A Glimpse of the New Feminism: From July 6, 1996
I am grateful to the conference organizers for suggesting the word "glimpse" in the title of this talk, because I have to admit at the outset that I do not have a vision of a fully formed new feminism rising like Botticelli’s Venus in all her glory from the sea. But that word "glimpse" got me thinking about the story of Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy. Moses, as you know, never did enter the promised land. After 40 years of wandering in the desert, however, he "glimpsed it from afar." And that glimpse was so satisfying that he died happy.
What does Moses have to do with any kind of feminism, old or new? For one thing, the story reminds us that a glimpse is better than nothing. For another, the wanderings of the children of Israel and the quest of modern women for liberation have something in common--they were both rooted in what Pope John Paul II referred to in his recent speech to the United Nations as "the universal human longing" for a life worthy of free persons. And both journeys, despite their ups and downs and the occasional false idol, had their eyes on the prize of a better, freer, more dignified life.
I wish here to try to imagine a new feminism that would bring us closer to that prize. The timeliness of the quest arises from a widespread sense that the old feminism, by which I mean official feminism--the feminism of the 1970s--veered off course somewhere along the way. We are now in a situation, the polls tell us, in which the majority of American women, young women more than older ones, reject the label "feminist" yet say they are strongly committed to many of the goals of the feminist movement.
If the pollsters had probed further, they would probably have found that most of the women who distance themselves from feminism not only share many feminist goals, but also partake of the feelings, perceptions and impulses that gave rise to modern feminism. For a great part of the thrust of feminist movements (and other liberation movements) all over the world came from the aspirations for human rights that were in the air after World War II.
Every once in a while in human history, pent up yearnings for freedom seem to burst forth with astonishing power--blowing the lid right off the social kettle. In 1945, still shaken from the horrors of war, the nations of the world gathered to found the United Nations--and to affirm solemnly in its charter a common "faith in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small." Three years later, in 1948, the United Nations proclaimed a common core of fundamental rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Again the nations affirmed the equal dignity of men and women. The declaration lifted up a vision of a world with "better standards of life in larger freedom" for everyone.
Cynics might say, "Just words on a couple of pieces of paper." And, sadly, in many parts of the world they would be right. But it is not for nothing that Vaclav Havel titled one of his first speeches after the fall of Communism, The Mysterious Power of Words." The right words at the right time ignite imaginations. That is why any new feminism will have to find the words and tell the stories that will move hearts and minds.
During the postwar "rights moment" a new spirit was in the air, and it was contagious. It was like the time when a Concord farmer fired a "shot heard round the world." Colonial empires began to dissolve. Civil rights movements in established democracies gathered momentum. By the early 1950s, nearly every nation had a bill of rights--most of them for the first time. And unlike our 18th-century Bill of Rights, but like the U.N. declaration, most of these postwar constitutions (in other words, most constitutions in the world today) expressly provided for equality of the sexes. It was as though a bell had rung somewhere and awakened dreams that had been sleeping in the hearts of women and men in every comer of the earth. It would be a mistake to move from disenchantment with feminism to denial of those dreams.
In the mid-1960s the Second Vatican Council gave its blessing, so to speak, to these yearnings for "a full and free life worthy of [human beings]." As a popular song of the 60s had it: The times they are a-changin."
It was in that heady, exciting atmosphere that various liberation movements arose, including eventually the diverse, amorphous feminism of the 1960s. The feminists of that period were blissfully unaware of what we, with 20-20 vision in hindsight, know all too well, that the womens liberation train, along with the rest of American society, was headed straight into a 20-year tunnel of turbulence.
Imagine that, say around 1960, a cosmic census bureau forecaster could have announced over some continental intercom: "Ladies and gentlemen of the United States, please fasten your seat belts and hang onto your hats. Over the next 20 years all standard demographic indicators will begin steeply rising or falling. Participation rates of women in the labor force, divorce rates and rates of birth outside marriage will double. Birth rates overall will drop. By the end of the 1980s, over half of all American children will be spending at least part of their childhood in a single-parent home. Oh, and by the way, there will be a sexual revolution, to which all are cordially invited," Who would have believed it? In 1960 not a single professional demographer anticipated any of those changes.
Two decades later, the cosmic voice might have returned to say something like this: "Ladies and gentlemen, the rates have leveled off, and we are now cruising at a new altitude. You may unfasten your seat belts and walk around, but please watch your step. Our compass seems to be broken."
That is where we are now. For the past few years, the Census Bureau has been reporting no major changes in the demographic indicators. After going haywire between 1965 and 1985, the needle seems to have stabilized for a while at the new levels. As we pull ourselves together and look around at the new situation, three points seem conspicuous. First, the time of turbulence created a number of situations that are entirely without historical precedent; second, feminism took shape in that period as an organized movement; and third, a striking number of the social upheavals were bound up with a transformation in the roles of women. Let me say a little more about this last point.
As we all know, women made great advances in education and employment. The most dramatic change was that mothers of young children entered the paid-labor force in massive numbers. Mothers, especially in poor families, had been in the labor force before, of course, but never before in history had such a large proportion of mothers of pre-school children worked outside the home. Yet just as important as what changed is what did not change. The proportion of the population needing care--young children, the frail elderly--is almost exactly what it was 100 years ago, except now there are more elderly than children in the mix. That provides food for thought: The pool of traditional, unpaid caretakers has shrunk, but the proportion of persons who cannot be self-sufficient has remained the same. Society has not yet found an adequate substitute for the valuable resource it always took for granted--the unpaid labor of women.
At the same time, the sharp rise in divorce had a disproportionate impact on women. The reasons are well-known: The probability of divorce for marriages now being formed is estimated at close to 50 percent; the majority of divorces involve couples with minor children; in nearly 9 out of 10 cases, the mother retains primary responsibility for the children, and those female-headed households run a high risk of poverty. To put it bluntly, those figures tell women that it is risky to devote yourself primarily--or even heavily--to child raising or other nonmarket activities such as care for a sick or elderly relative.
In effect, here is what society says to homemakers: "Neither marriage, nor your job, nor government assistance is solidly in place for you and your children." Women have adapted to that situation as best they can by hedging their bets in two ways. They are having fewer children, and they are maintaining at least a foothold in the labor force even when their children are very young. But that strategy still does not protect mothers very well against the risk of the four deadly Ds: disrespect for non-market work; divorce; disadvantages in the workplace for anyone who takes time out; and the destitution that afflicts so many female-headed households.
Another cluster of changes since the 60s is so familiar as to require no more than passing mention. Womens lives have been profoundly affected by the weakening of the link between sex and procreation: Bio-technology has transformed the process of human reproduction; hormonal contraception has become readily available; and abortion has become a vast profit-making industry.
Besides all these outward and visible changes, and just as momentous, a revolution has occurred in the imagination, as men and women began to think differently about their roles and relationships. As Miss Manners has often pointed out, an entire network of customers and understandings now hangs in shreds--the customs that helped to assure a modicum of civility and decency in society, along with the customs that hindered women from reaching their full potential.
So, at century’s end, we find ourselves living under the old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” It is certainly interesting to be facing some dilemmas that are entirely new and others that, if not entirely new, have never before been seen on such a scale. It is interesting, too, that some of those dilemmas appear to be by-products of genuine advances for women or unforeseen side effects of exercising new liberties.
Now that rates of change have slowed down a bit, one might think that this would be a good time to look around and take out bearings. The trouble is, it’s hard to find any bearings to take. Many familiar reference points have disappeared, and there’s no map of the territory ahead. Few women would want to turn back, but even if they did, that is not an option. For, as St. Paul once told the Corinthians: “The world as we know it is passing away” (1Cor. 7:31).
Part of the world already passing away is the old feminism of the 1970s. Opinion surveys show that the majority of American women today decline to identify themselves as feminists. It is particularly striking that young women are far more turned off by that label than older ones. Only one college woman in five accepts it.
What can those figures mean? Having taught a class of 150 entering law students, mostly in their 20s, every year since 1968, I can offer the perspective of one who has observed shifting opinions over a period of time in an environment where 1970s-style feminism was once particularly strong.
In the first couple of years, there wasnt much to observe, because there werent many women. The other day, Fran Hogan, the president of Women Affirming Life, who was a student at Boston College Law School when I began teaching there in the late 60s, reminded me that there were only five women in her class and their big issue was getting a rest room. Shes been causing trouble ever since!
By the mid-70s, the first womens law associations had formed, and many law schools became strongholds of radical forms of feminism. Today, however, when I speak with women students about feminism and other issues, their answers are remarkably consistent with what Elizabeth Fox-Genovese reports in her recent book, Feminism is Not the Story of My Life.
As one might imagine, women law students share many of the goals of the feminist movement, especially those relating to equal opportunity in education and employment. The main reason they, like most women, reject the label "feminist" is that they identify the word with a movement and organizations that they perceive to be indifferent to their deepest concerns. As Fox-Genovese found in her survey of women of all ages and walks of life, women are put off by official feminisms negative attitude toward marriage and motherhood, by its antagonistic attitude toward men, by its intolerance for dissent from its party line on controversial issues such as abortion and gay rights and by its inattention to the practical problems of balancing work and family on a day-to-day basis.
When I speak with women law students I find that foremost on the minds of most of them is a gold-plated version of the work-family dilemma. As a graduating senior told me recently, "I was raised in the 70s to believe I could be or do anything. I still believe that. But now Im beginning to realize that I will probably pay a high professional price for the kind of family life I want to have. Im ready to pay that price, because I know what the cost to my family life will be if I go for broke in the profession." (Incidentally, I increasingly hear the same story from male law students who are beginning to reckon the human cost of a certain kind of material success.)
When old-line feminists hear young women criticize the official womens movement, they often take offense. They accuse the youngsters of being ungrateful, of taking advantage of feminisms gains without understanding how bad things were in the bad old days. But it seems to me that most young women are profoundly appreciative of the improved employment and educational opportunities now available to them, opportunities that were denied their mothers and grandmothers. But they are beginning to count up the casualties of the sexual revolution and to find that women and children paid a heavy price for that particular form of liberation. And they are beginning to be critical of social and economic arrangements that seem to be pressuring them to give priority to work over family. They see the womens movement as having contributed to that pressure by refusing to go to bat for women who want to give priority, at least temporarily, to family life. They see the womens movement as reinforcing the idea that the only work that counts is work for pay outside the home. But mainly, they dont want to dwell on the past. They feel an urgent need to move on. They are ready to cross the river Jordan.
Can we glimpse, in those efforts to move on, a more realistic, less ideological new feminism? I want to be cautious here. You cannot always trust what you see in the desert. It is hard to tell an oasis from a mirage. But I do believe that a new approach to womens issues is already in the process of emerging. It is being formed, I would say, from a kind of creative process at which women have always excelled taking the best of the old things, fixing them up, rearranging them and combining them with new ingredients into something serviceable and beautiful, knowing all the while that what we arrange will someday be taken apart and rearranged, because "the world as we know it is always passing away."
We cannot know exactly what future historians will see when they look back at our "turn of the century" feminism, or even whether what they see will be called feminism. But it seems reasonable to suppose they will see a collective achievement, a set of ideas patted into shape like a ball of raw dough in the course of many conversations, private and public.
It is sobering, therefore, to think that all of us may bear some share of the responsibility for the shape of that new feminism. How will future generations judge our contributions? Did we advance or hinder womens freedom and dignity? And how can we recognize the ingredients of a feminism that is likely to advance womens freedom and dignity?
On those questions, here are a few thoughts that occur to me. They are so simple that Im almost embarrassed to give voice to them, but one thing Ive learned in years of teaching is that it doesnt do any harm to belabor the obvious.
First, it seems safe to say that it would be better to begin by listening to women when they speak about their needs and aspirations, rather than by telling us what we should or should not want. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese listened, and she uncovered a much more complicated, and richer, picture than old-line feminists of the 1970’s had painted.
Second, in dealing with women’s issues, as with any social problems of great complexity, it is probably prudent to be wary of rigid dichotomies and false choices. To be specific, I’m referring here to five dogmatic extremes that have shed more heat than light on women’s issues: “sameness” feminism that insists there is no significant difference between men and women; “difference” feminism that treats men and women as virtually different species; “dominance” feminism that proclaims female superiority; “gender” feminism that regards “male” and “female” as mere social constructs; and the rigid biological determinism (associated with some critics of feminism) that would lock women into roles that were prevalent in the 1950’s, the 1850’s or the time of the Babylonian captivity.
Third, I hope and believe that any new feminism will be inclusive, rather than polarizing. That is, it will treat men and women as partners, rather than antagonists in the quest for better ways to love and work. It will recognize that the fates of men, women and children, privileged and poor alike, are inextricably intertwined.
Is it contradictory to speak of feminism and inclusiveness in the same breath? Yes, if feminism has to be a total ideology, a narrow special interest group or the principal claim on ones loyalty. But no, if we simply want to recognize that there are certain issues of special interest to women that are likely to be neglected if women do not take the lead in raising them. It is no exaggeration to say that at the present time there is virtually no strong, effective public voice speaking out on issues of vital concern to women in a way that reflects the actual needs and desires of most women. We do need better, fuller public deliberation concerning matters that are of special concern to women. Women do need to have more say than we have had in the past about the conditions under which we live, work, raise our children and develop our gifts and talents. We do need vehicles for marshalling opinion and support regarding issues that are of special, though not exclusive, interest to women. It is a matter of concern that an unrepresentative coalition of interest groups currently purports to speak for all women.
So far, then, I have suggested that a new feminism ought to be responsive, prudent and inclusive. But since I am, after all, a product of the 1960s, I would also like to suggest that a new feminism ought to be radical. I mean radical in the sense of the Second Vatican Council, which spoke so warmly of the idea that "political, social and economic orders should ... extend the benefits of culture to everyone, and help individual men and women develop their gifts in accordance with their innate dignity." I mean radical in the sense of Pope John Paul II, who more than any other pope has insisted on the role of laypeople, and has called on laypeople to put their shoulders to the wheel--to get to work on building a "new civilization of life and love."
To see just how revolutionary that would be, I return to the work-family dilemma. Is anyone ever going to find a better way of handling that thorny set of problems without fundamentally re-assessing the value we attach to various kinds of work in our society? Let us give credit where it is due. Feminists from Susan B. Anthony to Betty Friedan were right on the mark when they criticized our culture for asking women to make all kinds of sacrifices while according little respect, reward or security to womens unpaid work. One place where organized feminism from the 70s onward took a wrong turn was in buying right into that disrespect by denigrating marriage and motherhood as obstacles to womens advancement! The old-line feminists were so far from going to the root of things that the best idea they could come up with for women was to hold up an essentially male model of success, a model many men are now questioning!
A very different approach to work and family has been taken by this centurys Catholic social teaching. Pope John Paul IIs 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens, for example, insists on the following: "The true advancement of women requires that labor should be structured in such a way that women do not have to pay for their advancement. .. at the expense of the family." In U.N. contexts, the church has maintained this: "Promoting womens exercise of all their talents and rights without undermining their roles within the family will require calling not only husbands and fathers to their family responsibilities, but governments to their social duties." And in Centesimus Annus (1991) John Paul II calls for a new "culture of work" in which human values would have priority over economic values, and the dignity of all legitimate types of work would be respected.
Think of it: human values ahead of economic values, the dignity of all types of Work. That is a radical program. It goes to the root of the materialism of both capitalist and socialist societies as we have known them. It calls for nothing less than a cultural transformation. But isnt that what Christianity is about? We call it conversion. Will anything less suffice?
I would like to return briefly to the idea of a journey prompted by "the universal longing for freedom." If we have learned anything from the wanderings of the past 30 years, it is to beware of freedom look-alikes that quickly turn into freedoms opposites: the fast lane of freedom without responsibility, the slippery chute of freedom confused with the absence of all restraint. It is beginning to look as though the journey has no short cuts, no first-class cabins, no escape from the winding, rocky road so many have traveled since Moses and the Hebrew children escaped from bondage.
But from womens point of view, that is not so bad. After all, for centuries we werent even on the road! Today, women have more opportunities than ever, not only to develop their own talents, but to play crucial, culture-saving, culture-shaping roles. Fran Hogan describes this time as a "graced moment." Some even say that women have special gifts, a "feminine genius," that the broken world needs now more than ever.
Certainly in the past it has often been women who preserved the elements of human decency through wars, famines, migrations and hardships of every kind. In Democracy in America, de Tocqueville gave us an arresting verbal portrait of women on the Western frontier in the 1830s, facing a future filled with danger and uncertainty:
In the utmost confines of the wilderness I have often met young wives, brought up in all the refinements of life in the towns of New England, who have passed almost without transition from their parents prosperous houses to leaky cabins in the depths of the forest. Fever, solitude, and boredom had not broken the resilience of their courage. Their features were changed and faded, but their looks were firm.
If we look around us today, I believe we see a similar courage in women who are raising families under conditions of great risk and hardship. The current generation of women has its own frontier, the unknown territory created by two decades of drastic changes in social and economic behavior.
Whether the lives of women in the future will be spent in a steel and concrete wilderness, shuttling exhausted between job and home, underpaid in the former, undervalued in the latter, will to some extent depend on what we do or fail to do now.
Let us make no mistake about the scope of the task ahead. It is the same task that the Lord set for the Israelites when they were about to cross the river Jordan into the promised land. He told them they would have a choice about what kind of culture they could bring into being. He said:
Here today I have set before you life and prosperity, death and doom. If you keep my commandments ... I will bless you in the land you are entering to occupy. If you turn away your hearts and will not listen .... I tell you now that... you will not have a long life on the land which you are crossing the Jordan to enter and occupy. I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live!
That was a daunting challenge then. It is even more daunting today, because it seems the stakes have gone up. It seems that the promised land (the civilization of life and love) is not something we just enter, but something we have to build. I do not know how the Popes 1988 "Letter to the Laity" struck most of you, but I can tell you that was the last thing I needed in my mailbox! I now know how the poor Ephesians felt when they got all those letters from Paul. As I see it, when we put the Letter to the Laity" together with the "Letter to Women," we get something like this: "Dear Women, I know youre busy. But youre just going to have to save civilization. Again."
It is interesting that the Popes exhortations are always accompanied by virtually the same words Moses uttered when he told the Israelites that he would not be going with them to the Promised Land. "Be not afraid, for it is the Lord, your God, who marches before you and beside you; he will be with you, and will never fail you or forsake you."