Nothing in the Index on Children

January 23, 1994|By JOAN BECK

CHICAGO — Chicago. -- The older gender order is dead, killed by the Anita Hill hearings and the 1992 elections. Most women don't fully understand that a ''genderquake'' has occurred. The time has ++ come to shuck ''victim feminism'' and its sexist whining and embrace ''power feminism,'' so women may reach out and claim their fair share.

So argues Naomi Wolf, attempting in her much-discussed new book, ''Fire with Fire,'' to make that f-word more socially and politically acceptable and to prod women who are closet feminists into open support of a movement that years ago lost what mainstream direction it had.

Why are women who generally believe in such goals as equal pay and equal opportunity so loath to call themselves feminists and so hesitant to grab the victories feminists have already won?

Some women, answers Ms. Wolf, are turned off by feminist support of lesbianism and of abortion, by what appears to be an elitist white leadership, even by perceptions about appearance and the use of cosmetics. She charges that the media often caricature the worst elements of the movement, distort the feminist message and set women against each other.

Most women who want to succeed in careers assume feminist views will count against them and keep quiet about them in the office, Ms. Wolf says. The higher a woman moves toward the glass ceiling, the less likely she is to feel sisterly and supportive of possible female rivals.

Even with feminist victory within reach, most women are afraid of the power they could have and don't make use of it, according to Ms. Wolf. They are afraid of being leaders (they didn't play team sports as adolescents, where they could learn the triumphs of leading others to victory), of being thought egotistical. They are afraid to be adversarial. They don't know how to be aggressive without alienating each other. They are afraid of ridicule, conflict and standing alone.

But the author still doesn't really get it. A glance at the index for ''Fire with Fire'' is revealing. There is no entry for ''children.''

One of the major reasons the feminist movement has not been attractive to millions of women is its indifference to children. The perception persists that feminists care more about abortion than about children and that they consider the concerns of motherhood to be evidence of the old female socialization that stands in the way of empowerment.

There is no entry in Ms. Wolf's index for ''family'' either. The reference to ''family values'' concerns her version of Dan Quayle's comments on Murphy Brown and the Republicans' inept attempt to push stifling and patriarchal family values.

Millions of women are, of course, sold on the feminists' agenda for egalitarian marriages, equal pay, equal work opportunities, a fair share of college scholarships, schooling that doesn't subtly favor males and diminish females and a fair share of political representation.

But their lives and attitudes and agendas are also shaped by having children -- a fact that the feminist movement still largely ignores and that has cost it dearly in membership and support.

Pregnancy and motherhood have powerful effects on women, whether that fits feminist dogma or not. Much of it is socialization, of course, reflecting traditional patterns that need not still be relevant and that are changing rapidly. But there is still a large element of biological imperative in how women feel about their babies -- programmed into the genes by eons of evolution that ensures mom will stick around until a new generation can survive on its own. It's no accident that most women find their babies charming and wonderful, far more interesting and important than monthly sales reports at the widget company.

No amount of feminist dogma can erase such a biological imperative. But feminist attitudes can -- and do -- belittle these maternal feelings and pressure women to make uncomfortable choices and feel guilty no matter what they do.

Women need more help in shaping the workplace to meet their needs as part of the new work force. Instead of pushing alternative work styles and new career patterns as ways to give women more time for child care during the most critical years of their children's development, feminists have tended to deride such ideas as mommy tracks and part-time, work-at-home solutions as further attempts to keep women off the fast track to power.

If the feminist movement wants to be mainstream, it cannot continue to brush off the concerns women have about children and families. Women need help and support in discovering new ways to balance these loving imperatives with the lures of economic, political and social empowerment.

Joan Beck is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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