I happen to believe that the divide between the “radical feminists” and what I call the “radical traditionalists” is wide, particularly when it comes to the political and policy debates surrounding issues that affect women. I say “issues that affect women” — as opposed to “women’s issues” — for a very deliberate reason. Ordinarily, when people speak of so-called women’s issues, they are referring to a specific set of policy objectives that have come to dominate the feminist agenda — abortion rights, comparable worth, sexual harassment. But, of course, these are not the only issues that affect women.
There are a whole host of issues that impact women each and every day, most of which are not on the front burner of the organized feminist agenda. Tax policy, to take just one example, often affects women differently from men. On issues ranging from the marriage penalty to taxes on home businesses, our tax policy has major consequences for the choices women make and for the quality of their daily lives.
For too long the debate over issues that affect women and about the role of women in society has been dominated by the extremes. On the one hand, radical feminist groups like the National Organization for Women have marginalized stay-at-home mothers and, indeed, any woman who dares to question their goal of an unfettered right to abortion on demand. On the other hand, radical traditionalists often seek an unrealistic return to the 1950s when women stayed home and minded the children while their husbands brought home the bacon.
The focus by both sides on the abortion issue has always been somewhat of a curiosity to me. Polling data consistently demonstrate that abortion is not even close to being the most important issue in women’s lives. So, if abortion is not the signature issue for most women, what is?
According to the Polling Company, education and taxes topped the list of women’s concerns during the 2000 election season. A Women.com poll confirms that education was high on the list of female priorities. Not surprisingly, however, women in different life stages are concerned with somewhat different issues. Thus, in theWomen.com survey, eighteen to twenty-four-year-old women ranked education as the most important issue in the 2000 presidential campaign, while women in their thirties ranked children and family issues number one. Women in the forty to sixty-four age group placed health care concerns first, and senior women ranked Social Security as the most important issue.
Among women with children, polls consistently show that balancing work and family is at the top of the list of concerns. For better or worse, 60 percent of women with children under the age of six now work outside the home. Some work because they have to, others because they enjoy it. But almost all of them find the balance stressful.
I speak from experience when I say that balancing a rewarding professional life with the desire to spend as much time as possible with children is no easy task. I have two small children at home, and I certainly have not found any easy answers. What I have found is that neither the radical feminists nor the radical traditionalists are making efforts to address this central struggle in the lives of most modern women.
Although radical feminists often bemoan the lack of female executives at Fortune 500 companies, they ignore the fact that many professional women choose to get off the treadmill after they have children. Most of the female lawyers I know chose to return to work on a part-time basis after having children. The problem with this is two-fold. To begin with, most law firms still view part-time work as “a transition back to full time.”
What the powers-that-be fail to realize, however, is that, as children grow older, they need their mothers around more-not less. Moreover, the resistance of law firms to creating permanent part-time jobs is reinforced by feminists who argue that “Mommy Track” jobs segregate women and deny women equal opportunity. By viewing the small number of women in top posts through the lens of discrimination-instead of through the lens of choice-radical feminists undermine efforts by professional women to develop rewarding (although perhaps not as high-powered) careers, while still taking an active role in parenting.
he feminist view of the problem does not just harm professional women. To the contrary, by focusing their efforts on attaining numerical parity at the top of the pyramid, radical feminists ignore the needs of blue collar and pink collar women-to say nothing of poor women, for whom job training, literacy, or language acquisition surely take precedence over affirmative action in the executive suite.
At the same time, the radical traditionalists sometimes fail to recognize that many women are financially unable to stay home with their children or that many women may actually enjoy spending some time working outside the home.
By placing women in ideological straitjackets, both the feminist and traditionalist women’s groups have made themselves largely irrelevant to today’s women. Luckily, things are beginning to change.
The failure of women’s groups to address adequately work/family issues has been criticized by several prominent women. Several years ago, Professor Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, an Emory University historian and the founder of Emory’s Institute for Women’s Studies, published a book entitled Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life. In the book, Fox-Genovese weaves together anecdotes from her interviews with women from all walks of life. Her conclusion? Traditionalists and feminists have betrayed modern mothers. “Conservatives,” writes Fox-Genovese “talk as if they want to imprison women in motherhood; feminists talk as if they want to liberate women from it.”
Fox-Genovese calls for a new kind of feminism-“family feminism” that would speak more to the one thing that women have in common: the ability to bear children.
As Professor Fox-Genovese has noted, the time is ripe for a third way.