Feminist Face-off

On Sunday, April 25, an abortion-rights march -- known as the March for Women's Lives -- is being organized in Washington, D.C., by groups such as the National Abortion Rights Action League, Pro-Choice America, the National Organization for Women, and the Feminist Majority in Washington. Here, Ann Crittenden, author of The Price of Motherhood, talks with Sarah Wildman, a Prospect senior correspondent, about reproductive freedom, motherhood, and, above all, feminism.

Ann Crittenden: What does feminism mean to me? I can speak for myself and not for an entire generation, of course, but here goes:

I was part of the second stage of the women's movement, in the 1960s and early '70s, and our struggle was about two things: first, reproductive freedom, and second, economic freedom and opportunity. The latter meant breaking down the doors leading to better-paying jobs, including the professions and management-level positions. People can scarcely imagine those barriers today. The great majority of women didn't go to college, it was hard to get into graduate school, and if you applied for a good job, as a journalist or lawyer or management trainee, you'd be asked if you could type. At best you were limited to a few "female" professions, like teaching or nursing, and encouraged to get married and raise kids. That was life. I was young and single at the time, but if you were married, you couldn't get credit on your own, you couldn't support yourself if you wanted out, and domestic violence was not considered a crime.

Worst of all, when you spoke up, it was hard to get anyone to listen seriously. We hesitated to speak our minds or offer our opinions in public, because generally they weren't listened to with much respect. Men would interrupt, or the conversation would continue as if you hadn't spoken at all. Women literally had no voice.

When I got my first job as a researcher-reporter for Fortune magazine in the late '60s, here are a few things that happened: I went to lunch at a downtown club in New York to interview a guy, and they put a screen around our table so the sight of me wouldn't offend anyone. Superiors routinely made passes at us, and no one batted an eye. Women were almost never promoted. It took a class-action lawsuit to change that, but 120 of us at Time Inc. did sue and change the system, in 1970.

Of course I identified myself as a feminist, but not all women who thought things were unfair did. The label frightened many young women, who were afraid of being thought of as "man-hating." In any event, it seemed that the task for those of us who wanted to enter previously all-male bastions was to prove that we were "as good as," if not the same as, men. Being different, i.e., being too female, was synonymous with inferior. From this, it was a short step to the 1980s' big-shoulder pads and all the rest.

We obviously won a great victory, and we made a revolution -- the most unsung of all the great human-rights revolutions in history. In retrospect, feminism to me meant freedom -- the freedom to be what I wanted to be, to go where I was eager and curious to go. We were like birds let out of a cage.

Now, as we approach a new March for Women's Lives, I am amazed that we still have to fight for that most basic personal freedom: the right to choose when, or whether, to become a mother, the biggest commitment one can make in life. That is the bedrock of the next stage of feminism. As I see it, the challenge of feminism today is to bring the revolution home. Women have achieved equality and full citizenship, but mothers have been left in the dust. The old feminine mystique has morphed into a new Mommy myth. Women are no longer asked to sacrifice themselves, to live to serve others, to limit their lives to one dimension. But mothers are. We really haven't figured out yet how to bring children up without putting women down.

Part of this is the fact that feminism only went so far. It got women in the game, but we have been expected to play by rules that we didn't write and that don't fit our lives. Now our challenge is to rewrite the rules and establish new norms that reflect our priorities. We need new societal norms that truly value conscientious parenting and that enable parents to integrate caring for children with a full and independent life.

Sarah Wildman: I'm struck again, as I always am when I think about the achievements of the last 40 years, by what an incredible debt I owe to first- and second-wave feminists. There was never a question in my mind that I would have a career, that I would never take anyone else's name, that I would have control over my reproductive choices. But I'm also white, Jewish, and grew up middle class. I've long been aware that these privileges influenced and shaped my identity and my ability to embrace what second-wave feminists fought for.

I was born just slightly less than two years after Roe v. Wade, at the tail end of 1974. From the time I was able to articulate a sense of self, I called myself a feminist. I lived the cliché: I would stay up late and read Our Bodies, Ourselves and Sisterhood is Powerful; I came to Washington and marched for abortion rights; I organized a feminist conference -- in high school. A year after I arrived at Wesleyan, I was co-director of the Women's Resource Center and ran Take Back the Night. My interest in this area was a source of endless mirth to my colleagues in the last few years.

That's because, as tightly as I've embraced the label since childhood, by the time I was in my teens I was quite aware that calling myself a feminist carried with it something of a taint -- a kind of creaky, Equal Rights Amendment-screaming, bra-burning, antiquarian, condescending, “Isn't that cute, she thinks she's a feminist,” or frightened, invasive, and aggressive questioning along the lines of, “Do you hate men? Do you sleep with men?”

Leaving aside the question of affiliating feminism with sexuality for a moment, the taint of feminism is a problem. Because despite the monumental gains of the 1960s and '70s, I would go so far as to say that the tasks still before us, as a women's movement, remain Sisyphean. There are many, many ways in which we fight the battles of the women's movement over and over. It's still considered relatively “rare” to be a female political journalist. The most well-known political woman in the country is still the first lady. Across the board, we still make 75 cents on the dollar to men. While the pill allowed millions to control reproduction, there has been no major breakthrough in reproductive technology since the early 1960s. There are legal limits on sexual harassment in the workplace, but it's hardly been eradicated. And motherhood still seems impossible to me, on the 29 side of 30 and thinking about someday -- sooner than it's ever been before -- contemplating the idea of childbearing. That we're coming up on an important abortion-rights march, the March for Women's Lives, after two setbacks -- the Unborn Victims of Violence Act and the ban on “partial-birth” abortion -- scares me to no end.

What feminism has given me overall is an obsession with my own independence. I received a Pew fellowship to write from Paris last spring, and out of eight fellows, six were women. All of us had lived and worked and traveled on our own, but each of us had our own anxieties about how potentially tenuous that independence -- that freedom, as Ann put it -- might be. It's no idle tension. Over the last year, several friends have given birth. Watching them navigate the tricky shoals of work and family haven't made me feel any more comfortable with my options.

I agree with Ann that this is the next revolution. (The cyclical appearance of magazine covers every year or two touting a “return” to motherhood makes me want to scream.) But I think it's one that must be looked at also from the perspective of race and class. Ann didn't address the ways in which women of color and women born outside the middle class have long been forced to fight on two fronts. What about women who have always worked and mothered? Why is child care still unaffordable? And there are other battles that have opened new fronts. Ann addressed reproductive rights, but she didn't open that further to sexuality generally. These are all part of the struggle.

Ann Crittenden: Women are right to be scared about losing their independence if and when they have a child. I think that is the biggest surprise for new mothers, especially those who are educated and fully equal to their male peers. Bam! Overnight it's back to the '50s, including a strange re-emergence of the traditional division of labor at home. Or if you do try to cling to that workaholic job, you're killing yourself and not having anything like the time you really want and need to "be there" for your baby. You mention a class and race perspective. Don't look at me; look at a schizoid society that thinks poor black mothers have to be "independent" -- so they've been ordered to work a 40-hour week or else in a down job market, leaving their kids God knows where. And then the same system pressures middle- and upper-income women to be dependent. Why is dependence on basic social supports that are routine in the rest of the developed world bad and dependence on a man good? Whose interests does this serve?

On a broader scale, whose interest does it serve to talk about women as if they were divided by issues of class, race, sexuality, etc.? I feel strongly that we've got to strike back at this kind of analysis and refocus on all of the many, many issues that women, and mothers, share in common. Almost all of the institutional changes that are most sorely needed would benefit women across class and race lines. I'm thinking of:

  • paid family leave, which would disproportionately benefit low-income workers (male and female)
  • subsidized child care for low-income families, fully funded Head Start, and the option of preschool for everyone (a great jobs program, by the way)
  • the option of a shorter work week at prorated salary, benefits, and rates of advancement
  • a ban on mandatory overtime
  • Social Security credits for family caregivers

Not to mention universal health care.

You need policies that benefit a wide range of women if you stand any chance of building the kind of broad coalition that effects change. I remember a wise, old state senator in Sacramento, California, who told me a few years ago that she and her legislative colleagues couldn't get anything for women passed unless they had the backing of middle-class women. With that, anything was possible (and she and her colleagues last year got the country's first paid-family-leave bill passed). I'm practical, I want to change things, and I'm following her advice.

That means I talk about feminism or women's issues in an inclusive way that doesn't exclude the majority of women -- those who have kids, aren't poor, and like to sleep with men. This is partly what I mean when I say that we have to bring the women's revolution back home, to a very broad base, and to the tough, radical issue of revaluing the most basic work that most women do and always have done. When motherhood is no longer the single biggest risk factor for poverty, economic insecurity, bankruptcy, and lack of public status and influence, as it is today, we'll have taken care of a good chunk of the unfinished business of this women's revolution.

That said, I have a nervous eye on the horizon. When you look at the miserable situation of women in the Middle East and look at the designs of all the resurgent fundamentalists, including the ayatollahs in our own midst, you can't help but wonder where things may be headed. I think the only approach is to stay on the offensive, avoid the defensive crouch, and keep asserting our priorities, which I truly believe are in the world's best interest, not just women's.

Sarah Wildman: I would like nothing more than to see paid family leave, subsidized child care, Head Start, a creative approach -- dare I say European in this volatile anti-Euro political context? -- to the work week, and universal health care. These are the types of programs I was thinking of when I said we had to think outside of a middle-class context to get to the root of where feminism's next battles will be fought.

But that said, I take issue with Ann's question, “[W]hose interest does it serve to talk about women as if they were divided by issues of class, race, sexuality” (emphasis mine). Women have traditionally been, and unfortunately remain, divided by issues of race, class, and sexuality. I don't think Ann would disagree; she acknowledges that by espousing a series of programs that would, as she says, “disproportionately” benefit low-income women (and I applaud those proposals). But we have to be realistic. The fact is, not all women see a family of women, a sisterhood, if you will. While we may need to refocus on the issues that bind us rather than those that drive us apart, it is, and will be, a concerted effort to do so. Perhaps this effort to find commonality -- to find the universal experience in motherhood, for example -- is the first stage of the battle. Again, I'm not certain if we are just articulating the same argument in different words; when Ann said that reaching middle-class women was the way to win policy wars, it was recognition both that women are not alike and also that there is a differentiation in power distribution that is potentially divisive.

I think we need to embrace our differences as well as our commonalties. The woman on the partner track at a prestigious Washington law firm has different needs -- child care and otherwise -- than her counterpart who is working as a domestic, under the radar, with no health insurance, no green card, and no means of child care. That's not to say that both women wouldn't benefit from a re-evaluation, and a renewed celebration, of motherhood. But it does acknowledge that class difference creates different challenges for the women in question.

I like to talk of feminism in inclusive terms as well. But ignoring race, class, generation, and sexuality is not the path to revolution. Indeed, including them only make feminism more relevant, more nuanced, and more nimble as we fight those that would maintain the status quo. It will only be when we recognize our differences and are able to articulate a multifaceted and multitiered approach to women's issues that revolution will be at hand.

But I also know that our opponents here in the United States will use anything they can against us. (And I include in that group the women who pose on television reaping the benefits of decades of feminist work while repudiating its very existence.) I agree with Ann that we need to look outward, to seal our ranks and work together to fight for everything from an end to so-called honor killings in the Middle East and North Africa to a re-evaluation of motherhood and a much needed increase in women's political participation and representation in the West. Though I said in my original comments that I'd been mocked for my feminist identity, I am both a feminist and a product of the feminist movement.

Ann Crittenden: Yes, Sarah and I are definitely in this together, and hopefully not just us, two upper-middle-class, educated white women! We can stress our differences: you're Jewish and I'm not, you're 30 and I'm old enough to be your mother, you've never had children and I have, or any number of other differences we could think up. But we know all of those differences are dwarfed by our agreement. Emphasizing them divides us and weakens our response to our real enemies out there.

George Soros has written about something he calls "reflexivity," and as I understand it, his argument is that markets, and other human phenomenon, always overshoot. They get too greedy and optimistic, and everything crashes, and then they get too pessimistic and fearful, and slumps ensue. I think the same thing happens in other arenas. Perhaps feminism "overshot" and fractured into too much emphasis on the differences among women until most mainstream women no longer thought it had much to say about their lives or their issues. Sarah alluded to the heckling she had to endure on campus when she identified herself as feminist. That's a reflection of the problem: The movement lost its image as a defender of the basic right to equality and dignity of all women, not just those who are most marginalized.

Of course, some people might say that the female attorney has no problems that are worthy of our concern, that we need to put all our energies behind the struggles of the domestic worker. I think a lot of people, including some women, would agree with that. I don't. It is a fact that, whatever their position, women are still more disadvantaged and economically insecure and conflicted than men in a comparable position, class, or race. (If there is an exception it might be black women, who appear to be doing better than black men at this point.) So, to me, the big challenge is how to bring the female attorney and the domestic worker's different strengths and different voices together so we can maximize our power to make change that benefits us all. This requires some very smart, sophisticated thinking about the issues, the framework, that can appeal to both of these very different women.

That's my final point: We need to do that kind of strategic thinking. We will have far greater power and success when we engage middle- and upper-middle-class women's self-interest in support of issues that also benefit poor women than we will ever have by appealing to their selfless sense of justice. And when we dismiss or attack middle- and upper-middle-class women, forget it: We lose them and we lose.

Sarah Wildman: This big birthday -- I'll be turning 30 in November -- has brought with it all sorts of internal ponderings about the way I present myself, my ideals, and my goals, not to mention the way I approach the future that is before me and what I'd like to accomplish in it. I don't see Ann and I as being very different at all.

However, I still think there has to be a middle ground between erasing and overemphasizing difference. I like the Soros analogy. But I guess my fear has long been that the majority of women are marginalized and, worldwide, middle-class, educated women are actually the exception, not the rule. I suppose the way to turn that on its head would be to say that, because all women are marginalized to some degree (and Ann and I have listed those many, many ways, from unequal income distribution to the unfortunate likelihood of having to bear the brunt of childrearing), we somehow harness the anger that has been stirred there and rechannel it, broadening the women's movement to be flexible enough to interest and engage the women who wield the most power and therefore work to empower all. (I just don't want to see a trickle-down analogy employed!) I was in no way dismissing or attacking middle- and upper-middle-class women. I just think it's important to recognize that we are all approaching these issues with different needs.

Because just as I don't want to see the attorney thinking that there is nothing in feminism for her, I also know that we need to see her experience of motherhood as different from a woman's in a less well-paid job. Different -- not any less difficult, but different. Similarly, as motherhood has become the trope we've played on so much in this online debate, we need to think about gay parenting as well. This conversation about motherhood needs to be broadened to embrace, or at least to reach out to, gay and lesbian parents. We would be in good stead to take the lessons of the right, the ways in which Bush and the religious right have co-opted language and morality and channeled it into a twisted approximation of what those words and those values should mean. Why, for example, is parenting considered a “women's issue” at all? Why is this not something for families? I'm not naive; I know that women are the primary caregivers in America. But I still think it's worth asking why.

One of the things that we haven't addressed in our debate thus far -- and one that would, arguably, benefit both the attorney and the domestic worker -- is the painful lack of women representing us. I find it ironic that women's aid workers in Iraq fought to give Iraqi women 25 percent representation in the interim government there (assuming that such a government is able to be formed; given the current violence, it's far from certain) -- which means, at least on paper, a good deal more representation then we have here in Washington.

Finally, I guess I'd like to address why my friends and I were heckled on campus. I'm not sure that it was because people thought we had overreached; it was because people saw feminism as irrelevant. It's more painful, if you think about it. It has never been more important not to be comfortable with the status quo.

Ann Crittenden, the author of The Price of Motherhood, has a new book coming out this fall titled If You've Raised Kids You Can Manage Anything.

Sarah Wildman is a Prospect senior correspondent and a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.

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