Below is a speech prepared and delivered by Carrie Lukas at American University on October 16, 2007.   

American University: “Failures of Feminism”

When we start a conversation about the modern feminist movement, I think it’s important to begin with a reality check.  So let’s begin with this fact:  in the United States, the fight for women’s equality has been won. 

Does that mean that women have everything we want?  That every woman has a good job, a good education, and all the services that she could dream of?  Of course not.  Does that mean that violence and sexism have been eradicated?  That women don’t face unique challenges in trying to balance the desire for a career with the desire to care for children? 

No.   Women face all of these problems and will continue to.   Each of us will have to work as individuals to confront these challenges. 

But when we talk about feminism, I think it is important to begin with a hard look at where we are today in terms of women’s rights.  The women’s movement used to be about women receiving equal treatment under the law.  And that’s a battle that has been won.  Women have the legal right to compete and pursue happiness on their own.  We have women’s movement to thank for much of this.

We should also look at where we are today:  American women are freer and better off than in any time in history.  Women are thriving in our education system – we account for 56 percent of bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees, and 40 percent of doctoral degrees.  Women are entering the workforce in record numbers, many of them succeeding in fields that just a few decades ago were almost exclusively the domain of men. 

Much of this progress we owe to the women’s groups who fought the notion than women didn’t need a “serious” education and were unsuited for work outside of the home.  I look back at my education, my career on capitol hill and in Washington think tanks, and I owe much of the opportunities I have had to the pioneering work of not only the early suffragettes, but also to the women’s rights movement of the 60s and 70s that truly helped change the way society views women.

But unfortunately, when I look at the modern women’s movement, I see a movement that has lost its way.  Instead of focusing on legal equality, today’s women’s groups fight for special treatment and a nanny government to care for women.  

Tonight, I briefly want to touch on four issues that are central to the role of the modern feminist movement. 

First, I want to talk about women and work.  I am fortunate to have grown up in a time when I felt that all doors were open to me.  I have been able to pursue an education and any career.  I have the early feminist movement in part to thank for those opportunities.  But today, the feminist movement seems unwilling to admit that they have been successful and continue to try to convince women that we are all victims of discrimination.  

I’m sure you’ve all heard the rallying cry “equal work for equal pay” and the statistic that women make 75 cents for every man’s dollar.  They call this “the wage gap” – it’s the difference in the amount of money made by the median working man and the median working woman. 

There is no debate.  The average median woman does indeed make about three-quarters of the average working man.  But this is a misleading statistic.  It ignores all of relevant factors that affect pay: such as the number of hours worked, education, career choice, and number of years of experience.  In short, it ignores the different role that work often plays in men and women’s lives.

In truth, I’m the cause of the wage gap.  Me and tens of thousands of women like me. I’ve got a good education but throughout my career, I’ve made things other than money a priority.  I went into public policy, instead of investment banking.  A few years ago, when I knew I was going to want to start a family, I left the Hill, and took a pay cut, so I could work somewhere that would give me flexibility to balance work and family.  When I had my daughter a little over a year ago now, I opted to work full-time from home.  I’m not making as much money as I could, but I’m compensated by having the best work arrangement that I could hope for. 

But through the feminists’ lens, I should be really mad.  The tax returns of the men I graduated college with are undoubtedly more impressive than mine.  There are men who hold the same job title and work roughly the same hours but who earn more than I do.  I’ve simply made different choices-choices that made sense for my life. 

One thing I find interesting about the feminists’ fixation on the wage gap is how much it assumes that men have the right priorities and that women have the wrong ones.  Surveys have shown that when evaluating a job, men place a higher emphasis on their pay than do women.  Men take on dirty, more dangerous, and more depressing jobs in order to make more money.  They work longer hours and take less time off.  Women care about pay, but they also care about flexibility, how personally fulfilling they find their job, and convenience.  

In other words, women are not generally victims of discrimination.  We simply make different choices.  This is important information for women to have.  Instead of feeling like victims, women can think about their decisions and make different choices to increase their pay. 

The feminist misinformation campaign does more than just make individual women less happy, it also affects conversations about public policy.  In fact, Senator Hillary Clinton has proposed legislation supposedly to “get rid of the wage gap” that would micromanage how wages are set.  This could have serious consequences for our economy, but would have particularly bad affects on women. 

Employers would have less incentive to offer flexible arrangements.  If I’m an employer, why would open my self up to a lawsuit by allowing a female employee to trade a reduction in salary so she can leave early everyday to pick up her kids?  I wouldn’t want to have to explain while her male colleague made more.  Instead, I would take away the very flexibility that women crave and that allows increasing numbers to contribute to the workforce. 

The example I just used, with a mom wanting to cut back hours to care for kids, would yield instant protests from the feminists.  Why, they would demand, should the woman be the one to cut back her hours?  Shouldn’t the dad be just as responsible for his children? 

It frustrates feminists to no end that women continue to be the primary care givers to their children.  But the data shows that this is reality:  one of the most significant differences in the choices men and women make is in their reactions to children.  When a couple has children, men’s earnings tend to go up, while women’s tend to go down.  The man makes choices-working longer hours or taking a less desirable job that pays more-that increase his pay, in part because he wants to provide for his children. 

Women, on the other hand, often cut back hours or quit their jobs completely so that they can spend time with their children.  This is true regardless of the incentives that are put in place to try to encourage men to take on an equal share of the parenting responsibility. 

Why in the 20th century do women continue to take on this role?  Feminists tend to argue that women are socialized to believe that it’s their duty to do so.  There is certainly some truth to that.  I’m sure that the fact that my mom stayed home with me contributed to my lifelong assumption and desire to be the one to stay home with my children.  But we shouldn’t discount the role that nature plays in this.  There is a reason why woman are more likely to take maternity leave than men are to take paternity leave.  One reason is obvious:  A woman gives birth and needs time to recover.  Women often nurse their babies and in those first weeks literally can’t be away from them for more than a few hours. 

But the differences go beyond these most obvious physical differences.  Women and men are built differently.  Women’s brains are structured to derive more pleasure from the process of caring for children than are men’s.  Most women and men in the room will instinctively know that this is the case from their own experiences, but there is also fascinating data on our hormones and our chemical make ups that prove these facts.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that all women love babies and certainly some men thrive as primary care givers.  But we shouldn’t pretend, as the feminists would have it, that woman take on this role just because of a patriarchal plot. 

Children are the second issue I want to focus on.  Children are tangled up in the workplace issue and are at the heart of debates about the feminist movement.  Quite simply, children need to be taken care of.  They require time and attention.  They get in the way of other priorities.  They don’t pay well and the challenges and rewards of parenting are hidden-they take place in your kitchens and your family rooms, outside of the public sphere where the feminists want women to succeed.

You can see the feminists rocky relationship with children in a recent book which received lots of media attention – Linda Hirshman’s “Get to Work”.  In this call for society to push all women toward paid employment, she instructed women that they can have one child, but just don’t have two.  Basically, she argues that one child can effectively be outsourced and not get in the way of much more important career goals, but two children is a big mistake.

The feminists’ solution to the problem of children in women’s lives is daycare.  Further subsidizing daycare to make it easier for women to work outside the home is a top agenda item of most feminist organizations. Of course, we all recognize the need for high quality childcare.   But before pushing government to pour money into daycare programs, essentially extending our public education system down to cover children from birth, we should think about the kind of care that most parents want and what’s best for the kids.

Institutional daycare or organized daycare facilities are the least popular option with parents.  One study showed that less than a third of the children under age five with working mothers were being cared for in institutional care.  Another poll found that 70 percent of the parents of children under age 5 thought it was best for parents to be at home, while just 6 percent thought that a quality daycare center was best for kids.  Working mothers tell pollsters that they wish they could work few hours, not more.  So if feminists are really concerned about helping women live their lives the way they want, they should focus on policies that make it easier for families to work less and keep a parent at home. 

The third issue I want to quickly touch on before we go to Q&A is how feminists have influenced women (particularly young women’s) attitudes and expectations for relationships.  The feminist movement has been tied into the sexual revolution – and one of the key messages that young women often hear – particularly during college is that sexual liberation is synonymous with women’s liberation.  Women’s studies course preach that our culture, which has placed a higher value on women’s chastity than men’s, is really a trick of patriarchy – a way that men keep women from having fun.

But young women need to know that there are actual reasons that our cultural norms developed, and many of those traditions were designed to benefit women.  Men and women, after all, are not the same.  Women are much more vulnerable to the consequences of sex.  Of course there is the obvious: women get pregnant; men don’t.   But few young adults realize that women are also much more vulnerable to contracting STDs and that many STDs have much more serious consequences for women than they do for men. 

Women are also more emotionally vulnerable than men.  Again, women’s brains are built differently.  Women release hormones during sex that promote bonding.  These are the same hormones that women release during breastfeeding, which are designed to encourage moms to bond with their babies and partners.  There is a reason why women have a tougher time keeping things casual.  While radical feminists paint a gloomy portrait of marriage, the facts tell a different story.  Married women tend to be happier, healthier, and better off financially. 

It is clear how individual women can be affected by this information, or lack thereof, but it also has consequences for our society as a whole.  Consider that when I was born, one out of ten babies was born out of wedlock.  Today, more than one out of three babies is born to a single parent.  Increasingly, research is demonstrating that this is truly the dividing line between the haves and the have-nots.  Children growing up with a single parent have a tough road to climb.  They are more likely to live in poverty, commit a crime, drink, smoke, abuse drugs, drop out of school, get pregnant out of wedlock and the list could go on.  Marriage has been aptly called with most affective anti-poverty initiative.

I don’t believe that government can or should attempt to encourage people and even parents to marry.  I think that the solution rests entirely on individuals and communities.  It starts by helping young women appreciate the role that healthy relationship can play in their lives.

The final issue I’d like to touch on is the relationship between women and government.  The feminist movement has often focused on liberating women from voluntary relationships like husbands and families, but instead of believing that women that forgo these relationships need to stand on their on two feet, they want them to depend on Uncle Sam.

That’s why I’m proud to work for a group like the Independent Women’s Forum.  We don’t think women are victims and we know that women can and should be responsible for the choices that we make. We also believe that women need the best information about issues that affect their lives so they can make important decisions. 

There is a need for a woman’s movement, but it needs to have very different priorities than the priorities of NOW.  One thing that is amazing about groups like NOW is that they focus on the absolute minutiae of what goes on here in the U.S. – issues like whether or not Commander in Chief is going to be taken off the air – but all but ignore the plight of women overseas. 

That should be the real battleground of the modern feminist movement – helping women across the globe gain access to the rights that we take for granted.  There are women who are truly repressed and disadvantaged.  They need strong voices calling for equal rights and respect for women. 

I hope this serves as a good jumping off point for question and answers.  Again, I thank you for coming tonight.