Feminist argues that feminism has taken the wrong turning

March 03, 1991|By Linda Mathews | Linda Mathews,Los Angeles Times




Suzanne Gordon.

Little, Brown.

324 pages. $19.95. The Persian Gulf war has forced Americans to confront what many might prefer to ignore: the consequences of feminism. Suddenly young women as well as young men are being dispatched to foreign battlefronts. Motherhood no longer carries with it an automatic exemption; on U.S. military bases, there are children, some too young to walk, with both parents on duty in the gulf. Although women are barred from combat by federal statute, the line between combatant and non-combatant is a fine one.

Suzanne Gordon, author of "Prisoners of Men's Dreams," a provocative if sometimes maddening survey of modern feminism, probably would argue that American uneasiness over the prospect of war orphans and women POWs is completely justified. Women are imperiled in the gulf, and their children at home are under pressure, because of what Ms. Gordon sneeringly calls "equal-opportunity feminism" -- the notion that men and women must live by the same rules.

"Equal-opportunity feminism," which preaches that the basic goal of the women's movement is to eliminate the barriers that keep women from competing with men on an equal basis, is a disastrous doctrine, Ms. Gordon says, that has caused women to forget why they wanted to be liberated in the first place.

Ms. Gordon calls herself a feminist, but a "transformative feminist." Most feminists lost their way, she says, because once they had a taste of success in the "masculine-dominated marketplace," they abandoned what she regards as the movement's original goal: transforming the workplace, making corporations more humane and promoting a more generous and caring public policy that takes into account the differences between men and women. Instead of working for a more compassionate society -- presumably one that would not ship the mothers of newborns to Saudi Arabia -- she says that women have concentrated on infiltrating the boys' club, adapting to male rules and pursuing wealth and power.

Ms. Gordon acknowledges that women have made great progress by all the usual yardsticks: They have moved into occupations previously closed to them, pulled down bigger salaries, sometimes scrambled into policy-making positions. But the cost of this success has been too high. Women not only find it harder to fight the battle for equality -- here Ms. Gordon points to the "glass ceiling" and other forms of overt job discrimination -- but they are losing the battle for balance in their lives.

Many young women, she says, so identify with male superiors and colleagues that they utterly disdain child-rearing, homemaking and the other caretaking activities that women, even working women, traditionally have shouldered. Because the pressure to adopt male values, to play by male rules is so strong, Ms. Gordon says, women risk "becoming the prisoners of men's dreams" instead of fashioning their own.

Sometimes Ms. Gordon goes to extremes to prove her case. She blames the exponents of "equal-opportunity feminism" -- identified here as Betty Friedan, the editors of Working Woman and Savvy magazines and the authors of dress-for-success manuals -- for everything from overstressed preschoolers to underpaid nurses and teachers. I was reminded, uneasily, of the Moral Majority, which holds America's working mothers responsible for juvenile delinquency, falling Scholastic Achievement Test scores, drug abuse and the decline in church attendance.

And Ms. Gordon's portrait of corporate America as a place where relentlessly striving, emotionally detached male executives and their "female clones" methodically suppress the masses makes me wonder if she has ever worked in a corporation (or perhaps read too much Marx).

Still, her central point -- that women have been changed by the workplace more than they have changed it -- is on the mark. The "National Care Agenda" she advocates -- cutting the defense budget, increasing funding for schools and health care, reducing the work week and so forth -- is well-meaning though unlikely to find an appreciative audience in the middle of a war.

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