A Different Equality

    Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety by Judith Warner (Riverhead, 304 pages, $23.95)

    The Career Mystique: Cracks in the American Dream by Phyllis Moen and Patricia (Roehling Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 304 pages, $22.95)

    The Other Women's Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America by Dorothy Sue Cobble (Princeton University Press, 336 pages, $29.95)

One evening this winter, eight weeks before our second baby was due, my husband and I had an argument. I had built some “free time” into my schedule for the final two months of pregnancy, primarily for family and personal maintenance: finding day care, researching a new car, etc. The debate was: Should I use that time as planned, or cut into it by, well, reviewing three books on the work-family tug-of-war?

To my husband, I suppose, it seemed like a pretty straightforward question of time management. But for me, it was a total identity challenge. My life was already unrecognizable to me. I was working fewer hours than I ever had, yet I was also busier than I had ever been in my life, making lunches and dinners for our toddler, arranging playgroups, and singing endless though enjoyable rounds of “Old McDonald.” How had I become a person with the words “toy storage” on her to-do list? How had I had turned over all the “male” tasks -- household finances, home repair, taking out the trash -- to my husband? Why was I cooking and freezing meals for the postpartum period, digging out the old newborn clothes, while he was setting up his next professional projects? This wasn't life before liberation. It was a parody of life before liberation. And now was I going to pass up some interesting work to look for day care?

So it was with something like gratitude that I read the opening pages of Judith Warner's new and widely publicized book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. Warner had talked to women just like me -- educated, relatively financially secure, who have the options of working or staying home, who went to serious schools and started serious careers only to find themselves pulled in one direction by ambition and in the other by the powerful impulse to mother (and all its attendant chores), some of whom chose primarily the former, some the latter, and most of whom tried to do it all perfectly but ended up only exhausted and angry.

The conversations she relates -- interviews with about 150 middle- and upper-middle-class post-boomer mommies -- are riveting, a sort of support or consciousness-raising group for people who have no time for such things. (She argues, rather unconvincingly, that the relative affluence of her interviewees is appropriate because these are the folks who capture the American imagination, on whom we all model our hopes and lives.) Warner suggests an updating of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, a “Mommy Mystique” that “tells us that we are the luckiest women in the world” and drives us to a perfectionism that leaves us racing from work to home to “soccer and violin and public service and weekends of baseball practice,” ending up only thoroughly wiped out. Their conversations are, as reading goes, irresistible, almost pornographically so. My problem might not have a name, but I do have a lot of company.

Warner's isn't the first, or even the best, book to note the madness of modern motherhood. Hers is simply the latest and most successful in the newest wave of “women's lib,” a sort of quiet rumbling (or maybe just mumbling) that the female liberations of the last 40 years have not added up to equality -- rather, just the opportunity to run oneself ragged on two fronts. Almost half a dozen books published in the last few years on the subject -- some sociological, some confessional -- have started similar conversations. Despite revolutionary changes, these books tell us, women's lives are still different from men's -- even today, even with all those choices, whether you're a rich mom or a middle-class mom or a welfare-to-work mom. Some call the outcome balancing. Others call it compromise. We “radicals” call it unfair.

There is a certain shame in suggesting that we are still not happy with our options. Exuberantly, our political culture has embraced personal responsibility. If the social and legislative changes of the '60s and '70s attempted to level the playing field, the cultural and legislative changes since then have said, “Now it's up to you. Make your own fortune.” So it is not easy to admit, as Warner points out, that somehow making one's own fortune is not as simple as it seemed.

It's too bad, then, that Warner didn't take her mommies' complaints and turn her sights rigorously on society. Indeed, if Warner set out to free women from their bonds of self-blame, she ends up spending the lion's share of her book in a mean-spirited dissection of what women do wrong. With only a handful of pages on the structural problems in American work-family life, she falls back on hundreds of pages of psychobabble about '50s mother hatred, the '70s divorce epidemic, and the '90s anorexia epidemic to come up, ultimately, with a sometimes internally incoherent theory that the real problem is that we're a generation of control freaks digging ourselves ever deeper into our miserable holes.

In this process, Warner invokes a nauseating “we”: We are engaging in an “ultimately impotent control-freakishness.” In the '80s, “while our baby boomer elders continued their quest to achieve firsts in the worlds of business and politics and elsewhere, we … began to shut ourselves down” through eating disorders. “We did not seek ‘liberation' so much as ‘control.'” And so we obsess about all the little details of our children's lives. She tells us that “in and around Washington, D.C., parents panic if their kids jump at loud noises, don't connect to soccer, refuse to dress themselves, frustrate their teachers, or are just a little bit strange.” We do? In New York City, she says, “parents with money sign their three-year-old sons up for physical therapy if they can't peel and paste stickers with dexterity.” (Really? Is that a New York phenomenon?) By the end, all I could think was: Thanks for your support.

* * *

Luckily, there's another new book -- published without the fanfare of Perfect Madness -- that offers some real information about who we women are and what we are struggling to achieve. Also invoking Friedan, The Career Mystique was written by Phyllis Moen, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, and Patricia Roehling, a professor of psychology at Hope College in Michigan. It's an exhaustive survey of the research on women, men, work, housework, mommy tracks and daddy tracks, salaries, parental leave, glass ceilings, and every other relevant fact about how we work and parent today. And it posits that the old-fashioned notions of career -- of a worker setting out each day with unlimited resources for the office because he has a wife at home -- are crippling both American families and American women's careers.

Like Warner, these authors conclude that there's something deeply unequal about the postfeminist world of two-career families. Indeed, they offer the data Warner might have used to understand the craziness her mommies describe. This inequality begins early. In one study Moen and Roehling reviewed, the authors found that “ninth-grade girls spend, on average, two hours more a week doing domestic chores than do ninth-grade boys.” Within three years, this difference doubles. At the same time, they find that girls are more likely to work for family and friends and to receive lower wages than boys, who tend to work in a wider range of jobs.

Most important of all, these trends play out over the course of careers: The authors cite a study that “estimates that when couples marry, the amount of time a woman spends doing housework increases by approximately 17 percent, while a man's decreases by 33 percent.” (Remarkably, in two studies, from Canada and Norway, researchers found that employed women with nonemployed husbands still did 60 percent of the housework.) When children enter the picture, these discrepancies become even starker: Mothers tend to work less, earn less, and advance less than their male peers and than their husbands. Fathers, by contrast, tend to work more and earn more. (Curiously enough, this wage increase among new fathers tends to be more when the child is a boy.) Over the long term, even when women do return to the workplace full time, they do so with lower incomes and slower advancement than their male or childless female counterparts.

Perhaps most important, this book leads us to understand how these outcomes are built into the very structures of our society, the most extreme example being our reformed welfare system. In the 1960s, the authors point out, “policy makers saw the proper role of mothers as mothering,” with the state supplying supports to poor single women without a male breadwinner in the house. Under the welfare reform of the '90s, welfare recipients can only receive benefits for five years. And what happens to the myriad single mothers on welfare? Where are the provisions for child care? “[S]ingle mothers who have exhausted their benefits must take full responsibility for raising their families while also working full time,” the authors write, “often with little or no other systems of support.” Is this really what we expect? Mothers who can both work and mother full time? It would seem to capture the problem of our cultural assumptions about women, work, and family in a nutshell.

* * *

Near the beginning of her fascinating new history of labor feminism, The Other Women's Movement, Dorothy Sue Cobble turns her attention briefly to women's organizing in the meatpacking industry in the 1940s, a period, due to the war, of relative strength for female workers. “The issues,” she writes, “ranged from equal pay demands to how work would be organized to rest periods for women with menstrual cramps.”

Rest periods for women with menstrual cramps -- what a concept! This remarkable history recounts the “other,” forgotten feminism, a feminism that fought the Equal Rights Amendment because its adherents -- most of them working-class and labor-affiliated -- believed it would force women to adapt to men's roles and standards and to forgo the useful protections women-only legislation offered. Post–'30s labor women, Cobble writes, believed that “the work world had been constructed with the needs of men, their bodies, and their social roles in mind. … The goal, [labor activist] Frieda Miller offered, is to ‘achieve an equality which takes account of the differences between men and women.' Any other approach risks imposing ‘identity under a masculine pattern.'”

It got me thinking, reading the book as I went through the eighth month of pregnancy. How about cots in the office, where my aching, stretching, drooping body could sleep for half an hour? How about workplaces that believe 5 o'clock is a sane time to call it quits and return to our families and not make home a natural competitor with the office? How about a welfare system that doesn't force single mothers back to work without attending to their children too? And what about work breaks for menstrual cramps?

Of course, the well-trained feminist mind rebels. Who would hire a woman who wanted a feminized workplace? Indeed, why feminize the workplace when there are plenty of other men and women who would be perfectly happy to hold my job in a traditional masculine workplace? How could I admit to the conflicts of interest in caring for my kid and working and still deserve my paycheck? The very premise of modern feminism is that we can do anything they can do. Anything else is weakness.

And yet, a generation and a half out from the first rumblings of the second wave, it is now evident -- witness Warner, Moen and Roehling, and all their compatriots on this subject -- that women cannot do anything men can do. At least not in the same way, in the same structures. And where are the organized feminists? Still denying difference. (As Cobble points out, labor feminists had basically given up their difference feminism platforms by 1960.) Worse, by insisting on equality of opportunity in what is, structurally, a man's working world, feminist organizations are sowing the seeds of their own irrelevance. The National Organization for Women's (now) membership among women in their childbearing years has been declining, yet the organization has not made workplace reform a real highlight of its efforts. Indeed, in 2001, when Patty Ireland stepped down as head of NOW, she told The Washington Post -- with regret but apparently without irony -- that she had never had children because “I decided that I couldn't do what I wanted to do with my career and have children.”

Indeed, we on the left have happily ceded difference feminism to the conservatives. They are the ones who remind us -- with nauseating smugness -- that women are not men. They tell us that the revolution succeeded as much as it needed to, and that boys, not girls, are now the oppressed “minority.” Christina Hoff Summers popularized this argument in her 2000 book, The War Against Boys. And she's right: Girls are getting better grades, the majority of college graduates are women, and so on. Given those facts, you'd expect similar success all the way to the top. But it's just when women are hitting their prime -- just when their children arrive -- that all this progress mysteriously disappears and the glass ceiling comes right down to meet them. And, to the conservatives, that's OK. They say that where biology really counts, it's time to respect women's difference and abandon the revolution's goals.

Of course, I don't go where these conservative “feminists” go. But where is the movement of liberal feminists acknowledging that women are not men, yet we are still living in a man's world? Where are those demanding the second half of the revolution -- the half that will bring real structural change to a work world originally constructed, as Cobble wrote about the 1930s, “with the needs of men, their bodies, and their social roles in mind”? And while we're at it, where are the activists pushing to finish the other justice revolutions of the second half of the last century? We need to ask whether preserving the equality of opportunity to join this man's world -- this white man's world, to be utterly PC about it -- has done enough. If, halfway through the second generation touched by these provisions, equality of outcome is a still distant vision, are we really providing equality of opportunity after all?

Yes, I do embrace a version of equality feminism. But I'm not holding my breath for it in my lifetime. We've got a long way to go. And, more important, despite the rumblings and mumblings of postfeminist women, there's no political energy going into a fight for that vision. In the short term, let's remember our labor feminist foremothers who saw with such clarity that the work world was not made in their image -- and set out to change it. We need to escape the “mommy mystique” and the “career mystique.” But most of all, we have to recognize that the “equality mystique” of the second wave may not be the most progressive ideology we can imagine.

Sarah Blustain is deputy editor of The American Prospect.