The price of feminism

November 30, 1995|By Mona Charen

WASHINGTON -- I had dinner with Betty Friedan a couple of weeks ago -- and, to my surprise, found myself liking her. The unlikely coupling of Ms. Friedan with women of varying political persuasions was the work of Washington Times editor Josette Shiner, a strong conservative who hasn't closed the door to learning from her political opposite numbers.

The author of ''The Feminine Mystique'' is a bit out of place these days. Never persuaded by the ''gender'' feminists that date rape and sexual harassment were the most serious problems facing women, she admits that when she teaches now, she is not comfortable in ''women's studies'' departments. ''I got into too many arguments,'' she sighs. Good for her. Campus feminists have long since veered into cuckoo land, with their emphasis on ''phallocentrism'' and related nonsense.

Betty Friedan is not a nut. Nor is she caught up in her own mystique -- though she does seem to take credit for the opportunities that have opened up for women during the past 30 years.

I'm not sure she's right to do so. The movement of large numbers of women into business and the professions had begun before ''The Feminine Mystique'' was published. Many things made this possible. One was rising affluence and the concomitant drop in family size. Another was the birth-control pill. The women's movement provided a convenient rallying standard, but to say that feminism was responsible for these gains is saying too much.

Nor was the movement of women into the workplace an unmixed blessing. For those at the very top of the socio-economic ladder -- the kind of women who rejoiced at Ms. Friedan's book back in the early 1960s -- going to work meant a rewarding and lucrative career in business, finance, law or medicine. It meant choices and opportunities abounding.

But for poorer women, going to work did not mean a career, it meant a job -- at the local shoe store, the supermarket or the factory floor. It meant long hours of work and nagging worries about children left in the care of others.

Ms. Friedan insists that she was never among the feminists who devalued the role of wife and mother, but the movement of which she was a part certainly did, leaving many women feeling that they had to work in order to achieve self-respect in the new order.

Careers and children

The feminist movement achieved many of its goals -- providing more independence and opportunities for women -- but at a steep price. What feminism has never adequately grappled with is how to reconcile women's careers (or jobs) with the most important work any civilization performs -- the raising of children. And this is where I find Ms. Friedan wholly unpersuasive.

Her solution is more government-funded day care, flex-time and a four-day work week (which she insists would not reduce American productivity). She also rejects the idea that a mother must choose between work and raising her kids. ''Just because she works doesn't mean she isn't raising her children,'' Ms. Friedan contends.

That may get applause on college campuses, but it rings false to anyone who is actually at home with children.

A woman who holds down a demanding, full-time job cannot also raise her kids. It is the person who is with them all day who decides what they will read and see, how well they will learn to share, and how they will handle anger. Caretakers instill, bit by bit, their moral codes, their manners and even their enthusiasms. It is self-delusional to say anything else. That doesn't mean that a mother who works is irrelevant to her children -- only that the major task of child-rearing has been subcontracted out.

Feminism has also failed to grapple with the damage the sexual revolution did to women and children. By scorning the family as a trap, feminism contributed mightily to the feminization of poverty we've witnessed over the past three decades.

Feminism's legacy is not just Sally Ride and Diane Sawyer. It is also single women struggling to raise kids alone and lonely children letting themselves in from school with a latchkey. Feminists can take pride in some accomplishments, but they also have a lot to answer for.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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