Why Women Can’t Commit

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The last few months have marked an interesting change in the debate over the rights and status of women in this country. Above the whine of feminism, with its invocations of victimhood and of women's special status, we have begun to hear the old voices of women's liberation, calling for equal rights.

The dichotomy is a tad simplistic, but widely recognized. Once, the women's movement claimed for women the same rights—political, economic, educational, social—that men enjoyed. Like all such movements, it had its extremes, those who denied any significant difference between the sexes and demonstrated a notable lack of humor. The public made much of the movement's minor points, especially those that questioned such chivalrous gestures as opening doors for women. Eventually, most of us settled down into a non-ideological middle ground, where women aren't reminded of their difference every time they enter a room, leave an elevator, or sit down in a restaurant, but where politeness permits the occasional gracious act—and allows women to reciprocate.

Because it evoked a fundamental sense of fairness and harkened back to basic American ideas of equality before the law, women's liberation won the hearts of Americans who would never admit they'd been smitten. For anyone who doubts this triumph, we have the experience of Desert Storm.

In the Persian Gulf War, women soldiers were taken prisoner. Women soldiers died in action. The world did not end. Americans did not rise up in indignation. Any serious protests were directed at the war in general, not at the deployment of female warriors. Middle America—whatever its earlier abstract views of female soldiers—seemed not merely to accept but to relish this great experiment as perfectly natural, especially compared to the unenlightened ways of the Saudis. It was practical and normal for women and men to work together, even in military endeavors. And in a decidedly foreign culture, it seemed very American.

During the Gulf War, that great advocate of women's rights, Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D–Colo.), was busy making noise. Schroeder, who has long pushed for putting women into combat roles, decided she does want to see limits on the use of female troops: She doesn't want any military moms to leave the kids with no parent at home. (Her objection extends to fathers, but the numbers make this a women's issue.)

This after-the-fact attempt to revise military contracts exemplifies a common attitude. Schroeder and others like her don't want women to take their commitments seriously. They treat grown women as ignorant children who must be protected by a paternalistic state. They argue that single mothers who sign up for military service shouldn't have to keep their promises. They call for "rights," without reciprocal responsibilities.

This petulant attitude extends beyond the military context, tempering whatever enthusiasm the reappearance of rights-based feminism might inspire. Unfortunately, both predominant strands of feminism deny the importance of commitments to women's freedom.

Consider the Supreme Court's landmark "fetal protection" decision. In March the Court ruled unanimously that employers may not exclude women from jobs that might expose a fetus to toxic substances. The employer in question, battery maker Johnson Controls Inc., wouldn't let women work in factory jobs that would expose them to lead unless the women could prove they were sterile. The Court declared such policies illegal under Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Court's rhetoric sounds like a ringing defense of women's rights to assume risks and responsibilities. "Decisions about the welfare of future children must be left to the parents who conceive, bear, support and raise them rather than to the employers who hire those parents," Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote for the majority.

But "fetal protection" policies are less paternalistic than the legal situation that gives rise to them. No woman—no matter how well informed—can sign a contract with an employer declaring that she will not sue it for damages caused by voluntary exposure to toxic chemicals. Such a contract would never stand up in court.

That the legal system has effectively outlawed countless contracts is nothing new, nor is it gender-specific. Men can't voluntarily sign away their rights to sue, either. But the erosion of contract rights is especially hurtful to women. In part, this is because of history. In part, it is because of the particular contracts that have been attacked.

Until this century, most women were denied the right to make commitments on their own behalf—to own property, to sign contracts, to arrange their own working hours with employers. Often "for their own protection," women were thrust into one-size-fits-all arrangements that recognized neither their autonomy nor their individuality.

Yet today we hear calls for restrictions on choice, even from "liberal" feminists—those who talk about equality and individual rights, rather than woman's "different voice" and superior sensitivity. A woman must not be able to choose, for example, a job that does not grant her 12 weeks leave after the birth of a child, even if that woman has no more intention of having a child than does the woman who wants to work making car batteries. And even if the job, like battery production, pays better than a more family- friendly alternative.

"The most dramatic change in the lives of young women—although many have no wish to recognize it—is that marriage is not a viable career. Under favorable circumstances it remains a rewarding personal relation, but it no longer serves as a surrogate career. Today, no law, no father, no brother can force a man to support a woman," writes communitarian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese in Feminism Without Illusions. This statement may say more about how the security of tenure has warped Fox-Genovese's picture of the typical "career," but it captures an important point.

Ideally, marriage contracts should be like wills, with the parties' expressed commitments taking precedence over the default contract offered by the state. But the options available to women, and their husbands, are as narrow as ever. They have merely changed to suit different tastes. Women can no longer enter into marriage contracts that assure them financial support. And a good lawyer can break nearly any prenuptial agreement, usually on the woman's behalf.

One of the most meaningful ways we use freedom is to make commitments, to bind ourselves, yes, but in ways of our own choosing. This is how we build a life apart from the bonds of inherited status. Free people trade. They form associations. They employ one another. They create communities. Even "atomized individuals" tend to form molecules. To dictate the shape of those associations, the terms of those contracts, is to deny individuals—women and men—the freedom to invent their own lives. That is not liberation.