What Happened to Women?
Instead of moving to the center, liberalism should try embracing people who are actually liberals—starting with women.
On August 26, 1970, thousands of women marched down New York’s Fifth Avenue as part of the nationwide Women’s Strike for Equality. That demonstration has become part of the foundation legend of feminism. Who hasn’t seen the iconic photograph of jubilant women of every age pouring down the street arm in arm? Few, though, remember what those marchers were specifically calling for: free abortion on demand, free 24-hour community-controlled childcare, and equal opportunity in jobs and education.
Forty years and a world of social and cultural change later, how have those demands fared? Abortion is legal (which it was not in 1970), but spottily available and hugely contested. Childcare is expensive, inadequate, and the source of much guilt and blame. By contrast with today’s guarded, apologetic liberal-feminist discourse on these subjects, the language of 1970 sounds positively drunk with confidence. Abortion at no charge just for the asking? Selfish slut! Free childcare around the clock? Bad mommy! As for “community-controlled,” what does that even mean? Only “equal opportunity” sounds contemporary; not coincidentally, it is the only one of the three demands that is (almost) uncontested, at least as a principle. Americans today endorse the idea that women should have the same chances as men to excel at school and at jobs that men have historically held. Of course, plenty of people gripe that things have gone too far: Title IX has forced colleges to cancel men’s teams, “political correctness” and government bureaucracy forces employers to prefer “unqualified” women over deserving men, and so on. Moreover, if we overlook the dramatic impact of Roe v. Wade in 1973, of the three demands, equal opportunity is the one that has seen the most real, if uneven, continuing progress. Why is that?
Like liberalism, feminism has (at least) two aspects: an individualistic and libertarian side, and a social-welfare, “big government” side. The individualistic side of feminism (and liberalism) has been one of our history’s great success stories. The kinds of restrictions on women’s personal choices that were seen as natural and proper only a few decades ago now seem barely comprehensible. Was it really in 1960 that a judge threw a young woman out of a New York City traffic court for wearing pants? Were “stewardesses” ever fired for getting married? Could adult single women (and, in Connecticut, wives) be legally barred from getting birth control? Feminism has done a pretty good job of persuading society that at least in theory, doors that are open to men should be open to women too. That credo resonates with a culture that prizes self-determination and advertises even the Army (be all that you can be!) as an opportunity for personal growth. Like liberalism, feminism helped to expand all sorts of personal freedom and autonomy, most obviously in the area of sexual self-expression: It’s hard to imagine gay rights without it.
Unfortunately, also like liberalism, feminism has not succeeded in winning the kinds of government (let alone “community-controlled”) services and programs and enforcement of existing laws that would make it possible for women to take full advantage of “equal opportunity,” even within their own social class. Affirmative action to get women into skilled blue-collar jobs? There’s been no increase in women in the building and related trades since the 1970s. And when was the last time you heard anyone mention comparable worth, the plan to raise women’s wages by equalizing pay in female-dominated jobs with that in similar, mostly male occupations? Parking valets still make more than daycare teachers—and male parking valets make more than female ones. As for escape from an abusive spouse? Maternity leave? Daycare? A decent life as a single mother? Sure, if you can afford it.
The limited progress of feminism at large is replicated within liberalism itself. Plenty of liberals are uneasy with the implications of women’s emancipation from old structures and norms. I’m thinking, for example, of communitarian worries about the incursions of “the market” into family and community life, which to my ear come across as barely veiled critiques of working mothers, especially ones who enjoy their work and would find it degrading to be supported by a man (funny how we never hear fathers criticized for continuing to work no matter how much their wives earn). Liberal institutions—think tanks, magazines, websites, conferences, academic and policy institutes, and so on—are still mostly controlled by men, who just don’t notice if there are no women at the table, and for whom one female on a panel is a whole lot of woman.
What one rarely sees is a reconfiguration of liberal premises to put women’s rights, interests, needs, and priorities at the center. Indeed, the rise of conservative Christianity has caused far too many liberals to dream that benign neglect of women’s rights (reproductive rights especially), gay rights, and church/state separation would make possible some grand economic-progressive alliance for a new New Deal. It is still a little shocking to me that Barack Obama invited Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration—Rick Warren, who not only opposes legal abortion and gay marriage, but also believes God commands wives to obey their husbands and forbids divorce to battered women.
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