Betty Friedan
Betty Friedan; drawing by David Levine


If, like this writer, you have not really kept up with feminist issues since having your consciousness raised by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963, you should be warned that it is probably too late to master a taxonomy of bewildering complexity, like coming in late on the human genome project. Betty Friedan’s premise was that “women were really people—no more—no less,” and her conclusion was that “all the things that kept them from being full people in our society would have to be changed.”

Since then we have heard from: power feminists, victim feminists, good and bad girl feminists, “difference”feminists, who argue women are different from men, those who argue they are not, second- and third-wave feminists, factions representing various ethnic groups, sexual factions (lesbians, straights, anti-sex and pro-sex “do-me” feminists, pro- and anti-porn feminists, S&Mditto, “born” women vs. transsexuals), the inevitable Marxists.

There are academic feminists, who earn their living from studying, teaching, and writing about feminism; there are those who claim to be from the real world, or “popular” feminists; and there are factions within each of these factions, a cacophony of testimonial and denunciation from people who sometimes seem exasperated beyond rational discourse by their internecine differences. But of course history shows that as a disadvantaged group begins to gain ground, it risks being engulfed by its own newly accessible anger—anger that the women Friedan wrote about in 1963 could not even put a name to.

Friedan’s claims for women’s personhood were by no means widely conceded; it was then believed that dreams of career, even intellectual interests, could stunt a woman’s chance of happiness in the roles of wife and mother she was destined for. Friedan quoted the influential Margaret Mead: “It is of very doubtful value to enlist the gifts of women if bringing women into fields that have been defined as male frightens the men, unsexes the women, muffles and distorts the contribution the women could make….”

When Rip Van Winkle returned from his long sleep, the wonder is that he found so much had changed. Some things have, certainly. I myself had missed developments by which Amy Fisher, the teen-ager who shot her lover’s wife, became a feminist heroine. One witty essay (by Elayne Rapping) in the feminist anthology ‘Bad Girls’/’Good Girls’ discusses whether we should have identified with Tonya Harding or Nancy Kerrigan. Hate men? Like rough trade? Coming in on the debate at this point, one cannot easily reconstruct the stages by which private sexual choices have become the test of feminist sincerity or the proper subject of activism.

But it appears that despite the raised voices, and all the variations sprung up to accommodate the nuances of self-expression that have become important to us, despite the escalation in tone and the balkanization of the feminist movement, and despite considerable legal and social progress, thirty-three years after Betty Friedan the basic debate turns on much the same issues as in 1963 (or in 1863): “Is anatomy destiny,” i.e., are females naturally inferior, superior, and/or different? and “What do women want?” The implications of the position that they are “equal” were not emphasized by Friedan, but these still underlie most other questions: Do women have a special responsibility for children—or just half a responsibility? Should they be allowed to struggle in the workplace or forced to stay home (debated, despite the fact that most women today have no choice but to work)? And how do their decisions affect children and men? Finally, who will control their reproductive decisions—men or themselves?

Above all, does society have a right to legislate the behavior of women as a special class defined by their biological attributes? Corollary issues like anxiety over or punishment of female sexual freedom, sexual harassment, and male violence are explained (perhaps partly correctly) as the reaction of threatened, testosterone-poisoned males to the upheaval around all these questions, with the implication either that men would stop being violent toward women if women would behave subserviently, or that many men are innately violent, or both.

‘Bad Girls’/’Good Girls’ is an anthology consisting of some twenty-four essays mostly by academic feminists and other conspicuous feminist writers who were invited to contribute their thoughts on “power feminism.” Power feminism is defined by the editors as suggesting “that because some women have prospered, the systematic inequalities facing all women have vanished into history.” The collection is a revealing introduction to the range of subjects feminists are debating among themselves. Working your way through this anthology, you find angry voices discussingmale violence—how to define the middle ground between reasonable prudence and submission to its threat—and the trivializing of AIDS as a feminist issue by the so-called “power” feminists, particularly Camille Paglia, who even sees AIDS warnings as a scare tactic by anti-sex feminists.


There is other dissension over such issues as sexual freedom and its political consequences, as when “pro-porn” feminists Kegan Doyle and Dany Lancombe support sex work and pornography, against other feminists who think it capitulates to “the ancient patriarchal hegemony.” Occasionally, too, one finds simple contrariness, as when “womanists” Barbara McCaskill and Layli Phillips, after noting the high rates of domestic violence, AIDS, and HIV-infected babies among African-American women—afflictions that surely are not the fault of other women—turn their fury not on men or society but on feminist colleagues:

We are sick and tired of sentencing ourselves to self-imposed censorship until some litmus test can establish that our loyalties of gender exceed our loyalties of race, that we accept upper-middle-class white womanhood as the normative definition of all womanhood…. We’re downright weary of our typecast role as the laughable Topsies of women’s lib or the Beulahs who breast-feed the feminist imagination.

But the occasion of these essays, provoking the angriest voices, is “power feminists.” Of these, the names most frequently vilified are Paglia, Naomi Wolf, and Katie Roiphe, writers of influential bestsellers who often seem to have gone back to the same views our mothers had, such as that any girl fool enough to go to his room with a drunk guy is asking for trouble. Power feminists feel that women should take responsibility for themselves, and that, since they are already autonomous beings, they should stop thinking of themselves as victims, whether of men or of destiny. While acknowledging that women do face special problems, they say they themselves do not feel encumbered or downtrodden. (Perhaps they cannot really know, on account of their age, how things were before—or are still, for many poor women.)

They might better understand were they to read Betty Friedan now as a work of history. To reread Friedan is to find the beliefs of the Fifties and Sixties even more astonishingly what one would now call sexist than one remembered, for, after all, one believed them then. Friedan quotes Adlai Stevenson enjoining the Smith graduate of 1955 to “inspire in her home a vision of the meaning of life and freedom…to help her husband find values that will give purpose to his specialized daily chores…. If you’re clever, maybe you can even practice your saving arts on that unsuspecting man while he’s watching television.”

Probably no one has ever made such suggestions to power feminists, whose feelings of autonomy and personhood should be viewed as the success of their mothers’ hopes and struggles. Perhaps power feminists are tactless in wondering aloud what the big deal was; perhaps they are naive in not appreciating the reactionary nature of history, the way, say, a woman in Iran might who had to get her veil out again in 1980, or a woman in Afghanistan today.

But perhaps “power feminists” have a point, also, if they mean that to claim any sort of political or psychological victimhood is a form of acceptance of it. This delicate issue, its wider implications now so politically incorrect, was faced more candidly by Friedan than anyone I have read since: “By permitting girls to evade tests of reality, and real commitments, in school and the world, by the promise of magical fulfillment through marriage, the feminine mystique arrests their development at an infantile level, short of personal identity, with an inevitably weak core of self.” She goes on to describe the malign effects of childish women on the family, just as Ibsen did.

Jodi Dean, in “Coming Out as an Alien” in ‘Bad Girls’, suggests that underlying some feminists’ antipathy to power feminists “is in fact their challenge to the authority of the academic feminist community to establish the boundaries of feminism.” This seems a plausible explanation. Much discussion in the ‘Bad Girls’ anthology concerns not what is to be done to help women but what is correct thinking. The assumption is that there should be sisterly solidarity even though it should be obvious that white Southern upper-middle-class professors and black lesbian urban Northern single mothers have very different lives and problems. But most of the contributors to ‘Bad Girls’ are academics, and the propensity of academics to schism has been established since the Middle Ages. It’s just that women haven’t been in the academy much until now, where they are finding that the tenure track and the taste of ambition affect them too.

Another essayist, Jillian Sandell, locates the breakdown of feminist solidarity and direction in the American therapy and recovery movements, which teach that since society cannot be changed, the individual must make do with conditions as they are, and focus on the twelve-step processes of adaptation and self-knowledge initiated by Alcoholics Anonymous, which begin by acknowledging a Higher Power. The popularity of American therapy movements might also explain why all the books mentioned in this review base much of their thinking on interviews and personal stories, or “narratives,” as though American readers can no longer follow abstract arguments from ethical or economic or statistical premises. As a result, instead of constructive social policy suggestions based on statistical data, we have endless testimonials, diatribes, and spurious science from people who imagine that their personal experience, the dynamics of their particular family, sexual taste, childhood trauma, and personal inclination constitute universals.


These writers devote a lot of space to accounts of bad things that have happened to them, even things that might not seem that bad to others: “While I did get two movie offers, one for $74,000 and the other for $125,000, I rejected both because of the way they were framed…” writes Matuschka in ‘Bad Girls’. Sandell herself would get rid of capitalism altogether, and attacks the power feminists for what could be their very useful argument that women can use their growing economic power—for instance by using the boycott, or consumer choice—to influence issues they care about.


While academic feminists conduct a sometimes rather specialized colloquy, say on whether pornography is “socially constructed,” or how sexuality is conditioned by ethnicity, other works position themselves in the mass market to influence the general public on the question, still unsettled, of woman’s place. In her recent book, ‘Feminism is Not the Story of My Life’, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese begins as this essay began, with a nod to Betty Friedan. She then traces the course of her disenchantment with the feminist movement as its attitudes seemed to her to diverge from the reality of most American women’s lives—though she acknowledges that most of the gains women have made today are owing to it. It is not clear to whom Fox-Genovese is really talking. Many of the writers in ‘Bad Girls’ also agree that they have distanced themselves from the feminist label or might do so, so pejorative has it become. Jodi Dean says, “In fact, more people believe that the earth has been contacted by aliens than believe that the term ‘feminist’ is a compliment.”

If all Professor Fox-Genovese wishes to say is that most women reject a feminist label when it is associated in their minds with the rejection of femininity (makeup, babies) she is no doubt right. But it seems a lot of ink to expend to convince Mrs. America that feminism is her enemy when, as she also acknowledges, feminism’s more extreme positions have little impact on ordinary middle-class women’s lives anyway. And even if women do reject the label “feminist” to the extent that it is associated with radical or arcane issues, this does not mean that they aren’t interested in such women’s concerns as domestic violence, child care, workplace fairness, and so on. Whether or not Mrs. Dole calls herself a feminist, she said she wasn’t going to quit her job as head of the Red Cross if her husband was elected, and when an interviewer asked if she were, she demanded to know if he would ask her husband the same question if she had been running for president.

Though Fox-Genovese approximates a tone of equable sympathy, her language is so saturated with what feminists might call the assumptions of the neo-conservative patriarchy as to make her sound like an avatar of Pat Buchanan:”Megan openly admits to being ambitious,” [italics mine], implying that ambition is unwomanly or bad. “William Julius Wilson and Deborah Prothrow-Stith, a specialist in public health, have effectively argued that, especially for young black men, a father offers an essential role model. Perversely, feminists have resisted that argument…[italics mine].” “Feminists, insisting on the need to liberate women from morality, have frequently suggested that the morality was imposed by men,” limiting the word “morality” to mean chastity, as if the two things were equivalent. “Feminism has convinced a surprising number of Americans that ‘fairness’ to women requires permitting them virtually the same sexual freedom as men, although they obviously face immeasurably greater risks.” This statement combines two ideas: women should answer to some authority which “permits” or denies their sexual behavior (that is, they cannot choose for themselves), and allowing women independent moral choice is “surprising,” along with a warning that they’d better look out for rape, disease, and unwanted pregnancy.

Every page is filled with this hectoring language, and stops just short of saying that feminists will murder infants in their cradles:”At the moment, official feminism insists that a woman’s right to choose means that it is wrong to save the life of a child who survives the abortion, for saving that life impinges upon the mother’s ‘rights.”‘ Most people—surely—would not agree with such a horrible view, and yet do not feel disqualified from caring about women’s progress.

Though she characterizes feminism as a monolithic menace, Fox-Genovese does finger a few feminist villains in particular, one of whom, Ellen Willis, points out in one of the clearest essays in the ‘Bad Girls’ volume that the abortion issue “has never been just about abortion, but about the larger struggle to redefine women as subjects rather than vessels,” the very position from which Betty Friedan started, and an observation which, if grasped, could point to ways out of the present standoff between pro-life and pro-choice factions. A small place to start might be to devise realistic child-support regulations, or try to adjust for fairness male and female responsibility for children, as in Germany or Canada, which are experimenting with programs to identify fathers of illegitimate children—measures which might help to reduce the need for abortions, and could benefit the children who are born.

Fox-Genovese in her eagerness to get women to see the error of their notions of liberation and personhood seems indifferent to the element of sexual power struggle behind the abortion question, and instead presents this and every issue in simple binary terms, as if women had only limited powers of reasoning. The limitation of her approach is revealed by such statements as “Are women basically similar to men and in direct competition with them, or are they essentially different and in need of male cooperation?” Without considering that they might be similar and in need of cooperation, or several other possible permutations of these terms, her relentlessly Manichaean dialectic and consistently arguable premises diminish the effectiveness of some of her arguments when she does point out the very real paradoxes that vex all efforts at social reform, especially where children are concerned:

Conservatives, who want mothers to stay home with their children, want welfare mothers to work, and feminists, who want most women to work [do they?], want welfare mothers to be able to stay home with their children.

She feels that “feminists’ reluctance to regard abortion as a story about children and ‘reverence for life”‘ and “conservatives’ reluctance to regard abortion as a story about women who do not have the resources to support the children they bear…have combined to free us from our obligations to women and children.”

For obvious reasons, some might not agree that the predicaments of women and children are inextricably bound up together: whether only women and not men too are assigned responsibility for children is a central point at issue. But she astutely deplores that we are, “however unintentionally, treating the children as extensions of women’s sexual freedom rather than as the future of our society.” Like Ellen Willis’s insight about abortion, this warning should also be central in addressing the serious problems with public social policies involving children, especially with the prospect of changes in welfare that will further impoverish poor children.

Fox-Genovese writes as if human fulfillment were as finite as a cake, and, if you give “women” a larger piece, then “men” and “children” will have less. Yet in one way she is right, because our society has the habit of viewing men and women as separate interest groups whose concerns are opposed, but looks at children only as the property or responsibility of their parents, with society indifferent to them—as statistics that place one in four American children in poverty in fact demonstrate.


Fox-Genovese is implicitly a “difference” or “essentialist” theorist, who imputes distinct qualities, emotions, and duties to women and men. Nearly all the assumptions she makes about the desirability of traditional marriage with the mother staying at home are challenged or contradicted by the work of the late Dr. Daniel J. Levinson, a professor of psychology at Yale (The Seasons of a Woman’s Life); by that of Rosalind C. Barnett, professor of psychology at Harvard, and Caryl Rivers, professor of journalism at Boston University (She Works, He Works); and by that of Sharon Hays, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia (The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood), all of them sometimes using the same sources as Fox-Genovese.

Rivers and Barnett, two working mothers, make no secret of their point of view; their four-year study of six hundred subjects (middle- and working-class married couples), conducted at Wellesley College and funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health, gives an upbeat picture of the advantages for families of women working, whether full- or part-time. Despite the more complicated logistics, they find that mothers with careers are happier, with more cheerful and competent children—sons more resourceful, daughters more apt to have careers of their own—and fathers more engaged in family life.

Their study, thirty years after Friedan wrote her book, corroborates her picture of the emerging frustrations of American housewives and the superior adjustment and health of educated career women (though not of women in low-paying jobs). They complement their own work with statistics drawn from Canadian and American census data, or compiled by other various university researchers, that show that many widely believed “facts” about women in the workplace, for instance that the rate of cardiac problems among working women has risen to meet that of men, are not true. According to one such project, the large ongoing Framingham Heart Study, not only heart disease but depression and chronic illness are more frequent among homemakers than among working women (professional, middle-, and lower-middle-class). 1

Barnett and Rivers also make the point that to cling nostalgically to a Fifties paradigm of supermom, gleaming floors, and commuting dad is to admire an arrangement that was never normal and perhaps never existed, except as a sitcom ideal. They explain that

the convergence of…the postwar need to get women into the home, the growth of suburbia made possible by the automobile, and the [social] science that mistook the family forms of a particular period as biological and historical truth…was an alignment that turned out to be malign. If we had known that women would move into the work force in unprecedented numbers, would we have created a structure which put work so far from home?Would we have put so few resources into social systems to care for young children, simply assuming that mothers would always be at home…?

Betty Friedan’s stay-at-home moms were depressed and desperate, as Adlai Stevenson acknowledged while trying to cajole them:”They [modern women] had hoped to play their part in the crises of the age. But what they do is wash the diapers…. Marriage and motherhood [are] an infinitely deeper and more intimate responsibility than that borne by the majority of those who hit the headlines.” (Barnett and Rivers cite one study2 showing that “the average woman at home spends less than ten minutes a day playing with or reading to her child.”)

Sharon Hays in The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood also agrees that the supermom ideal of the Fifties persists like crabgrass in America, where the ideal of “intensive mothering” is held by working as well as non-working mothers, and is characterized as “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive and financially expensive.” Hays’s conclusion (based on a rather small number of interviews and on the sales figures of parenting manuals) is that motherly seriousness has intensified in response to the greater number of women working (more than half)—the opposite of what Fox-Genovese believes.

Following Betty Friedan’s extensive treatment of the same subject, the books by Hays and by Barnett and Rivers discuss the biases in the functionalist American social science of the 1950s, which established our still unquestioning acceptance of what is “best” for children and families on the basis of little or no evidence, and often in the face of contradictory evidence and the opposing views of influential psychologists of the time, such as Arnold Gesell, who believed parenting to be relatively unimportant as long as it wasn’t a disaster. More recent observers argue that male psychologists have influenced our assumptions with their own unconscious assumptions, for instance by arbitrarily attributing depression/retardation which afflicts institutionalized children receiving no human contact to “maternal deprivation,” without inquiring whether contact with a father or other male would have served as well. (Perhaps the whole thing is semantic, and “mothering” is an important function that can be performed by persons of either sex.)

Hays also makes the point that all conceptions of maternity are constructs that vary widely from era to era and culture to culture. Negative American attitudes, for example toward the concept of day care, in her view, are simply that—attitudes, not necessarily founded in observed fact—and ignore reports of the experience in countries such as France or Scandinavia, whose governments have committed themselves to large-scale child-care arrangements, as if present-day America were the universal model with nothing to learn.3

Like millions of American as well as British mothers, Fox-Genovese believes in Penelope Leach, the British child psychologist, who holds that “in the lives of babies and young children, mothers and fathers are neither the same nor equal,” with mothers being the “natural” parent. Hays and Barnett/ Rivers all attack this as unproven, and they contradict Leach’s insistence that day care for young children interferes with the bonding process between parents and child. Barnett and Rivers cite various studies of school performance or other measures that find the opposite to be true.4

The fact that such research as the Framingham Heart Study, cited by Barnett and Rivers, or the Canadian census statistics, presented by Hays, which suggest that there are fewer cases of depression among career women than among non-working women,5 are not widely known reinforces reports, such as Susan Faludi’s Backlash, of media failure to publicize findings that contradict or undermine “traditional” paradigms or confirm signs of anxiety-provoking change. For example, Barnett and Rivers also cite an extensive review by the National Academy of Sciences of various published psychological and sociological studies on the children of working mothers, showing that “there simply were no significant differences between the children of employed and nonemployed mothers on most child development measures,” and that daughters seemed actually to benefit, which at least was unknown to me.

A little healthy skepticism is always in order, of course, when it comes to social science, but where there is suggestive evidence that contradicts received opinion, for instance, of lower rates of heart attack or clinical depression among working women, it should be made available in order to help women and men to break out of the present impasse of guilt and reproach, and even to help in shaping public policy with less superstition and sentimentality than are currently the case.

Dr. Daniel J. Levinson’s project atYale consisted of talks with groups of “regular” women, by which he means forty-five subjects winnowed down from a larger sample of homemakers chosen at random from the phone book, career women, and academics around New Haven. His impressions tend to agree with those of Barnett and Rivers, that working women are better off than their sisters at home; the “career” women who talked to these researchers seemed happier and less disappointed in their lives than the ones in “traditional marriages,” despite the difficulties they faced in balancing career, home, and motherhood. Levinson was seeking to document his idea, first presented eighteen years ago in The Seasons of a Man’s Life (in which he came up with the phrase “mid-life crisis”), that people’s lives have different concerns at different phases, despite sex, social class, or culture. Having studied men, he was surprised, he says, to discover that “women go through the same sequence of eras as men, and at the same ages” (italics his). He does not explain why this should be surprising.

Levinson also concludes that although his interviews suggest that the lives of men and women are different because of “gender splitting,” his term for the habit of all human societies to assign male and female tasks such as child care or providing a living, they lead him to conclude that

Humanity is now in the early phases of a transformation in the meanings of gender and the place of women and men in every society. The general direction of change is clear:the lives and personalities of women and men are becoming more similar.

His belief is that this is an irreversible historical trend which will take another century to achieve, and that the reason for all the dismay and reaction today is that “ideas of gender equality”—Friedan would have said the humanity of women—“…evoke great anxiety and run counter to our traditional ways of thinking.” This explanation for the gender wars may also explain reactions in, say, Algeria, where frantic men slit the throats of schoolgirls who refuse the veil. But events like these hardly encourage one’s faith in his optimism.

“Ideas of gender equality” are exactly what men’s movement guru Robert Bly in his new book, The Sibling Society, criticizes, though more benignly. “Sibling society” is a useful metaphor for what many people feel has gone wrong in America today, a society in which there are no parents, no rules, no “natural” gender differences, and no responsibility taken for younger children. However one may feel about Bly’s attempts to rehabilitate “masculinity,” which he distinguishes from the discredited patriarchy (while deploring feminism’s tendency to conflate patriarchal attitudes with those of ordinary men), many share his sense that society is going to hell in a handbag. Like Fox-Genovese he speaks in the accents of blame and threat, in his case the archetypal male threats:”A group of young men in Kenya…attacked a dormitory and raped a number of young women…. All the advances made for women can be undone in several strokes by unsocialized young men.”

It would seem logical that women in their own interest should take note of men’s problems. In some of the essays in ‘Bad Girls’, there is a presumption that men lead lives of piggish satisfaction, exulting in their rage, whereas the symptoms their authors cite suggest men are more unhappy, prey to substance abuse, insecurity, loneliness, and suicide than women are. But Robert Bly says, “It is not women’s job to socialize young males. That is the job of the older men…. It’s the job of the entire culture.” The word “socialize” is the operative word; Bly is not talking about perpetuating macho error, but about helping men reassume what he views as their natural responsibility. One would think that, without of course accepting responsibility for having made men the way they are, which would be to infantilize them still further, women should support efforts to restore the “community of men,” which, Iassume, is the male bonding that Bly brought to our attention and that sent many husbands out for amusing weekends in the woods with drums.

Very little attention is paid in these women’s books to Bly’s point that something has gone wrong with the socialization of men in America, that they have become alienated from their families, are losing jobs and authority to women, and are unable to come to terms with the change. In fact there is not much mention of men at all, except vaguely to characterize them as the enemy or the problem, especially when it comes to violence against women.

Fox-Genovese points out that both feminists and conservatives are apt to view male violence against women and children as normal, the former because they see men as inherently violent (although the writers in ‘Bad Girls’ are divided about this). All the writers seem to agree that violence requires police action, but few apart from Bly seem to consider that the violence may be cultural and not biological. Inspired by Bly, the various men’s movements are apparently trying to address the lost lives of men, and if some of them misunderstand domination as the male role, others appear to see that peaceful collaboration in the human enterprise is pretty much what everybody has to strive for, although large numbers of female separatists do not agree.

What both Fox-Genovese and Robert Bly fail to account for, and what the Bad Girls testify to, is the mistrust many women feel about the way women have been treated in the past, individually or collectively. Regardless of her own particular experience, every woman has access to an understanding of a collective store of grievances, part of female lore instantly comprehensible when invoked by such expressions as “that’s how men are.” But their sense that they deserve redress may stand as an obstacle to the kind of collaboration a functional society requires.

Innately violent men, instinctively maternal women? The argument about innate gender differences goes back to antiquity, which assumed with Aristotle that women were lesser or incomplete men. Not until the eighteenth century was this idea reexamined, and by the nineteenth women were being told they were not necessarily inferior, but different and, as a sop, in some ways superior. While men were more reasonable, physically stronger, and leaderly, women were more sensitive, humane, instinctively moral, and less corruptible. This implied that women should be sheltered—a nice Victorian woman might not read the newspaper—in a place controlled by her virtuous influence, which men were assigned to protect by shouldering the burdens of the outside world. The fact that men regularly ignored female moral influence outside the home—indeed were obliged and expected to in order to make their way—was a paradox not commented on. Probably the Victorians just thought that without women’s example men would be even worse.

Some feminists today make these same arguments about the superior moral qualities of women, but the hypocrisy would be quickly remarked if, after saying, “black people are not merely equal, they are actually superior—more artistic, stronger, and with a greater emotional range,” we went on to say, “What the more limited white man can do to protect these qualities in black people is to shoulder the burdens of the boardroom, the tedium of the classroom, and the boring duties of the courtroom”—like Victorian men.


What is the nature of male and female is a question that has always been asked and never answered, like questions about original sin or the existence of God. One could suggest that we finally abandon them as unanswerable. The essential nature of children has also been differently perceived at different epochs, as savage, or as innocent, as adult at three, or at seven, or never, as in the current fashion, and as Bly points out. But children have always been an important underlying reason that the interests of women and men are opposed. Someone must care for them, and someone must pay for them. Few subjects give rise to more anxiety, hypocrisy, and legal dispute than the proper upbringing of children, especially the question of who should be charged with it and for it.

Hays, Rivers and Barnett, and Dr. Levinson all show that the difficult work of child care, despite its vaunted joys, is something that people down through history have tended to shirk or at least to devise ways of sharing. Are women especially suited to it?Men would like them to think so. Many women do think so. But all we know for sure is that work that no one much wants to do has always been foisted off on some disadvantaged class in the name of “nature,” and that, moreover, work done by a disadvantaged class is not respected. Fox-Genovese is surely right in observing that “society cannot expect women to become mothers if it does not value and support what mothers do. So long as we treat the work of mothering as if it were servants’ work—and smugly demean servants’ work—we virtually guarantee that the more talented a woman is the less likely she will choose to become a mother.”

This seems to be what the strife is really about:who is going to control the means of reproduction, and who is going to watch the kids. It cannot be coincidental that it is male-run institutions like the Catholic Church, the Japanese government, and Islam that outlaw or control contraception. Yet it would appear that in many parts of the world, women are, for the first time, able to control conception. What will induce them now to collaborate or even cooperate with male-run institutions?

If a definition of progress involves women being free from categorical limitations, and having more sex-blind social policies and career opportunities, perhaps one can be cautiously optimistic, though not for most of the world’s women, who are out of reach, if not actually murdered, aborted, or starved: Amartya Sen, writing in these pages in 1991, demonstrated that 100 million women were missing—and this was largely before the widespread use of ultrasound in China and India to detect female fetuses and abort them.6 Yet change has to start somewhere. Now there are women astronauts; and the Teamsters have announced that they are going to try to be more “nurturing” toward women. It said in the paper a little while ago that a “single father” won the Pillsbury Bake- Off. Feminists should not ignore this.

Perhaps American feminism could resolve some of its internal dissensions and influence policy if it looked at the people it wants to help, and insisted that society look at them, not as categorically similar but more as Betty Friedan began the discussion—as citizens with concerns that differ with age and over time. “Citizen” might be a word more difficult to repudiate than “woman,” a word which, like “feminism,” comes loaded with preconceptions about female nature, human psychology, and what is “natural,” questions no one seems close to answering. Feminism might urge instead that everyone regardless of sex should have some minimal “rights”: personal safety, autonomy in sexual and health matters, equal pay for equal work—conditions of basic fairness. (Even these advances would still not bring Americans up to the standards of the European Union.)

This was more or less what the Equal Rights Amendment was about—and was so pointedly refused by a society still unwilling to recognize either women or children as fully qualified citizens. That debacle might suggest a starting point for activism, and remind younger women, whether or not they accept the dread label “feminist,” at least to watch their backs. Garrison Keillor has a funny skit from Lake Wobegon in which the dad announces that next year he’s going to make the Thanksgiving dinner. When he does, he discovers what women have known all along, that it is much more amusing, on that long and boring day, to be bustling in the kitchen than to be cooling your heels in the living room.

This Issue

November 28, 1996