Time ripe for new feminist reality Bella's Legacy

April 05, 1998|By Rosalie Osias

TWO DECADES have passed since Bella Abzug emerged as a fiery champion of women's rights. Now, it's time for a new feminist movement - one that tells women how to set goals and how to achieve them within the reality of a male-dominated world.

As the president of a not-for-profit foundation dedicated to recognizing the realities of the workplace, it is my hope that the next century allows women to use weapons still effective in the age-old battle between the sexes. The symbol for our new revolution? Not burning bras, as the late Bella Abzug was identified with, but the one used by the French when they they toppled King Charles X in 1830: a bare-breasted Liberty at the barricades.

The reality is that feminist leaders, like Bella Abzug, sent us into the battle to achieve equality totally unprepared to take and hold new social ground. We were told we could have it all - be an alluring spouse, dynamic executive and loving parent. But the biological facts of life demonstrated that this was cruel fiction. While men who spent 18 hours a day at work were hailed as visionary business leaders, society condemned the woman who would dare to put her career first.

The feminist movement also stripped women of a crucial weapon in their war for equality in the workplace: their femininity. They placed us into unisex business suits that make women an invisible part of the office landscape. Odorless, colorless and sexless, their politically correct guidelines allowed men to tell Barron's in November that they preferred to "hang out with the guys."

And what about pay equity? The glaring reality was brought to light in December in a New York Times article that said, "It is clear that women have a long way to go in order to achieve parity in these influential positions or earning [See Feminism, 5f] power." The article notes that only 23 companies, or less than 5 percent of the Fortune 500, had women in a quarter or more of the top positions as corporate officers. Furthermore, a recent Long Island newspaper editorial argues that - "less than two years before the dawn of a new millennium, women working in 'pink collar' positions continue to be paid significantly less than men in 'blue collar' jobs. Women's work is still worth less than equivalent work by men." Women are still at the bottom of the economic scale and we are left fighting among ourselves for scavenging rights.

We wouldn't need women's legal rights advocates or the pathetic attempts at feminist networking, if the original movement had been successful and given women the tools and insight to play the game that guides the male-dominated business environment or in recent months - the Oval Office. Instead, we've seen a barrage of sexual harassment lawsuits from women who are labeled harlots.

Sexuality in the workplace is not a new phenomenon - even in the Oval Office. This simple, unyielding reality lies at the core of all our interpersonal relationships, and it is the reason why the president's popularity polls remain the envy of ally and enemy alike. In their hearts, Americans admit sexual tensions exist in the office, on the factory floor, in the bar and even between two drivers who pause at a red light long enough to size each other up. Why condemn the president for what Americans - from Madison Avenue to Main Street - understand?

But this simple sexual truth drives the feminist movement crazy. For more than a quarter-century, the movement's leadership has instructed followers that the workplace will be free of sexual tension. They have insisted that merit and merit alone will be the criterion for success. That premise is a lie. A multibillion dollar industry is built on the use of sex to motivate, blind, direct and leverage our lives. Sex has won wars, lost empires and consumed our lives. How could the feminist movement direct that a law as basic as gravity be repealed?

National Organization for Women President Patricia Ireland sought to find a way out of this maze when she observed: "We have to redefine the presidency instead of [sexual] harassment."

What she should have admitted is it is time to redefine the feminist movement, which has become stagnant and more intent on protecting its own bureaucracy than using the power of women to crack the glass ceiling. Its leadership knows nothing of the real world where men continue to dominate centers of power. The movement should realize it has become morally bankrupt and file a Chapter 7 and get on with the task of reorganization.

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