IF ANY OF THE young people who came to hear National Organization for Women President Patricia Ireland speak at Boston College Law School last week expected any radical or male-bashing rhetoric, they were in for a surprise: Ireland was a nonthreatening, engaging speaker. Yet she clearly represented a feminist paradigm that is increasingly irrelevant.
Ireland talked passionately (and often with a touch of humor) about the bad old days when flight attendants lost their jobs if they married, female workers could be denied pension benefits for their dependents, and some state laws gave the husband full control over marital property even if the wife earned more.
It was a compelling reminder of why the women's movement is necessary. "There has been tremendous progress," Ireland acknowledged. (The progress was evident at the law school, where women make up more than half of the entering class, reflecting a national trend.) Yet she warned against thinking that "the work is done," pointing to the tiny percentages of women in upper echelons of corporate and political power.
But is it fair to equate explicit discrimination with lack of proportional representation?
Unjust laws and policies have clear political solutions. On the other hand, even if women could be given half of political or executive posts by government fiat, would it do any good? Gender disparities in the marketplace and in public life have many complex causes. Take pay equity: Women currently earn about 75 percent of what men make, an issue Ireland pretty much reduces to being robbed of a quarter on every dollar. Yet differences in training, occupation, and experience account for most of the gap. Partly, this is the legacy of a past in which both discrimination and widely accepted cultural norms kept most women from seeking positions of power.
Today, the "old boy network" may still hamper women's progress. But it is also true that, after more than 30 years of feminism, that women and men often make different choices about work and life.
Indeed, after Ireland's talk, a woman student asked if women's choices, such as opting for public-interest work over corporate law, partly account for their underrepresentation in high-level jobs.
Ireland's response was to compliment women's fine "moral conscience" (due, she suggested, to their historical caregiving roles) and to urge women to bring their values into traditionally male spheres.
Female idealism, however, isn't the only issue. To a large extent, women are still expected to be the primary parents and men the primary breadwinners. This gives women less freedom to pursue lucrative, high-powered careers—and more freedom to choose lower-paying but fulfilling work. These expectations are partly perpetuated by women themselves, as feminist writer Peggy Orenstein recognizes in her recent book, "Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, and Life in a Half-Changed World."
Women, Orenstein says, are often reluctant to give up the special status of motherhood and accept fathers as equal partners in child-rearing. Even ambitious, "liberated" young women tend to assume that they (but not their male peers) are entitled to scale back work when they have kids; consequently, many choose flexible careers—and mates who are more likely to be breadwinners than caregivers.
Many conservatives believe these traditional preferences are not only natural but essential to healthy families. I'm not so sure. It is often hard to tell where free choice ends and cultural pressure begins. The crazy quilt of old and new norms can cause painful conflicts, frustrating women's professional aspirations and men's desire for a balanced life.
Men and women don't have to make the same choices, but they should have the same choices. These are issues political activism can do little to address. Far more important is a dialogue that would encourage both sexes to rethink their biases and unfair expectations. (Rejecting a man because of his low earning potential is as sexist as rejecting a woman because she's too ambitious.)
Can feminists lead such a dialogue? Despite rhetoric about equal partnership—which, Ireland stressed, can benefit men too—NOW has opposed all efforts to give divorced fathers a more equal role in children's lives.
This knee-jerk solidarity with women actually perpetuates the notion that mothers have a stronger bond with children and fathers are more responsible for financial support.
No, equality isn't here yet, but maybe the battles aren't for the women's movement to win anymore. We need a movement that stresses not only women's rights but equal rights, and understands that the two aren't always the same.