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The TLS n.º 5329, May 20, 2005
18 May 2005
WOMEN'S LIVES, MEN'S LAWS
558pp. | Harvard University Press. £25.95. (US $39.95). | 0 674 01540 1
Catharine A. MacKinnon is an emblematic figure in American life and law. For
many years she and her late collaborator Andrea Dworkin were the standard-
bearers of anti-liberal feminism, and as a lawyer, writer and teacher she has
had an explosive impact. She comes from the Left, and her anti-liberalism, like
the anti-liberalism of Marx, derides individual rights as an ideological mask
for the protection of existing structures of domination. In Marx’s case, the
targets were rights of private property and due process, instruments of class
domination. In MacKinnon’s case, they are freedom of speech and the right to
privacy, and the domination they uphold is sexual. Her career has been dedicated
to attacking male dominance, not as a denial of individual rights to women, but
as a deep systemic inequality that defines the difference between the sexes and
the meaning of sex. And she has made US antidiscrimination law her weapon:
"In societies governed by the rule of law, law is typically a status quo instrument; it does not usually guarantee rights that society is predicated on denying. In this context equality law is unusual: social equality does not exist, yet a legal guarantee of equality does."
Unlike liberal advocates of equality for women, who concentrate on securing equal opportunity in employment and education, equal pay, maternity benefits, free daycare, and other measures in order to close the social and economic gap between men and women, MacKinnon is interested primarily in sex. Her subjects are rape, pornography, prostitution, and sexual harassment. (She shares the liberal concern over abortion, but with an interesting twist; see below.) Her view is that the sexual domination of women is the heart of sexual inequality, and that it underlies the familiar public inequalities. Nothing will really change unless it is attacked directly:
"Sexuality, as socially organized, is deeply misogynistic. To male dominance, of which liberalism is the current ruling ideology, the sexual misogyny that is fundamental to all these problems cannot be seen as a sex equality issue because its sexuality is premised on sex inequality. Equality law cannot apply to sexuality because equality is not sexy and inequality is."
There is not much romance in her view of the erotic life:
"Women are commonly raped, battered, sexually harassed, sexually abused as children, forced into motherhood and prostitution, depersonalized, denigrated, and objectified – then told this is fun and equal by the left and just and natural by the right."
Women’s Lives, Men’s Laws is a diverse collection of MacKinnon’s writings and speeches from the past twenty-five years. It is repetitious: a cultural icon inevitably says the same things to many audiences. It also seethes with loathing for her enemies such as the American Civil Liberties Union, described as the centre of the “pro-pimp lobby”. But the book contains much that is impressive, both intellectually and rhetorically, and it is instructive both about the history of MacKinnon’s battles and about the issues. Particularly valuable is a long essay originally published in the Yale Law Journal, “Reflections on Sex Equality Under Law”, which sets out her position clearly and incisively. She believes that the sexual inequality of American society can be legally assailed by appealing to the constitutional bar against group subordination that developed out of the country’s long struggle with slavery and racism. But sex is not like race: it is not enough to say, “Be like us and we will treat you the same as we treat each other”. Equality cannot mean merely that women should be treated exactly as men are treated, since that standard would be met if both men and women were denied pregnancy leave and the right to have an abortion. (This, as she says, is the equality that prohibits both the rich and the poor from sleeping under the bridges of Paris.)
MacKinnon’s originality is to have extended the reach of this familiar point far beyond the biological, by linking it to her visceral sense of the omnipresent sexual and personal subordination of women. Explicit legal and economic discrimination and unequal impact of formally neutral laws are only the tip of the iceberg, and therefore the legal attack must cut much deeper than in the case of racial inequality. It must invade sexual life itself. And the means of attack should be not the criminal law, whose enforcement is too easily neglected by male authorities when it threatens male domination, but the civil law, which permits injured women and their lawyers to initiate action and claim redress. It also, though she doesn’t mention it, imposes a lower burden of proof.
MacKinnon’s greatest success has been in the development of sexual harassment
law, which, as she explains in a detailed account, grew from a series of cases,
some of which she argued, based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Act
prohibited discrimination in employment on the basis of sex as well as race.
Twelve years later a woman who was fired after refusing her supervisor’s sexual
advances successfully sued for discrimination under this provision. The concept
of sexual harassment was subsequently extended through other cases to include
persistent unwanted sexual attention, sexually charged hostility, and perhaps
individual gross performances like the one of which Paula Jones accused Bill
Clinton. MacKinnon explains why this expansion of the idea of discrimination was
both correct and important. These are not just injuries to an individual who
happens to be a woman: she is subjected to them because she is a woman, since
women are conventionally regarded as fair game for such treatment in our
civilization, whereas men are not.
The reference to group subordination in identifying a legally actionable injury to the individual is the linchpin of MacKinnon’s conception of equality. She has no use for purely individual rights, much less universal ones. The point is to fight domination. This leads her to a distinctive and significant position on abortion, which she thinks should be defended on grounds not of privacy or bodily autonomy, but of equality: “If sex equality existed socially – if women were recognized as persons, sexual aggression were truly deviant, and childrearing were shared and consistent with a full life rather than at odds with it – the fetus still might not be considered a person but the question of its political status would be a very different one”. But as things are, “abortion provides a window of relief in an unequal situation from which there is no exit. Until this context changes, only the pregnant woman can choose life for the unborn”.
MacKinnon condemns privacy as a value that has traditionally allowed men to get away with anything, under a code of mutual protection. In some respects her wishes have come true, and she celebrates the exposure of powerful males like Clinton and Clarence Thomas. But her attempts to extend the civil rights technique beyond sexual harassment in two further directions have failed – one regrettably and the other fortunately. The former, a federal Violence Against Women Act that she helped draft, would have permitted women to bring civil suits where states failed to provide adequate protection. It was passed by Congress but struck down by the Supreme Court in 2000 on the ground that it violated the division of authority between the states and the federal government – an unusual example of heightened federalism, which MacKinnon criticizes in a trenchant essay originally published in the Harvard Law Review.
The other instance, MacKinnon and Dworkin’s most famous exploit, was the attempt to make pornography civilly actionable as a form of sex discrimination. The creators and distributors of pornography would be subject to suit by women used in its production, women assaulted as a result of men’s consumption of it, or women whose subordination is caused by the general traffic in pornography. This was rightly seen as a thinly veiled form of privatized censorship. In the version adopted by the city of Indianapolis it was struck down by the federal courts in 1984 as a violation of freedom of speech. Liberals opposed it solidly and a group called the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force (FACT) filed an amicus curiae brief, earning MacKinnon’s special rage.
Her insistence on breaking down the liberal barriers of privacy and freedom of expression in order to exercise state control over sexual life can make MacKinnon look similar in motivation to the moralistic Right, but she rejects the charge. In an essay called “Beyond Moralism: Directions in sexual harassment law”, she argues effectively that the objection to sexual harassment derives none of its force from sexual puritanism, and is addressed solely to the unequal treatment of women. But in the case of the pornography ordinance, her insistence that this is not moralistic content-based censorship rings hollow. I don’t mean that she is a puritan, but her attitude to pornography and its consumers is massively moralistic. That men enjoy seeing women in these scenarios is itself what she hates. The feeble psychological experiments she cites, which correlate the viewing of pornography with changes in the answers to questionnaires about attitudes to rape,and the anecdotes about pornography being used as a guide in sexual assaults, are merely efforts to lend the weight of interpersonal harm to an essentially moral revulsion toward a form of male sexual pleasure by which she feels violated.
I do not have, as she has from her legal work, first-hand knowledge of the depths of female oppression, but I have every reason to accept her grim assurance that the lives of many women are filled from childhood with degradation, rape, violence and coercion. I share MacKinnon’s belief that many men fear and despise women. But the idea that pornography bears a significant causal responsibility for all this is remarkably unimaginative and is not supported, so far as I know, by evidence that sexual violence increases when pornography becomes more available in a society. Some of the most misogynistic and abusive cultures are those with the strictest censorship, and some of the least misogynistic, such as Sweden, were the first to lift restrictions.
MacKinnon is right to insist that the unequal status of women pervades sexuality and is not limited to the public sphere. But this causes her to undervalue sexual pleasure, which we all have to take where we can find it. The huge pornography industry serves this end by feeding people’s fantasies. Since she finds most male fantasies revolting and degrading to women, and most consumers of pornography are men, this doesn’t matter to her. In fact she wants to stop it, and therefore fixes on the illusion that she can fight inequality by controlling men’s fantasy life.
What about female sexual pleasure? MacKinnon mentions it only once, in a riposte to Judge Richard Posner’s unwise claim that men have a stronger sex drive than women. This, she says ignores “the clitoral orgasm, which, once it gets going, goes on for weeks, and no man can keep up with it, to no end of the frustration of some. (This underlies the often nasty edge to the query ‘Did you come?,’ when it means, ‘Aren’t you done yet? I am.’)” We are evidently in a war zone.
MacKinnon’s anti-liberal credo needs to be addressed seriously. It seems to me to require a moral justification that she does not even attempt to provide. It is not enough, in arguing for the deployment of state power, to point to deep social inequalities and say that this is a way to attack them. Not only do the means have to be effective, but they have to respect limits on legitimate invasion by the state of the personal autonomy of each individual within it. This too is a requirement of equal treatment, though it is individualistically defined. If it is given no weight and automatically overridden by claims of group inequality and group subordination, we will get tyranny in the name of equality – a familiar result. Catharine MacKinnon should either explain why her contempt for rights of privacy, autonomy and freedom of expression does not have this consequence, or else explain why it is acceptable.
Louise Gluck -- Exacting Beauty
By Mary Karr
Sunday, March 30, 2008; BW12
As a graduate student in the late 1970s, I watched the tiny, graceful and expensively dressed Louise Gluck ascend to a podium to read "Mock Orange," about the disappointments of marriage. The poem wrung shocked gasps from the audience when the speaker claimed to hate the syrupy aroma of mock orange flowers "as I hate sex."
At a time when obscenity is commonplace, when young girls dress like hookers and video gore prompts little outrage, it's hard to believe how radical these lines sounded back then.
How small this poem is, for Gluck never wastes the reader's time. In Proofs and Theories, her book of essays on poetry, she explains, "I do not think that more information always makes a richer poem. I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion. . . ." The way mere ruins of the Coliseum evoke lost grandeur more than a newly articulated structure, or the way a few strokes from Picasso conjure a whole guitar, so Gluck's plain speech makes maximum impact in smallest space.
The orange blossom is the wedding flower, so mock orange is the faux version of real union. The poem opens when the wife -- kept awake by that sickly sweet odor -- tells her husband that it's not the moon troubling her rest but the fake shine of those cloying blossoms.
Only as the poem goes on do we realize the conversation takes place during post-coital tristesse -- the natural sadness after sex that comes from the end of union. It's not sex the speaker despises; it's the fact that physical intimacy can devolve into private lust, and a couple can wind up "split into the old selves,/the tired antagonisms."
It is not the moon, I tell you.
It is these flowers
lighting the yard.
I hate them.
I hate them as I hate sex,
the man's mouth
sealing my mouth, the man's
and the cry that always escapes,
the low, humiliating
premise of union--
In my mind tonight
I hear the question and pursuing answer
fused in one sound
that mounts and mounts and then
is split into the old selves,
the tired antagonisms. Do you see?
We were made fools of.
And the scent of mock orange
drifts through the window.
How can I rest?
How can I be content
when there is still
that odor in the world?
(Louise Gluck's poem "Mock Orange" can be found in "The Triumph of Achilles." Ecco. Copyright 1985 by Louise Gluck. "Proofs and Theories." Ecco. Copyright 1994 by Louise Gluck.)
Mary Karr has published four books of poems, most recently "Sinners Welcome."
August 14, 2005
Failing the Muslim sisters
The feminists of the 1970s failed the future in two respects. We never solved the problem of what to do with the children as we claimed the equality that was ours by right. We ended up with “childcare” — handing our children over to other women less well paid than we were — or not having children at all, an option professional women increasingly take.
The other problem was what to do with regard to the immigrant communities in our midst. We knew they tended to be sexist, but we looked the other way. Since Asian communities were small — an estimated 400,000 Muslims, 300,000 Hindus and 200,000 Sikhs in 1975 — we assumed that, as they assimilated, the standards of the wider community would take over; equal rights, opportunities, wages and sexual self-determination for women would become theirs. We natives had to acquire them first, mind you.
The West Indians were well established and assimilated: indeed, women earned and were in more regular employment than their menfolk. Proper wages for women meant power and dignity. Before the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, a woman could not take out a mortgage in her own name. No women judges, no women priests, let alone bishops: the City was a male preserve. Women with children, on the whole, did not go out to work.
Indians arrived from east Africa, driven out by rulers such as Idi Amin. They were mostly Sikhs and Hindus, middle-class and educated, grateful for asylum from genuine peril and anxious when in Rome to do as Rome did.
There was shock/horror when black feminists broke away from the Wages for Housework Campaign to found their own group and white liberal women were confronted with what men were beginning to experience — what it felt like to be disliked and despised for something historical and no fault of their own. So our patronising attitudes became evident to us. This to some extent explains our reluctance to batter our way into other cultures and put them to rights. But most of all it was because we did not want to be labelled “racist”.
Sure, Muslim communities were “sexist”, but our interference could be seen as “racist” and that was far, far worse an epithet. Social workers and crusading feminists kept away and the police, too. There were language problems and it was all too difficult.
By the mid-1980s multiculturalism seemed the answer — a vague idea that the various races and religions would live next to one another down the same road, some wearing saris, some burqas, some miniskirts — but that did not happen. People like to cluster with their own kind.
All the same, western ideas were taking root. A new generation of young British Muslims, educated in British schools, less concerned with religion than their parents, was emerging. The hold of the mullahs was weakening. The Koran might emphasise male supremacy, but it had become evident that in terms of earning power, the freedom to choose sexual partners outside marriage, the use of contraception and so on, women were equal enough. The old men looked on aghast.
Then Salman Rushdie published his book and the mullahs found their solution. Iran was now the powerhouse of Islam. A delegation went to Ayatollah Khomeini and asked for a fatwa against Rushdie — later extended to his publishers, his translators. The ayatollah obliged. The mullahs had their hate figure. Within weeks outrage had united the faithful in Britain: there were book burnings, riots and deaths. The Prophet had been insulted and worse, his wives. Muslim youth was back in the fold.
The girls covered up again. The atheist Rushdie, born into a Muslim household, was an apostate. Apostates must be killed. Muslim ranks closed.
The feminists had lost their opportunity. Married women in Islam are again discouraged from earning: it is for their husbands to provide. Contraception has become politicised as a western plot to reduce Islamic numbers (multiplied in this country by a factor of four since 1975). The prohibition of sexual relations outside marriage breeds neurosis and fanaticism. (Its over-encouragement in the host population brings its own problems.) Girls and boys are educated separately. Dress must mark them out from the host community.
Multiculturalism ends up as ghettoisation, the exploitation of cheap labour and subjugation of women. Even the kindness of local authorities in putting up street signs in Arabic backfires — why learn English if there’s no need? And yet. The situation of a Muslim woman in Britain today is not so different from that of an English woman in the 1950s, in the era of “no wife of mine works”, when virginity was at a premium, when to be a “spinster” and over 25 was a humiliation, to be “barren” a tragedy, when contraception was largely unavailable; when a woman was defined as a person who had babies and to whom many professions were closed. All that changed with remarkable rapidity.
So it may happen in the Muslim communities: they, too, look at the advertisements, want ringtones, iPods. The bastions of male supremacy will fall as standards of living rise and the woman’s income is increasingly needed in the home. With wages come freedom, power and dignity. Consumerism may yet save us. Or not. One source of fanaticism is rejection of the false solutions that consumerism offers to the dissatisfactions that it itself encourages.
April 22, 2006
Review by Tamara Kaminsky
Today’s young feminists believe that pole dancing is empowering. But an earlier generation thought differently.
by Andrea Dworkin
Continuum, £14.99; 232pp
by Linda Lovelace
Citadel (US), £10.99; 256pp
I FIRST SAW ANDREA DWORKIN the day after her death. It was a single stock photograph, the same on the front page of every paper.
Her big body seemed hardly contained by her legendary lopsided dungarees. Her hair, greyed with age and frustration, coiled in demonstration. At a glance, I thought, this is either a stand-up comedian or a 1970s feminist of the old guard.
“Dworkinism” was something that I had heard of. But I had never bothered to read any of the works, which were labelled fundamentalist and extreme, even verging on the hysterical. Dworkin, I was told, had called all men “rapists”, all women “abused” and even condemned heterosexual relationships in general. Naturally, I believed she had little to offer me, a 24-year-old woman. Worst of all, she had famously led a crusade against pornography. Pornography, I had been taught, is the very staple of free speech. It gives women an opportunity to express themselves sexually, and wasn’t sexual liberation an integral part of the women’s liberation movement? It is little wonder that Dworkin’s books have been swept of the shelves and embarrassedly shunted under the carpet.
Their replacements, the candy-coloured paperbacks of the modern-day feminist, are Casanovan confessions of women who dismissively seduce men, seeing them as a source of light entertainment. Seduction, they claim, is power. Naturally, men agree, creating a harmonious end to the sex wars worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Dworkin has been systematically abused in the media, dismissed as crazy, demeaned by cruel caricatures of her appearance and most notably alienated by other feminists who denounce her work as contrary to sanity and logic.
In an age in which the Playboy Bunny is now as mainstream as Mickey Mouse, Dworkin has no place. She had lost her war, and we had won ours. She had urged women to take back the night, and we had done so. What we went on to do with it is a different matter. We walk out in packs, hunting for men to invite home and dispose of the next day. We take pole dancing lessons for our boyfriends. We visit strip clubs to show how secure we are in our sexuality, and how we are up for a good time.
Can Dworkin appeal to the new generation of women? Modern feminists know that being well read in Baudelaire, being well versed in politics and statistics and having an opinion means very little. A good pair of stiletto heels, a serious push-up bra and a red lipstick is all that is needed. Photographs of strong women show them as pouting, jutting, angular, airbrushed, and in black and white. These women are not human. They do not show emotion. Rather they are sculptures, representations of humans, made from stone. They are impenetrable. They cannot be violated, as Andrea Dworkin claims women repeatedly are as a matter of course in sexual relationships with men. In a world led by image, strong women and victimised women are binary opposites.
For this reason alone, the title of Dworkin’s autobiography, Heartbreak, might even be enough to keep it out of the gender studies section of any bookshop. Rather, it will be placed with all the other memoirs of victimised women. These are usually women from the past, or parts of the Eastern world where women do not have the vote and where they are expected to stay at home, draped in shrouds.
It would be a shame if we were limited by such marketing ploys. For Heartbreak is not the memoir of a victim. Dworkin’s tone is dry and humorous. Her personality is warm and likeable and, shockingly, she has a wicked sense of humour. If Dworkin had not come into prominence, first as a victim of rape and later as a campaigner against it, she might even be taking her place alongside Fay Weldon and Margaret Atwood. Inspired, I tracked down her books. I was surprised. Dworkin has been horribly misquoted. She is not a man-hater. She even married one, although both partners were openly gay. She never attacked freedom of speech, burned books, or denounced heterosexual relationships.
Ironically, Linda Lovelace — real name Linda Susan Boreman, whose performance in the pornographic film Deep Throat marked the beginning of porn’s move into the mainstream — stood alongside Dworkin in her campaigns. Four years after her death, Lovelace’s own autobiography, Ordeal, is also being reissued. On the white cover, a pair of luscious, shiny red lips grip a cut of the film that made her famous. It is an image which will help to sell the book, particularly to women looking for a light read, a piece of paperback female erotica.
But the contents of Ordeal will shock them. A tale of continuous abuse and cruelty, it looks inside the world of pornography, showing the creation of the glamorous image of the major porn empires, and, more importantly, the stupidity of women who interpret it as a place where they will have power. Ordeal deposed Lovelace from her celebrity throne, her position as modern icon to our postfeminist revolution. She could have been up there with Sharon Stone and Pamela Anderson rather than hailed as a liar, a complainer and, ultimately, a hypocrite.
When Norman Mailer claimed that he had no problem with women’s liberation, but, rather, its leaders, Dworkin agreed. “The leaders,” she claimed, “are all men.”
She was right. What Dworkin had attempted to do was to use words and language to free the world from the abuse of women, and everything that contributes to it. This is where she failed. Words are not the tools of a modern campaign. Images are. Complex ideas have given way to single slogans, manifestos have been replaced with stereotypes.
Pornography, with its glossy pages, its vernacular of bold iconography and its commercial humour, understood this from the start. It translates into popular culture because it needs no intellect, no understanding and no voice to get across what it is trying to say. Dworkin and Lovelace both demanded these attributes, so their message has been lost in translation.
Before her death, Dworkin was asked how she would like to be remembered. She had replied with characteristic humour and candour: “In a museum, when male supremacy is dead”, before adding, “I’d like my work to be an anthropological artefact from an extinct, primitive society”.
In part, her wish has certainly come true. But not in the way that she would have wished.
February 27, 2006
Myth & Reality
Forget all the talk of equal opportunity. European women can have a job—but not a career.
By Rana Foroohar
Feb. 27, 2006 issue - Here's a pop quiz on gender equality. In which part of the world are women most likely to reach the highest rungs of power? Choice A offers new moms 12 weeks of maternity leave, almost no subsidized child care, no paid paternity leave and has a notoriously hard-driving business culture. Choice B gives them five months to three years of paid time off from their jobs after having kids. Millions put their offspring into state-sponsored day-care centers for several hours a day. Government agencies, full of female directors and parliamentarians, protect workers at the expense of business and favor a kinder, gentler corporate culture. So which place is better for women who want to make it to the top? If you guessed A, the United States, you'd be right. If you chose B—Europe—think again.
It sounds impossible, but it's true. For all the myths of equality that Europe tells itself, the Continent is by and large a woeful place for a woman who aspires to lead. According to a paper published by the International Labor Organization this past June, women account for 45 percent of high-level decision makers in America, including legislators, senior officials and managers across all types of businesses. In the U.K., women hold 33 percent of those jobs. In Sweden—supposedly the very model of global gender equality—they hold 29 percent.
Germany comes in at just under 27 percent, and Italian women hold a pathetic 18 percent of power jobs. These sad statistics say as much about Europe's labor markets, lingering welfare-state policies and corporate leadership as they do about its attitudes toward women. It's not that European women are stuck in the house. (After all, women make up 57 percent of the EU 15's work force—lower than the U.S. rate of 65 percent, but not dramatically so.) The real problem is that Europe has been consistently unable to tap the highest potential of its female workers, who represent half of college graduates in most countries. Women, it seems, can have a job—but not a high-powered career.
Why is this? Simply put, Europe is killing its women with kindness—enshrined, ironically, in cushy welfare policies that were created to help them. By offering women extremely long work leaves after children, then pushing them to take the full complement via tax policies that discourage a second income, coupled with subsidies that serve to keep them at home, Europe is essentially squandering its female talent. Not only do women get off track for long periods, many simply never get back on. Nor have European corporations adapted to changing times. Few offer the flextime that makes it easier for women to both work and manage their families. Instead, women tend to get shuffled into part-time work, which is less respected and poorly paid. Those who want to fight discrimination find themselves hamstrung by laws favoring employers.
Among Europe's myriad problems, this one is huge—with ramifications way beyond gender relations. In fact, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Europe's future hinges on it. "We have got to get more women into the labor market," says Vladi mir Spidla, the EU commissioner of Employment and Social Affairs. Declining birthrates and aging populations threaten the financial stability of almost all European nations, he explains. With a massive skills gap and pension crisis looming, the Continent must bring in more high-level workers. Immigration—the main solution thus far—presents obvious cultural challenges. Taking better advantage of existing female populations is an obvious answer.
Yet consider the "female friendly" policies touted by many Europeans as solutions —to the work-life dilemma, among them those legendary maternity leaves. Any number of studies, including some by the OECD and the ILO, have shown how excessively long leaves can derail women's career prospects, often permanently. Employers are understandably reluctant to hire and promote someone who may absent herself for years on end, often more than once. "Being a potential mother becomes an obstacle for women in certain types of jobs, and that is the case all over Europe," says ILO labor sociologist Manuela Tomei. Removing one's wedding ring for job interviews has thus become commonplace. So have probing questions. "Your family plans come up at every single job interview," says Sasha Buehler, a Munich film buyer. "I've had to promise potential employers that I won't get pregnant." While questions like this might elicit a lawsuit in the United States, European women are less likely to fight back. Europe doesn't allow class-action suits and, outside of the public sector, the burden of proof in a discrimination case still falls on the individual rather than the corporation, making it incredibly difficult for a single person to initiate and win a case.
The result is a system where most European women do some kind of work outside the home, but relatively few enjoy genuine upward mobility. Often excluded from the more lucrative and competitive private sector, they work in disproportionately large numbers as teachers, nurses or health-care aides rather than as business managers. There's also a marked concentration of women in public-sector and government jobs compared with the United States and even some developing countries. This is particularly pronounced in the Nordic countries, where women enjoy as many as 480 paid days of maternity leave. Half of Sweden's working women are in the public sector, for example, while more men work in better-paid private-sector jobs. Compare that to 30 percent of women in the public sector in the U.K., and 19 percent in America.
Consider as well the double-edged benefits of part-time work—also held up in Europe as a solution for working mothers. In reality, it's a trap for those who want to get ahead. A recent study by the U.K. Equal Opportunities Commission found that women part-time workers made 40 percent less per hour than men—the same pay gap as 30 years ago. The two-tier nature of the European labor market—in which jobs tend to be either lucrative and protected or low-skilled and precarious—makes it tougher to turn those part-time jobs into better full-time ones. Taken together, the combination of a very long leave and a part-time job "can give the impression that women aren't serious about investing in their careers," says the OECD's Willem Adema, a senior economist and author of the Babies and Bosses report.
The system doesn't help women break out of this downward spiral. To the contrary, most European countries base their tax structures around the notion of a single breadwinner. The result: taxwise, it's often advantageous for families if the mother doesn't work. Germany is exhibit A. Second incomes are immediately taxed at the highest bracket. Many union contracts are still modeled after the single-breadwinner family, providing standardized pay increases for marriage and each child. Public health care is free for stay-at-home moms if the husband works—but if both parents do, they pay hefty premiums. A monthly stipend of €800 for child care can be paid out only if parents take care of their own child, which has led the German Association of Working Mothers to call it a "stay-at-home subsidy."
Child care is another big problem. American women might dream about the advantages of subsidized, Continental-style day care. But access and cost vary wildly. In —Germany, there's an extreme shortage of child care, and much of it is available only for the morning and early afternoon. Most kindergartens and grade schools let out at lunch—yet another blow to working mothers. In the Nordic countries, well-developed state day-care centers offer longer hours, which mean that women sacrifice much less of their earning power than they do in, say, Spain or Italy. Still, says the OECD's Adema, "there's a social pressure on mothers in places like Denmark or Sweden not to use more than six hours of care a day." France counts among the best countries for working mothers. There, any child over 3 years old is guaranteed state-funded day care, without social stigma. That means roughly 80 percent of French women who wish to work can do so. Still, French women hold only about 30 percent of managerial positions.
These problems do not all grow from misguided public policy, of course. Despite the mythology of European enlightenment, retro attitudes toward women die hard. The best European blue chips are starting to institute diversity programs, but the blunt fact is that the upper echelons of corporate Europe are still very much a man's world. In France, power brokers tend overwhelmingly to be graduates of the Grande Ecoles that were first opened to women in the 1970s. That means the pipeline of female execs is still very much developing. Germany only recently began unwinding chummy corporate structures that perpetuate a small cadre of business titans who sit on each other's supervisory boards and pass out top-tier jobs. This insider culture is reflected in a 2004 study by the European Professional Women's Network, which found that women hold only 8 percent of board seats of Europe's largest 200 companies, versus 14 percent in large American companies.
Add to this the fact that Europe's business culture is still more hierarchical and less flexible than America's. Women tend to thrive in less formal, more entrepreneurial environments where they can help set the rules, as in the United States. If Europe is to tap into the full potential of its underemployed female work force, says Valerie Gauthier, associate dean of the HEC School of Management, a business —school in Paris, it will have to similarly modernize its labor markets: "The government should support more entrepreneurs and [encourage them] to set their own work environments, creating situations better suited to the needs of women."
That would unquestionably include more flexible hours. Europe's workplace culture may not be as hard-driving as America's, but it is certainly more rigid. Only one in five Europeans works some sort of flexible schedule, as compared with almost 30 percent in the United States. And because European companies have traditionally invested less in technology than their American counterparts, the notion of such accepted U.S. practices as "remote work" are less common. So-called face time also counts for much more in Europe than in America. "The problem is that management is command-and-control-focused, rather than objective-based," says Alexandra Jones, associate director of the Work Foundation in Britain. "When bosses make decisions about who is doing a good job based on who spends the most time at their desks, then women are inevitably disadvantaged."
That's a bad move all around, because research shows productivity to be surprisingly independent of time logged at the office. A study released in January by the London School of Economics found that the biggest, most global and best-managed companies tend to be those offering employees the best work-life balance—flexible hours, job sharing, time banking and working from home. British Telecom is a perfect case study. One of the U.K.'s most competitive companies, it has been on flextime since the 1980s, with 70,000 of its total 102,000 workers (from chief executive to secretarial assistants) participating. Indeed, internal company studies show that flex work tends to be some 25 percent more productive than office work. The policy has not only saved the company £10 million yearly in fuel costs, it has also given it a 99 percent return rate for working mothers. (Compare that to the U.K. national average of 47 percent.) Given the cost of hiring and training new workers, that puts another £5 million a year in the company coffers. Most important, says BT's director of people networks Caroline Waters, "our policy gives us a leg up in the talent wars. Women are in a position where they are making choices, and we have to create the kind of environment they want to work in."
Take heed, Europe. The very things that create a better working environment for women will also make Europe grow faster. Topping that list is the liberalization of service markets. "Overregulation of the service sector creates a higher price for things like child care and household help, and that penalizes women," says Fredrik Reinfeldt, Sweden's opposition-party leader. Not only would less regulation bring down the cost of child care, it would also create new jobs for women, the majority of whom work in services. While the EU did pass a draft services bill last week, the 211 amendments watering down the most controversial (read: aggressive) parts of the proposal reflect Europe's continuing reluctance to undertake serious service reform.
Politicians should also rethink tax structures that penalize a second family income, encourage shortening maternity leaves (limiting their length to six months to a year) and come up with creative ways to divide parental leave more equally between mothers and fathers. Germany's new minister for Family Affairs, Ursula Von der Leyen, a working mother of seven, recently pushed through a law stipulating that only couples in which both parents take time off with babies will be eligible for a full 36 months of leave. And Iceland now stipulates that at least three months of the allowed nine months of leave must be taken by a father—which 30 percent of dads now do.
Other positive signs are emerging. This past December, France passed a law mandating pay equity between men and women within five years. Over the past two years the French business school HEC has launched a major campaign to recruit more female M.B.A.s, raising the percentage of women in the program from 16 to 32. Norway recently decreed that all corporate boards must be 40 percent female within two years, or face being shut down, while the European Commission for Employment and Social Affairs will soon begin a yearlong study to determine whether discrimination laws in Europe are being properly enforced. Meanwhile, the EU has set aside funds for the creation of a gender-equality institute in 2007. Its goal: to "come up with concrete solutions" to Europe's gender gap, according to Commissioner Spidla. If it does, the future will be a lot brighter for all Europeans.
With Emily Flynn Vencat in London and Stefan Theil in Berlin
Fatherhood: Trying to Do It All
As they get more involved, dads may face even more challenges than women in balancing work and family.
By Tara Pepper
Feb. 27, 2006 issue - Women aren't the only ones having a rough go of it in Europe. Men, these days, are embracing fatherhood with the round-the-clock involvement their partners have always dreamed of— changing diapers, handling night feedings, packing lunches and bandaging knees. The time British dads spend with their kids has risen eightfold over the last 30 years. Today, 79 percent say they'd be happy to stay at home and 9 out of 10 say they're as confident as their partners in looking after the kids. "These dads are going to be guide and a mentor in a much more visible way than their own fathers were," says Armin A. Brott, author of "Fathering Your Toddler."
That's good news for Europe, whose economic future depends on a rising birthrate. Studies show that women with involved partners are more inclined to have more than one child. To tempt moms back to work, governments are also putting in place more policies to help dads take time off. Britain, for instance, announced recently that fathers would be entitled to up to six months of paternity leave. In Germany, companies are required by law to give all employees up to three years parental leave and guarantee their jobs on return.
But all these devoted dads may have a harder time with the same issues women have faced for decades: namely, how to balance work and family. "There's a constant feeling of guilt," says Robin Mungrah, a 37-year-old London accountant with two children. "No matter how early I leave work or how often I take the kids to Legoland on the weekends, it never seems like enough." Unlike women, many find they're negotiating their new roles with little support or information. "Men in my generation [25-40] have a fear of becoming dads because we have no role models," says Jon Smith, author of "The Bloke's Guide to Pregnancy." They often find themselves excluded from mothers' support networks, and are eyed warily on the playground.
The challenge is particularly evident in the workplace. There, men are still expected to be breadwinners climbing the corporate ladder; tradition-minded bosses are often unsympathetic to family needs. In Denmark most new fathers only take two weeks of paternity leave—even though they are allowed 34. As much if not more so than women, fathers struggle to be taken seriously when they request flexible arrangements. Though Wilfried-Fritz Maring, 54, a data-bank and Internet specialist with German firm FIZ Karlsruhe, feels that the time he spends with his daughter outweighs any disadvantages, he admits, "With my decision to work from home I dismissed any opportunity for promotion."
Mind-sets are changing gradually. When Maring had a daughter, the company equipped him with a home office and allowed him to choose a job that could be performed from there. Danish telecom company TDC initiated an internal campaign last year to encourage dads to take paternity leave; 97 percent now do. "When an employee goes on paternity leave and is with his kids, he gets a new kind of training: in how to keep cool under stress," says spokesperson Christine Eiberg Holm. For a new generation of dads, kids may come before the company—but it's a shift that benefits both.
April 24, 2006 Issue
Room of Her Own
Feminism’s long journey from “Is this all?” to having it all to being liberated by less.
by Kara Hopkins
Modern feminist lore dates its first chapter from 1963, when Betty Friedan found the original desperate housewives vacuuming their spotless ranch houses—in high heels, natch—and heard them asking, “Is this all?”
Hate Friedan if it suits—anyone who told Phyllis Schlafly, “I’d like to burn you at the stake,” would have earned the Right’s ire, absent the rest of her radical cargo. The feminist matriarch’s early Marxist affiliations are well documented, and her Feminine Mystique ranked seventh on Human Events’ list of the “most harmful books” of the last two centuries. But she tapped sufficient angst to sell three million copies and compel millions more American women to trade aprons for power suits and kitchens for corner offices. So swift was the sea change that their daughters would not ask “Is this all?” but “Can you have it all?”—and then wonder if they wanted it.
It’s fashionable in the salons of the Right to dismiss the full freight of feminism without examining its manifest. With a flick of the pen, the whole movement can be blamed for “Ruining Our Schools, Families, Military, and Sports” as it is in the subtitle of Kate O’Beirne’s new bestseller. But even so ham-fisted an indictment carries a concession: this was a revolution that left fingerprints on all spheres. To caricature it as the project of a handful of hags who struck out on the dating market is to ignore the essential question of why feminism found such fertile soil. The debating ploy is as common as it is lazy: spotlight extremists as emblematic of the whole, for if one’s opponent can be cast as moronic or malicious, what need for argument? But no club is that exclusive.
Feminism certainly wasn’t. Following Friedan’s death last month, on her 85th birthday, Germaine Greer waltzed over her grave, telling The Guardian, “Betty was disconcerted by lesbianism, leery of abortion and ultimately concerned for the men whose ancient privileges she feared were being eroded. … The world will be a tamer place without her.”
That ungracious obituary wouldn’t have surprised Friedan, who admitted, “I’m at odds with the radical feminists because I’m not anti-marriage and anti-family. I always thought it was dangerous to go against the idea of the family. I don’t even like the phrase ‘women’s liberation’ because that idea of being set free from everything doesn’t seem right to me.” No boilerplate feminist, Friedan saw men as “fellow victims,” not “the product of a damaged gene” (Greer) or “rapists, batterers, plunderers, killers” (Andrea Dworkin). She didn’t share Ms. editor Robin Morgan’s belief that marriage is a “slavery-like practice,” arguing instead, “I believe in marriage. I think intimacy, bonding, and families have value.”
That’s not to say that Friedan should be remembered as some kind of closet conservative. She did, after all, jot the fateful initials NOW—later incarnated into the National Organization for Women —on a napkin and was instrumental in founding the National Abortion Rights Action League. She memorably called American homes “comfortable concentration camps,” and despite pretty words for the nuclear family was unable to hold her own marriage together. Her children would recall eating TV dinners “way beyond the recommended limit.”
Both sides of the political divide could, therefore, attack Friedan for ideological impurity, and with ample cause—best evidence that the movement her question sparked was never as monolithic as critics claim. Had it been as venomous as the extreme representatives, feminism could have gained no foothold in Middle America. Housewives didn’t clamor to join Valerie Solanas’s SCUM—Society for Cutting Up Men—which was never more than a treehouse club. Deeper social currents were at work, so that what might have receded into the realm of curious sociology—as Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 effort had—became instead a mainstream movement populated by millions of average women.
The project began innocently enough: when surveying her Smith College classmates for their 15-year reunion, Friedan picked up a surprising thread—a “problem that had no name.” Behind their picket fences, these pert housewives were dissatisfied and isolated, medicating their boredom with redecorating projects and Chardonnay. “As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffered Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—‘Is this all?’” ran the opening lines of The Feminine Mystique.
Of course life was never that tidy, and much of Friedan’s diagnosis was overdrawn. “What kind of a woman was she if she did not feel this mysterious fulfillment waxing the kitchen floor?” A perfectly normal one who doesn’t seek the answers to existential questions in linoleum, thanks. And being “a server of food and putter-on of pants and a bed maker” is not exactly the gulag. (It was later revealed that Friedan knew little of the domestic drudgery she bemoaned: she employed a maid.)
Still the message resonated, though many who took up the torch were animated by more radical tendencies. “Don’t get into the bra-burning, anti-man, politics-of-orgasm school,” Friedan warned college students in 1970. She would go on to write in The Second Stage, published in 1981, that her successors had fallen into a trap “which denied that core of women’s personhood that is fulfilled through love, nurture, home.” It was this voice—not strident talk of fish and bicycles—that lured most women into believing that they could tend both home and office with equal grace.
With the advent of mechanized housework, packaged food, and public education, there was less demand for that skill set known as the domestic arts. Historically the management of a household and the raising of children were highly regarded—and fully consuming. In 1869, Catherine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe could write in The American Woman’s Home, “It is the aim of this volume to elevate both the honor and the remuneration of all employments that sustain the many difficult and varied duties of the family state, and thus to render each department of woman’s profession as much desired and respected as the most honored professions of men.” But with modern conveniences came a premium on efficiency—the market’s gateway into the private sphere, where the feminine values of tranquility, well-being, tradition, and taste had previously held sway. As the custodians of daily ritual gave in to cheaper and faster, home became recalibrated by work metrics. Previous compensations—healthy children, a peaceful refuge for her husband, a gracious table for friends—turned meager. Those who had paid no attention when Beauvoir wrote, “Woman’s work within the home [is] not directly useful to society, produces nothing. It is subordinate, secondary, parasitic,” began to entertain doubts.
A simultaneous revolution was altering men. Not long before but an age away, Robert Wright could write in Angel in the House of women who “tame the animal in a man and rescue his spirit from the deadening world of work.” As work took over that domestic duty, taming the animal by shackling him to a desk and burying him in a pile of paper, the ancient masculine values—heroism, independence, honor—yielded to the bureaucratic machine, which harnessed the power of traditional feminine traits —harmony, teamwork, compliance—to create a docile workforce. With his chivalric impulse thus blunted, what man wouldn’t welcome relief from the breadwinner’s burden? In the place of the angel, Philip Wylie would write of a “huge class of idle, middle-aged women” who “raped” men by binding them to humdrum lives. Far from the conservative map of the battle, these men weren’t feminism’s antagonists—or even its targets.
Boredom more than fervor rallies the best revolutionaries, and the suburban ennui Friedan identified was real. American women were not so much oppressed as dislocated. Washing machines and self-cleaning ovens lengthened their days, while sprawl quarantined them from community. These deposed queens of the domestic hive weren’t plotting the overthrow of any patriarchy. They wanted to do valuable work, the determinants of which were already being renegotiated when feminism arrived on the scene.
Friedan wrote, “[V]acuuming the living room floor—with or without makeup—is not work that takes enough thought or energy to challenge any woman’s full capacity. Down through the ages man has known that he was set apart from other animals by his mind’s power to have an idea, a vision, and shape the future of it … when he discovers and creates and shapes a future different from his past, he is a man, a human being.” The implication was that private work was intellectually barren, and because this role had traditionally fallen to women, they were being denied the humanizing rigors of the public domain. Women’s studies professor Linda Hirshman would go further: “The family—with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks … allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government. This less-flourishing sphere is not the natural or moral responsibility only of women. Therefore assigning it to women is unjust.” Of course this wasn’t true, for it supposes that men at work are developing life-altering technologies or untangling theoretical impossibilities rather than doodling their way through meetings or shoveling paperwork into bureaucracy’s maw. Moreover, it overlooks the unique capacity of men to find fulfillment in provision and women in nurture—and the responsibility of both to tend their intellectual gardens by maintaining lives beyond the demands of home and work.
Yet by attaching to existing currents and packing enough truth around a lie, feminists were able to persuade women of their degradation. Home had changed. Hearth had cooled. That diagnosis was not wrong, but the cure has nearly killed the patient, for it missed an essential truth that Friedan understood: “that core of women’s personhood that is fulfilled through love, nurture, home.” Women didn’t need to take their rightful half of the world by acting like men; they already had it simply by being women. In this, feminism pitched its battle not against men but against women. As Christopher Lasch noted in Women and the Common Life, “A feminist movement that respected the achievements of women in the past would not disparage housework, motherhood or unpaid civic and neighborly services. It would not make a paycheck the only symbol of accomplishment. ... It would insist that people need self-respecting honorable callings, not glamorous careers that carry high salaries but take them away from their families.”
And it’s not as if women didn’t work outside of the home before they read The Feminine Mystique. In 1967, 41 percent of mothers worked. But today 72 percent do—and regularly spend their off hours clicking away at BlackBerrys and taking cellphone calls.
That investment has yielded dividends: maternity leave is standard, college admissions favor women, sex-specific help-wanted ads are museum pieces, and pay differentials result primarily from voluntary detours from the career track. In a recent column, Susan Jacoby recalled applying for a reporting job at the Washington Post in 1965 and being asked to write an essay on “How I Plan to Combine Motherhood with a Career.” That’s probably actionable now.
But darker trends also attend, and while it would be difficult to trace causal lines, not all can be coincidental. With the combined work hours for professional couples with children under 18 rising to 91 hours per week, how could marriages go unaffected? The American divorce rate is nearly twice what it was in 1960, and women pay the highest price with 40 percent of divorced mothers ending up in poverty. In a controversial Newsweek article published in November 1990, entitled “The Failure of Feminism,” Kay Ebeling confessed, “In 1973, I left what could have been a perfectly good marriage, taking with me a child in diapers, a 10-year-old Plymouth and Volume 1, Number One of Ms. Magazine. I was convinced I could make it on my own. In the last 15 years my ex has married or lived with a succession of women. As he gets older, his women stay in their 20s. Meanwhile, I’ve stayed unattached. He drives a BMW. I ride buses.”
Even families that remain intact are learning a cold economic lesson: the second salary that was once something between a political statement and a rainy-day fund is becoming increasingly necessary. In a devil’s bargain, women have sacrificed their freedom and domestic satisfaction while median household income has remained unchanged in constant dollars since 1970. As Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi reveal in The Two-Income Trap, “once they have paid the mortgage, the car payments, the taxes, the health-insurance, and the day-care bills, today’s dual-income families have less discretionary income … than the single income family of a generation ago. … Mothers now work two jobs, at home and at the office. And yet they have less cash on hand.”
But that is not even the highest cost. The dearest toll is incalculable but evident to anyone who has watched a young mother en route to daycare, cellphone jangling, briefcase gaping, while she wrangles the toddler smearing Pop-Tart on her suit and the wailing infant who started commuting at six weeks. Hers is desperation deeper than any ’60s housewife. For the draw and demands of home didn’t vanish because working women began giving at the office. They still mop the floors—at midnight. There’s an early AM scene in Allison Pearson’s silly-sad novel I Don’t Know How She Does It in which narrator Kate Reddy, just returned from a business trip, pounds purchased pies with a rolling pin so they will look homemade for her daughter’s school party, then hides the boxes so her nanny can’t expose her domestic duplicity to the “Mother Superiors.”
Having it all meant doing it all, for natural law cannot be vetoed: the social structure couldn’t change enough to override the intrinsic divide between private and public spheres or ignore the sexes’ yen to find more satisfaction in one than the other. Much as they pretended to be men at work, women were still mothers and wives and began to view the diminishment of these roles with some sense of loss. Equality had extracted a measure of femininity, not because women were wearing gray flannel but because, as Bette Davis confessed in “All About Eve”: “The things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster, you forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman. … And in the last analysis nothing’s any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman. You’re something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings.”
Backlash would be too strong a word, for what came next has been less a broad reversal than a smattering of individual decisions that together suggest a shift. In October 2003, the New York Times Magazine published Lisa Belkin’s “The Opt-Out Revolution.” “Why don’t women run the world?” she asked. “Maybe it’s because they don’t want to.” Much like Friedan a generation before, Belkin looked at her fellow Princeton alumnae and found an unexpected pattern. “I know that’s very un-p.c., but I like life’s rhythms when I’m nurturing a child,” a lawyer become stay-at-home mom admitted. “Women today, if we think about feminism at all, we see it as a battle fought for ‘the choice.’ For us, the freedom to work if we want to work is the feminist strain in our lives,” another career girl turned mother told her.
This “choice feminism” infuriated radicals who retorted that the persistence of “gendered roles” presented a false choice, however much empowerment rhetoric a woman packed around her decision. “‘Choice feminism’ claims that staying home with the kids is just one more feminist option. Funny that most men rarely make the same ‘choice.’ Exactly what kind of choice is that?” Linda Hirshman asked in the December issue of The American Prospect. (Ironically, after years of using “choice” as their euphemism for abortion when they didn’t view all options as equally acceptable, feminists were caught short when women who weren’t advancing their agenda began using the word literally.)
The reaction revealed how far feminism had become removed from ordinary women. There had always been a totalitarian element that was less interested in individual freedom than social revolution—the notion that a woman shouldn’t have the option to work outside of the home but rather the obligation. Simone de Beauvoir had written, “No woman should be authorized to stay at home and raise her children. … Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.” Yet her strain never found a popular audience—the Second Sex author famously threw Friedan’s Second Stage across a room. (Interviewed about the book, Friedan told the New York Times, “Some militants repudiated all the parts of the personhood of women that have been and are still expressed in family, home and love. In trying to ape men’s lives, they have truncated themselves away from grounding experiences.”)
The average Janes with whom feminism first found mass appeal seem to be testing a new movement. Census figures reveal that the rate of working mothers with children under age one has dropped to 53 percent from a high of 59 percent—the first decline since the indicator debuted in 1976 at 31 percent. While scarcely a revolution, the trend prompted Business Week to run “Goodbye Boss Lady, Hello Soccer Mom,” and Time to devote a cover story to “The Case for Staying Home.” Maureen Dowd, far more kitten than tiger, wrote in her widely noted Are Men Necessary? “Four decades after feminism blossomed in a giddy wave of bra barbeques, birth-control pills and unisex clothes, the ideal of having it all is a risible cliché.”
Critics contend that the phenomenon is confined to a small group of affluent white women, which doesn’t reverse the trend line but does reveal a poignant truth. If those who can afford it want to stay home with their children, those who cannot afford it likely do as well—and they no longer have the choice their mothers did. Warren and Tyagi write, “When millions of mothers entered the workforce, they ratcheted up the price of a middle-class life for everyone, including families that wanted to keep Mom at home. A generation ago, a single bread-winner who worked diligently and spent carefully could assure his family a comfortable position in the middle class. But the frenzied bidding wars, fueled by families with two incomes, changed the game for single-income families as well, pushing them down the economic ladder.”
It is here that feminism may prove most cruel, for if the ’60s found women languishing in their dollhouses—though scarcely barred from the workforce—the new century finds them no more fulfilled than their mothers but far less free. Dowd writes, “Many women I know, who once disdained their mothers’ lifestyles, no longer see those lives as tedious or indulgent. Now they look back with a tad of longing. Wouldn’t it be pleasant to while away time playing bridge and tennis and lunching with girlfriends and eating shrimp cocktails?” Their mothers were of course more likely to iron shirts than nibble shrimp, but in this case the gloss matters more than the history. The modern fantasy of the independent woman is “Stepford,” not “Wall Street”—and Dowd wasn’t cast as a Taliban sympathizer for noting feminism’s failure.
Publications make a ritual of printing the movement’s obituary, and vultures descend from both Left and Right, though they generally pick at a caricature rather than a carcass. The Left looks through a revisionist lens and recalls feminism as a Marxist project aimed at overwhelming capitalist gender roles yet fails to admit that average women signed on to no such crusade. They were disappointed not because feminism failed to make them equal, but because in so doing it made them less female.
The Right, on the other hand, reduced feminism to a war against men—which could never have enlisted the majority of women into its ranks—and then declared victory in a fight that never was, without admitting that as conservatives they might have borne some responsibility for the sanctity of the domestic tradition.
Where does this leave women? In an experiential rather than an ideological place that only 40 years of wilderness wandering could locate. It’s certainly imperfect. Many have no choice but to work—this was true in 1963 as well. But whatever wistfulness those housewives felt as their husbands headed out for the office now belongs to the past. They have been there—and back. Some have chosen high-powered careers, grateful that they can be CEOs as well as their secretaries, but they do so acknowledging that they won’t have it all. Still others have decided that whatever social stigma now attached to full-time motherhood is offset by witnessing their children’s first steps.
“The end of our exploring,” T.S. Elliot wrote, “will be to arrive at where we started, and to know the place for the first time.” In that, much as it has cost us, feminism has succeeded. Women no longer have to lie awake nights wondering “Is this all?” They have tried to have it all—and decided they are more liberated by less.
The Mommy-Wars Insurgency
Essayist Caitlin Flanagan has enraged the feminists.
Kay S. Hymowitz
9 May 2006
To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, by Caitlin Flanagan (Little, Brown, 272 pp.)
Talk about a quagmire! Forty years into the Mommy Wars, feminist fundamentalism has launched a powerful insurgency. The spark igniting the feminist street isn’t a Roe-stalking Supreme Court nominee, as you might expect. No, it’s a book, To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, a modest collection of revised personal essays from the Atlantic and New Yorker, by Caitlin Flanagan, a Los Angeles . . . matron.
Actually, most parts of the country escape the hostilities between working and stay-at-home mothers; for the majority of women the decision to work or not is a nonsense-free question of how to pay the mortgage. But on the coasts, where media women are especially influential, what’s at stake is the same thing that has driven history’s most intractable conflicts: identity. For the media feminists, Flanagan personifies 1950s motherhood. Flanagan has spent “an entire career picking at other women for being insufficient Stepford wives in order to make insecure men swoon,” a poster at the feminist website Pandagon announced. Other critics have accused, with what some might call a remarkable lack of irony, her “ranting,” her “swiping and jabbing at other women,” and her reinforcement of “rigid, antiquated stereotypes.”
What’s notable about this insurgency is that Flanagan isn’t exactly Phyllis Schlafly. For starters, much of her book proceeds in the vein of what David Brooks has called comic sociology. Flanagan brings a gimlet eye to the habits of contemporary professional class women (among whom she includes herself)—from their baroque white-dress weddings to their embarrassed devotion to Martha Stewart to their battles with the clutter caused by take-out containers, Legos, and advertising circulars. But if she is funny—and she is—she is also alert to the urges that underlie yuppie obsessions. “My attraction to these images [in Martha Stewart publications] is rooted in a simple truth: women like pretty things,” she writes. “Stewart’s magazines . . . all seem to depict some parallel universe in which loveliness and order are untrammeled by the surging chaos of life in session, particularly life as it is lived with small children.”
Flanagan believes that feminism’s doctrine that “caring for children and husbands and households constitutes subservience” is at odds with women’s continued longing for domestic satisfactions. She dislikes the Bitch-in-the-House (an only quasi-parodic title of a recent collection of essays about women and housework) anger it has introduced into marriage. And she admires the competence and frugality of the old-fashioned housewife, who would sew up a frayed hem rather than “recycling” a dress to the thrift shop. Things may have been tedious for these women at times, she concedes, but the rituals and routines of their lives reflected primal needs in a way that the 8 AM video-conference meetings of a marketing executive do not.
Still, Flanagan’s answer to the To Work Or Not To Work question is far more complicated than the fundamentalists have allowed. She remembers the mild despair she felt during her own twin sons’ infancy and that she spied in her own mother when she was a young girl. Her chapter “Housewife Confidential” is in part a compilation of the double-edged descriptions of their lot by humorists Peg Bracken, Jean Kerr, and her favorite, Erma Bombeck. When her sons start kindergarten she expects to find a big difference between the children of working mothers and the stay at homes. She admits that she does not.
And yet, she says—and yet. Children are madly attached to their mothers. Families, including men—the louts!—thrive when home life is orderly, comfortable, and good-humored. For Flanagan, women can find no easy escape from “the tensions of our times.” “What few will admit—because it is painful, because it reveals the unpleasant truth that life presents a series of choices, each of which precludes a host of other attractive possibilities—is that whatever decision a woman makes she will have lost something of incalculable value.” These days, when every seventh-grade girl knows about the joys of the office, Flanagan has set herself the thankless task of reminding us of the deeper, though more encumbered, satisfactions of life at home. The housewife, she writes, can be “harassed into the end of time yet capable of moments of transcendence, when she [is] struck by the power of her love for her children and by the importance of her sacrifice on their behalf.”
Of course, fundamentalists don’t generally cotton to ambiguity, and the feminists who have pursued Flanagan are no exception. “If Flanagan wants to make the case for blissful, stay at home motherhood—something I was completely open to—it would help if her own experience or her mother’s lived up to that theory,” Kirsten Powers pouted in The American Prospect in her brief against Flanagan’s (ahem) “overly simplistic theories.” The feminist warriors of the Flanagan-inspired insurgency seem to care not a whit that they embody the worst stereotypes that their enemies have promulgated about them: their reading of Flanagan has been doggedly ideological, humorless, and petulant. An Elle profile of Flanagan includes a comment from a best-selling chick-lit novelist fittingly named Jennifer Weiner. “I read the article she wrote in the Atlantic, and I just felt crucified,” the wounded novelist says. “Weiner had just hired someone to care for her infant daughter 20 hours a week,” the Elle reporter explains sympathetically.
In fact, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the very green-eyed monster that misogynists have long associated with their sex has visited the fundamentalists. The female commentariat frequently complains about how few women publish their work at elite outlets. Why the retrograde Flanagan and not them? Particularly galling, Flanagan’s ascension results at least in part (so they believe) from her connection to the old boy network; the original idea for her articles came during a soiree at the home of a friend, who just happened to be married to an editor at a prestigious magazine. You can hear the muttering: Caitlin Flanagan went to a dinner party and wound up on the Atlantic masthead, while all I got was this lousy red wine stain on my Marc Jacobs top.
To be fair, Flanagan isn’t entirely innocent in this flare-up of the Mommy Wars. Her persona, particularly in her media appearances, sometimes gives off an irritating hint of the frisky ingénue. Worse, as a prodigiously gifted stylist, she relies on wit and brio not only to convey their own anti-ideological wisdom but also occasionally to slip past the contradictions and ambiguities in her views. The favored attack on “reactionaries” like Flanagan is always that they are, first, simple-minded and second, hypocritical. In Flanagan’s case, the first charge is what psychoanalysts call projection, but the second might give reasonable readers pause. Flanagan may revel in books about housewifery, but she admits to having a household staff that has protected her from ever having so much as to change a bed sheet. Under these circumstances, it would be best to speak slowly and carefully, so that even the bull-headed can understand.
What Flanagan might have better underscored is that her real subject is not The Question: To Work Or Not To Work. It is love. Flanagan had a fierce devotion to her own mother, whose presence haunts the book. She experienced in her mother’s pot roasts and freshly ironed laundry the embodiment of comfort, safety, and love. Despite Flanagan’s deficiencies in the domestic arts, it’s a feeling she badly wants to bring to her own family. What this talented writer reminds us of are two simple truths that are apostasy to the fundamentalists and, sadly, lost to many young women who never saw them in action: that when working properly, satisfying domestic life can embody a mother’s love for her children, the most powerful love there is; and that no matter how women choose to live, this love will forever be entangled with self-sacrifice.
Should this really be the stuff of war without end?
Having It All
Say goodbye to the "success penalty" -- professional women have the best chance at marriage and children.
Reviewed by Stephanie Coontz
Sunday, November 26, 2006; Page BW08
WHY SMART MEN MARRY SMART WOMEN
By Christine B. Whelan
Simon & Schuster. 239 pp. $24
SINGLE BY CHANCE, MOTHERS BY CHOICE
How Women Are Choosing Parenthood Without Marriage and Creating the New American Family By Rosanna Hertz
Oxford Univ. 273 pp. $26
You can't have it all, women have long been told. The price of female achievement, goes the centuries-old conventional wisdom, is loneliness. And modern commentators have taken up the refrain. "The more successful the woman, the less likely it is she will find a husband or bear a child," argued economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett in 2002. Last year, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd claimed that America faces "an epidemic of professional women missing out on husbands and kids" because men remain unwilling to enter equal relationships with educated, high-powered women. And in the first two-thirds of the 20th century, as women gained greater access to higher education and professional work, such was indeed the case. Women who earned bachelor's degrees and PhDs were more likely to miss out on their "MRS" degrees than their less-educated sisters.
But for women born since 1960, there has been a revolutionary reversal of the historic pattern. As late as the 1980s, according to economist Elaina Rose, women with PhDs or the equivalent were less likely to marry than women with a high school degree. But the "marital penalty" for highly educated women has declined steadily since then, and by 2000 it had disappeared. Today, women with a college degree or higher are more likely to marry than women with less education and lower earnings potential.
Highly educated women are also now as likely to have children as their less-educated counterparts -- and much more likely to have children born in wedlock. At the same time, economically successful women are the fastest-growing segment of the minority of women who, if they do not marry, choose to have children anyway. The titles of two new books sum up the opportunities that women now have to mix and match their personal and professional lives: Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women, by Christine B. Whelan, and Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice, by Rosanna Hertz.
Whelan's book is aimed at the demographic group she calls SWANS -- Strong Women Achievers, No Spouse. Whelan commissioned a poll of 1,629 high-achieving men and women ages 25 to 40 and found that almost half the women reported fearing that their success in the world of work was a disadvantage in the world of love. Whelan reassures them that men increasingly do want to marry equals, that most men are not intimidated by educational and career success.
One poll, a series of interviews with a second sample of "high-achievers," and a handful of research studies are a rather flimsy peg on which to hang a book. What could have been a focused, attention-getting article is muddled by considerable padding. Whelan's book does not answer the question posed by her title -- why do smart men now marry smart women? -- nor does she explore the declining marital prospects for poorly educated women and men. Low-income, poorly educated men have the worst prospects of any group in today's marriage market, suggesting that it is a mistake to frame the revolution in marriage as a woman's issue. More men than women describe being married as their ideal state, and men who remain single fare far worse emotionally than do their female counterparts.
Still, this book contributes to the cultural conversation about marriage by countering outdated stereotypes about male-female relations. Whelan's polls confirm what authors Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers showed in more compelling detail in their 2004 book Same Difference-- that in the middle to upper levels of the education and income distribution, men and women are moving closer together, not farther apart, in what they want from relationships.
Whelan offers encouragement to everyone in her demographic. Career women who postpone marriage, she explains, still have a good chance to marry in their 30s or 40s, and she cites a study by three sociologists who find that, unlike in the past, wives' fulltime employment is now associated with a lowered risk of divorce. For women who marry too late to have children, her poll shows that many women believe they can have very satisfying lives anyway. For women who don't marry but want a child, she points out that this is now an option. Half her female respondents said that they'd consider having a child alone if they couldn't find a suitable partner.
Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice deals with women who made that decision. Based on in-depth interviews with 65 middle-class women, Hertz's book traces how women decide first to have children outside marriage and then whether to adopt, choose a known donor or become pregnant through an anonymous sperm donor. She explores how these women answer their children's questions about their biological fathers and how they integrate men into their children's lives.
Most of the heterosexual women Hertz interviews are "reluctant revolutionaries," women who would have preferred a male partner but who reached a point where they were willing to go it alone rather than miss out on motherhood. Her lesbian subjects, by contrast, consciously defied the idea that motherhood depends upon a heterosexual relationship. Neither group made these choices lightly. They enlisted the support of families and friends before embarking on this journey, and they have all had to grapple with their children's desire to picture their father and understand their kin connections. Contrary to some stereotypes, these women try mightily to include men in their children's lives. Hertz describes how they handle these thorny issues and gets the women to speak candidly about their trials, joys and dilemmas.
It's impossible to do justice here to the complexity of the portraits Hertz paints in this well-crafted book, including the different ways that women handle the often unexpected results of their decisions. Indeed, the details and variations in her stories are more compelling than her theoretical overview. Where Whelan fails to ground her data and advice in a coherent analysis, Hertz tries too hard to fit her material into an overarching feminist sociological framework. Concepts such as "compulsory motherhood" fail to capture the complex decision-making process her informants describe. Nor does the term patriarchy seem helpful in describing the messy mix of expanded options and continuing constraints these women confront. Certainly, male privilege still exists, but neither law nor popular opinion still enforces male dominance in most daily interactions. The freedom of single, economically secure women to raise children without the harsh economic penalties and social stigma of the past is a far cry from the patriarchy of yore.
I also question Hertz's claim that the "mother-child dyad" is the revolutionary family form of the future. Interviewed four years later, her subjects almost all reported that the two-person unit had been too intense. Some had added more children; others had added a partner.
Female-centered families are here to stay, and it is important to accept their legitimacy. But the same social changes that give women new options in their personal and professional lives also open new opportunities for paternal involvement in families, on far more egalitarian terms than in the past. That development is just as welcome -- and surely just as revolutionary -- as the new possibilities for lesbians and heterosexual women to rear children successfully without the involvement of fathers.
Stephanie Coontz, the author of "Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage," teaches at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.