Let's Anita Hill this

Anna Quindlen

March 03, 1993|By Anna Quindlen

THE name Anita Hill now conveys so much more than the woman herself that it can be used as a verb, as in "Let's Anita Hill this thing."

That's what many women are saying about the issue of child care, that now that it is in the forefront of national consciousness it is time to act. A march for child care as big as those for abortion rights, one woman said, and it sounded good.

At a professional meeting last week, one woman after another talked about the sick sitter, the late sitter, the illegal sitter paid off the books, while the others nodded with sisterly solidarity. What you could clearly see were the beginnings of a middle-class all-female movement, and that reminded me of something, and that reminder made me uneasy.

A dozen years ago Betty Friedan published a book called "The Second Stage" in which she argued that feminism needed to address the new problems raised by the equality she and so many others had fought for. "I think we must at least admit and begin openly to discuss feminist denial of the importance of family," she wrote.

In other words, in its determination to see women admitted where they had never been allowed before, the feminist movement appeared to undervalue traditional roles and, in effect, throw out the babies with the bath water.

The result was a generation of educated young women who heard a great deal about the glass ceiling but little about the silken chains of mother love. The feminist movement has been the great social revolution of my lifetime. But this clearly remains one of its shortcomings in the minds of many of those who came to maturity during its historic march, a shortcoming that's been often discussed in recent weeks as troublesome questions about merging career and kids have come out of the closet.

But at that meeting I was reminded, too, of the other rap on feminism, that it was overwhelmingly a movement of middle-class women that skirted both the feminization of poverty and the changes required in the psyches and lives of our male counterparts. And this is true of the child care debate as well. It is good that the stories of Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood made us feel free to talk about how this really works for doctors, lawyers, agency chiefs. But there are other stories, too, like that of the 82-year-old woman in Queens, well liked, warmhearted, who ran an unlicensed child care service in her home. Two of her charges died in a fire, in a basement that had no smoke detector, and the father of one, learning that his son was dead, said plaintively that it was the best he could afford.

The immigration laws concerning domestic workers should be changed; so should the senseless welter of paperwork required to pay a sitter's taxes.

But those issues affect a very small percentage of working parents. There must be child care legislation that will benefit not just those who hire sitters, but those who work taking care of children.

There must be an end to the assumption that this is a woman's problem so that men don't have to think about it or act upon it. I was delighted that 93 child care experts sent a letter to the president last week urging him to appoint a task force on the subject. But by my count a mere dozen of the signatories were male.

The women's movement isn't what it was 20 years ago. It's not just NOW. It's the secretary who cheers her daughter on in Little League, the girl who dreams of following her mother into police work, the father who no longer believes that college educations are only for the boys. It's a sense of entitlement to equal treatment and equal opportunity that is not so much a movement now as it is a mind-set.

That is a measure of its great success. At the meeting I attended one of the women said that the women's movement had been the guiding force in her life until she had children, and that then she'd felt abandoned by feminist rhetoric and concerns. If we Anita Hill this issue now, maybe we can move past that perception.

If we stand up for the rights of children, if we require the involvement of their fathers, if we concern ourselves with the demands of maternity and poverty as well as the need for equality, we could make a real difference in child care. And a difference in perceptions of feminism at the same time.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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