The Doors Are Open, But the System Endures

ELLEN GOODMAN

February 24, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- A young television producer calls to ask about the state of the women's movement. She is working on an update on where women are now and how they feel. I feel this way: instantly wary.

In the Washington Post, Sally Quinn has declared feminism dead -- again -- this time murdered by its own leaders. In the New York Times, Bill Safire has declared that a ''new, natural womanism'' has risen from its ashes. The role models are political wives who choose freely to stand behind their men.

On the best-seller lists are books women have bought to figure out whatever happened to the women's movement and what happens next. Number one on the list, by Gloria Steinem, is about the enemy within, low self-esteem. Number four, by Susan Faludi, is about the enemy without, backlash.

We are in for another wave of analysis, another chapter in the running commentary that follows women's lives like sociological ambulance-chasing. We take the pulse of women regularly. The state of the women's movement -- dead, dying, resurrected -- has become a media staple like the monthly makeover feature in fashion magazines.

But the problem is not that American women are going backward or even off-track. What is missing in the women's movement is the movement. What feels strange, uncomfortable, wrong to those women whose lives personified change is the current lack of change.

It's 1992 and women feel simply stuck. Stuck juggling work and family. Stuck below the glass ceiling. Stuck in institutions they fought to enter but can't change. Stuck with rules they are allowed to follow or to break, but not to rewrite.

A generation ago, many middle-class women at home saw work as a ticket to independence. It was a way we moved, ahead of our mothers, out of the house. Now work is what we get up in the morning and perform. That second income promised to lift families out of a hole, allow some breathing room for men, and offer balance in women's lives that had been limited to caretaking. Now that second income is a necessary part of a decent family wage.

The much heralded new choices for women now seem like hard decisions. Full time, part time, mommy track, child care, one paycheck or two -- each option comes with an elaborate and unsettling cost accounting that goes to the psyche as well as the pocketbook.

Feminism never promised us a rose garden. It offered a struggle against women's status as the second sex. To American women it held out the hope that we could in the vernacular of the '70s ''have it all.'' Now women are often told we asked for too much. We are rarely told that we've accepted too little.

The reality is that the women's movement stood on two legs. With one, we kicked open the doors. With the other we were to change the system. But the second is still dragging way behind the first. It is no wonder we are limping.

Women have gained access to the institutions, but not enough power to overhaul them. We got rights to make our way as individuals; but pitifully few supports to help care for our families.

We challenged the idea that women couldn't fit in as governor or mineworker or doctor. But we still haven't overcome the idea that we have to fit in . . . or get out.

Some of us got to breathe the rarefied air of a corporate office. But we didn't get to change the atmosphere. While many got husbands to help, few got husbands to share.

The fact that legal rights were easier to win than caretaking help has left a lot of women dangling. We are told that everything is possible -- in theory -- but find that it isn't in real life.

And for the past dozen years instead of moving forward, the leaders of women's groups have had to use their energy to protect the gains made and the rights already won. It's a dozen years during which we've seen the feminization of poverty, the erosion of abortion rights, the stressing of family life.

There has been an inclination to blame the women's movement for women's discontent with the status quo. To criticize those who offered another vision instead of blaming those who thwarted it.

But what does happen next? Will women stay stuck for some time, juggling, balancing, trying to accommodate our lives into the existing structure the way we might adjust our bodies into ''unisex'' jeans. Will we continue separately, each trying to fit the pieces of her life into a fragile whole?

A full generation after the women's movement began, where do you look for the signs of change?

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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