After the 1987 convention of the National Organization for Women, USA Today published the results of an “informal survey” of 703 NOW members. Forty-seven percent of the respondents said that “women are doing worse in 1987 than in 1980.” Twenty-four percent said “women are doing better.” Half the members questioned believed that “NOW should focus more on family and child-care issues.”
Through the responses of its own membership, the best-known feminist organization in the country shot itself in the foot. If a 47 percent plurality of the NOW members surveyed believe that women are “doing worse” today than they were seven years ago, how does this organization explain its own failure? If only 24 percent of its members can assert that women today are “doing better,” how does NOW justify its existence? And how much more “focus” on their welfare can America’s children bear from an organization which, by its own admission, doesn’t agree on much and can’t accomplish what it does agree on?
In an informal survey conducted in my own household, 100 percent of the women available for questioning (me) agree on the most significant single accomplishment of organized feminism: It has done more to undermine the public image of women and the real rights of children than any individual, group, or social/political movement in memory. As a result of 20 years of feminist protest, there are now two prevailing female stereotypes: the one feminism invented—the perpetual victim; and the one feminism reflects—the know-it-all malcontent.
Whatever happened to the supposed feminist role model, the self-possessed woman of assurance and purpose? She exists. In fact, she has always existed. It just happens that feminists don’t like her. If organized feminism had the courage of its convictions, it would give its highest award to Phyllis Schlafly, a woman who, against great odds and with skill, determination, and confidence, took on a big bully and won. The problem is, the big bully Mrs. Schlafly took on was organized feminism and its pet project, the Equal Rights Amendment. And to compound the problem, she used in her challenge the first credential of her opponents—the perspective of the female citizen. Might not that fact of itself have given feminists, even in defeat, some measure of pride? But this was war; and you don’t conduct war with a taste for irony or pride in your adversaries. Possessing only the courage of its prejudices and jealous always of its own political power, the women’s movement looked at Phyllis Schlafly—a self-realized female if ever there was one—and saw not a role model but an enemy.
The movement’s reaction to the example of Phyllis Schlafly was only one illustration of the hypocrisy of “sisterhood.” From the beginning, organized feminism was its own worst enemy, the best excuse to avoid any legitimate issues it may have raised. Because women activists were obsessed with making noise and placing blame, it never was possible to consider any individual feminist question on its merits. And some questions did have merit. Any woman over the age of 40 who has not experienced at some time, in some context, a man’s prejudgment of her attitudes or abilities is, it seems to me, a woman either quite exceptional or very distracted. There was a time when I thought that feminism had made one small contribution—singular and highly qualified, but positive—by bringing the experience to light. I was wrong. For the list of feminist complaints proved to be endless, and each grievance was as important as the others. Five minutes into a discussion of equal opportunity in the work place (which feminists quickly contorted into the demand for quotas and the concept of “comparable worth”) and you were hearing about “psychological rape,” the rights of lesbians to adopt children, and the pressing necessity for gender-free terms like “chairperson.” Five minutes more and it had been decided that all institutions, roles, and responsibilities required nothing less than radical “redefinition.” Every human relationship was politicized; and in the process, the public image of men became almost as repellent as the public image of women.
Feminist redefinition offered not only the self-fulfilled woman (so long as she wasn’t Phyllis Schlafly) but also the reconstructed man: open, sensitive, “unthreatened”—a composite of those ubiquitous movement tag-alongs, Phil Donahue and Alan Alda. The sexist male was replaced with the honorary woman. And if you managed to snag one of these guys, or remodel the wreck you already had lying around the house, what a utopia was yours. After a day careering and a session with your (female) lawyer to discuss your latest sexual discrimination suit, you could come home to your own personal Phil-Alan, a husband who was perfect because his dearest desire in life was someday to be exactly like you. (If you were one in a million, like Mrs. Dustin Hoffman, you had a husband who went all the way, whining in public about being denied by biological fate the joy of ever bearing a child. Some girls have all the luck.) Children? Not counting Phil-Alan, you had one; but unfortunately— it really wasn’t fair—you had been forced to agonize a great deal about your life-style and listen to the loud tick-tick of your biological clock before deciding to become a mother. Once your child got here, your first question was, naturally, “Who’ll take care of him?” Not to worry. There was always Phil-Alan, and infant day care, and various “support systems.” And if you suffered a little conflict over this situation, if something—love? common sense? instinct?—told you that no matter what system was supporting you the emotional burden of your child’s day-to-day well-being was first yours, his mother’s, well, you could simply demand from Phil-Alan a pledge to fully share your conflict.
This was the cure? Then bring back the disease, which might be kept in check with a simple back-to-basics regimen: Judge people one at a time; live by the Golden Rule when possible; when not possible, employ the Other Rule, most succinctly expressed on the streets of Chicago during my youth in that wonderful city, to wit: Don’t take nothing off nobody. This three-part program was reasonable, workable, and—holy cow!—sex blind. Best of all, it freed both men and women to look upon children as something more than a predicament, a problem to be reassigned, redefined, or palmed off.
By considering children always as abstractions, the women’s movement raised an obvious question that never went away: Did feminists enjoy kids? If they did they kept their pleasure well-hidden, for they discussed children with all the humor, all the joie de vivre, of a collection of hypochondriacs. The absence of humor was the least of it, however. Any movement that will reduce the rights of children to political barter while flaunting its concern for children’s “welfare” is a socially untrustworthy movement. But feminism had revealed itself as exploitative and opportunist long before the movement decided to rescue America’s youth (a frightening decision, since the mess from which America’s youth were to be rescued was one feminists themselves—though this fact escaped them—had helped create).
Today’s activist leadership never brings it up, but some women remember: Early feminists depicted motherhood as an awful condition, suffocating and degrading—psychic suicide. Motherhood: Just Say No. When it became obvious that this wouldn’t wash, that nature had a voice of its own and many women were going to go right on having babies and making families, the movement shifted its “focus” to the lives of the women it once maligned and the children it once rejected. If mothers wanted to complete their Selves with a meaningful career, then they and their children had a right to adequate support systems. This one hit the fan with amazing speed, when it was discovered that every career is also a job and, even with Phil-Alan on the scene, you could exercise your options right into a state of nervous collapse. Cornered again, feminism then shifted its famous focus once more, this time to lower-income and single-parent families—women who, by economic necessity, had to work. It turns out that these are the women who need the support systems, and theirs are the children with the right to adequate care. And maybe this time it’s true. If so, these families can only hope that feminist history does not repeat itself, that they don’t end up “doing worse” seven years from now than they are today. But the situation does not look encouraging, because present feminist ideology demands that women have the right to equal treatment without regard to gender, and also the right to special consideration for their unique difficulties as women. Contained somewhere within this conflicting, politically self-serving ideology is, we are to believe, a solution to urgent human problems, including the problems of children.
The fact is, the feminist record on children stinks. Never once in its history has the women’s movement come out unequivocally on the side of children’s abiding needs. The reason for this is plain enough: Children’s abiding needs put a real crimp in the feminist conception of “women’s rights.” The ultimate example of the feminist value of children is, of course, unrestricted abortion. Rights work both ways or they don’t; human life is expendable for the sake of convenience or it is not. The women’s movement exists on the belief that they don’t and it is. And why not? When the right in question is to control one’s own body, it is merely an act of justice to remove all impediments to that right. If feminists could sue fetuses before aborting them, they’d probably do that too. Not that abortion is easy. We must never assume that abortion is easy. One of the requisite support systems for emancipated women is counseling for “abortion trauma.” Women, it seems, deserve not only the right to control their own bodies, they deserve understanding and sympathy for the emotional consequences of exercising that right.
Recent developments on other fronts have revealed even a feminist limit to women’s management of their reproductive lives. The limit is surrogate motherhood, which feminists generally oppose because it reduces women to “wombs for rent.” Whatever one thinks of surrogate motherhood—and personally I don’t think much of it—the feminist position on this practice seems at the least inconsistent. If women are entitled by their right to body control to dispose of the babies they don’t want, why does that same right not entitle them to have the babies they choose to bear? Maybe because all feminist reasoning is done with smoke and mirrors.
American feminism is a 20-year con. Today it combines a contradictory program of complete equality and special entitlements with a hypocritical brand of activism: expedient and self-righteous, high-minded and snotty. The final product is unnatural, exclusionary, oppressive—a guide to personal and social conduct that includes directions only on what to reject, protest, or undo. Life in the negative. Even on their own terms, groups like NOW are a fraud. How do you achieve a gender-blind society, if that is what you want, when your first priority is to promote the separate status of women as a special interest group? NOW’s agenda is a variation of the old brain-teaser, “Don’t think about elephants.”
The current line on the women’s movement is that it is trying to maintain its radical roots while stressing policies it hopes will be seen as more relevant and realistic than those of the past. While I have my doubts about any feminist perception of reality, it’s for sure that the movement’s roots are in great shape. Media coverage of the women’s movement after the NOW convention included a television interview with Gloria Steinem and one of her feminist colleagues, in which Ms. Steinem babbled nonsensically about mutual “victory” for the sexes. Her colleague, charming as a brick, offered the strong opinion that the source of all conflict between men and women was “the act of intercourse.”
Still crazy after all these years.