Feminism’s second-wave hangover
NationalPost.com – FullComment/Canada
March 7, 2011. Tasha Kheiriddin
On the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, I find myself profoundly ambivalent about feminism. On the one hand, I owe it a huge debt of gratitude. Without feminists winning the right to vote, study, and work, I likely wouldn’t be writing this column. Had I been born a hundred, or even 50, years ago, I might not have gone to law school, had a series of interesting jobs, or traveled the world. Horizons were limited, and a woman’s fate was determined in large part by the men in her life: her father, and afterwards, her husband.
At the same time, there was one career that remained the undisputed province of women: mothering. From wiping babies’ noses and tears, to teaching toddlers manners, to preparing youngsters for the world beyond childhood, raising children was women’s work. And since women had little, if any, control over how many babies they bore, this naturally restricted other choices.
Enter feminism. At the turn of the 20th century, its goals were rights-based. “First-wave” feminism demanded basic equality for women, including the right to vote and obtain an education. Feminists sought to reform family and property law, better women’s working conditions, and improve public morality, through organizations such as the Temperance movement.
Then, between the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in 1949, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963, feminism entered its “second wave.” It allied itself with other political movements: civil rights, environmentalism, and socialism. The personal became political, seeking the “liberation” of women from oppression, discrimination — and the strictures of family.
Feminism emphasized the importance of paid careers, with higher education as the ticket to success. Women listened: in the United States, the percentage of college degrees awarded to women rose from 40 in 1970, to 50 in 1980, to 57 in 2006. Today, in 67 of 120 nations around the world, women earn more degrees than men. While women overall still make less money than men, unmarried women without children now also out-earn their male counterparts in 147 of the largest 150 American cities.
Over the same period, however, feminism diminished women’s role as nurturers of the next generation. Radical feminists decried the traditional family as an impediment to self-fulfilment, and children as a barrier to a successful career. Pro-choice activists trumpeted abortion as an absolute right, often with no consideration given to the fetus at any stage of its development. Daycare advocates pushed infants and toddlers out of the nest, and into the hands of early childhood educators.
The result of this revolution has turned feminism on its head. The status of Western women today is still at odds with our aspirations, but in a different way. Instead of being liberated to do what we want, women now are not only free — but expected — to do everything, want it or not. Bring home the bacon, fry it up, drive the kids to soccer, and clean the house. We have become the harried Econowives of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale — or, increasingly, econo single mothers. At the same time, fewer women are having children, some by choice, but more by failure to find a mate, or to mate in time.
Ironically, feminism was originally all about choices, the lynchpin of which was the choice for women with children to work outside the home. Today, however, feminists paint this decision as mandatory, and children as optional.
In her 2006 cri-de-coeur, Get to Work, retired trial lawyer Linda Hirshman declared that all women should work, and that they should have no more than one child. In a 2010 interview, Liberal Health Critic Carolyn Bennett declared that “Women of Canada want to … be able to get back to school, to get a real job, to be able to go to work.” And as the daycare debate heats up in advance of the next federal election, women are being treated to headlines like this one in Maclean’s magazine: “Canadian economy threatened by lack of a national child care plan, group says.”
The message: Women who have more than one child, and aspire to take time off to raise a family, aren’t just letting down the sisterhood, but threatening the well-being of the entire country. We should all be Rosie the Riveters for the 21st century — except that instead of building munitions, we’re bolstering the GDP.
But, given the choice, a majority of women would prefer not to work full time when they have children. In a 2009 Pew publication entitled, appropriately, The Harried Life of the Working Mother, researcher Kim Parker found that, among working parents of children aged 16 years and younger, 62% of women would prefer to work part-time, versus 37% who would work full time. (Among fathers, the numbers reversed themselves: 21% would choose part-time work, versus 79% who wanted to work full time). A scant 12% of those surveyed — men and women — felt it was ideal for a mother to work full time when her children were young.
Yet instead of respecting these preferences, feminists seek to denigrate them. Hirshman derides so-called “choice feminists” and “opt-outers” (women with degrees who stop working to raise their families) as engaged in a form of self-betrayal, because raising children cannot possibly be as fulfilling an experience as paid work outside the home.
Without question, a paid career is important on many levels; and for financial reasons, many women with children, including yours truly, have to work. But the rewards of raising a child are indescribably fulfilling. All the highs of my career cannot compare to my toddler’s first steps, first words, and the progress she makes every day. Yes, her impact on my professional life has been profound: I changed jobs, and work from home, to spend as much time with her as possible. But far from limiting my career, she has given it, and my life, a purpose it simply did not have before.
So today, on the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, I salute the Susan B. Anthonys, the Nellie McClungs, and yes, even the Betty Friedans, for the fights they led for women’s equality. But I would also like to see contemporary feminism stop preaching, and start serving the true ambitions of women. Instead of asking “How do I fit motherhood into my life?” we should encourage our daughters to ask, “How do I fit my life into motherhood?” Aspiring to raise a family is a goal that should be exalted, not decried.
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