as blinded by ignorance or ideology (or both) and concentrating exclusively on women's private behavior, Hirshman also evades research-based evidence of structural and cultural barriers to women's advancement. Readers of Get To Work will find nary a word about studies on the prevalence of cognitive bias among male executives, or how it disadvantages women in hiring and promotion for positions of corporate leadership. Nor is there any mention of the wage gap for women with advanced degrees -- which is greater than the wage gap for any other group of women workers, even for high-level professionals with continuous full-time employment (see page two of this table). Hirshman's mandate to women to break free of the self-imposed shackles of domesticity and tough it out in the workplace might seem less arbitrary if she'd taken a stab at addressing the range of material and subtle incentives for men to spend more time at the office, and equally powerful disincentives for women to do so. For example, it's possible women are less inclined to sacrifice their private lives to get ahead because even if they do work as hard or harder than men in the same position, they will always be outsiders in the male-dominated culture of corporate elites and get paid less. Although Hirshman wants to reduce the argument to the ripple effects of women's bad choices, it's not all about who does the housework and the mommy mystique.

But the fatal flaw of Get To Work is Hirshman's failure to acknowledge the scope of feminist critiques of Western philosophy, which are rather more varied than Carol Gilligan's theories of moral development (which Hirshman derides for spawning backlash-y "relational" feminism). Hirshman apparently draws many of her conclusions about the privileges and obligations of the ruling class and the content of a good life from Plato's Republic, yet avoids an in-depth examination of the origins of her thinking on values and morality, including a response to feminist analysis of the Republic and Western political philosophy in general. (A couple of passing references to "my female colleagues in the philosophy biz" really doesn't cut it.) It matters because Hirshman locates her authority as an arbiter of feminism in her mastery of philosophy (as she announced in a June 18 op-ed for the Washington Post, "I'm a philosopher, and it's a philosopher's job to tell people how they should lead their lives"). Hirshman knocks stay-at-home moms for circumscribing the debate by insisting that how they organize their work and family lives is their "own damn business," yet the author's default position is because I said so.

Then again, Hirshman may have a singular view on how philosophy should inform critical thinking in everyday life. While clarifying why it's okay to berate educated mothers for leaving the workforce, she makes a somewhat jarring statement: "We care about humans, because we think that they have the capacity for free will." I suspect her intended meaning is that we care about what humans do, because we understand humans have the capacity for self-control and the ability to weigh the consequences of their actions. As for why "we care about humans" -- I imagine we care about humans because we are human. People weighing moral decisions are more likely to be guided by the "golden rule" -- treat others as you wound want to be treated -- than abstract theories about how the ruling class should behave in a perfect society.

In her introduction to Philosophy in a Feminist Voice (Princeton University Press, 1997), Janet A. Kourany proposes that philosophy may not be the very best tool for evaluating human motives or navigating the complexities of real life:

…[M]uch of the philosophy most Western philosophers engage in and teach and study is significantly flawed in what it delivers. Indeed this philosophy often provides outlooks and ways of thinking unhelpful to everyone, but especially unhelpful to women. Far from functioning as the proverbial gadfly that rouses everyone from complacency on every question, this philosophy tends to ignore women even while it reflects and reinforces or in other way perpetuates some of the most deeply entrenched and abusive biases against women in our society.

Which brings us to the subject of feminism.

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 that 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."

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?

Like most conservatives and many feminists, Linda Hirshman assumes women's entry into the paid labor force from 1970 onward was largely a reaction to the feminist mystique. It's more likely the feminist polemic of self-fulfillment through interesting work had the greatest effect on the career ambitions and reproductive decisions of middle-class, college-educated women with liberal leanings -- a small and relatively privileged outpost among women circa 1970, when nearly one-half of U.S. women over age 25 had not completed high school and only 8 percent had a college degree [graph 1]. Other political projects of the women's liberation movement -- such as the articulation of rape as a crime of aggression, sexuality as a site of politics, sexual harassment and domestic violence as dynamics of power and control, women's entitlement to sexual pleasure and bodily integrity, the right to abortion and reproductive self-determination, and gender, race, class and sexual identification as complicated intersections in women's oppression -- were more troubling to society, but also fundamentally changed the way we think about the universe of women's lives.

Is it true that masses of women threw down their aprons and swarmed into the paid labor force in the last quarter of the twentieth century? If feminism was the driving force behind women's workforce participation, you'd expect to see a statistical spike between, say 1970, when 500,000 supporters marched for women's equality in New York City, and 1980, when pretty much everyone agrees the second wave was washed up. And the numbers are there, but are not nearly as dramatic as the mythology suggests. Overall, the labor force participation rate of women age 16 and over has increased steadily over the past 35 years, growing by 18 percent (from 43 to 51 percent of the population) between 1970 and 1979 and 11 percent from 1980 to 1989. Between 1990 and 1999, the proportion of employed women increased by just 2.5 percentage points, and since 1996 the number of women in the workforce has hovered around 60 percent [graph 2]. This adds up to millions of more women in the labor force (around 37 million more, to be exact), but when averaged over a 30 year period, the number of U.S. women in the paid workforce grew by about one-half percentage point per year. During the same period of time, men's workforce participation rates fell by 5 percentage points, from 80 percent in 1970 to 75 percent in 2000.

The change in mothers' employment patterns is a bit more striking. For women with children under 18, rates of workforce participation jumped from 47 percent in 1975 to 73 percent in 2000 (and have since declined to 71 percent) -- an average increase of over one percentage point per year. By comparison, the workforce participation rate of women without children grew fairly slowly, rising from 45 percent in 1975 to 55 percent in 2000; overall, labor force participation is lower for women without minor children (in part because women with children at home are more likely to be prime-age workers than others). In a parallel trend, the number of married couples with both husband and wife in the paid workforce increased by 26 percent (from 46.6 to 59 percent of married couples) between 1975 and 1990, but only grew by one percentage point over the next decade [graph 3]. By the year 2000, mothers with children under 18 had nearly the same labor force participation rate as men overall, and both spouses worked in 60 percent of married couples, compared to 17 percent of couples in which only husbands were employed. So why is Linda Hirshman freaking out?

It might be because mothers' rate of workforce participation is not the best or only way to measure women's progress. On some measures, like levels of workforce participation and the average number of hours women work per week, U.S. women have come far -- if the yardstick you're using is men's workforce participation rates and hours of work. But given new research showing that infants and young children have better health and developmental outcomes when mothers have longer, paid leaves and at least one parent works part-time during the first year of a child's life, we might question whether an increase in the number of mothers (or fathers) who return to full-time work less than 12 months after a child's birth is a good indication of women's progress.

Another common measure is educational attainment, and by that standard U.S. women are doing quite well -- even a little bit better than men in terms of high school graduation rates and undergraduate college degrees [graph 1]. In 2004, women held 50 percent of all professional and managerial jobs in the U.S., but were overrepresented in lower-paying occupations such as human resource management, paralegals and legal research assistants, nursing, teaching, social work and health care support, and underrepresented among workers with the highest earnings.

When we get to wages, things start to look pretty grim [graph 4]. Among men and women with the same educational qualifications, women are paid less, and at the highest levels of educational attainment they are paid much less [graph 5]. If you care to apply Linda Hirshman's theory of marriage as a system of bargaining, just imagine how much more clout wives would have in terms of not minding the butter or picking up dirty socks if they were being paid fairly (not to mention how much more they could contribute to the financial security and purchasing power of their households).

There are other critical measures of women's progress. One is health outcomes -- are men and women equally likely to have health care coverage through their employers? (No.) Do men and women receive similarly aggressive treatments for the same conditions? (Not always, but findings are mixed.) Do rates of maternal and infant mortality compare favorably to those in other affluent countries? (Dream on.) Of course, poverty is a serious social problem in the U.S., and by all indications older women and mothers are at far more risk than older men and fathers, and children are most at risk.

If we want to know more about how women are faring, we can count up the number of women in state and federal government (pathetic), and the number of women in prison (on the rise). We can study how well low-income women and women of color are doing compared to white and higher-income women on key social and health indicators (not so good). We can look at equality of leisure time (men have more) and of time spent on housework and unpaid caregiving (women do more). We can also look at women in families. One of the most distinctive social and demographic trends in the last thirty years is an increase in the number of never-married women who become mothers, which grew by 30 percentage points between 1976 and 2000 [graph 6]. Depending on your political outlook, this might look like progress (women feel less stigmatized for having children outside of marriage, are more able to support themselves through paid employment and are exercising their option to raise families without men) or the worst thing that ever happened to the country (because compared to married-couple families with children, families headed by single parent women are far more fragile and the prevalence of out-of-wedlock childbearing is a symptom of moral decline).

In short, there are many ways to calculate women's progress in addition to how many mothers are working and how many women have prestigious jobs in male-dominated fields. Like the causes and remedies for all intransigent social problems, the causes and remedies for women's inequality are complex. There's no real reason to believe that pressuring one group of women to change their private behavior would have a significant or lasting effect. To understand why, we'd have to go back the real radical roots of second wave feminism, and entertain the possibility that men have more access to social power -- not because they're more qualified for leadership or willing to work smarter and harder, but because they are men. And there's a good chance some people would like to keep it that way.

Which leads us to another of our thorny questions: How are collective attitudes about gender roles transformed? Do they change because we will them to change, or because societal conditions change? Or do the two forces interact?

Stretching gender

When Plato envisioned a society where elite women would have equal standing among the ruling class, he started with the understanding that certain conditions must be met before men could serve as ideal rulers of his imaginary "best city." The first requirement was the abolition of private property, because men's self-interest in protecting their material assets would conflict with their ability to think and act for the common good. Once the right to own property was dispensed with, Plato reasoned the patriarchal family would have to go. As Susan Moller Okin explains in Women in Western Political Thought (Princeton University Press, 1979), Athenian culture in Plato's time was deeply misogynistic. The most valued affective bonds were between men, and marriage was primarily a legal and economic arrangement for the production of legitimate heirs and the transfer of wealth. Under the circumstances, the prospect of eliminating the conventional family was not inconceivable. Okin suggests that Plato, along with other men of his era and class, regarded women as a special category of property. By disposing of private property for the elites of his perfect society, Plato was forced to invent a new functional role for the wives and daughters of the aristocracy, and proposed that under ideal conditions, men and women could in all ways be peers. To meet the requirements of a virtuous life, members of Plato's ruling class would submit to strict regulation of their personal and reproductive conduct and raise children communally. 5

It's delightful to fantasize about what our lives might look like if Plato's notions about personal sacrifice and self-discipline as baseline requirements for true greatness and just authority were pressed upon today's ruling class. But it's also worth noting that centuries before other philosophers tackled the issue of women's rights, Plato sketched the outlines of a world where certain men and women would be equals because the boundaries between private and public good had been erased.

In American society, women's distance from the status of property has been integral to the expansion of their rights and liberties. Women's progress has also been predicated on the need for women to assume new social roles in response to the changing organization of social and economic systems. For example, as church and state became formally separated, women were allowed to have a more prominent place in the religious life of their communities and shed their former reputation as innately sinful creatures with little hope of salvation. In the post-revolutionary era, the conviction that mothers of the New Republic had a duty to instill the values of democracy in the next generation led to support for better education for girls, who were expected to provide this essential service to society. As industrialization spread, women provided an important supply of inexpensive labor to mills and factory owners -- and as the manufacture of goods moved into the marketplace, family systems that supported household production began to erode. When men had opportunities to enter the paid labor force, they relinquished direct supervision of household functions to women, who acquired a new source of authority as the keepers of the hearth and home. It was at this point that married women started gaining ground in terms of legal and individual rights, such as the right to their own wages and property, the right to custody of their children after divorce, and eventually, the right to vote.

Structural, functional and economic factors have shaped women's opportunities for advancement on both macro and micro levels (for example, when women's access to education improved and school administrators figured out they could hire two female school teachers for the price of one male teacher, teaching became a female-dominated and modestly-paid profession and remains so today). Women still had to fight for their rights. But we were able to forge ahead because the social systems that relegated women to the status of property and dependents were already weakened by economic, demographic and technological change. When women's desire for equality outstripped the evolution of social systems, progress stalled.

In the twentieth century, specific social and economic conditions set the stage for the second wave. As Donald J. Hernandez writes on the changing demographics of American families,

Before 1940, many parents had three major avenues for maintaining, improving or regaining their economic status. They could move off the farm for fathers to obtain comparatively well-paid jobs, they could have fewer children to allow available income to be spread less thinly, or they could increase their education. But by 1940, only 23 percent of Americans lived on farms, and 70 percent of parents had only one or two dependent children in the home. In addition, many adults found it difficult or impractical to pursue additional schooling after age 25. Thus, the historical avenues to improving the relative economic status of their families had already effectively closed for a large majority of parents age 25 and older. 6

The usual options for families who wanted to improve their economic position were disappearing just as new employment opportunities for women emerged. After World War II, Hernandez explains, more white-collar jobs were open to women, and women's historically high educational attainment prepared them for market work. Record high rates of school enrollment freed mothers from child care responsibilities for a significant portion of the standard workday. And since young adult women also had very high rates of marriage and early childbearing, most of the women available to take advantage of expanding employment opportunities were mothers. Between 1940 and 1960, the number of mothers in the paid work force surged from 10 to 26 percent, and continued to grow by at least 10 percentage points each decade for the next 40 years.

Long before the organized women's movement gained traction, the feminine mystique had outlived its usefulness. ("That," wrote Friedan in The Second Stage, "is why our early battles were won so easily, once we engaged our will.") The overriding success of second wave activists was improving the conditions and terms of women's employment by assuring that women were not excluded from the best jobs because of their sex, pressing for equal pay, expanding educational opportunities for women, and classifying sexual harassment in the workplace as a form of discrimination. Feminists wanted day care and paid leave and economic support for women in their caregiving roles, but at that point their desire for equality was moving faster than the society's need for women to stretch their gender roles. And as we know, women's progress slowed to a trickle, and in some instances started to roll back.

It's dangerous to overdo the structural analysis of social change, because ideology is what gives social transformation its particular meaning and helps us turn an uneven and disorienting process into a cohesive historical narrative: In 1960, middle-class women were bored and stifled in their homes with nothing to do all day but wax the floors. "Get to work!," said Betty Friedan. And they did. But I think it's important to consider that functional systems and ideology interact in complicated ways, and the effects are not always visible when the forces of change have already altered our lives and possibilities.

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

Judith Stadtman Tucker is the founder and editor of the Mothers Movement Online. She welcomes email at


Thanks to Katy Read for the catchphrase "the problem that stays the same" from her review of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in the Summer 2006 issue of Brain, Child Magazine.

1. "Homeward Bound" was published under the editorial guidance of American Prospect Deputy Editor Sarah Blustain.

2. In Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women's Liberation Movement, Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, editors. Basic Books, 2000.

3. Survey results are from a two-year survey of 3, 300 women commissioned by the Center for the Advancement of Women and conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates in 2001 and 2003. Progress and Perils: New Agenda for Women, Center for the Advancement of Women, 2003.

4. Pelota, P., Milkie, M., and Presser, S., "The 'Feminist' Mystique: Feminist Identity in Three Generations of Women," Gender & Society, Volume 18 No. 1, February 2004.

5. Susan Moller Okin, "Plato and the Greek Tradition of Misogyny," "Philosopher Queens and Private Wives," and "Female Nature and Social Structure," Women in Western Political Thought, Princeton University Press, 1979, pages 15 - 70.

6. Donald J. Hernandez, "Changes in the Demographics of American Families over the Course of American History," Unfinished Work: Building Equality and Democracy in an Era of Working Families, Jody Heymann and Christopher Beem, editors. The New Press, 2005.

Errata: A quote by Ellen Goodman was mistakenly attributed to Betty Friedan in the first published version of this essay. Goodman's June 1980 commentary for The Washington Post was quoted by Friedan in The Second Stage (page 32).
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