Out with the old and out with the new

Feminism of every stripe has failed. It's time for a gender equality movement.

Published January 26, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The 20th century was, among other things, the century of feminism. For the first time in history, the belief that women have the same rights and the same worth as men is not the vision of a few radicals but the cultural norm in a large proportion of human societies. In the United States, women's gains have been, in many ways, especially impressive. Yet one would have to be a wild-eyed optimist to insist that the gender revolution of the past 30 years has been an unqualified success.

"Modern feminism, until recently at least," the late social critic Christopher Lasch wrote in a 1993 essay, "promised not to intensify sexual warfare but to bring about a new era of sexual peace in which women and men could meet each other as equals, not as antagonists." If so, its promise certainly hasn't been fulfilled. Harmony between the sexes sometimes seems more elusive than ever. It's no accident that a perennial bestseller of the 1990s was a book built on the concept that the problems between men and women stem from forgetting that we're creatures from different planets.

The unabashedly retro vision of "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" -- men want achievement and sex, women want relationships and love -- is echoed on a more sophisticated level by neo-traditionalists like Danielle Crittenden ("What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us") and Wendy Shalit ("A Return to Modesty"), who deplore the damage allegedly wrought by the feminist denial of woman's essential difference from man and propose a slightly updated version of old-fashioned femininity as the path to happiness.

But what about those of us who believe that the answer is to go forward, not back? Can feminism serve as our compass, and what goals should it be pursuing? The law no longer gives men any privileges; and, while it would be Pollyannaish to assert that women have reached fully equal economic opportunities, many leading feminists -- such as University of Southern California law professor Susan Estrich -- now acknowledge that disparities in pay and advancement are due at least partly to women's personal choices about work and family.

As for sexist cultural attitudes, they form a tangled web in which women are as implicated as men (even liberated and successful women often regard status and high earnings as essential criteria of eligibility in a mate), and male and female disadvantages are profoundly intertwined.

Women, for the most part, are the ones who must wrestle with hard decisions about balancing work and family. Men, for the most part, have much less freedom to cut down on work and spend more time with their children, or trade a lucrative job for a more fulfilling one. Today, the social pressure on fathers to bring home a paycheck is considerably stronger than the pressure on mothers to be at home.

Faced with these complexities, feminism has moved further and further away from its dictionary definition of belief in the equality of the sexes. Some feminists now declare that equality is a failure if women must give up their "female values" to succeed -- in the process reverting to hoary cliches of male and female. Others, loath to concede victory, cling to exaggerated or mythical claims of oppression. They insist, for instance, that women earn 75 cents to a man's dollar "for the same work," even though economists like Harvard University's Claudia Goldin readily concede that the pay gap largely reflects differences in occupation, skills and length of employment, and even though the gap is rapidly closing for young women whose career patterns are more similar to men's. They also claim that schools are rife with anti-female bias (when 55 percent of college degrees are obtained by women).

No less disturbingly, the women's movement often seems to have shifted from the goal of equal treatment to one of female advantage. After helping bring down the maternal custody presumption in an effort to eliminate discriminatory laws in the 1970s, the movement turned increasingly hostile to fathers' claims of equality (at least when those claims conflict with those of mothers and not those of employers stingy with paternity leave).

Some feminists, such as psychologist Phyllis Chesler, openly invoke the biological superiority of mother love; others, including the National Organization for Women, dress up the defense of maternal privilege in equal-rights garb, portraying women as victims of bias. A 1999 NOW resolution asserts that "women lose custody of their children despite being good mothers [and] despite a lack of involvement of the father with the children" -- which may occasionally happen but is hardly a pattern. Invariably, too, feminists flock to the side of women in high-profile custody fights, particularly when the demands of the mother's career become an issue. They seem to forget that a father, regardless of the demands of his job, would lose his children in a custody battle simply as a matter of course.

The tension between individual rights and sisterhood has probably always existed in feminism. But back when women's civil rights were routinely denied or severely abridged, the question, "Do we champion fairness or do we champion women?" may have seemed moot. Today, it would be hard to argue with a straight face that taking the woman's side is always synonymous with being for justice.

In 30 years, for example, rape victims' advocacy has gone from challenging clearly unjust practices (such as jury instructions that "unchaste character" could be held against the woman's credibility) to insisting that if a woman feels raped, the man must be guilty. As legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon put it, "Feminism is built on believing women's accounts of sexual use and abuse by men."

The principle of solidarity with women, which becomes morally dubious when it places gender above fairness to individuals, is compounded by the idea that the personal is political. To some extent, inasmuch as feminism sought to change relations between the sexes, it inevitably subjected the personal sphere to political analysis. There was a time when it targeted laws that gave men authority over women; later, it challenged the social norms dictating a woman's place -- the belief that she should subordinate any personal ambition to her husband's and defer to him on important decisions, or that keeping house was her job. This critique did not necessarily presume male malevolence or female innocence. Even Betty Friedan, in "The Feminine Mystique," saw middle-class men less as oppressors than as victims of housewives obsessed with domestic perfection and social status.

Today's feminism tends to focus on bad things men do to women, including misdeeds that, long before the widespread acceptance of women's equality, were generally viewed in the West as reprehensible violations of moral and social norms: rape, battering, sexual coercion of employees. Yes, it is true that the outrage at such acts often did not translate into social sanctions, and often did not preclude sexist biases against victims; the women's movement certainly deserves credit for bringing these problems to center stage.

However, framing the issues in terms of a male "war against women" had some unfortunate consequences -- notably, a much-deplored tendency to depict women as perpetual victims and men as villains. Women's ill-treatment of men is either obliterated or excused, resulting in a quasi-Victorian sentimental insistence on female virtue and innocence.

Often, the same people who bristle at the notion that women may be less sexual or less aggressive than men insist that unwelcome sexuality in the workplace is always a male imposition on women and indignantly reject any suggestion that women may sometimes be the aggressors in domestic combat.

Causes such as those that protest violence against women are less an appeal for respect for women as human beings equal in stature to men (who are, after all, the primary victims of male violence) than demands that we feel sympathy for women as damsels-in-distress.

The preoccupation with women's injuries at the hands of men also politicizes less egregious, more complex offenses. The 1999 book "Rebels in White Gloves" by Miriam Horn, a portrait of the Wellesley College Class of '69, tells the story of how U.S. Attorney Kris Olson Rogers came to see her bad (but non-violent) marriage as abusive. Rogers had her epiphany when, soon after her divorce, she read materials from a battered women's shelter which defined abusive behavior as ranging from lies and infidelity to "not giving support, attention, and compliments."

As a consciousness-raising exercise, Rogers read the checklist at a seminar for women lawyers and asked how many had experienced such treatment from spouses or partners. About 80 percent raised their hands. Surely, if the same list were read to a group of men -- or lesbians -- a similar forest of hands would go up.

While Horn wonders if this politicization of the personal turns "the confused misdemeanors inevitable in a relationship into stark crimes," she concludes that it is ultimately a good thing, empowering women to resolve their private problems through "public solidarity."

But actually, this kind of "empowerment" often seems to reduce feminism to a vehicle for women to vent and validate their frustrations with men -- frustrations which have less to do with gender politics or Mars-Venus differences than with tensions inherent in intimate relationships -- and to blame their personal unhappiness on the patriarchy.

Meanwhile, conservative traditionalists have long tried to use feminist claims of female misery as evidence that the pursuit of equality was a tragic mistake. While the neo-traditionalists often claim that the path they are proposing combines the best of women's new roles with the best of age-old wisdom about men and women, their actual prescriptions are heavy on the age-old, while the new often seems to be a mere cosmetic dusting.

Thus, Crittenden's proposed solution to women's work-and-family woes is vintage 1950s: Yes, women should be able to fulfil their talents outside the home but it's up to them to build their working lives around the family -- which is their primary responsibility, as breadwinning is the man's. ("What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us" shrugs off child care by fathers as an unrealistic option for most women; in a March 1999 article in the Canadian daily National Post, Crittenden goes further and mocks the nurturing dad as a wimp no real woman would want in her bed.) Nastily censorious toward working mothers, Crittenden has even chided Elizabeth Dole for having the temerity to announce, during the 1996 campaign, that she would return to her post at the Red Cross if Bob Dole became president.

Shalit, meanwhile, yearns openly for paternalistic norms that curtailed women's freedom but protected them from bad men and their own bad judgment. It is no accident that she repeatedly blurs the lines between girl children (who do need the protection of adults -- as do boys) and grown young women. While Shalit has asserted that her vision of feminine modesty is in no way incompatible with careers, she makes it clear that in her view, encouraging women to be assertive and independent, just like encouraging them to be casual about sex, is a way of telling them to "stop being a woman."

In many strange ways, modern feminism and modern traditionalism overlap. Both oppose equal treatment regardless of gender: the neo-feminists want special protections on the grounds of women's oppressed and powerless state, the traditionalists on the grounds of women's innate vulnerabilities and differences from men.

Both camps are preoccupied with men's mistreatment of women. In the conservative version of the personal-as-political, the liberalization of social and sexual mores has lifted the constraints that held male misconduct in check: Single women, duped into making themselves sexually available, are used and dumped at every turn, and those lucky enough to get married are still in constant danger of being dumped because divorce has been made easy. Men, in this scheme of things, have virtually no interest in love, marriage or children unless women rope them into commitment by withholding sex and unless there is societal pressure on them to get and stay married. They'll act like pigs if given half a chance, and they've been given just such a chance by feminism and the sexual revolution.

In fact, when it comes to male-bashing and preoccupation with female victimhood, some of the new traditionalists can hold a candle to the most radical of feminists. Victim feminism and victim anti-feminism achieve perfect convergence in "A Return to Modesty." In Shalit's hands, Victorian pieties about womanhood mix freely with feminist hyperbole about a "misogynist culture" in which women and girls face constant abuse, violence and degradation (except that she blames this on the loss of patriarchal protections, rather than the patriarchy).

Indeed, echoing the feelings-over-facts attitude for which conservatives have rightly derided the cultural left, Shalit suggests that false charges of victimization and statistics which inflate female misery matter less than the greater truth: A lot of young women are "very unhappy."

While conservatives often deplore feminism's polarizing influence and its view of relations between the sexes as a power struggle, neo-traditionalist gender politics are at bottom profoundly adversarial. The same writers who lament the loss of romance in our sexually liberated world often go on to discuss sex in terms of "bargaining power" and "market conditions" (as in "Why buy the cow when you can have the milk for free").

To some women, the grim picture of a post-feminist sexual battlefield peopled by uncommitted men and exploited women may ring true, just as feminist claims of ubiquitous patriarchal atrocities will ring true to others. Reality, though, is considerably more complicated. Most men marry in spite of all the free milk, and the singles scene can be cruel to both sexes. Divorce is not primarily a matter of irresponsible men walking out on wives and children; two-thirds of the time, it's women who decide to leave, usually not because of adultery or abuse but because of dissatisfaction with the quality of the marriage.

There may well be important differences between women and men, and it may well be that men are biologically more predisposed to enjoy no-strings sex. But it hardly means that, as Crittenden suggests, men and women differ radically in their need for marriage, children and work.

At the dawn of the millennium, things aren't as bad as either feminists or neo-traditionalists claim. Most women and men try, however imperfectly, to find a balance between the modern and the traditional. Yet we can do better.

Maybe, at least in the context of Western industrial democracies, what we need at this stage is not a women's movement at all but a gender equality movement -- one clearly committed to fairness and equity for individuals regardless of sex, not just to the empowerment or betterment of women. Such a movement -- which would probably be loosely organized and focused on grass-roots cultural change more than top-down policy making -- should not aim for 50-50 parity in every sphere.

While conservatives are prone to exaggerating biological sex differences, it seems likely that all human abilities and preferences are not distributed evenly between the sexes. We may never get to a point where half of all Fortune 500 executives and nuclear physicists are women while half of all nurses and full-time parents are men. Indeed, overly aggressive attempts to achieve such an ideal could result in coercive social engineering schemes (such as the proposed
Swedish law that would require fathers as well as mothers
to take parental leave). On the other hand, sex differences are a matter of tendencies, not absolutes: Many women can be superb business leaders, many men wonderful nurturers.

The goal should be to ensure that individual opportunities and choices are not limited by gender. A true equality movement would speak up against working-mother-bashing or anti-father bigotry. It would raise its voice when pop culture depicts women as bimbos or men as jerks; when promiscuous women are judged more harshly than promiscuous men or when all sexual miscommunication is blamed on males. It would work to ensure that domestic violence is taken as seriously as any other crime and that violent women are judged by the same standards as violent men. It would understand that women should not be stigmatized any more than men for aggressive or selfish behavior, and that they should be held equally accountable for it.

An equality movement would urge not only men but women to reconsider their chauvinistic attitudes (such as the belief that they have a superior bond with their children) and their non-egalitarian expectations of the other sex. It would respect the choices of men and women who prefer traditional roles but would also convey the message that we cannot have it both ways. And, without pursuing the utopian goal of complete personal harmony between women and men, it would encourage us to understand that sometimes personal conflicts are just personal -- and that, when it comes to inflicting private misery, women and men generally give as good as they get.

Modern technological and social advances have finally made possible a society in which individuals are judged not by the anatomy of their bodies but by the content of their character. The movement toward such a society had to start with an effort to extend to women the fundamental rights of adult citizens. Now, it's the time to stress equal responsibilities as well as equal rights, to take a more nuanced view of sex and power, to resist the forces (traditionalist or feminist) that divide the sexes.

It's time to remember that women have no special entitlement to happiness and that it's not a special outrage when bad things happen to good women -- because women are people, nothing less and nothing more.

By Cathy Young

Cathy Young is the author of "Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality."

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