By Nathan Bierma
Content & Context
FEMINISM: A COUNTER-REFORMATION?
If I took a job in public relations, I'd know just who my first two clients would be. Few reputations have suffered in the media and popular culture lately as this beleaguered pair. My first client would be the Fifties, that supposedly Velveeta era of Eisenhower and tract housing. In the past few years, the movies Pleasantville and Far From Heaven have taken that decade to task for its fusty conformity (never mind that the Fifties were actually the decade of Rosa Parks, Allen Ginsburg, and the H-bomb). Now Mona Lisa Smile has joined in, sternly reprimanding the Fifties for its stiff gender roles. As usual, the New Yorker's David Denby put it best: "The movie's indignation feels superfluous."
My next client would be Feminism, whose approval ratings are in the cellar. The image of feminists as humorless 70s-era radicals is so pervasive that people who identify themselves as feminists tend to do so apologetically. I would be a bad publicist, because I would acknowledge the faults of my client. Yes, the feminist movement tended to have an "anti-maternal" tone to it, as Jean Bethke Elshtain wrote recently in B&C, and it did—in effect if not intention—make the ill-advised decision to pit "justice" against "care," as she contends. (I would challenge Elshtian's claim that the family was considered "the source of all political evil"; the halls of power were the bigger culprit). And yes, feminism was then and remains now most demonstrably a cause for affluent white women. We can all—even the dogmatic Barbara Ehrenreich, who witnesses this first-hand in her illuminating book Nickel and Dimed—appreciate the irony of ivory tower feminists employing low-income women as housekeepers.
Few social movements have enjoyed such relatively swift triumphs—nearly half of medical and business students are now women—with such little popular acclaim. Especially now that a new women's movement is widely said to be afoot: what a New York Times Magazine cover story last fall called "The Opt-Out Revolution." More and more women, it said, are opting out of the workplace in favor of full-time caregiving. Apparently the saying has stuck: no one on their deathbed wishes they had spent more time at the office. This trend is the subject of numerous articles and essays, a fraction of which are sampled below. Even the brainy law student in Mona Lisa Smile has evidently read this material, rehashing it in a climactic scene of the film.
As we will see, this glut of writing proceeds mostly in oblivion to three crucial points:
1) "Feminism" is one of those incredibly slippery terms that no one can easily define despite its strong connotations. Historians helpfully talk about waves of feminism—the suffrage movement was the first wave, Steinem and company were the second wave, and today's far more ambiguous female role models (from Mia Hamm to Sarah Jessica Parker) represent the third wave. Where the second wave had a specific political agenda, the third wave celebrates American individualism, holding that whatever a woman wants is what she should have—it's the American way. Still, "feminism" most often connotes second wave feminism.
2) In keeping with third wave feminism, the "Opt-Out Revolution" is being hailed as a triumph of female independence. Women are choosing motherhood of their own volition over a full-time career, because now they can. But given the absurd demands of the working world, of a commuter culture, and of a parenting culture which prizes overachieving children, what kind of choice do women truly have? Are not work and family more inherently incompatible than they would be in a more balanced society?
3) Finally, what about the men? I scanned back through that Times Magazine cover story and did not come across a single quote from a male source. At the very end the piece mentions the rise of stay-at-home dads, but otherwise this article and others completely ignore the question of why working fathers aren't feeling just as guilty about their work patterns and their responsibility to be nurturing parents. The media's poisonous messages to men—young men especially—that care and family aren't macho enough to concern them—go mostly unexamined. My jaw dropped when I read the subtitle of a Fortune magazine cover story a couple years ago on the stay-at-home husbands of female CEO's. Trying to be cutesy with the term "trophy husband," the tagline read: "They deserve a trophy for trading places." They do? Why? Because they "stooped" to the "lowly" level of parent? The male provider and female caregiver seems to be a more enduring and embraced norm than we care to admit.