Individualist Feminism Under Fire
A Lesser Life: The Myth of Women's Liberation in America, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, New York: Morrow, 459 pages, $17.95
Social movements go in cycles, and the feminist movement is no exception. It began as a reaction to restrictive laws and customs and was associated with the abolitionist movement. But gradually, after the turn of the century, it became a battleground between forces advocating equality before the law (which social thinker F.A. Hayek has called "the only kind of equality conducive to liberty") and forces that wished to use the law to create "equality" for women by compensating for their inferior strength and clout.
With World War II and the postwar years, feminism more or less disappeared. But then in the late '60s and early '70s a new women's movement swung the pendulum again toward equality before the law, with the strong push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
But now, if Sylvia Hewlett's book A Lesser Life and the positive reception it is getting are any indication (the author was a guest on Face the Nation this past Mother's Day), the pendulum is swinging in the other direction again. The force of Hewlett's argumentation poses a challenge that those who disagree will have to answer.
Hewlett was assistant professor of economics at Barnard College from 1974 to 1981 and then became director of the Economic Policy Council, a private-sector "think tank," where she worked with the likes of Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Ray Marshall, secretary of labor from 1976 to 1980—both of whom provided enthusiastic jacket blurbs for the book. She is now, according to the jacket of her book, vice-president for economic studies at the United Nations Association. British born and raised, she came to work in this country convinced that it is the focal point for contemporary feminism and that a feminist is what she is.
But her experiences once she began having children and trying to combine family and work led her to question a great deal about the contemporary position of American women. This led in turn to her research for this book, interviewing "business leaders, journalists, government officials, and hundreds of working parents in five different countries."
In some ways A Lesser Life is an infuriating book—so much of it is good. It is well written. It has the historical facts right about the early history of the ERA and how it was opposed by Eleanor Roosevelt and the Women's Bureau of the Department on Labor on the grounds that women didn't need equality before the law, they needed special legislation (a New Deal) that an ERA would invalidate. It masterfully combines research and personal anecdote. It accurately describes many of the dilemmas that face women in today's world.
But then, understanding the issues and naming them, Hewlett comes down squarely on the side of "social feminism," European version. Her message is that only ever-expanding government programs can solve these problems. She concludes that, because of the lack of protective legislation in this country as compared to Europe, American women are less liberated than their European counterparts. Women's problems, she argues, are problems that women cannot solve for themselves, voluntarily, without the coercive intervention of government.
She calls it a "problem" of "consciousness raising" that it "tends to shift the burden for change away from society arid toward the individual woman. It encourages women to look to themselves, or to that small group of women with whom they share consciousness, as the source of their 'liberation.' In short, consciousness raising is an approach that deemphasizes broad-based social action in favor of personal redemption.…Because it shifts responsibility away from society and toward the individual, it tends to deemphasize political action in favor of highly personal transformation experiences." She adds later, "These self-help solutions to problems—even when they don't work—relieve the pressure on government to seek collective solutions to women's problems."
The problems the book describes are those of working mothers. At a time when marriage no longer provides women with economic security, the workplace offers little alternative security to working mothers. Only childless women are able take full advantage of the opportunities for high-powered careers that equal-rights feminists have helped to win. The rise in divorce has been accompanied by financial settlements meant to be egalitarian but actually detrimental to women, so that more and more women need a paycheck. That paycheck, except for a very small percentage of women, is less than the average male worker's—there is a wage gap between men and women.
In the face of this situation, 48 percent of mothers of children under one year are now in the labor force. And only 40 percent of these working mothers had any sort of maternity leave or job-back guarantee. They have uncertain child-care arrangements, and if they try to get flextime or part-time work while their children are little they usually lose job benefits. In Europe, on the other hand, "advanced democracies have instituted family-support systems such as paid maternity leaves, child allowances, subsidized day care, and free health services, all of which considerably ease the lives of working parents."
A large part of Hewlett's book examines why there is no national movement in favor of similar public-policy measures in this country. Hewlett's answer, in a nutshell, is the '50s. The '50s, she says, were so aberrant in the adoption of extreme "masculine" and "feminine" roles that they interrupted the move toward social feminism that might otherwise have surged here as it did in Europe.
Instead, the '50s gave rise to a cult of motherhood as a full-time occupation, which cult still keeps American public policy from solving women's problems and set the sexes and the generations against each other in the late '60s and early '70s. So no one—not businessmen, not business women, certainly not politicians—is interested in doing anything to make life easier for working mothers.
The people who should be interested, feminists, began their feminism either as young radicals who had learned to hate men through their contemptuous treatment in left-wing politics or as former housewives who felt bitter because they hadn't emulated men in the job market. Neither group was concerned about children. The fight over the ERA in the '70s developed another set of activist women: traditional women determined to hang on to the economic security of the marriage pattern of the '50s. But, says Hewlett, "neither the feminist movement nor the antifeminist movement has yet had much success in improving women's economic security."
In the absence of a national movement to secure legislation gaining special privileges for working mothers, the only hope that Hewlett sees to better their lot is pressure from trade unions in collective bargaining. It's ironic that this book, calling for social feminism as in "social democrat," is being perceived as a middle-of-the-road, even conservative, document. After all, it criticizes the National Organization for Women (NOW), and it takes the side of antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly in the ERA fight—while deploring Schlafly's negative stand on equal pay for work of comparable worth. The challenge of the book is that the problems it identifies are real and the "solutions" do exist in European countries.
Never mind that part of what is working in those European countries is a tradition of more stable marriage ("The divorce rate in the United States is now double that in Sweden, Britain, and Germany; triple that in France; and twenty times as high as in Italy"). Never mind that our deficits couldn't support the kind of investment that federally supported child care, to mention just one item on the list, would cost—either economically or politically. Never mind that mandated paid maternity leave could also negatively affect the employment patterns of women, as it would add enormously to the cost of employing women. And never mind that a great deal of research was done in the early '70s showing that laws purporting to "protect" women in the labor market actually discriminate against them: maximum-hour laws forbid overtime and hence inhibit promotions; laws against nightwork or dangerous occupations keep women from competing for high-paying jobs; maternity leaves become prohibitions on working for certain periods before or after pregnancy. Dr. Hewlett's picture of the problem has the ring of truth, and her solutions seem realistic.
Those who care both for the family and individual freedom have been warned. The ball is now in our court.
Joan Kennedy Taylor is a New York-based book editor.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Individualist Feminism Under Fire".