Issue #16, Spring 2010

What Happened to Women?

To read the other essays in the “The Liberal Moment: What Happened?” symposium, click here.

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.

The tepid role of liberals in the welfare-reform debate is telling. It was, after all, Bill Clinton, a Democrat, who abolished the principle that poor mothers and children were entitled to government help, and who signed a bill asserting that the cause of those women’s poverty was their lack of a husband—not lack of a job with a man-size wage. Even today, as one in eight Americans gets food stamps and one in two children receives food stamps before reaching the age of 20, we hear no significant calls for a comprehensive attack on the feminization of poverty, or policy proposals that take on board the multiple ways in which women are punished economically for the greater burden of caregiving they assume, without which society could not function. Outside feminist policy circles, we don’t hear much outrage about the ways in which a whole range of government rules and regulations, including income tax law, Social Security, and unemployment insurance, disregard working women’s different patterns of employment. But these structures, set up when the breadwinner husbands/stay-home wives was the norm, reinforce women’s secondary-earner status. We certainly don’t hear in-depth analyses of violence against women and its effects, or serious policy proposals about how to fight it. The whole way that the subordination of women pervades and shapes our economic, social, and cultural life—including the “equal opportunity” we all in theory support—is just not a vital theme in liberal discourse. The very words one might use to describe it—misogyny, patriarchy, male dominance, women’s oppression—are taboo for people who want to be taken seriously today.

What would a robust liberal commitment to women’s equality look like? Support for free abortion on demand would be a start—and how about some 24-hour, free childcare, with well-trained and well-paid staff? I’d like to see liberals wrestle with the ways our society disadvantages mothers, which the economics journalist Ann Crittenden (in her book The Price of Motherhood) and others have analyzed. Let’s have less babble about how great it is that women have so many “choices,” and more hard-headed discussion of why so many women who want and need to work find themselves pushed out of their jobs when they have kids, and why so many women who take time out of the labor force to have a baby find themselves marginalized at work for the rest of their careers.

At the current rate of progress (which is a big assumption), it could take 50 years for women to earn 100 cents on the male dollar, 100 years for women to have equal representation in Congress, and whatever remains of human history for women to participate equally with men in the broad range of American life. That will never happen if the attitude of liberals toward gender inequality is to deplore it politely and suggest that women go off somewhere and discuss it among themselves.


More from Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

Liberalism, Unwilling and Unable by Brad Carson

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Issue #16, Spring 2010
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This was a very thoughtful article and looks at a critical question--"Why have women stopped stepping up to lead in the feminist movement." This is a subset of a larger question--"Why have people in general stopped calling on the government to meet their needs?" It is fatuous to blame "the liberals" because the United States stopped electing liberals to the Congress in the '80's and purged the survivers in 1994. Can you think of any Senator since Paul Wellstone was killed who would stand proudly in the tradition of Hubert Humphrey? Of course not! Liberalism died with the death of Humphrey and the election of Ronald Reagan. When people start standing up for themselves again, and for "the least of our brothers and sisters," then liberalism will reappear. Right now the most visible rank-and-file women you see are quoting Ann Coulter and cheering for Sarah Palin and calling our President a Socialist or worse. The liberal wannabes now are either running for cover or preparing to lose their reelection campaigns.

If women were liberals or were inclined to support liberals, then liberal office holders would be empowered. Right now women and us old codgers who believe in the liberal democracy of the 60's and 70's are written off as dinosaurs. It is the women and the young people themselves who will define the America of the next twenty years. Right now they are not pulling very hard on the oar, so until they do you may as well leave us powerless old liberals alone.

Mar 4, 2010, 1:46 PM

One of the problems here is that all women are not liberals. It makes no sense to assume that a member of any group, whether by means of their age, ethnicity, gender, or other statistical clustering is reliably a member of any other statistical cluster. However, assumptions like this can rally the mob, that then behaves in mob-like fashion: without reflection and with more heat than light.

I guess I would think of myself as a liberal. Until I read something ridiculous written by someone on the Left. Then I hedge back until I read something even more ridiculous from the Right.

I graduated from high school in 1970, and I remember those heady days of my early college years. What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? Now. Etc.

Not surprisingly, my view of things has broadened and deepened as I have grown older. Nothing seems easy because nothing is. I have little tolerance for anyone who claims to "know" my mind based on my socioeconomic status. Heck, most days, I don't even know my own mind--at least not until I sit down, take a deep breath and over several hours try to figure out WHAT it is that I do feel and know about any given issue.

You probably don't realize that in order to write a questionnaire that generates useful information, you have to know what you want to know, and even more, you have to be willing to hear answers you don't want to hear.

This is BIG.

Now, I'm sure you thought that was obvious. But think of the idiot questionnaires and polls you have filled out, especially those that claim to tap into subjective data.

An example:

"In evaluating teeth whitening products, what features are most important to you?"

a. sparkle

b. decreased gum bleeding

c. improved breath

d. social allure

Playing theoretical consumer, I check off "sparkle" and move on to the next question without reading the other potential answers. It so happens that to me "sparkle" means pretty much the same thing as "social allure." If my teeth aren't mud colored, I think I will be able to smile openly and therefore I will feel much more self-confident. I think that people will notice this and like me. And it will be all because of my whitened teeth! So I will buy any product that reliably produces teeth "sparkle."

But what the pollster means by "sparkle" is "removal of teeth crud," maybe by any chemical means possible.

So he/she will take my answer to mean, "Hey, it's okay to put hydrochloric acid in this teeth whitening product, because the most important thing to me is removal of crud regardless of the long-term damage to teeth integrity."

What I, as theoretical consumer, meant is that I will be much more likely to buy a product that makes me feel socially secure. But maybe I wouldn't buy that product if I knew it was sandblasting my teeth.

Get it?

Volumes of misinformation are generated in this way.

Now, you know and I know that no teeth whitener is going to improve my social allure by itself. It may help me interact with more confidence, but that's all. The rest is up to me.

You are perhaps saying, "Aw, c'mon, when she checked "sparkle" she (theoretical consumer) didn't think that meant "help me get a date."

Probably, I wouldn't know that was what I thought because it would only be with deep reflection that I would discover that I believe people with white teeth have more fun.

Doubt me? Wait until you run across the next ad for tires that displays the thong clad rear end of some voluptuous babe. If you're Katha Pollitt, you will never buy those tires, EVER! If you're a guy, well, you might just unconsciously lean toward that brand next time, because of your dimly recollected memory of that curvaceous rear end--and your barely realized hope that buying those tires will get you some of THAT!

Katha Pollitt and I do share some opinions, but by no means all. So how exactly does "liberalism" (whatever THAT is) embrace "women." Which women? And how does a social construct embrace anything at all given that it has no arms?

Mar 23, 2010, 1:38 PM

Women (liberal women that is) lost all credibility by supporting Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal (conveniently discarding their much-trumpeted notion that sexual harrassment is about power). Their support of or at least failure to take a hard line against Muslim extremists who oppress women put the icing on the cake.

May 7, 2010, 9:46 AM

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