When you ask young women today if they think of themselves as feminists, more often than not they will pause for a moment. Then they will answer something like: “Well, I believe in equal pay for equal work,” or “Yes, I do believe women should have choices,” or “Of course, I believe women should have equal rights.”
If these are the principles that define feminism, then we are all feminists now. And the future belongs to feminism, too: a 2001 American Demographics survey of adolescent girls entitled “The Granddaughters of Feminism” found that 97 percent believe women should be paid equally, while 92 percent believe “lifestyle choices” should not be limited by sex. Curiously, the war on terror has, if anything, solidified our commitment to women’s rights, though orthodox feminists opposed it as another dangerous example of “the cult of masculinity.” The sight of women forced to scurry about in sacks brought home to Americans just how much they treasured their freedoms, including those won for women over the past decades. For a remarkable moment, President Bush and Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority, which had long tried to bring Taliban mistreatment of women to the State Department’s attention, seemed members of the same party—which, seen against the backdrop of radical Islam, they actually are.
But how do we explain that pause that comes when you ask women if they consider themselves part of the movement? The truth is, very few Americans are capital “F” Feminists. Polls show that only about a quarter of women are willing to accept the label. Younger women seem no more comfortable with the title than their grandmothers were. Marie Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation for Women, has admitted that the elite young women who 20 years ago would have been the generals of the movement are feminists “by attitude . . . [but] are not interested in hearing about organized movements or activism.” They mostly do not join NOW or read Ms. magazine. They don’t think of themselves as second-class citizens of the patriarchy, or follow “women’s issues” in the news, and their marital status seems as likely to predict how they will vote as their sex.
Activists who try to make sense of these young feminists who are not Feminists conclude that the movement has an image problem. The reason so many people believe in feminist goals yet reject the label, they say, is that the media have given us a cartoon picture of liberationists as humorless, Birkenstock-wearing man-haters, our era’s version of the old-fashioned spinster. Feminism is still an “unfinished revolution,” they say, and young women share its goals. They just don’t like the packaging.
But this explanation falls far short. Feminism is not simply suffering from a P.R. problem. It’s just over. As in finished.
Supporters will smile and reply that the movement has been read its last rites often during its lifetime. What’s different now, though, is that feminism appears not so much dead as obsolete. Yes, it has bred a generation of empowered young women. But rooted in a utopian politics that longs to transcend both biology and ordinary bourgeois longings, it cannot address the realities of the lives that it has helped to change. Young women know this, even if their mothers do not.
Up until a year ago, Amanda Laforge could have served as a poster girl for Ms. After graduating from Boston University, she went to American University law school. When she married, she kept her maiden name and her job with the Maryland secretary of state. When she got pregnant, she continued commuting 45 minutes to her new job at the state attorney general’s office. When the baby came, she planned to take three months’ maternity leave, and then return to the office for a continued climb up the career ladder.
It didn’t turn out that way. Instead of becoming super career mom, she quit her job. Yet she shows no symptoms of Oppressed Housewife Syndrome. Isn’t she bored? “No. I love it.” Does she miss her job? “I do miss working—or at least having colleagues. I’ve started to look for part-time work.” Does she worry that she is not her husband’s equal? “I feel superior to my husband,” she sniffs. “Women are much more powerful.” But won’t her career suffer? “I’m struggling with this personally right now. I know I’ve already compromised my ability to reach the height of my career. But I see a lot of room to make up.” Is it so easy to put aside your career? “No, but I had friends whose mothers were career women who just got caught up in something. Now they’ve worked for 25 or 30 years for X company, and they didn’t get to such enormous heights. Would their lives have been that much different if they had worked part-time? I know a lot of fairly educated people,” Amanda concludes, “and no one is looking for more time at the office.”
It would be a big mistake to see Amanda as a return to 1950s milk-and-cookies motherhood or as evidence of the backlash that Feminists announce with every article by Katie Roiphe. It would be equally wrong to conclude that most young mothers today are quitting work to be with their babies. Many are; but many others are working part-time, or two days a week at the office, say, and three at home. And, yes, many others are going back to work full-time.
But regardless of how they arrange their lives, women like Amanda illustrate a truth that Feminism never anticipated and is still busily denying: after the revolution, women want husbands and children as much as they want anything in life. It’s not that the daughters and granddaughters of feminism don’t respect those who forgo marriage and motherhood: in the American Demographics poll, 89 percent of adolescent girls said a woman does not need a man to be a success, and the percentage of single women between 35 and 44 has increased significantly since 1960. But the vast majority of young women continue to tell pollsters that they want to marry and have children, and they go on to do so. Census experts predict that upward of 90 percent of today’s young women will eventually marry, which means, remarkably enough, that women today tie the knot at a rate similar to that of their grandmothers. Moreover, even with the widely publicized decline in fertility in recent decades, a large majority of women will also become mothers; as of 2000, 81 percent of women aged 40 to 44 had given birth to at least one child.
After giving birth, moreover, not many embrace the one preferred Feminist solution to liberated motherhood: dropping the baby off at the day-care center for 50 hours a week. According to another American Demographics study, having come from broken or latchkey homes, most Gen X-ers think the best arrangement is for one parent to stay home with the kids, a belief that other polls suggest the majority of Americans share. This usually means Mom, even after three decades of feminism and a concerted effort to get fathers to man the nursery. A 1996 Census Bureau report shows that 42 percent of children under five have a parent at home full-time, another 19.4 percent part-time—and the large majority of these parents are women. The latest Census Bureau numbers show that 55 percent of women with infants were in the workforce in 2000, compared with 59 percent two years earlier—the first such decline since 1979.
It’s no wonder that Feminists have a hard time accepting that trends like these could represent what women actually want. After all, Feminists of the 1960s and 70s took to the streets on the premise that women wanted to escape from the prison house of the bourgeois home and take up positions in the office and the boardroom, where the real power lies. Women consigned to the role of housewife and mother measured out their days with baby spoons and dirty socks, but work, it seemed to these followers of Betty Friedan, would give them adventure, self-expression, freedom. In the seventies, the offices of Ms. and other feminist organizations sported signs proclaiming women working!
Echoes of this kind of thinking still resound in aging Feminist circles. In her recent book, Flux, for example, Peggy Orenstein explains that work or career “requires the assertion of self,” whereas in wifehood and motherhood “your whole identity as a person gets swallowed up.” In the same vein, several years ago a successful screenwriter of about 50 told me that she was contemplating divorce. When I expressed sympathetic alarm, she hastened to explain that there was nothing wrong with her marriage; it was just that “I hate that word ‘wife.’ It’s not who I am.”
Such talk has about as much resonance as “Remember the Maine!” for younger women. For one thing, the romance of work—what might be called the Feminist mystique—has faded. Young women, as more than one I interviewed put it, are far more likely to feel pressure to be “super career women” than to play Ozzie’s Harriet. That doesn’t mean that those fortunate enough to have challenging jobs don’t take great pride in their accomplishments or enjoy the intellectual stimulation they get at the office. And it doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of young women as fiercely ambitious as Duddy Kravitz. But many are put off by the single-minded careerism they associate with Feminism. In Feminist Fatale: Voices of the Twentysomething Generation Explore the Women’s Movement, Paula Kamen interviewed a number of such skeptics. “There are many women in this field in their late thirties who don’t have a family and their entire social life revolves around the job and people [on the job],” says one twentysomething. “I think that’s horrible.”
Remember also that the majority of women in their twenties and thirties watched their own mothers go to work but didn’t see adventurers and heroines. They saw tired women complaining about their bosses and counting the days until the next vacation, just as women their mothers’ age saw their fathers doing. And they know from personal experience that taking a meeting with a client or lunching with colleagues involves every bit as much of the role-playing that Feminists wanted to escape. “I worked 60 hours a week from the time I got out of college till I got pregnant,” one Boston-area 30-year-old marketing executive said. “I was tired of it. My job is not emotionally fulfilling. I like it, but it’s just a job.”
In short, for these women the personal is not political—it’s, well . . . personal. Even the most ambitious young women refuse to judge the housewife as, in Betty Friedan’s words, a “waste of human self.” Sara Ely Hulse, a recently married 26-year-old CBS producer proud of her “independent nature,” would seem a logical candidate for Feminist skepticism toward housewifery: her career is so promising that she and her husband consider appointing him the main caregiver when they have children. But when I asked whether she looked down on her mother, who had stayed at home to raise her and her two sisters, she answered heatedly: “Oh God, no! I loved having someone to come home to every day.” A young D.C. lawyer-mother I interviewed, though she went back to work three months after giving birth, is also entirely sympathetic to stay-at-homes. After all, when she gets together with friends, she says, “All we talk about is our babies.”
Nothing illustrates this reclaiming of the personal more clearly than the Mrs. question. For sixties feminists, becoming Mrs. John Smith epitomized both women’s second-class status and their economic and psychological dependence on men. Indeed, former NOW president Patricia Ireland wrote in her recent memoir, What Women Want, that a woman taking her husband’s name “signifies the loss of her very existence as a person under the law.” Pshaw, younger women say; it doesn’t mean anything of the sort. You can keep your name if you want—and many women do, as often for practical as for philosophical reasons. You can hyphenate your name or use your maiden name for work and your married name everywhere else. Or if you want to have the same name as your husband and children, go for it. “A lot of women in my office said keeping your maiden name is a hassle, like when the school calls, or the kids’ doctor, and asks for you using the child’s last name,” the independent-minded Sara Hulse said. “I hate hyphenated names—so I changed my name.” The D.C. lawyer explained that her decision to use her husband’s name was prompted by her experience growing up with a divorced and remarried mother. “I had a different name from my mother,” she recalls, “and it always bothered me.”
Single women, especially those in their later twenties and early thirties, have other reasons to feel impatient with the Feminist mystique. They followed the careerist script to a tee: they worked until 10 pm, got flashy jobs, fought for promotions. Meanwhile, they had sex when they felt like it, indifferent to whether their partner was husband material or not; they lived with their boyfriends, shrugged when that didn’t work out, and moved on to the next one. But after some years of this, many are surprised to find that the single life is less like Sex and the City than The Apartment.
“Sex is an easily attainable, feminist-approved goal, one that carries less stigma than admitting to loneliness or desperately wanting emotional connection with a man,” writes Katherine Marsh in a Washington Monthly article, in one of several youthful critiques of Feminism that have recently appeared. “While feminists can solidly advise on how to get rid of a man—obtaining a fair divorce or a restraining order against an abusive spouse—it’s fairly mute on how to find love and live with a decent man.” Vanessa Grigoriadis, writing in a recent New York Magazine article, tells of a woman whose parents, in thrall to the feminist career mystique, refused to pay for a wedding if she married before 30. But now she and her peers are feeling uneasy. “These days, the independence that seemed so fabulous—at least to those of us who tend to use that word a lot—doesn’t anymore.”
These younger women are especially peeved that, in promoting female independence, Feminism denied biological realities that now loom large. Feminists often like to talk about the “click”—the moment when a woman experiences discrimination so clearly that she sees her whole life in a radically new light. For a lot of younger women, the “click” moment has now arrived in a totally unexpected form. With the torrent of media coverage following the recent publication of Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Creating a Life—publicity that focused on the fertility problems of older high-achieving women—everything looks different. For just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no Feminists in the throes of fertility anxiety.
“I’m 28 and grew up in Manhattan, attended a competitive private high school and a liberal-arts college,” marvels Grigoriadis, “and at no point did anyone bring up the notion that the sexes were anything but equal. To me, it seemed like ideology was going to triumph over biology.” The “unwillingness to confront the personal—more precisely the feminine personal—is the biggest failure of the Second Wave,” Sarah Blustain, the 32-year-old managing editor of The New Republic, has written. (“Second Wave” feminism is sixties and seventies feminism; First Wavers were the suffragettes.) “It’s why the movement has refused to deal with the fact that even after the Revolution, many women want to marry men and bear their children. . . . It’s why, just this month, Time ran on its cover another installment of the Baby vs. Career story that drove women I know to tears for reminding us of the incredible double bind.”
Even young women who embrace the Feminist label have a beef with Sisterly avoidance of “the feminine personal.” Susan Jane Gilman, author of Kiss My Tiara: How to Rule the World as a Smartmouth Goddess, is one of Feminism’s more dutiful daughters in many ways—her pet issues include abortion rights, sexual harassment, and domestic violence—yet she says: “For women today, feminism is often perceived as dreary. As elitist, academic, Victorian, whiny, and passé.” Young women Gilman’s age don’t remember the thrill of the bra-burning, let’s-do-it-in-the-road seventies; instead they went to the thin-lipped, Catherine MacKinnon school of Feminism, where they learned that even their younger brothers were potential harassers, even rapists. They’re having none of it. Calling themselves girlie feminists, lipstick feminists, or sometimes just Third Wavers, they have taken to flaunting the very femininity that Feminists had scolded would lead men to objectify them.
If there is a beauty myth, these renegades are true believers. They want their lip gloss, their Victoria’s Secret lingerie, and their MTV. Oxford student Chelsea Clinton, pictured recently cuddling with her boyfriend in a Venetian gondola and at a Paris fashion show with a deep décolletage and enough mascara to paint a fence, appears to be a girlie feminist. At her age, her mother sported geeky glasses and unkempt hair, emblems of the I’ve-got-more-important-things-on-my-mind-than-attracting-a-man branch of Feminism, the Second Wave incarnate.
Still, it is more than nail polish that makes these daughters very different from what their mothers envisioned when they groomed them to take over the family business. For all their in-your-face sexual bravado, girlie feminists can be unabashed traditionalists. Consider Bust, a girlie Internet ‘zine that describes itself as “the magazine for women with something to get off their chests.” With its signature T-shirts that say KISS MY ASS and TOUGH TITTIES, and its pronouncement of “The New Girl Order,” Bust is full of Erica Jongish, zipless-sex Attitude. Yet as the title of one article, “A Bad Girl’s Guide to Good Housekeeping,” suggests, the hipness coexists with more conventional desires. A recent chat room offering “A Feminist Analysis of the Baby Scare” was less MacKinnon than Bride. “I’m conflicted,” one participant wrote. “Did some feminists drop the ball on this one? Have we understated the power of biology?” Another contributor was just mad: “I am not a mother and I am still not sure if/when I will be one,” she wrote. “But it really depresses me that if I do choose to get knocked up before the age of 30, that I will be looked upon as nothing more than a tool of the patriarchy. Sisterhood is powerful. Baloney.”
What all this suggests is a vast and sharper-than-a-serpent’s-tooth generation gap between Feminists and their progeny. “A woman in her twenties or thirties and I are in parallel universes, as if we were in two different countries,” Gloria Steinem has admitted. Being the out-of-touch oldtimers is especially painful for aging boomer-Feminists, once so proud of being in the vanguard. In the course of researching her recent history of the women’s movement, Susan Brownmiller looked up many old activist acquaintances and found them “very depressed” at their irrelevance. Other Second Wavers get prickly: how can these youngsters be so ignorant of what is at stake here?
Lisa Belkin, a New York Times reporter who covers the “work/life” beat and frequently recounts her own attempts to balance her enviable career with two young sons and a husband, was recently on the receiving end of this irritability, when Maureen Corrigan, a boomer Georgetown literature professor, reviewed her new collection of columns, Life’s Work. Corrigan blasted the younger woman’s failure to show more respect for the Second Wave legacy. Where Belkin cheerfully accepts the inevitable tensions between her career and family life, Corrigan spies the “small pathologies of an unfinished revolution.” Where the frankly ambitious Belkin nevertheless acknowledges that the stresses of her husband’s job as a pediatric cardiologist make her own deadline pressures seem less intense, Corrigan frets that young women should “stop apologizing for having professional ambitions and minds of their own.” And when Belkin describes the confusion that sometimes comes from using her maiden name at work and her husband’s name socially, Corrigan explodes: this young woman has a “weirdly reactionary split personality,” she snarls. “Why [did] she choose to create problems for herself by taking her husband’s last name in the first place?”
Meanwhile, the younger generation concludes that older women just don’t get it. Peggy Orenstein, who in her late thirties is old enough to be a card-carrying member of the Sisterhood but young enough to know that the future needs attending to, traveled around the country asking 200 women about their attitudes toward work, romance, and family for her recent book, Flux. She was puzzled to find women who share neither her passion for work nor her ambivalence toward marriage and motherhood. During the question period after a speech at Washington University, a student burst out: “I don’t want to have to wait until I’m thirty-five to have kids!” Orenstein’s priceless reaction speaks volumes about the chasm between the New Girl Order and the Second Wave Old Guard. “I nodded too, sympathetically. It really wasn’t fair. Then suddenly, I thought, ‘Wait a minute! I’m nearly thirty-seven and I don’t have children yet. These women don’t want to be me.’ ”
Of course, many older Feminists are shocked—shocked!—that their daughters’ generation could think that they looked down their noses at the feminine personal. “The notion that the women’s movement denigrates women who choose the traditional roles of wife and mother is arrant nonsense,” columnist Molly Ivins writes emphatically. She might want to sign up for a few women’s studies classes at Yale or the University of Texas or check out the current literature from NOW. What she’ll find is not just hostility to “traditional roles” but a tight-wound ambivalence toward the biological urges that young women now so loudly affirm and a hostility to bourgeois life that few young women share.
Take the Feminist attitude toward marriage. When college women sit at the knee of their female elders, they may well read from the widely used textbook Women’s Realities, Women’s Choices. There they will learn that “the institution of marriage and the role of ‘wife’ are intimately connected with the subordination of women in society in general.” For the teachers, this attitude isn’t just theoretical. Daphne Patai, co-author of Professing Feminism and author of Heterophobia, books critical of the women’s studies industry, recounts a lunch with other female academics, at which one announces she is getting married. The response: shocked, dead, embarrassed silence.
Yet Feminist hostility to marriage goes beyond the view that it makes women second-class citizens. Feminists also cling to the ideal of the post-bourgeois, liberated woman, who not only doesn’t need a man but also rejects conventional middle-class life in favor of a self-created, adventurous independence. When Gloria fish-without-a-bicycle Steinem married in 2000, for example, she evidently felt she had to lend her act a heroic, anti-bourgeois cast. “I had no desire to get married and neither did he,” she said—but “it seems rebellious at 66.”
Motherhood too interests orthodox Feminists only insofar as it overturns bourgeois norms. NOW, for example, fiercely supports single welfare mothers and bristles at any reform that might try to encourage them to go to regular jobs or—God forbid—to marry. Ireland got herself arrested at a 1996 demonstration at the Capitol when the House passed “the Republican welfare bill that would have plunged millions of women and children deeper into poverty,” as she put it in her memoir. Though child poverty and overall poverty have declined since welfare reform, NOW has failed to acknowledge its error. In addition, the group continues to sound the alarm against current proposals to promote marriage. As Kim Gandy, the current NOW president, says, the plan reminds her of her backward “grandmother’s friends say[ing], ‘Honey, when are you going to get married?’ ”
Still, the NOW folks can believe in the happily-ever-after—as long as they’re talking about lesbians. NOW heavily promotes gay marriage and adoption—not, like other advocates, as a civil rights issue, but because they view lesbian liaisons and motherhood as a means of subverting conventional marriage and sex roles. Norah Vincent, a Los Angeles Times columnist and a gay libertarian, dismisses the organization’s support. “It’s the old Marxist agenda. Feminists see gay people as the newest proletariat. They want to overthrow the old bourgeois system. It’s not my agenda.” She adds that she and her girlfriend often joke that they would love nothing more than a traditional middle-class life. “We think of advertising: ‘Two women willing to do housework and take care of children in return for a husband.’ ”
But while Feminists can get as misty as a Hallmark card over lesbian and welfare mothers, they cast a colder eye upon the other 90 percent of women who might look longingly inside Snuglis and baby carriages. Phyllis Chesler, author of the Second-Wave best-seller Women and Madness, recounts that, when she became pregnant in the late seventies, friends begged her not to have a child, which would cause her to abandon the movement. These days, when faced with young female baby hunger, Second Wavers are still acting as skittish as Hugh Hefner. Last fall, for example, alarmed at infertility problems they were seeing in the increasing number of women putting off childbearing into their forties, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine launched an ad campaign warning that “Advancing Age Decreases Your Ability to Have Children.” But where the doctors were focusing on the gap they observed between medical fact and wishful thinking on the part of contemporary women, one that had already brought many to grief, the Feminists spied only the ever-lurking bourgeois backlash against the heroic career woman. “There is an antifeminist agenda that says we should go back to the 1950’s,” Caryl Rivers, a professor of journalism at Boston University and a frequent commentator on Feminist issues, pronounced in Time. “The subliminal message is ‘Don’t get too educated; don’t get too successful or too ambitious.’ ”
And here we come to the primary reason for Feminism’s descent into irrelevance. Whereas most young women will at some point want babies like they want food, for Feminists, motherhood is the ten-ton boulder in the path of genuine liberation. It mucks up ambition, turning fabulous heroines of the workplace—killer lawyers, 24/7 businesswomen, and ruthless senator wannabes—into bourgeois wifies and mommies. It hinders absolute equality, since women with children don’t usually crash through glass ceilings. They resist traveling three days a week to meet with hotshot clients; they look at their watches frequently and make a lot of personal phone calls.
Nothing irks a movement Feminist more than news of a Sister packing in a high-powered career. Candice Carpenter, who when she married left her position as CEO of iVillage, changed her name, and joined the ranks of stay-at-home mothers, earned the wrath of Brandeis professor Linda Hirshman, who called her “the born-again Stepford wife.” When presidential aide Karen Hughes announced that she was leaving Washington because her family was “homesick” for Texas, Hirshman was equally incensed, blasting Hughes’s husband for not “supporting her career” and for failing to promote “justice in the private world of the family.”
Feminists deal with the unsettling fact that, even after the revolution, women persist in wanting to be mothers in two ways. The first tack is simple denial. Amazingly, given young women’s preoccupation with how to balance work and motherhood, neither NOW nor the Feminist Majority, the movement’s two most influential organizations, includes maternity leave, flex time, or even day care on its list of vital issues.
The other tack, favored by academic Feminists, is a more complex denial. Yes, women may want babies, they concede; but that doesn’t mean they want motherhood—at least not motherhood as it has been “constructed” by the patriarchy throughout history. For these theorists, only a social arrangement that makes men and women exactly equal co-parents—at work precisely the same number of hours, and taking care of the children precisely the same number of hours—is acceptable. In a recent article in The American Prospect, Janet Gornick averaged out the number of hours worked by mothers of children under three (23) and those worked by fathers (44) and proclaimed the egalitarian goal: both Mom and Dad should work 33.5 hours a week. It is not enough to give men and women more flexibility and choices about how to organize their lives; the goal is “unbending gender,” as American University law professor Joan Williams puts it in her book of that title. Williams rejects what she calls “choice rhetoric”; a woman who thinks she is freely choosing to stay home is just fooling herself, in thrall to the “ideology of domesticity.”
Feminists who share Williams’s and Gornick’s goals aren’t about to let biology get in the way of their plans for utopian parity. Though they don’t go as far as those 1970s radicals who looked forward to growing fetuses outside the womb, they search for ways to make every aspect of motherhood a 50-50 proposition. In Woman: An Intimate Geography, for instance, Natalie Angier comes up with one idea about “sharing” breastfeeding: if the father would just rock the baby between feedings “against his naked breast,” then men too could have “a visceral connection with a newborn.”
Little wonder that few women in their twenties and thirties seek to complete this so-called unfinished revolution. They don’t yearn for the radical transformation of biological restraints and bourgeois aspirations devoutly wished by stalwarts. Even those few who want more androgynous sex roles for themselves don’t wish to impose them on others. Yes, they took women’s studies courses—often only to satisfy their college’s diversity requirement—but they came away unimpressed. To many of them, Feminism today represents not liberation but its opposite: a life that must be lived according to a strict, severe ideology. The younger generation, on the other hand, wants a liberation “that isn’t just freedom to choose [but] . . . freedom from having to justify one’s choices,” as Jennifer Foote Sweeney has put it in Salon. In short, they’re ready to de-politicize the personal.
But none of this means that the second sex is entirely at peace in the New Girl—or the New Woman—Order. There is a deep tension between young family values and female ambition that will spark many years of cultural debate—and it’s not just about who’s going to do the laundry or take the kids to the pediatrician. There is still plenty of grumbling on that score, of course: in her recent study For Better or For Worse, for example, Mavis Hetherington found that two-thirds of married women complained about the disproportionate burden of house and child care that falls on their shoulders (though she also found that traditional families, with breadwinner husband and stay-at-home wife, had the lowest rate of divorce).
But more important, biology simply disagrees with our careerist culture. The evidence is that, even after 30 years of the Feminist mystique, women may want men to help out more, but they still want to be the primary parent and nester-in-chief. The Motherhood Report, a 1989 survey of over 1,000 mothers, found that, while three-quarters of women want men to pitch in more, their goal is not 50-50 parenting. They like being boss at home. Suzanne Braun Levine’s 2000 Father Courage: What Happens When Men Put Family First suggests that in this department not much has changed in the past ten years. Levine went searching for “the second stage of the gender role revolution”—couples who defy all traditional mommy-daddy divisions. She found some who, with much struggling, were doing so (although you don’t have to be Robert Young to think that her description of the brutal, dawn-to-midnight, pass-the-baton existence of some of her couples—think of it as X-treme domesticity—makes Father Knows Best look like a sane alternative). But she also finds, contrary to the Feminist picture of the patriarchy foisting unwanted roles on women, that it is often the second sex, who, wanting to be the first sex in the nursery, undermines these arrangements.
In my own interviews, I found that young women are not especially nervous about thinking of this stubborn clinging to traditional roles as based in biology. When you ask if there are innate differences between the sexes, they talk comfortably in some of the terms that would satisfy an evolutionary psychologist. They generally believe that women have a closer bond with babies. They see that women usually play what one thirtyish lawyer called “household executive.” And they’re not especially worried about it. “I don’t see it as injustice unless [women] are denied opportunity,” one lawyer shrugged. As Norah Vincent concludes, “Equal does not mean the same.”
The sharpest tension in the lives of the post-Feminist young comes from a workplace designed for people who can put in long, consecutive hours—mainly men and childless women. Mothers, as well as many fathers, want jobs with more flexibility through job sharing, part-time hours, and leaves of absence. And they want the assurance that they can get back on the fast track when the demands of child-rearing ease off. More discussion and lobbying about these issues in the future is certain. Right now, for instance, Anne Crittenden, the author of The Price of Motherhood, is launching a lobbying group called MOTHER (Mothers Ought to Have Equal Rights), dedicated to promoting more family-friendly workplaces, improved benefits for mothers, and a reduction of the “mommy tax.”
Still, this tension can’t be entirely, or even mostly, resolved. The difficult truth is that the very economy that stirs the imaginations and ambitions of young people—that makes them work 80 hours a week in a start-up business, that makes them want to learn new skills or take on extra duties so that they can get promoted or start their own businesses—is the same economy that will never be especially family-friendly and that often leaves even ambitious working mothers behind. Those who long for the Western European model, with its shorter workweeks, longer vacation times, and generous maternity and paternity leaves, fail to see that those more regulated economies also produce less excitement, less creativity, less opportunity, less money, less of what I’ve called “ecstatic capitalism.” Western European workers don’t work as hard; they also don’t have as many opportunities to create new businesses, develop new skills, and get rich.
Many women seem to understand this reality. A number of those I interviewed said that their crisis-driven jobs made part-time hours either impossible or a sure route to less interesting assignments. They did not blame their employers; they were quick to admit that if you tell clients that the person handling their case or account won’t be in on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, you’re going to lose them. All of the co-parenting fathers in Levine’s book have had to give up not just Saturday golf but also dreams of writing a novel or of making partner. In such marriages, women are not the only ones who can’t have it all. To these couples, everybody wins—Levine’s male subjects appear pleased with how close they are to their children; but everybody loses, too.
The more immediate point, however, is that while younger women are struggling with how to balance work and family, they have said good-bye to the radical dreams of Feminism. Case in point: Rachel Foster, a Brooklyn mother of two young children who is on leave from her job as a Legal Aid lawyer. Foster is the great-granddaughter of William Foster, the founder of the American Communist Party, and his wife, Esther Peterson, a once well-known free-love nudist, who raised Rachel’s grandfather in an anarchist community. She is the daughter of a social-worker mother who worked from the time Rachel was five weeks old. Foster expects to return eventually to “social justice and advocacy.” But right now, as the largely content stay-at-home wife of a real-estate developer, one thing’s for sure: she’s not looking to live like her great-grandparents.