Once again the feminist version of reality is under attack. The immediate cause this time is the appearance of Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, which demonstrates that young women who devote themselves to their careers and plan to begin having children in their late 30s are likely to end up childless.
You might think that such an outcome is so obviously inevitable that it would hardly seem worth bothering to document in 300-plus pages. You would hardly expect it to spark a Time cover story, a piece on 60 Minutes, and two Maureen Dowd columns (the truest measure of the finding’s impact on a certain generation of feminists). But of course in a culture largely remade according to feminist doctrine, the obvious has long been subject not merely to challenge but to outright ridicule. As a result, many now believe that certain fundamental laws of nature no longer apply. According to Hewlett’s research, for example, fully nine out of ten young women, raised on the media-fueled myths of have-it-all feminism, are confident they will be able to get pregnant into their 40s. In the same vein, Time reports that only 13 percent of respondents to a recent fertility-awareness survey knew that fertility begins to decline at age 27. A staggering 39 percent answered age 40.
Yet just as telling as the surprise Hewlett’s research has provoked among media types and ordinary women is the anger it has elicited among professional feminists. NOW President Kim Gandy bristled to Time that the message is: “I have to hurry up and have kids now or give up on ever having them”—a message, she contended, that “is not true for the vast majority of women.” On 60 Minutes she came right out and used the magic word: “unfair.”
The same resentful undercurrent ran through most of the reports of Hewlett’s findings. Why should we have to hurry to have children when men don’t? women kept demanding, as if biology were under the jurisdiction of HHS in the days of Donna Shalala. And, in reaction to Hewlett’s finding that only 57 percent of the high-achieving women in corporate America over age 40 are married (as opposed to 76 percent of the men): Why do men with high-status jobs land great mates, while terrific and high-status women like us only frighten them away?
Reflecting on this horrific inequity in a column that began with a guy she knows telling her she’s “too intimidating” to ask out, Maureen Dowd finds solace in fellow Times feminist Natalie Angier’s reports on the bonobo chimps of the Congo. While human males “learn early to protect their eggshell egos from high-achieving women,” writes Dowd, “in bonobo society, the females are dominant.” All is therefore sweetness and light in the Congo, apparently.
This sort of silliness long ago caused thoughtful souls of both sexes to question the governing premises of contemporary feminism. As English professor Carol Iannone wrote of her own retreat from the sisterhood: “feminism is a series of self-indulgent contradictions and anyone following it for a while is going to find her thought coarsened.” Explains Iannone: “Women are the same as men, women are different from men, according to the ideological need. Women are strong and capable. And yet have been the slaves and victims of men throughout history. Women are angry, even rebellious in patriarchy, but also superior to men because loving and tender.”
At the heart of the feminist worldview is a Big Lie: that the obvious differences between the sexes are mere “social constructs.” Thus, as women’s studies’ texts have it, in the same way a girl raised in the proper, non-sexist environment will likely be as interested in sports as any boy, so the average, liberated woman will be as fulfilled by career and (though, of course, it’s never phrased quite this way) as child-indifferent as the most success-obsessed male day trader.
That all available anthropological evidence and the experience of nearly every living human shows these contentions to be false deters feminists not at all—which is precisely the point. What we have witnessed in the ascendancy of feminist thought is a war against nature, one fought daily on innumerable fronts. In the nation’s schools, we see it in the widely promulgated doctrine that adolescent girls tend to do less well in math and science and better in the liberal arts not because the sexes are hard-wired differently but because they’ve fallen prey to a sexist society’s expectations and have been cowed in class by aggressive, testosterone-charged boys. On the nation’s campuses, impulses once regarded as innocent and normal (rating girls for looks!) these days become further evidence that the male of the species is cruel and predatory. In the larger world, the same mindset has prompted a species of law that in the contemporary office makes deadly the mere charge of sexual harassment and more than occasionally turns due process into an afterthought.
The changes that feminism has imposed on the ways we think and behave have been so sweeping that it can be startling to reflect on how far we’ve wandered from common sense in so short a time. Just 30 years ago, who’d have imagined that television commercials would routinely portray women as knowing more than men about cars? More alarmingly, during the debate over the Equal Rights Amendment in the seventies, when conservative fears that it could lead to women in combat were laughed away as reactionary fantasy by ERA supporters, who’d have anticipated that it would become dangerous so much as to question feminist versions of equity within the military?
But for all the mischief it has worked in other realms, feminism’s greatest damage has surely been to children. How could it be otherwise, when from the outset the message that a woman is her career was central to the feminist creed? Unspoken though it often was, the corollary of that message was just as central: that those who stayed home with their children were mindless drones in the grip of patriarchy. For all the movement talk celebrating choice and options—and what reasonable soul didn’t support equal opportunity in the workplace? —hardcore feminists believed that only one choice merited respect. Even in the wake of the so-called Mommy wars of the eighties and nineties, when countless high-achieving women began leaving the work force to share their kids’ formative years, feminist priorities remained unchanged.
As always, those priorities have to do with the needs of women (as interpreted by feminists), never those of children. As Dr. Laura repeatedly chides blindly careerist women who call her show: As a small child, would you have chosen to be in an institution, instead of home with mom? Yet, for the sisterhood, universal daycare, starting with infants as young as two and three months, is every woman’s “right,” nearly up there with abortion on demand.
Simultaneously, feminism has aggressively preached the new gospel (and the likes of Jodie Foster and Calista Flockhart have, in the pages of People and Rosie, provided instruction by example) that far from being essential and complimentary partners in the complex job of parenting, men need only serve as sperm donors.
In human terms, the wreckage the feminist program has left in its wake is impossible to measure. That millions of children today return after school to homes without supervision; that unprecedented numbers of kids of Little League age drink and use drugs; that we are in the midst of a plague of adolescent and pre-adolescent sex—all this stems at least in part from a movement that has left generations of children without the love and attention they need.
Sylvia Hewlett’s book merely establishes, once again, how poorly feminism has served even those women who are its core constituency. Among the most poignant moments in the 60 Minutes piece about her book was the sight of a trio of highly successful women in their 40s and 50s, all regretfully heading into later life without husband or children. When one of them recalls the famous line that had so much impact on her when she was young—“A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”—others nod and smile in wistful recognition. Perhaps these women would make the same life-choices again, if given the chance; but surely they would want to hear exactly what costs those choices would entail. Thanks to feminism’s obfuscations and falsifications, they made the biggest decisions of their lives based on wishful thinking rather than on the plain facts.
Given those who made feminism the force it is, how could things have turned out otherwise? A cursory perusal of leading feminists reveals that few of them had children or even functional marriages. By her own account, the most famous feminist of them all, Gloria Steinem, never felt the need to have children, because, having spent her formative years caring for her mentally ill mother, she’d “been a parent to my own mother.” Steinem’s dutifulness was admirable; but it takes a peculiar worldview to equate such an experience with the life-affirming experience of nurturing and raising a child. The pity is that so many took her as a model.
It is doubtless still more wishful thinking to imagine that most professional feminists will see the light, whatever the evidence cast before them. They will continue to work to remake laws and textbooks and college curricula to correspond to their worldview.
But work as they will, the world can never be remade to their liking, for some things can’t be legislated or blackmailed away. While politicians and school boards may be malleable, reality is not. As the old gal, herself no feminist, used to say in the commercial: “You can’t fool Mother Nature.”