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The Road To Equality: Sorry, Sisters, This Is Not the Revolution

5 minute read
Barbara Ehrenreich. The Author Is A Feminist and A Writer. Her Most Recent Book Is The Worst Years Of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes From A Decade Of Greed

American feminism late 1980s style could be defined, cynically, as women’s rush to do the same foolish and benighted things that have traditionally occupied men. And why not? The good and honest things that have traditionally occupied women — like rearing children and keeping husbands in clean shirts — are valued in the open market at somewhere near the minimum wage. And whatever one thinks of investment banking or corporate law, the perks and the pay are way ahead of those for waitressing and data entry. So, every time a woman breaks a new barrier the rest of us tend to cheer — even if she’s running a pollution-producing company or toting a gun in some ill-considered war.

Two cheers, anyway. Because this is not the revolution that I, at least, signed on for. When the feminist movement burst forth a couple of decades ago, the goal was not just to join ’em — and certainly not just to beat ’em — but to improve an imperfect world. Gloria Steinem sketched out the vision in a 1970 TIME Essay titled “What It Would Be Like If Women Win.” What it would be like was a whole lot better, for men as well as women, because, as she said right up front, “Women don’t want to exchange places with men.” We wanted better places, in a kinder, gentler, less rigidly gendered world.

We didn’t claim that women were morally superior. But they had been at the receiving end of prejudice long enough, we thought, to empathize with the underdog of either sex. Then too, the values implicit in motherhood were bound to clash with the “male values” of competitiveness and devil-may-care profiteering. We imagined women storming male strongholds and, once inside, becoming change agents, role models, whistle-blowers. The hand that rocks the cradle was sure to rock the boat.

To a certain extent, women have “won.” In medicine, law and management, they have increased their participation by 300% to 400% since the early ’70s, and no one can argue that they haven’t made some difference. Women lawyers have spearheaded reforms in the treatment of female victims of rape and of battering. Women executives have created supportive networks to help other women up the ladder and are striving to sensitize corporations to the need for ) flexible hours, child care and parental leave. Women journalists have fought to get women’s concerns out of the “style section” and onto the front page. Women doctors, according to physician-writer Perri Klass, are less paternalistic than their male counterparts and “better at listening.”

But, I’m sorry, sisters, this is not the revolution. What’s striking, from an old-fashioned (ca. 1970) feminist perspective, is just how little has changed. The fact that law is no longer classified as a “nontraditional” occupation for women has not made our culture any less graspingly litigious or any more concerned with the rights of the underdog. Women doctors haven’t made a dent in the high-tech, bottom-line fixation of the medical profession, and no one would claim that the influx of executive women has ushered in a new era of high-toned business ethics.

It’s not that we were wrong back in the salad days of feminism about the existence of nurturant “feminine values.” If anything, women have more distinctive views as a sex than they did 20 years ago. The gender gap first appeared in the presidential election of 1980, with women voting on the more liberal side. Recent polls show that women are more likely to favor social spending for the poor and to believe it’s “very important” to work “for the betterment of American society.”

So why haven’t our women pioneers made more of a mark? Charitably speaking, it may be too soon to expect vast transformations. For one thing, women in elite, fast-track positions are still pathetically scarce. FORTUNE magazine found this past July that in the highest echelons of corporate managers, fewer than one-half of 1% are female. Then there’s the exhaustion factor. Women are far more likely to work a “double day” of career plus homemaking. The hand that rocks the cradle — and cradles the phone, and sweeps the floor, and writes the memo and meets the deadline — doesn’t have time to reach out and save the world.

But I fear, too, that women may be losing the idealistic vision that helped inspire feminism in the first place. Granted, every Out group — whether defined by race, ethnicity or sexual preference — seeks assimilation as a first priority. But every Out group carries with it a critical perspective, forged in the painful experiences of rejection and marginalization. When that perspective is lost or forgotten, a movement stands in danger of degenerating into a scramble for personal advancement. We applaud the winners and pray that their numbers increase, but the majority will still be found far outside the gates of privilege, waiting for the movement to start up again.

And for all the pioneering that brave and ambitious women have done, the female majority remains outside, earning 70 cents to the man’s $1 in stereotypically female jobs. That female majority must still find a way to survive the uncaring institutions, the exploitative employers and the deep social inequities the successful few have not yet got around to challenging.

Maybe, now that women have got a foot in the door, it’s time to pause and figure out what we intend to do when we get inside. Equality with men is a fine ambition, and I’ll fight for any woman’s right to do any foolish or benighted thing that men are paid and honored for. But ultimately, assimilation is just not good enough. As one vintage feminist T shirt used to say, IF YOU THINK EQUALITY IS THE GOAL . . . YOUR STANDARDS ARE TOO LOW.

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